Feast, Interrupted

A Review of B. Alan Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic

In the following essay, Tom Pepper escorts B. Alan Wallace to The Great Feast of Knowledge. The Great Feast of Knowledge is a speculative non-buddhist trope intended to capture a scene where Buddhism’s representatives discuss their views and theories alongside of physics, art, philosophy, literature, biology, psychology, and other disciplines of knowledge. A central contention of speculative non-buddhism, of course, is that all forms of x-buddhism confuse knowledge of the world with discourses on knowledge of the world; and that we need a critical practice like The Great Feast to help us discern the difference. In such an exchange, Buddhism loses all status as specular authority. That loss is significant because it permits a consideration of Buddhism’s views on equal footing with the feast’s other participants.

On the surface of things, Pepper and Wallace seem to have much in common intellectually. Pepper, after all, is a literary scholar who characterizes himself as “a Buddhist who is also interested in philosophy of science.” Anyone who has read Wallace knows of his training in physics, philosophy, and religion. Indeed, as he writes on his website, Wallace sees himself as a “progressive scholar” who “seeks innovative ways to integrate Buddhist contemplative practices with Western science to advance the study of the mind.”

But the two thinkers, to my mind, could not be any more different. From a speculative non-buddhist view, the difference between them lies in their respective willingness and reluctance to engage thought in the service not of tradition’s validation, but of knowledge itself—even if, as Pepper points out, knowledge itself may have no discernible terminus.

But that’s just my view. Please, pull up a seat, and enjoy the feast! (

–Glenn Wallis

Atman, Aporia, and Atomism: A Review of B. Alan Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic

By Tom Pepper

By any measure, we would have to acknowledge that B. Alan Wallace is a major player in Western Buddhism. In the last eight years he started the Santa Barbara Institute of Consciousness Studies, published nine books, and is engaged in the International Shamatha Project. He has impressive credentials, with a Ph.D. from Stanford and a stint as a Tibetan monk ordained by the Dalai Lama. He has created himself as the leading authority on the relationship between Western science and Buddhism. His latest book, Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic (a title that would seem to have been chosen to invite comparison with Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist) is subtitled “A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice.” The book sets out to argue that Buddhist contemplative practices can contribute to the scientific study of the mind, which is currently running hard down a dead-end in its attempts to map the mind onto neural activity. Along the way, Wallace argues against a reductive, materialist philosophy of science, and for a particular version of Tibetan Buddhism, as the correct way to finally understand human consciousness.

I first came across Wallace’s work many years ago, with a book called Choosing Reality: A Contemplative View of Physics and the Mind (the word “contemplative” was changed to “Buddhist” in later editions, apparently for marketing purposes). I picked up the book because as a Buddhist who is also interested in philosophy of science, I thought perhaps Wallace was going to get beyond the popular misrepresentation of quantum theory that says that we “create” a particle by observing it. I was hoping he might be trying to demonstrate that both Buddhism and quantum physics could be understood from a realist perspective. That is, I thought he was going to choose reality; instead, his book made a case for idealism, and argued that we choose reality. In the process, he misrepresented contemporary physics and showed a startling lack of knowledge of recent developments in the philosophy of science. I didn’t pay him much attention after that, but given his flurry of recent books, I thought it might be worth reconsidering exactly what his project really is.

In responding to this book, then, I have no intention of debating his take on Buddhism. I intend to take a thoroughly exterior, non-buddhist approach in responding to Wallace’s presentation of Buddhism. I do, in fact, disagree with some of his statements about Buddhism generally, but I am not interested in seeking the “true” Buddhism here. I know very little about Tibetan Buddhism, and I am confident that Wallace knows quite a bit about it. I will assume that his representation of Tibetan Buddhism is accurate. What I am interested in here is simply considering, from a non-buddhist perspective, the social and ideological implications of Wallace’s version of Buddhism. If we all accepted this version of Buddhism as true, and all began practicing it, what would that mean for us?

I will not give Wallace the same benefit of the doubt when it comes to his discussions of Western science and philosophy. In this realm, I will point out the errors and misrepresentations, the sophistries and false dilemmas, and the false conclusions resulting from his limited knowledge of contemporary epistemology and philosophy of science. My aim here, however, is the same: my interest is again in considering the social and ideological project he has marshaled this wealth of pseudo-science and sophistry to promote.

I also want to begin with a few points on which I absolutely agree with Wallace. I point these out to make it clear that I think his goals are often (not always) goals that I share; it is my argument, however, that his ideas on how to reach these goals are terribly problematic, and that his philosophical assumptions can only hinder his project.

For one thing, it would be wonderful if more people understood, as Wallace points out quite clearly (pp. 177-179), that mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition is not at all the same thing as mindfulness in the Western mental-health industry. Despite the frequent claims that it is a concept adopted from Buddhism, mindfulness in the various “mindfulness-based” therapies has little to do with the concept of sati. Wallace also makes clear that absolute acceptance of whatever comes into our minds is not the typical Buddhist approach; instead, Buddhist have traditionally been very keen on controlling what goes on in the mind, to eliminate the afflictions of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. Vipashyana (vipassana) does not mean, Wallace reminds us (pp. 204-206), accepting the mind as it is, but learning to shape it into something better.

Finally, and most importantly, I absolutely agree with Wallace that the reductive materialist attempts to map the mind onto the neurological activity of the brain is a mistake, a dead end, that will prevent any real progress both in philosophical considerations of consciousness and in psychology. The mind, I will argue, is neither concomitant with the brain, nor is it an epiphenomenon. However, I will completely disagree with how he seeks to avoid reductive materialism. To adumbrate my conclusions here, I will briefly discuss the problem of free will, and Wallace’s solution to this seemingly endless debate.

At first it seemed puzzling to me that Wallace would end the first part of his book with a chapter on “achieving free will,” as the Western concept of “will” has always seemed to be irrelevant to Buddhist thought. However, this chapter reveals the reason for Wallace’s appeal to the radical empiricism of William James, for his overly simplistic version of modern philosophy of science, and shows us what the goal of his version of Buddhism ultimately will turn out to be.  Wallace presents us with a version of Buddhism that seeks to uncover, through spiritual practice, a “brightly shining mind” that is unborn, eternal, and exists “in every being,” although “veiled by adventitious defilements” (115). The “conceptual mind,” which is conventional and impermanent, cannot access this “realm of consciousness,” but the “brightly shining mind” can “influence the minds of ordinary sentient beings” (115) in ways that are “beyond the realm of philosophy” (116). Our greater freedom, it seems, is achieved by removing the defilements, conventional accretions inhibiting the ability of the pure consciousness to subtly and imperceptibly influence the conventional mind. He presents us, then, with the very definition of an atman: an abiding deep self, uncreated by causes and conditions, permanently existing, unchangeable, and alone capable of true and complete bliss.  (Of course, Wallace says this is not an atman at all, but simply asserting that it is not an atman does not make it any less of one.)  My argument will be that Wallace’s attempt to resuscitate James’s radical empiricism, his misrepresentation of quantum theory, and his implication that reductive materialism is the only existent, and only possible, philosophy of science, all serve to produce his subtle atman as the one remaining conceivable explanation for the existence of consciousness; furthermore, the social and political implications of this version of Buddhism are horrendously elitist and oppressive. I will then suggest one other possible explanation for the existence of consciousness, which I believe is more in agreement with the basic concept of Buddhism, and could possibly make Wallace’s ostensible project more likely to succeed—and without the negative social and political implications.

The Quantum Myth and a Scientific Straw Man

Wallace has gotten quite a bit of mileage over the years out of the popular mythos of quantum theory, and he hits that note several times in this book. It enables him to give a “scientific” argument against what he repeatedly calls “materialistic” science; on Wallace’s version, quantum physics demonstrates that the universe “requires for its existence the participation of an observer” (84). I’m sure we’re all familiar with the version of quantum theory that tells us that the particle doesn’t exist until we measure it, so consciousness ultimately produces reality. When physicists insist that this is an exaggerated claim, that quantum theory “does not imply that reality is no more than a pure subjective human construct,” Wallace simply insists that they are unwilling to accept the implications of their own theory. He quotes Brukner and Zeilinger who argue that from multiple observations it is possible to “build up objects with a set of properties that do not change under variations of modes of observation or description” (84); essentially, what they suggest is that once we become aware of the influence of measurement, we can determine the level of consistent reality existing independent from our conscious observation. On one reading of Vasubandhu’s writing, this is the point of Yogacara Buddhism: that we can study the mind not because it is the only reality, but because then we can become aware of how it distorts reality, essentially learning to correct for error. Wallace is very attached to what we might call a consciousness-only school of physics because it enables him to “open the door to the possibility of nonphysical influences on the material world” (99), producing a radical duality of atman and conventional samsara, with only a one-way possibility of influence. There are, of course, many ways to understand the quantum theory, and Wallace’s consciousness-only physics is not the only option. As Christopher Norris has pointed out in a very interesting book on the subject, “it is preposterous in the strict sense of that term—an inversion of the rational order of priorities—when thinkers claim to draw far-reaching ontological or epistemological lessons from a field of thought so rife with paradox and lacking (as yet) any adequate grasp of its own operative concepts” (5).  Norris demonstrates that Bohm, who literally wrote the book on quantum theory, always held that there were alternative, realist models capable of explaining all of the quantum “facts.” This alternative was ignored largely for ideological, extra-scientific reasons (See Norris, especially p. 144).  In the case of Wallace’s argument, it seems the “orthodox” quantum interpretation has continued to serve its ideological purpose.

Wallace’s main scientific target is the biological reductionism that would assert that the mind is nothing more than neural activity.  He also wants to reject what he calls “metaphysical realism” (28). By this, he means the “scientific worldview” that insists that the only things that are real and can produce effects are physical things, and that physical is equivalent to matter. Of course, not even the most reductive of empiricists would actually deny the existence of energy in the universe, so Wallace’s argument involves a bit of sleight of hand, as he elides everything but material “entities,” and then denies their reality. This sophistry is fascinating:

According to metaphysical realism, the entire objective universe consists of physical entities that produce the effects measured by human beings; however, we can never perceive these entities, as they exist independently of all measurement.  Therefore, we can never infer the contents of the absolutely objective world on the basis of observations, which always arise relative to systems of measurement. (28)

This passage is worth close attention, because it is essentially this peculiar logic on which Wallace’s entire argument depends. For Wallace, something is only real in the objective sense if it is a discrete entity; then, that entity is completely invisible since it must be “measured” instead of “perceived;” therefore, we can never know what is actually in the objective world at all; from here, it is a short step to the assumption that no objective world even exists: “all observations of the physical world are illusory”(29). This argument depends on many philosophical errors, but the three most important here are: (1) the belief that “physically real” can only mean a discrete material entity whose only properties are mass and location; (2) the assumption that perception is not itself a form of “measurement;” and (3) the assumption that because any specific measurements of the objective world are limited to certain attributes, we cannot infer anything from them. Of course, as Brukner and Zeilinger indicate in the passage quoted above, it is exactly because we can be aware or our systems of measurement, including perceptual ones, that we can make reasonably correct inferences about the objective world.

Wallace’s reductive, straw-man version of the “scientific worldview” is essential, however, in supporting his central claim about the radical duality of reality. He spells this out for us right in the first chapter. “[T]he illusion of knowledge that the mind is physical has delayed the revolutionary development of the mind sciences” he tells us, and this has occurred largely because “the scientific establishment exerts . . . pressure on its members to reject all forms of mind-body dualism in favor of an antiquated monism”(14). Wallace says he wants to “think outside the box—outside the familiar dualities of dualism and monism” (14), but he rejects the “familiar” Cartesian dualism only to replace it with a more radical dualism, in which an absolute atman, which he refers to at times as “substrate consciousness,” is the deepest and most permanent level of reality, influencing but unaffected by the physical realm. The existence of philosophies of science other than reductive materialist monism has apparently conveniently escaped Wallace’s notice.  Roy Bhaskar’s realist theory of science, for instance, completely avoids the problems Wallace finds with the “scientific worldview” without requiring some non-natural, other-worldly power to fill in the gaps. Bhaskar’s philosophy of science includes distinctions between intransitive and transitive objects of science; that is, between the objective reality and the object of thought produced by a science. It includes the possibility that reality is stratified, with different levels of causal mechanisms, and therefore accepts the possibility of emergence. Emergent powers cannot be reduced to more “basic” strata on which they depend; so we cannot explain the mind by studying the brain any more than we could expect to derive the laws of baseball from the laws of physics, despite the fact that it would be impossible to play the game if those laws ceased to operate.

The false philosophical dilemma Wallace sets up requires absolute ignorance of serious philosophical thought about science, and so a misunderstanding of how science operates. Wallace assumes that there must be final, complete answers, or there are no answers at all—and therefore science fails. This assumption depends upon an ontology that is both materially monist and non-stratified; these are not assumptions that are required for a realist ontology. In the words of Andrew Collier, from a critical realist perspective “we never reach rock-bottom—so the prejudice that only rock-bottom explanations are real ones would leave us forever without real explanations” (110). Wallace demands of science that it jump immediately to the rock-bottom answer, rejecting the possibility of stratification, and the transitive nature of explanatory mechanisms. This enables him to make the claim that from a scientific perspective “matter—as it exists in and of itself, independent of measurement—is as unknowable to the human intellect as God” (234).  And, when he comes across a poll which suggests that the majority of physicists are undecided about the best interpretation of quantum mechanics, he can only conclude that the “real implications of quantum physics seem to be hidden in a cloud of uncertainty” (236), and the only solution is to conclude that consciousness creates the world. He is incapable of seeing that physicists may be less likely than he is to reify their transitive objects of knowledge; for the best physicists, the interpretations we produce in concepts are what we argue about, because they are always constructs designed to move us toward better descriptions and explanations of the intransitive object. We may never reach rock-bottom, probably won’t, but that doesn’t require us to abandon science and resign the field to the supernatural. Wallace claims that modern science “is incompatible with the Middle Way school of Buddhist philosophy” (29). I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether Wallace’s atman or Bhaskar’s version of realism is closer to Nagarjuna’s epistemology and ontology.

William James, Shangri-La, and Reactionary Ideology

One of the reasons I was initially prompted to read this book was my surprise at Wallace’s call to return to James’s radical empiricism. The stupid insistence of psychology and “mind sciences” on a naïve and reductive empiricism that has never really been the underlying philosophy of any real scientific progress is certainly frustrating. But there are so many alternative scientific epistemologies, I could not imagine why Wallace would pick up on this glaringly reactionary, elitist, and theistic form of capitalist ideology and mistake it for a philosophy of science.

Even if he were reluctant to engage the more radically realist philosophies of science, there have certainly been more philosophically sophisticated versions of radical empiricism advanced in the past century. Quine, Kitcher, and Kornblith come immediately to mind; and I’m sure a philosopher could easily add to the list. What, I wondered, is the ideological value of James’s particular version of radical empiricism?

James’s psychology was begun as an ideological project, intended to defend the existence of the soul against the rampant materialism gaining popularity in academic circles (see Leary). In The Principles of Psychology, James makes no bones about it: “I confess, therefore, that to posit a soul influenced in some mysterious way by the brain-states and responding to them by conscious affections of its own, seems to me the line of least logical resistance, so far as we yet have attained” (181). His argument is that the conceptual puzzles and paradoxes of psychology can only, finally, be resolved by either admitting a soul, or resigning some problems to “nature in her unfathomable designs” which “no mortal may ever know” (182). It should be clear why James appeals to Wallace: a reductive version of science leading to aporia which can only be resolved by appeal to a transcendent soul.

James’s positivism is also quite explicit, and nowhere more so than in a passage Wallace cites in an earlier book, The Taboo of Subjectivity: “the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system” (James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, p. 26). This may seem obvious, but the problem is that for radical empiricism the only things that count as “real” (in a physical, objective sense) are those that can be experienced, and all experiences are real in exactly the same way. There is no room for theoretical causal mechanisms, and no way to distinguish between the kinds of reality that obtain in a thought and in a bomb. Just as importantly, there is no way to think about what Bhaskar calls the “metacritical dimension,” which “aims to identify the presence of causally significant absences in thought, seeking to elicit . . . what cannot be said or done . . . in a particular language or conceptual system” (Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation, p. 25). The rejection of such dimensions of thought in positivist philosophies is always in the service of conservatism. Pragmatism is, as James insists, only interested in “practical” results, and particularly interested in insisting that these results can only be produced from within the current, existing, system—of thought, language, politics, economics.

The political conservatism of this can perhaps be made clear by mentioning Wallace’s dismissal of his own ridiculously incorrect understanding of Freud. From his positivist perspective, Wallace can only misunderstand Freud, and can only think of the unconscious as “the subtlest discursive thoughts, mental dialogues, images, memories, desire, and emotions,” which “Freud discovered centuries after Buddhist contemplatives” (188). That this is not what Freud meant by the unconscious should be clear to anybody who is familiar with serious psychoanalytic thought. Suffice it to say that the dynamic unconscious, for Freud, is not subtle and unnoticed but positively existing mental activity; rather, the unconscious is precisely what is unthinkable or unspeakable within a specific conceptual system. The reason for this persistent misreading of Freud is perhaps clearest when Wallace trots out once again the most often quoted and least often understood passage in all of Freud’s writings. I’ll quote it here at some length:

When I promised my patients help and relief through the cathartic method, I was often obliged to hear the following objections, “You say, yourself, that my suffering has probably much to do with my own relation and destinies. You cannot change any of that. In what manner, then, can you help me?” To this I could always answer: “I do not doubt at all that it would be easier for fate than for me to remove your sufferings, but you will be convinced that much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into everyday unhappiness, against which you will be better able to defend yourself with a restored nervous system.” (Studies in Hysteria, p. 232)

This is the source of the most common quip about psychoanalysis: that it can only convert misery into ordinary unhappiness. The point Freud is making, however, is much different. For Freud, it is imperative to accept that much of our human unhappiness is because of our social environment, and that is beyond the reach of psychoanalysis; the really useful benefit of uncovering what is unconscious, what is invisible within our construal of the world, is that it might leave us “better able to defend” ourselves—to make real changes in those “relations and destinies” causing our “everyday unhappiness.”  Pragmatism would prefer we remain resigned to the positivity of its conceptual construal of the world, to eliminate the threat of any demand for social change. James’s radical empiricism was always meant to cut off any consideration of the social production of our mental experience. In fact, Wallace quotes Kurt Danziger in support of his claim that abandonment of the introspective method occurred for “ideological rather than pragmatic” reasons (173). In fact, that is Danziger’s point, but the ideological reason is not what Wallace implies; instead, the reason for the abandonment of introspection was that it “demonstrated that the nature of the object of psychological investigation was linked to the social structure of the investigative situation” (Danziger, p. 48). The problem wasn’t materialist ideology, but the possibility that the contents of the psyche were produced by social structures; and so it would require social change to improve or cure the mind. Interdependence, it seems, was more troubling than the possibility of a soul.

And now I come to what will undoubtedly be the most controversial claim I will make in this essay: that the extreme conservatism of Wallace’s philosophical approach is directly connected to the particular kind of Buddhism he is proposing. That is, I will dare to say what is unspeakable in Western Buddhist circles: that Tibetan Buddhism functioned as the ideological support of one of the most undemocratic, oppressive, and elitist social systems to endure into the twentieth century. What could be a better justification for inherited aristocracy than the belief that they have earned their wealth and power by meritorious actions in past lives? A couple hundred aristocratic families lived in opulence, while Buddhist monastics sought meditative bliss in idle luxury, all supported by the labor of an uneducated and economically oppressed hereditary peasant cast, who apparently had some bad karma to work off. This is the Shangri-La whose loss brings tears to the eyes of Hollywood celebrities. Somehow it has come to seem a horrible injustice that an oppressive oligarchy was deposed. It may, of course, be argued that it is a terrible injustice that this deposition did not lead to terribly much improvement in the lives of the peasants, but Wallace’s frequent cold-war anti-communist rhetoric just rings hollow for me.

An elite class, however, turns out to be essential to the kind of Buddhism Wallace is presenting. He repeatedly emphasizes the rarity of achieving the first dhyana, citing a Sri Lankan monk who says there are fewer than five people in Sri Lanka who have achieved it, and assuring us that even in Tibet, where the higher form of Buddhism is supposedly practiced, it is rare (p. 148). Besides the rarity of qualified teachers, there is the need for “a quiet, healthy, pleasant environment where one’s material needs are easily met,” so that one can practice continuously (although the truly dedicated might need as little as “six hours each day” and “even engage with others between sessions” (155-156). Still, he quotes Atisha: “If you lack the prerequisites of shamatha, you will not achieve samadhi even in thousands of years, regardless of how diligently you practice” (155).  Such long stretches of idle time (Wallace reminds us that it took even Buddha six years), and the provision of all material comforts, is clearly the privilege of only an elite class of people with good karma. The vast majority of people would simply remain karmically incapable of such spiritual progress in this lifetime.

The rarity of achieving these advanced meditative states also calls attention to Wallace’s odd definition of “skeptic.” Apparently, for him it means absolute unquestioning blind faith in something we can never see any evidence of or hope to even approach in our lifetimes. Not a definition of skeptic I have ever heard before. Wallace’s skepticism is apparently limited to skepticism about a naïve philosophy of science that few people ever accepted; when it comes to Buddhism, his appeals to authority abound. He repeatedly cites “authoritative accounts” (182) or truth “revealed” to an “eminent master” (214), to support claims about the achievement of a stable “pristine awareness” or state of “bliss” that cannot be verified by our own “radical empirical” endeavors, since it is achievable only rarely, by those with the right karma.

Although Wallace does assert that “no autonomous, controlling self can be found,” and that this is what is meant by the Buddhist term anatman (110), it is hard to see in what sense the “timeless, ‘nonmanifesting’ consciousness that experiences” nirvana (209) is anything but an atman. He claims that the “mind when it has settled in its natural state, beyond the disturbing influences of conscious and unconscious mental activity” (69) can experience the “quality of bliss” that “does not arise in response to any sensory stimulus”(68). I have no idea whether this is standard Tibetan Buddhism or not—I can only assume Wallace knows of what he speaks. If it is, I can only say I would have no interest in it. It isn’t hard to see, however, why this kind of Buddhism might appeal to an economic elite in the west; there is no need to worry about the suffering of others, just seek your own bliss in idle luxury. And we can rest assured that our eternal atman-that-is-not-one will dwell in bliss, without having to make any change whatsoever in our current ideology: Wallace assures us that “both religious and non-religious people can embrace this ideal of genuine happiness, with specific attributes defined by each one in terms of his or her own worldview”(172). As long as you have the right karma to be born rich, you’re all set. To the privileged elite, Wallace’s comfort-Buddhism says “we are home at last” (85). Enjoy your bliss!

Escaping Atomism

In conclusion, I would like to suggest one possible alternative to Wallace’s response to reductive materialism. The problems that James saw as “unfathomable” unless we accepted the existence of a soul, and that Wallace sees as insoluble in “mind sciences” unless we accept an atman, might turn out not to be problems at all if we could simply abandon philosophical atomism.  Wallace uses the term “mind” in two ways, usually without clarifying which use he intends: the mind is both the “conceptual thought” that exists at the conventional level, and the eternal “substrate consciousness.” In both cases, however, it is clear that for Wallace each mind is individual, either eternally separated from all others in the case of the substrate consciousness, or individually arising from the interactions of a brain and its environment in the case of the conventionally existent mind.  Introspection, for Wallace, is compared to an “inwardly focused telescope,” that examines an “individual mind stream” (24). For both James and Wallace, and indeed for much of Western thought, the insistence on discrete, individual consciousnesses has lead to endless paradoxes, aporia, and irresolvable problems—from free will to solipsism, from the status of knowledge to the existence of a mind, there are a host of problems that cannot be solved unless we abandon the notion of consciousness or mind existing individually, the depths of a mind.

Eighty years ago, V. N. Volosinov proposed that we drop this line of pursuit. “Consciousness,” he suggested, “becomes consciousness only once it has been filled with ideological (semiotic) content, consequently, only in the process of social interaction” (11). Psychoanalysis, beginning with Freud and most thoroughly with Lacan, presented a radically empty subject, arising not from deep within but from without, in a socially produced symbolic network. Alain Badiou has suggested a theory of the subject that accepts all of the most radical implications of Lacan’s thought: as individual organisms, we are nothing but automatons; it is only as socially engaged subjects to a truth that we gain any agency. To become subjects with true agency, we must participate in a truth procedure, a practice which functions to extend our capacity to interact with reality beyond what is possible within a given system of knowledge—the subject is not an individual, but a social entity. As such, it may very well transcend the limits of an individual organism’s life, and experience the future effects of our present day actions. We will never find consciousness in the firing of neurons, because it exists only in the symbolic social interaction of multiple individuals.

I would suggest that this line of thought is much more compatible with the Buddhist concepts of pratityasamutpada, sunyata, and anatman than any other form of Western philosophical thought. Further, I would suggest that this line of thought could learn a great deal from Buddhist thinkers of the past couple thousand years—not all of them, but certainly Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, and Candrakirti at the very least could help teach us to think the radical implications of a non-atomist subject.

If Wallace’s ultimate goal is a political or economic one, propping up a privileged elite or garnering financial support from wealthy Westerners, then I would suppose he would have little interest in the criticism I have offered here. If, on the other hand, his interest is truly in exploring the nature of human consciousness, he might want to do a little reading, and catch up on the advances made in the philosophy of science by Roy Bhaskar’s critical realism, and explore the theory of the subject advanced by Lacan and Badiou.  I’m not so optimistic as to hope that will happen, but I am just optimistic enough to hope that a few of those interested in the possibilities of Buddhist thought and practice might realize that we do not have to choose between Wallace’s Tibetan atman and the kind of reductive “naturalizing” of Buddhism advanced by Owen Flanagan, who want to “tame” Buddhism by jettisoning anything that doesn’t fit with a reductive, empiricist philosophy of science, keeping only its useful tendency to teach people to be nice. As Alain Badiou has put it, the enemy of thought today is “a sort of scientism stipulating the mind must be naturalized and studied according to the experimental protocols of neurology, reinforced, as always, by an inane moralism with a religious tinge—in substance: one has to be nice” (118). Wallace’s version of Buddhism would simply abandon the field to this enemy, and retreat to the solitary pursuit of bliss.

From a non-buddhist perspective, the decisional structure of Wallace’s brand of Buddhism is quite clear. As I understand Laruelle’s concept, the decisional structure is the fundamental construal of the world which enables a particular project in thought, but which remains invisible from within that thought. That Wallace cannot see his decisional structure is evident from his ostensible rejection of it: he claims he wants to reject Cartesian dualism and accept the Buddhist concept of anatman, and he cannot see that he is producing both an absolute dualism and the ultimate atman. His reductive understanding of science and epistemology and absolute faith in the authority of the Buddhist tradition would leave us no choice but to accept the existence of an atman that he simply insists is not one. From within his decisional structure, no argument could defeat Buddhist authority; since none of us can achieve the transcendent meditative states of the masters, we can neither debate their existence and value nor even hope to comprehend what such states actually are. No alternative version of science is possible, since for Wallace only rock-bottom (positivist) answers can count as scientific. This combination produces a self-replicating hermetic system designed to perpetuate inequality with the promise of future bliss.


Badioiu, A. Second Manifesto for Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity, 2009.

Bhaskar, R. Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Collier, A. Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy. London: Verso, 1994.

Danziger, K. Constructing the Subject: Historical Origins of Psychological Research.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Freud, S. & Breur, J. Studies in Hysteria. Trans. A.A. Brill.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1937.

James, W. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover Publications, 1950.

James, W. Essays in Radical Empiricism. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1902

Norris, C. Quantum Theory and the Flight from Realism: Philosophical Responses to Quantum Mechanics. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Volosinov, V.N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Trans. L. Matejka  I.R. Titunuk.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Wallace, A.B. Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Miind Sciences and Contemplative Practice.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Wallace, A.B. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Photograph: Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, “After the Feast.”

94 responses to “Feast, Interrupted”

  1. The Secular Buddhist Avatar

    Excellent review, and thank you for outlining very clearly the shortcomings of Wallace’s interpretation of science and grossly inaccurate version of skepticism.

  2. Frank Jude Boccio Avatar


    EXCELLENT! Several years ago I eagerly read a book by Wallace (this was before the silly essay he wrote criticizing Batchelor; had I read that, I’d not have expected much from Wallace) and was terribly disappointed.

    In this piece, you have given intellectual form to something I have both ‘felt’ and thought (admittedly, not with the depth and breath of your critique above!) after reading Wallace. I thought I must have been missing something when he argues that what he is proposing is not some kind of Self! I find it curious how he is spot on about sati, but seems to have overlooked the buddha’s denial of “pure consciousness.” From my perspective, Wallace is presenting more a form of Vedanta than what I understand the buddha to have taught.

    And please, when he starts in with his ‘quantum physics’ mystification, I end up hearing Deepak Chopra’s voice!

    Ironic, considering some of our earlier exchanges how here I find myself in complete agreement with you on every count! THANK YOU!

  3. faberglas Avatar

    Is this a misquote? Don’t the thinkers “claim to draw far-reaching…”?
    “it is preposterous in the strict sense of that term—an inversion of the rational order of priorities—when thinkers claim do draw far-reaching ontological or epistemological lessons from a field of thought so rife with paradox and lacking (as yet) any adequate grasp of its own operative concepts” (5).

  4. faberglas Avatar

    Thanks for the thoughtful and informative review. I look forward to reading some of your references.
    I’m surprised to learn that WordPress doesn’t allow a commenter to edit or delete their own comment. Please delete my comment number three. Number four is formatted the way I intended.

  5. Frank Jude Boccio Avatar

    Hi Tom,

    I’ve been pondering your insightful essay above and a question arose that may just be a matter of definition.

    Starting with the passage where you begin:

    “For both James and Wallace, and indeed for much of Western thought, the insistence on discrete, individual consciousnesses has lead to endless paradoxes, aporia, and irresolvable problems—from free will to solipsism, from the status of knowledge to the existence of a mind, there are a host of problems that cannot be solved unless we abandon the notion of consciousness or mind existing individually, the depths of a mind”


    “Alain Badiou has suggested a theory of the subject that accepts all of the most radical implications of Lacan’s thought: as individual organisms, we are nothing but automatons; it is only as socially engaged subjects to a truth that we gain any agency. To become subjects with true agency, we must participate in a truth procedure, a practice which functions to extend our capacity to interact with reality beyond what is possible within a given system of knowledge”

    and up to

    “—the subject is not an individual, but a social entity. As such, it may very well transcend the limits of an individual organism’s life, and experience the future effects of our present day actions. We will never find consciousness in the firing of neurons, because it exists only in the symbolic social interaction of multiple individuals”

    I am wondering if there is any distinction between “the subject,” “an individual” and “consciousness.” I’m pretty sure I understand the ‘interdependent,’ and social matrix that is necessary for there to be “a subject” which I would say by definition is indeed a “social entity.” But isn’t this a ‘step up’ from the phenomenon of consciousness? Are you (and these thinkers) really asserting that animals have no consciousness? (The use of the word “automatons” made me think of Descartes) Or is there consciousness also determined/conditioned by whatever ‘social’ relationships they exist within?

    That last sentence “We will never find consciousness in the firing of neurons, because it exists only in the symbolic social interaction of multiple individuals” is perhaps the pivot of my confusion. I generally don’t think of (most) animals living with “symbolic social interaction…” but I do think of them as “conscious.”

    I look forward to any clarification you can offer.


  6. Stephen Schettini Avatar

    Wallace is indeed a conservative and apologist of elitist Buddhism. He is blessed with a capacious intellect, but yokes it to authority-based knowledge.

    A nicely provocative article. Be interesting to see if he can respond…without losing his cool.

  7. tobes Avatar

    Great review. I agree on two critical points – firstly, that there is a nascent tendency in some Tibetan readings of Madhyamaka, which at some point or another collapse into a naive idealism…….which are then just dogmatically and belligerently asserted to be anatta. Secondly, that there are definitely robust implications to explore in the connections between Buddhist and psychoanalytic approach to the empty/ socially constituted subject.

  8. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Faberglas: yes, that is a typo in my quote from Norris’s book. Norris has made a serious effort to overcome the ideological misuse of quantum theory-he writes clearly and argues convincingly, but unfortunately strong, clear argument isn’t always a match for ideology.

    Good questions. I do intend to draw a distinction between “individual” and “subject.” The former is the physical entity, the bodily person, but is not necessarily a “subject” in the sense that Badiou means. A subject, also, is not necessarily an individual–it can be a political party, an art movement, a group of scientists. Any individuals engaged in a truth procedure can become a subject in this sense. Of course, Badiou also discusses other kinds of subjects, those engaged in blocking, resisting, or obscuring a truth procedure.

    The difficult thing to grasp, I think–the thing it seems to me most people can’t really “think,” even once they’ve “understood” it–is that the implication of Lacanian psychoanalytic thought is that the subject position is not merely affected or limited controlled by the social matrix: it IS the social matrix. That is, subjectivity is not located in the individual brain, and impacted or influenced by social context, as the psychologists and neuroscientists would have it. Instead, the subject is completely outside the individual, in the socially produced ideological formation, in Lacanian terms the subject is the imaginary and symbolic effect of a social formation.

    In this sense, animals are probably far less capable of being “subjects” than humans–they simply don’t have the same capacity to escape the determinations of their causes and conditions that humans have. They may have some, but certainly not as much, right?

    As for the question of “consciousness,” that’s a slippery term, with a wide range of uses, and I don’t want to suggest I’ve got a clear definition of it. I’m only trying to suggest that if we want to come up with a more useful concept, it would be better to stop looking at the brain, and look at the “subject.” Your question about whether subjectivity is a “step up” from consciousness is, I think, right at the heart of the problem. Does subjectivity arise out of consciousness, or is it the other way around–we only have true consciousness if we become true subjects to a truth procedure? It depends on how we want to define consciousness; is it simply in the sense of “he regained consciousness,” or should it be limited to a higher strata of social process? To even make that decision, about what kind of concept we want to produce, I think we first need to stop producing atomist ideologies of the subject, though.

    Thanks for your response–have I helped clear up the matter?

  9. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    (#3) Faberglas. Thanks for reading so closely and carefully. I corrected the typo on the blog and in the pdf file.

    On another note: I am wondering in what spirit Wallace’s title Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic is meant. Tom Pepper points out that it plays off of Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. [Title corrected from Confessions re; comment #13.] As such, and given Wallace’s and Batchelor’s antagonistic–well, at least complicated–history together, I think he is right. Wallace’s title strikes me thus as going beyond the ironic or playful and into the domain of the cynical, in the very worst sense of that term. First of all, Wallace distorts the meaning of “skeptic” to the point of guile. What he means by the term is not what anyone else could, in good faith, possibly mean (see Pepper). Second, while Batchelor is stuffed in a box offering a mere confession, Wallace is riding through the limpid air on the shamanic magic carpet of his meditations.

    I give the lexical meanings of cynic from my dictionary:

    1. distrusting or disparaging the motives of others.
    2. showing contempt for accepted standards of honesty or morality by one’s actions, especially by actions that exploit the scruples of others.
    3. bitterly or sneeringly distrustful, contemptuous, or pessimistic.

    Now, as every reader of this blog well knows, I appreciate revved-up language, and can broach a broad spectrum of emotional expression. So, I mention this small aspect of Wallace’s book merely as a possible clue to understanding the whole.

  10. JP Avatar

    A. Wallace, as narrated by Tom, seems to fall for a common dynamic among teachers of mainstream forms of Western Buddhism. There is an initial (and inherently reductionist) movement based on negation/denial: the ‘self’ of our experience is just a belief/illusion/etc.–not a thing in itself. These dynamic are grounded, according to these teachers, on the insights of impermanence and anatman. Generally, these insights are hold as sufficient. But it is with the last inherited condition/requirement that their narrations begin to collapse under the weight of their own inconsistencies. The insights of the ‘no-self’ and the impermanence of all things (w/ may be a few other ones that are just alike) are told to be sufficient (to “end all suffering” whatever that means!) and yet they can’t help to supplement and shadow these insights grounded in negation with positive principles.
    (The reason may or may not be obvious. There is a simultaneous, natural and (as I see it) genuine demand for positive principles and forces whenever dealing with the reality and complexity of ‘integrity’ at all levels of our experience and non-experience.)

    As a result, these teachers introduce positive elements (such as the “substrate consciousness”) in ad hoc and arbitrary manners. In most cases, they rely on magical thinking to achieve just that (sometimes trying to hide it under the veils of cherry picked and grossly distorted characterizations of scientific knowledge) . Their justification for their specific choice of a speculative position is deferred to some deep meditative insights (an inquiry on these ‘insights’ and ‘principles’ suggest that their imaginational necessities drive their spiritual insights rather than the other way around.) Moreover, they are oblivious to the fact that these fairy positions among them are often grossly inconsistent — in ways that can’t be excused, as they do, on the account of ‘conceptual differences’.

    I will conclude by saying that this state of affairs unfortunately perseveres because, among other reasons and as repeatedly remarked on this blog, of the unwillingness of these teachers to address and sort out these differences and inconsistencies on bogus reasons such as the “mind can’t grasp the Absolute”. (Don’t they realize that the unintelligibility of genuine paradoxes may itself be intelligible!)

  11. Frank Jude Boccio Avatar


    Yes, thank you. I think you HAVE cleared up some of my questions. Which, perhaps as one might expect, leads to another!

    “The subject is subject because of the object; object is object because of the subject,” is a line from “Trust in Mind.” Considering that neither has any independent existence, it seems to be saying the same thing: the “subject” IS the social matrix, but I think it also important to remember what the social matrix is ‘made up of.’ It too has no independent existence, right?

    So, subjectivity is not located in an individual brain, but I’m not sure saying “the subject is completely outside the individual, in the socially produced ideological formation” makes it much more clearer because I don’t think we can so clearly mark the bifurcating line between “inside” and “outside.”

    From my reading and thinking so far, I think there is evidence that consciousness is an emergent property, emerging from the firing of neurons. This is something shared along a continuum with other animals. BUT the subject/subjectivity is only created in social relationship. AND, the more complex/complicated social matrix of human animals is greater than other animals because of the firing of those more complexly inter-connected neurons. It all starts with the nonconscious neural signaling of an individual oraganism, from which emerges what Antonio Damasio calls the “protoself” which then lays the foundation for the “core self” and “core consciousness (still not yet possessing self-consciousness) and then the arising of what he calls the “autobiographical self” which permits extended consciousness. This to my ears sounds like the subject as the mutual creation of all that has led to this point AND the social matrix. Without the social matrix, no subject. Without the consciousness that emerges from the neural signaling, no social matrix.

    I hope that you can hear that I am sincerely wishing to learn more about your perspective and not simply rejecting or criticizing. Any additional comments you can make are welcome to that end.

    OH! One final note: perhaps you truly haven’t much knowledge about Tibetan buddhism, but Wallace’s take is pretty much in line with all I’ve read or heard from those practicing in the various Tibetan traditions. Perhaps most influenced by Hinduism, Tibetan buddhism is replete with brahmanic concepts.

    But, the same kinds of things are found throughout zen as well. In the mid to late 90s, I taught at Zen Mountain Monastery and folk there would often talk about “mind” and “buddha-nature” and even “emptiness” as a substrate; as something that fit the bill of atman/brahman and then add, “but it’s not a thing.” It would infuriate me!

    And, though it relates to a whole other post, I too would often hear students speak of the legendary birth and life of the buddha as if it were completely historical truth/fact. Even at that late date, most I spoke to thought the whole “flower sermon” with the hand-off of the “dharma eye” to Kashyapa was true and that the lineage was also historically accurate!

  12. Tom Pepper Avatar

    I see the problem–but I would avoid the assumption that we even need a “bifurcating line” between inside and outside–because there’s really nothing “inside” at all, at least, nothing of the order of consciousness. I would agree that it is most useful to talk of consciousness as an emergent property, but I would say it emerges from social systems, from organisms with capacity for symbolic interaction who actually DO interact. The subject is neither an individual (a subject can be multiple individuals, eg, a political party), nor is it the entire social matrix–much of which works to avoid the necessity for agency. Your consciousness emerging from complex signaling is, in my terms, not consciousness but simply a biological process, and so an atomistic approach: the individual consciousness forms from an individual brain and then enters into the social matrix. Do you see how this maintains the atomist model? Instead, I would use different metaphors–perhaps thinking of individual brains as simply nodal points in a symbolic network, which only gain consciousness at all when thy engage a network. This avoids the whole subject-object binary. This means, of course, that even my thoughts are not my own, and my individual self is reduced to a sort of power-boosting relay for the signal of the subject in the symbolic network. This may be a bit tortured, but its difficult to come up with good metaphors for a way of thinking so alien to our normal everyday discourse.

    It doesn’t really surprise me that Tibetan Buddhism is replete with brahmanic concepts–as I said, I have limited knowledge of this particular branch, and it all comes from a few books–I’ve never practiced Tibetan Buddhism or spent any time studying with a Tibetan teacher. The things I’ve read all seemed to implicitly require a kind of atman, but weren’t as explicit about it as Wallace is.

  13. Stephen Batchelor Avatar

    A fascinating review.

    “Perhaps most influenced by Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism is replete with brahmanic concepts…” This is true to a point for all schools of Buddhism; I don’t think Tibetan Buddhism is a special case. What is striking in the case of Alan Wallace is that the position he appears to present in his book regarding an atman-like (yes!) consciousness that underpins all experience (and reality itself?) is strongly influenced by Dzogchen, a practice and philosophy found in the Nyingma school, but a view that is rejected vehemently by Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Geluk school, in which Alan and I were trained as monks. Alan has followed the Dalai Lama in embracing this practice, a move that has caused the Dalai Lama to be shunned by members of his own Geluk school (this is what much of the Dorje Shukden/NKT schismatic movement is about). The Prasangika-Madhyamaka philosophy of the Gelukpa has no time at all for any kind of primordial or pristine consciousness, which, correctly I believe, it regards as a return to Vedanta. Much of Tsongkhapa’s polemical writings are taken up with rejecting this practice and its philosophical corrollary of gZhan sTong (“Other Emptiness”). Personally, I have never been taken by the teachings of Dzogchen or gZhan sTong and have remained fairly faithful to the Madhyamaka philosophy in which I was raised. (A delicious irony here is that Dorje Shukden is the protector deity of the atheists I also believe that Madhyamaka thought is the best philosophical elaboration of the vision attributed to the Buddha throughout most of the Pali canon. It has always struck me that the “Mind and Life” dialogues between the Dalai Lama and scientists have suffered from a strong, though often unstated, bias towards Dzogchen and its reified and idealistic notion of atman-like consciousness. Many of the leading Buddhist voices at these events have been Dzogchen practitioners: the Dalai Lama himself, Matthieu Ricard, and Alan Wallace. (On another note, this kind of view is becoming normative of much “Eastern spirituality” in the West, particularly under the influence of the neo-Vedantist Ken Wilbur and his followers/admirers — it is hardly surprising that Wilbur practices and endorses Dzogchen.) In other words, one cannot generalize about “Tibetan Buddhism” without seriously blurring over significant philosophical differences between the schools.

    One of the reasons I chose to present myself as an “atheist” in the title of my recent book was to address this point by aligning myself with the Madhyamaka view and what I believe are its foundational texts in the early canonical literature of Buddhism. In this respect, I believe that by positing an atman-like consciousness, Dzogchen (and similar teachings found in Chan/Zen – and even in the Theravada Forest Tradition) are implicitly abandoning the a-theism of the Buddha and embracing another theos called Pristine Consciousness/ the One Mind/ the One Who Knows etc. (A delicious irony here is that Dorje Shukden thus becomes the protector deity of the atheists.) This might also explain Alan’s furious attack on my atheism at the end of his article on my work. Could it be that he is a closet Theist?

    And, by the way: the title of my book is “Confession” not “Confessions” of a Buddhist Atheist. I had in mind the use of the term “confession” (in Luther for example) as meaning “confession of faith.”

  14. Frank Jude Boccio Avatar


    Thanks for actually providing an opportunity to articulate that statement more clearly! What I was particularly referring to is the mainstream western contemporary practice of Tibetan Buddhism which seems very much permeated with the ‘brahmanic’ essentialist, substratum kind of thought. This seems to be the point you make toward the end of your first paragraph above. For whatever reasons, it does seem that there is a strong predilection toward such essentialist views in contemporary buddhism. And yes, just about every buddhist tradition has teachers and/or strains that veer towards such thinking. As I go on to mention above, I found this quite often in zen and even wrote a blog post about it here: http://zennaturalism.blogspot.com/2011/08/what-i-hate-about-zen.html Many of the more famous vipassana teachers in the IMS/Spirit Rock community have studied and practiced with Vedantin teachers and this essentialist thought is coming through there as well.

    I think it telling that it was years before any collection of writings of the “Critical Buddhist” movement in Japan were published in English and still I’ve not heard any buddhist teacher refer to this movement!


    Thanks again for your response. This is where we differ. I believe that the “biological process” of neural signaling IS consciousness (and something shared with all neural beings — even those with little social matix to relate within. And I really don’t think of this as atomistic as those neurons themselves encode the genetic (DNA) heritage of our past (and the human past history is social) so again, there is no “atomistic” or “essentialist” thing from which consciousness emerges. It all process, with no absolute “inside” or “outside.”

    In the following statement:

    “Instead, I would use different metaphors–perhaps thinking of individual brains as simply nodal points in a symbolic network, which only gain consciousness at all when thy engage a network. This avoids the whole subject-object binary. This means, of course, that even my thoughts are not my own, and my individual self is reduced to a sort of power-boosting relay for the signal of the subject in the symbolic network. This may be a bit tortured, but its difficult to come up with good metaphors for a way of thinking so alien to our normal everyday discourse”

    I think I see a way for my view and yours to meet. In particular, I like that metaphor of the brain as a “nodal point” which I can see as part of a network including DNA, neural signaling, life experience and ALL of it happening AS social matrix.

    I’m curious though if the second part of your statement might lead to a kind of monism? I too come to the conclusion that my thoughts are not “my own,” (how could they be?) but does the following phrase above mean you feel there is a kind of ‘substratum subject?’


  15. Windsor Viney Avatar
    Windsor Viney

    Some Gelugpas — among whom is the current Dalai Lama — maintain that the Dzogchen view is (appearances notwithstanding) consistent with the Madhyamaka view. They seem to base their understanding on certain remarks of Longchen Rabjampa (1308-1363) and of the third Dodrupchen Rinpoche, Jigme Tenpe Nyima (1865-1926). For instance, the Dalai Lama observes, “Dodrupchen says that when we are able to ascertain all appearing and occurring objects of knowledge as the sport of the basic mind, we perforce understand even better the position of the Consequence School that these exist only through the power of conceptuality” (*Kindness, Clarity, and Insight*, p. 214).

    The Dalai Lama has also remarked, “In dzogchen we speak, on the one hand, of pure awareness being primally pure of concrete reality. Equivalent expressions for this in the madhyamaka system are that all phenomena are totally devoid of fantasized and impossible ways of existing, such as true inherent existence or existing as concrete reality. Primordially and from their depths, all phenomena are totally devoid of an inherently findable nature that can establish them as being something concrete and real. In dzogchen, we say that the clear light diamond-strong scepter of mind — which is like a foundation for everything that exists, impure and pure, which can thus appear — is primally pure of concrete reality.

    “In dzogchen, we also speak, on the other hand, of pure awareness by nature spontaneously establishing everything. This means that all phenomena abide as the play of this deep awareness in the sense that all appearances of phenomena are its effulgence. Pure awareness, by nature, spontaneously establishes the existence of all phenomena in that all appearances mind produces of what exists are its effulgent play. Seeing this point is extraordinarily profound for bringing us even more conviction in the fact that all phenomena can only be established simply as what their names refer to.

    “This is very significant because there are certain persons who are unable to gain a decisive understanding of the prasangika-madhyamaka view of reality based on reasoning alone. When such persons, however, experience in meditational practice the manifestation of primordial clear light mind — by either penetrating vital points of their vajra-body or other means — they are able to understand, based on personal meditative experience of clear light mind, that the existence of things can only be established dependently upon names. In this way, they come to a decisive and correct understanding of the prasangika-madhyamaka view of reality” (*The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra*, pp. 225-226).

    I am only reporting this; I doubt the two views are the same, or are even compatible, but then I also think that many accounts of madhyamaka at least verge on nihilism, while tantric practices, and the experiences they purportedly deliver, have no actually intelligible philosophical underpinning (and perhaps cannot have one).

  16. David Chapman Avatar

    A fascinating discussion! I’d like to say a little about both the isolated-self problem and about Dzogchen.

    Tom, I agree strongly with your post, which I find thoroughly insightful (although I haven’t read Wallace’s book, so I can’t be sure he makes the mistakes you attribute to him).

    I’d like to point out that there is a parallel discourse in current American philosophy of mind (recent work on the inherently social nature of the “extended mind” posited by Clark and Chalmers) and in cognitive science (the situated/embodied/embedded approach). Historically these trace back to Heidegger, as Lacan does. I think the language of this discourse may be more accessible to non-academic anglophone readers than the Lacanian one is.

    This situated/extended literature gives an easily-comprehensible, woo-free, naturalistic explanation for the ways that mind / cognition / consciousness are not products of the brain, and extend outside the individual body. By doing so, it avoids the problems inherent in monistic neurophysiological reduction.

    I think this literature suggests ways to productively reformulate what is right in the anatman insight. I hope to write about that Real Soon Now.

    On the other topic, I think that creeping Advaitism is a huge problem in all major schools of contemporary Buddhism; I have railed against that at length (and plan to write much more on this topic).

    It is easy to read Dzogchen texts and take them as positing atman-brahman and as crypto-Advaita Vedanta. I agree that Wilber has done precisely that, and that this is very harmful.

    However, I take my own view to be rooted in Dzogchen, and I don’t think it’s accurate to regard it as equivalent to Advaita. Stephen, I think your equation of Zhentong with Advaita is right (although my knowledge of both of them is quite sketchy). But, Dzogchen texts explicitly reject gZhan sTong and atman-brahman as monist-eternalist errors. (Unfortunately, these texts are fiendishly difficult to read, which may lead to doubt about their assertion that the Dzogchen view is quite different from atman-brahman.)

    Anyway, I do think there is ground to be staked out that avoids the “four philosophical extremes” of nihilism (which I’m afraid Madhyamaka falls into), eternalism (gZhan sTong), monism (gZhan sTong again), and dualism (isolated atman, and theisms that separate God and man).

    My “main” web site is about this, although for the past six months I’ve gotten diverted into sorting out the recent history of Western Buddhism, so the project is back-burnered.

  17. Shabe L Avatar
    Shabe L

    I am curious that none of the commentators have responded to Tom’s provocative comments, i.e. ‘And now I come to what will undoubtedly be the most controversial claim I will make in this essay: that the extreme conservatism of Wallace’s philosophical approach is directly connected to the particular kind of Buddhism he is proposing. That is, I will dare to say what is unspeakable in Western Buddhist circles: that Tibetan Buddhism functioned as the ideological support of one of the most undemocratic, oppressive, and elitist social systems to endure into the twentieth century. What could be a better justification for inherited aristocracy than the belief that they have earned their wealth and power by meritorious actions in past lives? A couple hundred aristocratic families lived in opulence, while Buddhist monastics sought meditative bliss in idle luxury, all supported by the labor of an uneducated and economically oppressed hereditary peasant cast, who apparently had some bad karma to work off. This is the Shangri-La whose loss brings tears to the eyes of Hollywood celebrities. Somehow it has come to seem a horrible injustice that an oppressive oligarchy was deposed. It may, of course, be argued that it is a terrible injustice that this deposition did not lead to terribly much improvement in the lives of the peasants, but Wallace’s frequent cold-war anti-communist rhetoric just rings hollow for me’.

    As someone who follows and admires Tom’s posts (and thoroughly enjoy Batchelor’s writings too (‘Confession’ was my Xmas gift to many) but lack Tom’s knowledge of Buddhist and philosophical thought, those were the comments that jumped out at me in a kind of “Of course! Why can’t we all be more open and honest about this” way.

    Oppression comes in so many forms, and the apologies for Tibetan Buddhism seem to me, as someone who grew up in India, very similar to the apologies for the Hindu caste system. Of course such traditions can offer structure and meaning and stability and even a kind of transcendence (as I have read many claim for Tibetan Buddhism) but can such a hierarchy and oppressive power structure be said to be true to the radical freedom that I thought was fundamental to the Buddhist ‘difference’ from other forms of the search for meaning?

  18. David Chapman Avatar

    I am a Tibetan Buddhist. I think that Tom’s characterization of the political and economic function of Tibetan Buddhism is accurate.

    And, I think political considerations extensively skewed Tibetan philosophy. This may not be widely recognized in popular American Buddhism, but it’s a pretty common observation in academic writing. (I’m planning a popular presentation of this point soon.)

    Different Tibetan philosophical views loosely corresponded with different political stances. The ancien régime favored monastic Sutra over non-monastic Tantra and especially Dzogchen, because it is easier to twist Sutra into justifications for an oppressive political order than to twist Tantra, or especially Dzogchen, that way. Non-monastic tantrikas, and especially proponents of Dzogchen, tended toward populism.

  19. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Very interesting comments. I wanted to avoid debating the correct understanding of Tibetan Buddhism, or differentiating between the schools, because I am fairly ignorant of these issues. So, I really appreciate hearing about it from someone who knows something about it. My knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism is limited to a few books, all of which did seem to me to be teaching things similar to Wallace, and because of this I never pursued it any further. In fact, I have avoided anything to do with Tibetan Buddhism for years–including most of Wallace’s recent books. In my response to Wallace, I simply wanted to take the approach of an outsider, and consider what it would mean for us to accept his particular version of Buddhism.

    Thanks, Stephen, for shedding light on this. I apologize for getting the title of your book wrong; like Shabe, I have read it and recommended it to others, and I did understand that you meant “confession” as in a statement of beliefs and not “confessions” as in “of a justified sinner.” I’m enough of a Freudian to think that my persistent addition of that “s” probably says more about me than it does about your book.

    Frank: I don’t see any way that the symbolic network could be a “substratum subject.” It would be completely dependent on causes and conditions, highly malleable, not infinitely enduring, etc. It may have emergent causal powers, not reducible to its determinant conditions, but it is not in any way an abiding and unchanging thing. I do think we mostly differ on the whole DNA thing–it seems to me that there is little chance that our genes in any way encode consciousness; from a critical realist framework, I would say that genetics is at different strata, a necessity for consciousness, but no more so than any other biological support, or even physical or chemical support. This is the whole point of “emergence,” and the desperate attempt to reduce consciousness to neurons or genes seems to me to be a misdirection. Like the old joke about the drunk who keeps looking for his keys in the bar: he knows he dropped them in the parking lot, but the point’s not to find them. I suspect hunting for biological correlates of consciousness serves some other social and ideological end. Of course, ultimately, this is an empirical question (but NOT and empiriCIST one)–it really can be decided by reason and speculation, I’m just guessing, on the present evidence, that the DNA approach won’t pan out.

    David:I didn’t want to give the impression that the kind of subject I’m talking about has anything to do with the “extended mind” or with notions of cognitive embeddedness. That’s something completely different. It may be more accessible to an anglophone and non-academic audience, but I don’t think that makes it more useful. It seems to me to still be atomist, positivist, and not very interesting–it seems to me to have exactly the same problems as the neurophysiological reduction . I’d love to see how you connect this to the concept of anatman, though. Perhaps the concept of anatman can help reformulate cognitive science, instead of the other way around?

    Shabe: I was a little surprised the politics of Tibet was avoided. I expected to be reproached, as I have been other times I mentioned this. As a Shin Buddhist, I think it is essential to be honest about the political and ideological co-optation of all schools of Buddhism. Shin has clearly been used to support oppressive imperialist politics in Japan. If we aren’t willing to be open about this, there’s no hope of recovering the truly radical and useful insights of Shinran and early Shin. Madhyamaka philosophy is also, it seems to me, profoundly radical and useful, but only if we can honestly evaluate the ideological distortions to which it has been subjected.

    I think that’s why I was interested in responding to Wallace’s book to begin with. So many people seem to uncritically accept this naive understanding of science that leads easily to the transformation of Buddhism into a reactionary ideology. We’ll never get to the real insights about consciousness in Buddhist philosophy unless we can pry them loose from the ideological distortions of Wallace’s dualism, as well as the reductive distortions of those like Flanagan.

  20. David Chapman Avatar

    The value of the original “extended mind” idea is that it smashes the assumption that the mind is in the head, or even in the individual’s body. And it does that in a simple and naturalistic way, so it’s accessible.

    And, it shows that the material basis for mind is constantly changing and has fuzzy boundaries. So the reflex assumption that the self has a hard edge starts to break up. That’s a first step toward anatman.

    As you say, the original Clark/Chalmers formulation is still thoroughly individualistic. (And it has been rightly criticized for that.) But, there’s a recent productive cross-over between it and the earlier “socially situated” movement in cognitive science, which came out of cognitive science’s encounter with ethnomethodology (which in turn was heavily influenced by Heidegger).

    In the original “extended Otto” thought experiment, Otto’s memory is found on a clipboard. But, suppose instead of carrying a clipboard, Otto’s wife accompanies him. Then “Otto’s memory” is subserved in part by her neurons. Suddenly, the idea that there is an individual who has the memory ceases to operate.

    So, there’s folks looking at the phenomenon of social memory, and doing actual observational fieldwork, not just thought experiments. “We remember…” In lots of cases, a memory exists as a dynamic that manifests in interaction; it’s not located in anyone’s brain.

    Using anatman to reform cognitive science: yup, I did a lot of work on that at one time. (I’ll note in passing that Phil Agre and I made the “extended Otto” argument ten years before Clark and Chalmers, and what’s more we did actual experiments, videotaping people following written directions, instead of inventing data like they did.) I went on to other things, partly out of frustration with the unquestioning, reflexive individualism of everyone in the field. Maybe it’s time to try again, though.

  21. Frank Jude Boccio Avatar


    Perhaps there’s been no direct address to the politics of Tibet because “true believers” are most likely not reading this blog, and for the rest of us, it’s so damn obvious! I have never been a victim of the “Shangri-la” myth, and agree with Tom that the integrity of being honest and up-front about the political co-optation (and sometimes complete collaborative alliance with status-quo government) of all forms of buddhism is necessary if we wish buddhist practice and thought to have any relevance. I guess that according to Glenn, that’s already a ‘decision,’ but it’s one I’m willing to make based upon my experience, not a priori wanting buddhism to have relevance.

  22. Rob Hogendoorn Avatar
    Rob Hogendoorn

    Good review and discussion!

    As it happens, my Ph.D. research focuses on the intellectual, philosophical and normative dynamic of the Mind & Life Dialogues between the Dalai Lama and (mostly) Western scientists.

    I’ve come to know Alan Wallace both professionally and personally, and I’m quite familiar with his mode of reasoning and its presentation.

    I agree with Stephen Batchelor’s comments: I’ve always been puzzled by the centrality of alaya-vijnana (‘substrate consciousness’) to Alan Wallace’s thought. I’d be very interested to see him present his doctrinal arguments vis-à-vis Geluk Madhyamaka views.

    The past few years I’ve attended the yearly Mind & Life Summer School at Garrison Institute twice as an observer and participant.

    During one of these Summer Schools ‘alaya-vijnana’ became so central (its main exponents being Alan Wallace, Matthieu Ricard, and William Waldron, who went on to author “The ‘Buddhist Unconscious’: The Alaya-Vijnana in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought”) that I felt obliged to make the very same point that Stephen made here: to Geluk Madhyamika’s alaya-vijnana is anathema.

    Until then, this hadn’t been mentioned at all during the sessions, even though it seemed quite relevant to me to take this fact into consideration.

    Within the context of Mind & Life and Buddhism & Science one other peculiar fact (correct me if I’m wrong) is frequently overlooked as well:

    Geluk Madhyamaka doesn’t provide its own distinct epistemology (lo rig). As far as I know (I’d be very interested to learn otherwise), Geluks make do with an epistemology derived from the Sautrantika school, which they consider to be of a much lesser calibre, philosophically speaking.

    As a Tibetan Geshe based in the Netherlands shared during class many years ago: many a young Geshe, he himself included, aspires to develop a ‘true’ Prasangika Madhyamaka epistemology.

    At the time, I got the impression that he thought it to be somewhat embarrassing that his preferred philosophical school didn’t have its ‘own’ epistemology.

    So far, I haven’t been able to locate any discussion of this in Alan Wallace’s “Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic” either. I’d be interested to hear his views on this topic as well.

  23. Tom Pepper Avatar


    This is interesting–it seems puzzling to me that the Geluk Madhyamaka school would not have its own epistemology, unless they argue that epistemological questions are irrelevant (which, from your example of the Tibetan Geshe, doesn’t seem to be the case).

    I didn’t take Waldron to be a “exponent” of the alaya-vijnana; at least, not in the sense that Wallace uses the term. In his book, he suggests that the alaya-vijnana is anything but an atman. For instance, he writes that “the alaya-vijnana represents the continuing influences of past actions (karma) and experiences upon present processes of mind, expressed here in terms of predispositions of speech, the influences of language upon all our forms of cognitive awareness”(159). He argues that alaya-vijnana is best understood as “the unconscious habits of body, speech, and mind to which we are habituated” and which “persist, in the aggregate, regardless of the fate of particular individuals”(169), because it is not a timeless atman but the structure of our “common receptacle world” of socially reproduced language and form of behavior.

    This understanding of alya-vijnana is, it seems to me, much closer to the concept of non-atomist consciousness I’ve suggested in my review, and might help to shed new light on the problem, by understanding it from within a different conceptual/ideological framework.

  24. Rob Hogendoorn Avatar
    Rob Hogendoorn


    As I recall, William Waldron’s main role at that time was to present alaya-vijnana from a scholarly perspective and voice the (philosophical) concerns of its followers. Alan Wallace’s and Matthieu RIcard’s contributions were more or less anecdotal, treating substrate consciousness much as they would treat a given, undisputed truth.

    I remember thinking: Am I the only one in the room who is aware of the fact that Geluk Madhyamaka’s do not accept alaya-vijnana at all, not even in principle? Of course I wasn’t, but that’s why I made the remark.

    Bear in mind that most attendees were aspiring neuroscientists and meditation researchers in their twenties, many of them with little prior knowledge of Buddhism. Given the way alaya-vijnana was presented, it would have been perfectly understandable if they had taken it to be a foundational doctrine within all philosophical schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

    The Geluk Madhyamaka school does teach logic and epistemology – extensively as a matter of fact – but its epistemology is taken from the Sautrantika school, most of whose philosophical tenets they reject. Geluks tend to take great pride in their epistemological and logical finesse. For this they were mocked by renegade monk and fellow Geluk Gendun Chöpel who critiqued Tsongkhapa, and pointed out some weaknesses in the Geluks’ epistemological repertoire.

  25. Remarks on Pepper’s Atman, Aporia, and Atomism « Sujato’s Blog Avatar

    […] Tom Pepper recently reviewed Alan Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic. (Thanks for the head’s up, Geoff!) Here are a few comments responding to the review, which raises a number of interesting points. I haven’t read meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic (or any of Wallace’s books), so this is solely responding to Pepper’s representation of Wallace’s thought. […]

  26. Justine McGill Avatar

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking piece. I’ve been particularly intrigued by your discussion of subjectivity and consciousness in the comments. Like Frank, I’m not sure if I’ve understood what you’ve said – could I attempt an interpretation and ask what you make of it?

    It seems that Lacan and Badiou’s concept of the subject is similar to the legal concept of the person – in that it can apply to an individual or a group, and is clearly the product of a social system or “matrix,” having no existence independent of that system. It also sounds like the concept of the social matrix is connected to relations of power and truth (or “truth effects”), just as the legal system is. But clearly this notion of the subject is given a much broader scope than the technical legal definition of the person – you seem to be suggesting that it is the locus for the emergence of consciousness, not just of social identity.

    You say that “the subject is completely outside the individual, in the socially produced ideological formation, in Lacanian terms the subject is the imaginary and symbolic effect of a social formation.” This suggests that this is a purely “third-person” (objective, scientific) definition of the subject, which does not connect with any “first-person” (subjective in the more common sense, religious or spiritual) experience of consciousness or selfhood. On the contrary, it appears to be radically disconnected from the lived experience of the individual, and likely to conflict with, distort or suppress that experience (as ideology does – and, typically, engagement with the legal process also does).

    But I realise that to say this assumes there is a “first-person” form of consciousness that exists prior to and independent of the social matrix that subjugates (or oppresses) it. This you deny, I take it, suggesting that such consciousness is a product of the social matrix, not something that exists outside it, so all consciousness is socially-determined subjectivity first, and lived experience second. So when an individual feels or claims that his or her experience is distorted or oppressed by the social matrix, and rebels against it, or withdraws from it, on this model he or she is just moving into (or being drawn into) an alternative formation of the social matrix. You give this a more inspiring name in suggesting that it might involve becoming a “true subject to a truth procedure,” but how does truth enter into this picture?

    In the effort to avoid atomism, and to embrace the insight that consciousness and communication are intimately connected, this theory seems in danger of swinging to the opposite extreme and creating a picture of the subject as the mere effect of a social matrix that seems totalitarian (or akin to Soviet state communism) in its all-pervasive reach, and its “emptying out” of individual consciousness or perspective.

    The Buddhist (or some Buddhist) approach to consciousness seems to me to lie between the extremes of the individualistic, atomistic self and the entirely social-produced subject by acknowledging that the social identity of the self is a fundamentally empty product of samsara – it is an expression of the social matrix, with all its capacity for illusion and delusion – but there is also a dimension of individual consciousness that goes beyond this. This is the sense in which consciousness is associated with kamma, that is with actions and our responsibility for them. This form of consciousness is also associated with the idea of a spiritual life which each individual subject (both individual and subject at once) must undertake for him or herself – the “first person” perspective is indispensible here.

    Does this make any sense to you? Or have I misunderstood the implications of the ideas you are presenting?

  27. Tom Pepper Avatar


    You seem to be getting most of the implications of the Lacanian concept of the subject, but like most people you seem to be troubled by them and resisting accepting them. You want the “individual subject” to be in some way free, and autonomous, and the implication of the theory of subjectivity I’m proposing is that this just can never truly happen. For Lacan, the belief in our “first person” experience as arising from a pre-social consciousness is a mis-recognition, a sort of useful delusion; in Buddhist thought, as I understand it, this is the source of our original delusion: attachment to a “self” that does not actually exist, that is only a conventional construct. The causes and conditions precede, and give rise to, the conventional self—but we want to see it as the other way round.

    The first step, I think, is to get rid of the idea that ideology “distorts or suppresses” our experience. This assumes a transcendent consciousness that can have “pure” or “true” experience prior to being clouded over by ideology. Ideology is the very capacity to experience, there is no experience outside of it. Ideology, that is, always precedes and gives rise to consciousness. It is not necessarily a distortion, although it often is in practice; the idea is to recognize our ideology as ideology, and not mistake it for nature. Ideology, for Althusser, is that set of beliefs embedded in practices which enable the reproduction of our world, so that we don’t need to start from scratch in every generation, and we know what to do to survive in the world. It becomes a problem only when the world we are reproducing needs changing, and our ideology is too powerful to allow the needed changes in behavior and thought. So, you are right that this theory would abandon the “individual consciousness that goes beyond” its causes and conditions—but I take that to be the goal of Buddhism, to get beyond the atman, to accept the absence of a transcendent consciousness. You seem to be disturbed by this possibility, and it is in fact disturbing at first. It means that no individual subject can “progress” spiritually, only a social group can—because a subject is an effect of a social structure.

    I want to make clear, though, that I am NOT a postmodernist—I do not accept the relativist view that Wallace proposes. Truth exists, because there is a mind-independent reality that precedes the emergence of consciousness. We can become increasingly conscious of this reality, but only if we recognize the thoroughly ideological nature of our consciousness; this is, on my reading, the point Vasubhandhu is making with his famous metaphor of the illusion of the elephant: we must not simply see through the illusion and “know” that there is not elephant there, we must see how the illusion works, how our perceptual habits cause us to “see” the illusory elephant, because only by understanding this working of our mind can we proceed to understand reality. But there is an underlying reality, and we can understand what it is, and increasing this understanding is always a good thing. It is not, of course, the only thing: producing better ideologies is also important.

    From my perspective, the “first person perspective” as you see it is not essential at all; in fact, it is the greatest impediment to grasping the central concept of Buddhist thought. And “individual” can become a “subject,” but only with the right causes and conditions.

    Does this clear up my position at all?


  28. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    I’d like to say something briefly apropos of two recurring issues coming up on the comments (here and elsewhere) to Tom Pepper’s review essay on Alan Wallace’s new book. The two issues are example and ideology. I offer my comments in the spirit of better illuminating my project of non-buddhism, and to do so particularly vis a vis conventional buddhistic discourse. (I just signed a contract for a book on the subject; so, there is plenty more on the way.)

    Example. It is the way of Buddhist commenters to cite as evidence for their position an example: sutta/sutra/tantra-a-b-or-c maintains x, y, or z; buddhistic-school/teacher-a-b-or-c maintains x, y, or z, etc. I could add: ad infinitum. For exemplification is an essential feature of dharmic discourse. Given, particularly, the long history and vast cultural-geographic range of the dispensation, there is virtually no end to this salvo of dharmic exemplification. That is why I say that x-buddhism is a world-conquering juggernaut from which nothing can escape: there is nothing under the sun for which x-buddhism can not provide an example. The examples it proffers, moreover, derived as they are from buddhistic decision, ensure that “Buddhist” names a person who, as Ray Brassier says of philosophers, “views everything (terms and relations) from above.” Like Wittgenstein his slabs and Heidegger his hammer, x-buddhism is entranced by its examples.

    Contrary to x-buddhism, non-buddhism sees examples not as specular instantiations of reality (mind, matter, consciousness, perception, sensation, etc.) but as symptoms to be analyzed. It is, in fact, via an analysis of buddhistic exemplification that I arrived at my specific adaptation of Laruelle’s axiom of decision in relation to x-buddhism. Endless dharmic exemplification presents the most rigorous basis for the operation of decisional circularity, or what Laruelle calls “auto-position” (specularity), in all of x-buddhism.

    Brassier helps in this regard: “[d]ecisional specularity ensures the world remains [x-buddhism’s] mirror. [Buddhistically theorizing] the world becomes a pretext for [x-buddhism’s] own interminable self-interpretation. And since interpretation is a function of talent rather than rigor, the plurality of mutually incompatible yet unfalsifiable interpretations merely perpetuates the uncircumscribable ubiquity of [x-buddhism’s] auto-encompassing specularity. Absolute specularity breeds infinite interpretation—such is the norm for the [x-buddhist] practice of thought” (“Axiomatic Heresy: The non-philosophy of François Laruelle,” in Radical Philosophy, [September/October 2003]: 26-27).

    As I said in “Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism:” The interminable debates (”infinite interpretation”), past and present, concerning the nature of Buddhism—its proper expression, its time-place-appropriate formulation, and so on—are merely instances of what Laruelle calls “the articulation of a universal market where the concepts are exchanged according to specific rules to each system, and from an authority with two sides: one of the [x-buddhistic] division of work, the other of the appropriation of part of what the market of the concepts produces [Secular Buddhism, Zen, Gelukpa, MBSR, etc.]. The [x-buddhist affiliate or practitioner] is thus the capital or a quasi-capital in the order of the thought. Or the shape of the World understood in its more inclusive [i.e., x-buddhistic] sense.”

    The illuminating irony of x-buddhists citing diverse examples to other x-buddhists is that, from a non-buddhist perspective, they are only showing–exemplifying!–the unity of buddhistic syntax. Doing so is all the more illuminating because their examples are not, as they purport to be, examples from and of reality, but from and of x-buddhism itself and only itself.

    Ideology. Very briefly. I see people here and on certain monks’, scholars’, and secularist’s blogs and Facilebook pages using the term “ideology” as if it were the bane of humanity. I have Tom Pepper to thank for convincing me of the value of a critique of ideology for a critique of x-buddhism. I want to point out, though, that, as Tom has said on numerous occasions, ideology, at least in the way Althusser conceives of it, is not of necessity bad; and neither is it avoidable (see his comment #27 here and on the “Raw Remarks on Meditation” post). The way I am working with it is to ask of a body of ideas (1) is the proponent aware that it is indeed a body of ideas (one among many)?; and (2) what ends does it serve? So far, I can generalize about x-buddhistic discourse and answer that (1) no; the demands of buddhistic decision, in particular that of reflexivity, blind the adherent; and (2) hallucination of reality. My interest in developing non-buddhist critical practice is certainly not to mend the shattered concord between x-buddhistic distortion of reality and pristine reality itself (that would just be more x-buddhism); it is, rather, to critique the very foundation on which the uniquely x-buddhistic hallucination rests.

  29. Tom Pepper Avatar

    The appeal to authority does seem to be the dominant form of argument in all x-buddhisms. Any new idea is met with an assertion that it is not “true” Buddhism because it disagrees with some esteemed teacher’s revelation. I find the intestine broils of Tibetan Buddhism discussed above fascinating–it reveals the persistent power of ideology to triumph over clear thought: the only way one “school” wins out over the other is by a more persuasive appeal to revealed authority, never by examining whether this or that interpretation of Buddhist thought actually makes sense or corresponds in any way to reality. So, it’s fine if your school claims that a Lama can control the weather, walk up walls, or whatever, despite all evidence to the contrary, just so long as there is a textual warrant.

    I was trying to dodge this whole mess in discussing Wallace, by simply granting his version of Buddhism and considering what ideological practices it would support and whether it actually has any basis, as he claims, in scientific fact. Wallace can always claim absolute relativism, and dismiss my arguments as just one version of reality–ultimately, there is no arguing with relativism, except to point out the performative contradiction. Others can always point out textual evidence that Wallace, or any Tibetan writer, is more correct than me–but this does not disprove my claims about the ideological function of Tibetan Buddhism.

    With any ideology, we need to consider first whether we are aware it is an ideology, second what social formation it serves to produce and reproduce, and then, importantly, whether it requires us to believe things that are not true. If our ideology requires that we believe people can walk up walls, or that the sun revolves around the earth, or that illness is caused by demons, then it is always going to lead to stagnation. We need to maintain a distinction between ideology and knowledge. To my mind, in trying to fend off the relativists the realist camp has prematurely abandoned Althusser’s theory of ideology. There is the fear that, if we recognize that certain truths are produced for ideological reasons, they are therefore left open to the charge that they are nothing but ideology. This is a mistaken conclusion that pervades most contemporary realist thought. It is true that Galileo’s pronouncements that the earth moved around the sun, that planets had moons, and that the book of nature is written in mathematics, were accepted not because they were the best explanation of empirical evidence (although they were) but for ideological reasons: these beliefs would enable technological growth and economic expansion, so they needed to be accepted to help produce a new social formation. That, however, does not make them less true. We need to consider the power of ideology because the best argument rarely carries the day: ideology often has the power to squash truth procedures, but it also has the power to support them.

    My interest in Buddhist philosophers derives from a fascination with their insights into how ideology works, and how we can gain more correct knowledge of reality in spite of it. I think Nagarjuna, for instance, is a profound thinker who examines the way ideological/conventional thought works and enables us to be aware of the ideology we are producing. All the aporia and intractable puzzles in his thought dissolve when we consider him this way. The history of Buddhism seems to me to be a series of truth procedures (in Badiou’s sense) alternating with powerful ideological containments in institutions devoted to maintaining existing social formations. The constant appeal to authority, and reluctance to examine the truth value in Buddhist thought if it disagrees with textual warrant, is a sure sign of a last-gasp attempt at containment: it is rarely an effective ideological maneuver.

  30. jonathan Avatar

    I am doing a master’s thesis this year under the supervision of a Tibetan Studies specialist (at Sydney Uni). I am considering suggesting the topic of ‘doctrinal controversies in Buddhism’ – particularly what I see as a version of the ‘theism vs atheism’ debate within Buddhism itself, which is also currently playing out in Western culture. There is, as some of the comments here indicated, a kind of ‘latent theism’ in some forms of Mahayana Buddhism, which is generally opposed by the critical and deconstructive schools. This seems to me the underlying division within Wallace v Bachelor. But it goes back centuries and has appeared in a number of schisms and debates. In fact I think Buddhism as a religious framework is big enough to accommodate both types of mentality, which is interesting in its own right, although I should reserve judgement on that until I have done more of the work.

    I am also very interested in your integration of post-modernist views (Lacan, Badiou et al) with Buddhist critical thinking. I am often engaged in debates on a philosophy forum and I must admit, I tend to view a great deal of modern and post-modern philosophy as deficient, insofar as having no concept of ‘Big-T’ Truth, which I would hope is central to the ‘grand traditions’ of philosophy, East and West, and which, to me, differentiates any actual ‘religious or spiritual’ philosophy from a purely this-worldly, secularist view. For this reason, I too am often accused of ‘straw-man’ criticisms of science, although I can console myself with the fact that I took Wallace’s Taboo of Subjectivity’ book out of the library five years ago, and found it wanting, for reasons I can’t exactly recall.

  31. David Chapman Avatar

    So, here is a possible way forward, that escapes the problem of appeal to authority, and which may constitute a non-Buddhism, in Glenn’s sense.

    I would tend to agree that “Nagarjuna… is a profound thinker who examines the way ideological/conventional thought works and enables us to be aware of the ideology we are producing.” But, it is very difficult to know for sure what he was trying to say.

    We have most of 2000 years of Buddhist philosophy, most of which has been couched as “this is what Nagarjuna really meant.” Whenever anyone had any new ideas about beingness, they had to put them in those terms.

    That’s because everyone has agreed that Nagarjuna had The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth, since he lived a very long time ago and had snakes coming out of his head. Which is rubbish. He had (probably) some important insights, and was seriously confused (as are we all).

    And so now we have endless layers of Nagarjuna interpretation, most of which also have to be bowed to, no matter how impenetrable and/or obviously wrong they are.

    Trying to recover “Nagarjuna’s original insight, beneath all the interpretation” is just more of the same. Who cares what Nagarjuna thought? What matters is how things actually are.

    So. I want to draw on (and move forward) Buddhist insights about emptiness; and I don’t want to get caught up in that whole discourse, which is hopelessly mired in textual authority.

    So, I’m developing a non-Buddhism concerned with “nebulosity”. In doing that, I bracket the whole question of the relationship between “nebulosity” and “emptiness”. There’s probably some relationship—but I am unwilling to figure out what it is. (Because that would drag me into the Madhyamaka commentarial tradition, which is a tar pit.) What I can say (although I have not yet) is precisely what I mean by “nebulosity.”

    Having declared “I don’t care what Nagarjuna said”, and you avoid using the word “emptiness”, Madhayama insights become available as raw materials, to be used as you wish, without obligation.

    So, do you [plural] think this side-stepping strategy is workable? And what other valuable aspects of Buddhism(s) could be appropriated and reconfigured in this way?

  32. Tom Pepper Avatar


    My quick response is, that this strategy is the only way to avoid having Buddhism be just another reactionary capitalist ideology in the west, but that it will likely meet with enormous resistance, mostly in the form of people saying you are ignorant (of this or that tradition, this or that commentary, this or that sutta) or that your approach lacks “rigor” ( usually a code word for: doesn’t cite my essay) or that you aren’t a “true” Buddhist. You’ll have to have a thick skin, and plow ahead through a rocky field.

    There is, for instance, enormous difficulty in saying anything at all about Nagarjuna, for the reasons you mention, but also because the readers for journals and publishers will reject anything that doesn’t play the game by the old rules.

    As for knowing “what Nagarjuna really meant,” I’ve always been amused by the amount of ink that has been spilled over the question. Given what Nagarjuna says, in the few texts that are by definition attributed to that “individual,” it seems a bit silly to ask “will the real Nagarjuan please stand up?” I would want to drop the “author” and consider what the text says. From my perspective, the subject is not an autonomous individual conscious of her meaning, but often exists as a discourse and its practices. As such, the text may say much more than the writer “knew” he or she was saying. The thousands of years of different Nagarjuanas might be interesting, might have their own insights to give us, but would need to be considered as texts in their own right.

    I do think that Glenn’s project of non-buddhism can be a useful way to clear some of the powerful ideological resistance to the kind of approach you suggest. As Laruelle wants to create a “science” of philosophy, in the Althusserian sense of a knowledge of the functions philosophical problematics serve, non-buddhism can create a “science” of Buddhism. Once we can decide, with some awareness, which ideological problems we want to address, we can perhaps begin to produce and change ideology instead of having it produce and change us. And I do mean “we” as collective subjects of discourses, not as autonomous individuals.

    So, if you were to side-step the whole tar pit of Buddhist ideology, what problem do you see as the one your thought would address?

  33. David Chapman Avatar

    Tom, thank you for the encouragement!

    I am unafraid of the Buddhist establishment; my WordPress blog is devoted to deconstructing its rhetorical power-plays.

    [I hope what follows, in answer to Tom’s question, is not unwanted advertising; Glenn, please delete if so.]

    My non-Buddhist project is written for a general, non-technical audience, systematically refusing to engage with Buddhism by avoiding its vocabulary. To make it accessible, I’m also avoiding the technical vocabulary of Western philosophies. This makes the writing difficult and slow, but I hope it may eventually maximize its impact.

    The project moves from the abstract to the concrete. It begins by critiquing the metaphysical assumption that the world is divided into objectively-separable objects (some of which are also objectively-separable subjects). Madhyamaka is a major source here, along with Heidegger’s zuhandenheit and recent analytic mereology. (Interestingly, I think Peter Unger made the same mistake Nagarjuna did in concluding that since he’s not objectively separable, he doesn’t exist.)

    I suggest that many/most “problems of meaningness” follow from this wrong metaphysics. (This continues a parallel course to Buddhism, obviously.) I start by critiquing the “four philosophical extremes” (nihilism, eternalism, monism, dualism—cf. the Lokayatika Sutta), all of which are pervasive and pernicious unthought principles in contemporary culture.

    Gradually this becomes increasingly specific, and addresses current problems in (e.g.) ethics. For example, I critique the use of displayed ethical opinion as a class-status marker, and the way this is appropriated in marketing as a way to sell positional goods. (This is partly similar to Slavoj Zizek’s Starbucks rant.)

    Relatedly, I think “Buddhism” in America now functions largely as a token of class membership. Especially, “Buddhist ethics” (which I consider complete tripe) allows you to simultaneously tick the “spirituality” and “ethics” boxes in the meticulous rituals of class-appropriate self-presentation.

  34. Windsor Viney Avatar
    Windsor Viney

    Readers of this very stimulating discussion might like to peruse, by way of background, Jose Cabezon’s Introduction to his and Geshe Lobsang Dargyay’s book *Freedom from Extremes*. Happily, the whole of that Introduction is available on Google Books: http://goo.gl/IwjHG .

    If I were going to attempt any serious scholarly writing nowadays, I think it would be on the nature of authority — intellectual, political, religious, personal, ethical, aesthetical . . . . It seems to me that every argument has its axioms and rules of reasoning that are not themselves brought into question: one has to start (from) somewhere, but it can also emerge, on the careful reflection of those who are imaginative and adventurous (and perhaps iconoclastic), that it is that very somewhere that is most in need of being questioned.

  35. Justine McGill Avatar

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for your explanation of Althusser’s use of the term ideology, and for your other remarks. I have the impression from your response that I must have seemed a bit harsh in my first comment (“totalitarian” was a bit much, admittedly :). It still seems to me that these theories swing to the opposite extreme from the atomistic or overly individualistic one, and produce their own paradoxes and problems, and that something closer to a “middle way” is more attractive (e.g. a theory of subjectivity that more directly acknowledges that consciousness is connected to the body). But in any case, you have given me plenty to think about.

  36. Geoff Avatar


    Your article has created some interest on Sujato’s blog. Interesting comparing the discussion to here and your exchanges with the monks.

    But I think Sujato has had enough and wants to change the subject……



  37. Tom Pepper Avatar


    The response from the “faithful” is interesting. Like Wallace, they insist on a transcendent consciousness and a supernatural force, but then simply insist this is NOT an atman, despite appearances. There seem to be two predominant arguments: the appeal to authority (if this sutra says there is a “substrate consciousness” and this other sutra says there is no atman, then that means that a substrate consciousness just cannot be an atman), or the response that Buddhism is simply inexpressible in language, and only the truly enlightened can grasp it. Sujato takes a typically Romantic approach to ideology: since his beliefs are true and universal, only a naive ideologue would call them ideology; like Wordsworth, he simply inverts the order of causality, and argues that his beliefs do not serve to support an unjust social system, instead, the unjust social system just “naturally” arises to support his timeless and inevitable beliefs.

    Wordsworth makes a similar response to Godwin’s claim that “gratitude” is a debased emotion, since in a just society nobody should have to depend on charity for survival; for Wordsworth, gratitude simply becomes an ideal universal human emotion (necessary for our proper attitude toward God), and the unjust society is a useful way to promote it.

    Given this Romantic maneuver, it isn’t too surprising that what Sujato wants to change the subject to is the value of art. HIs shockingly naive Romantic theory of the expressive power of art sounds like Harold Bloom at his worst. And like Bloom, of course, he would say it is “naive” to suggest it is an ideology.

  38. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Thank you Tom for this essay which gives me a lot material for what I am thinking about in the moment, and thanks to everybody for a wonderful thread with many thoughtful remarks.

    For me this analysis of Alan Wallace‘s view, if I take it as Tom illustrates it, complements a picture about the tibetan buddhism in the west. I sometimes wondered how ’His Holiness‘ would keep his promise to adapt buddhism to a scientific worldview. Now I see how it works. With Alan Wallace in his ranks he can reduce this worldview to a heap of incongruous pieces and say, „Well, as you see, for the time being we have to stay with good old tibetan buddhism as it was brought to us.“ Of course he is, for example in his book „The Universe in a single Atom“, more discriminating. But in the end, through the chapters of this book, there is the tendency always to put the sciences into a perspective which takes his world model as a given and which asks the sciences to confirm it. With Alan Wallace as support he isn‘t really forced to give up certain tibetan buddhist doctrines. Most prominent of course the most subtle consciousness which survives death.

    In the same way he can stay with the tibetan buddhist view of history. In Thomas Lairds book „The Story of Tibet“ he talks freely about his historical perspective. He is dismissive about „western academics, who always restrict their view to one point of view“ while he gives at the same time an account which is free of every insight in historicity. He is talking freely about a „master plan of Chenrezi“ and that the Tibetans are something like a chosen people with a special karmic connection to the god Chenrezi. He is not uncritical in regard of the shangri-la myth but all in all „the best of buddhas teachings have been preserved in Tibet.“ Chenrezi who with his master plan intervenes at several points in Tibetan history is of course „no creator god“ but what he is instead he does not say. The civil war which raged for many years during the reign of the 5. Dalai Lama and which had as its main opponents the Kagyupas and Gelugpas had „no political reasons“ he repeats for several times, instead „The Great 5th“ was „a great Rime“ – what is really intriguing when one knows that this war was about and against the the great political and economical power of the Kadgyupas.

    In my view the Dalai Lama takes great freedom to see things through his ideological spectacles and it is al the more easy with Wallace‘s backing.

    Also one must say that while here the sciences are rendered powerless the humanities are absent in the two mentioned books. This holds also true for most of the participants in the Mind & Life conferences. So not only are the sciences marginalized there is also simply no dialog with philosophy, sociology, history… nothing.

    One could say all this is not so important because it is just one more cult which right now is en vogue and which will go away anyway. But what is with the „political conservatism“ Tom identifies? It is not only that these buddhists cannot see their own ideology but that they propagate a cult which promises liberation while underpinning a social situation which is marked by a worldwide spreading of absolute irresponsibility. If it is so that as Tom says „The problem […] [is] the possibility that the contents of the psyche [are] produced by social structures; and so it would require social change to improve or cure the mind“ and if this buddhism is actively hindering the knowledge of the fact that contents of the psyche are produced via social structures, then this buddhism has not only nothing to do with liberation but it‘s dharma is a fetter. And moreover in a world where the consumer is reduced to a marketing target which is forced to consume evermore the next disposable gadget, who is in this way reduced to a compulsively behaving being at the mercy of implanted desires and who thus is less and less able to be responsible for his human and ecological environment – in such a world such a political conservative buddhism is part of a big problem which is a hindrance in regard of the solution of the problems of our time.

    So I would add to Tom‘s observation about the Tibetan feudal system that this buddhism is in a way partaking at the destruction of our democracy.

    I‘ll have to say more about this I hope. Thanks again for this thread and excuse my rant. If somebody wants references to the citations I will provide them.

  39. Geoff Avatar


    Thanks for your response. I attended quite a few of Sujato’s weekly talks in North Sydney until I quoted some of Glenn’s ‘Manifesto’ to him on his blog back in June last year.

    I thought Glenn made some very plausible points about the content of Pali Canon but Sujato was just dismissive saying things like:

    “The argument that belief in devas, etc. contradicts the Buddha’s anti-metaphysical position is also wrong. This point has been analyzed at length by the Buddhist empiricist philosopher David Kalupahana (whose excellent work seems to be unaccountably ignored by the secularists). The basic point is that the Buddhist treatment of such things as devas rigorously removes any truly metaphysical aspects – for example, they are not eternal, all-powerful, creators of the world, and so on. Devas are, in fact, conditioned, impermanent, suffering creatures very much like you or I in all spiritually important aspects. And, crucially, knowledge of such things is an empirical knowledge, derivable from the meditative extension of ordinary sensory faculties, and confirmable, in some cases, by reference to socially verifiable external facts (as in Ian Stevenson’s research). “

    I was prepared to suspend my disbelief up to that point but that was a turning point for me….



  40. jonathan Avatar

    Regarding the existence or non-existence of ‘self’ in the Pali canon, the following passage is relevant:

    “Then the wanderer Vacchagotta went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there he asked the Blessed One: “Now then, Venerable Gotama, is there a self?”
    When this was said, the Blessed One was silent.

    “Then is there no self?”

    A second time, the Blessed One was silent.

    Then Vacchagotta the wanderer got up from his seat and left.

    Then, not long after Vacchagotta the wanderer had left, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “Why, lord, did the Blessed One not answer when asked a question by Vacchagotta the wanderer?”

    “Ananda, if I were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those priests & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism [the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul].

    If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those priests & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of consciousness].”

    This would suggest that the ‘atman’ view is generally grouped with the former. Many here will argue the latter. But it is important to recall that in answer to the direct question, the Buddha was silent.

  41. Tom Pepper Avatar


    This is the kind of comment that is very difficult to respond to. You seem to be missing the entire point of this blog, and to be less interested in understanding than in preaching your version of the true dharma.

    I could respond by pointing out that it is absurd to think that anyone posting on this blog is unfamiliar with this sutra. We could get into the standard, dharma-internal debate about not picking and choosing passages which support your desired meaning and ignoring those that are contradictory. Or about the “correct” way to read this passage, that it serves to point out that the question is the wrong kind of question, and can’t be answered in that form–ie, it “begs the question.” But none of that dharmic debate is the point here.

    The point, as I take it, is to consider which hermeneutic strategy you choose to adopt, and which Buddhist “truth” you accept, and then to determine what kinds of social practices, what understanding of the world, they function to support. In this case, for instance, what is the function of ignoring all intellectual debate and citing the sutra as a final authority? What kind of social practice does this appeal to scripture support?

  42. jonathan Avatar

    I am not preaching. It was to make the point that the original sources don’t state that ‘there is no self’. This is often given as a definitive doctrine within Buddhism, and assumed by a great many commentators, but the sources don’t support it, and it is still a point of controversy within Buddhism itself. The fact is that some many elements of Buddhist teaching are inherently ambiguous and cannot be resolved or rationalized satisfactorily from the viewpoint of ‘social practice’ and modern analytical procedures.

  43. don salmon Avatar

    “Perception is…a… measurement.”

  44. don salmon Avatar

    Tom has been vindicated. It says here that perception is all about “predictive coding”


    Ian McGilchrist, in his “The Master and the Emissary”, suggests that the belief in physicalism may indicate some kind of deficiency in right mode processing. Ear training for Stephen Batchelor, anybody?

  45. don salmon Avatar

    I just thought it might be prudent to apologize ahead of time in case someone finds the previous comment too – I don’t know, direct? But first, a word about what McGilchrist refers to as “left mode processing”. He spends several hundred pages of “The Master and His Emissary” detailing neuroscientific research on hemispheric differences in an attempt to fend off potential criticism of discussion of left vs right “mode” processing. I couldn’t begin to do justice to his work in a few paragraphs, much less a few pages. But I did find quite compelling one of McGilchrist’s endnotes that I just came across. McGilchrist said that Robert Ornstein, who popularized the left brain/right brain idea back in the 1970s, eventually got so fed up with the simplistic pop version of this that he moved to an entirely different area of research for some years. Ornstein said he was “blown away” when he returned to the topic in the 1990s and found a mountain of research not just validating what he had written but providing whole new areas of evidence supporting hemispheric differences.

    As far as the ‘ear training’ comment – I realize it may seem not just direct, but insulting. I assume that people here aren’t subject to the New Age idea that we shouldn’t be “judgmental”. So I don’t know quite what else to say – other than, if it’s even potentially a correct assessment (about physicalism and a deficiency in right mode processing) is it insulting or judgmental to suggest such a thing? (or, not even “correct”, but conducive to constructive discussion?)

  46. Geoff Avatar



    I’d be interested in your response to a charge on Sujato’s blog that your ““ideology is nothing but a continuation of Western hegemony” etc

    From puthujjana / Jan 17 2012 5:03 pm

    (I take it the person is Thai?)



  47. puthujjana Avatar

    Oh Geoff, don’t you know?

    Abandoning divisive speech he abstains from divisive speech. What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he does not tell here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord.

  48. donsalmondon Avatar

    east west; neurotypical vs?

  49. don salmon Avatar

    One of the most unsatisfactory aspects of scholarly approaches to the subject [of …. experience] is this modern inability to read concrete symbols and the consequent over-emphasis on words. In his work on Shankara and Eckhart, [Rudolph] Otto discusses the question whether the Vedantik Brahman, the Buddhist Nirvana, and Eckhart’s Godhead are the same or different. But what is different? The words, of course, are different: the groups of ideas referred to by the words are also different, to some extent at least. But that is not the end of the matter. That to which these words refer is neither a word nor an idea, and no one who thinks it is can possibly come at the root of the matter. There are not half a dozen of these mystical absolutes floating about in the universe. There is not even one true and several false ones. There is just one Reality which has been symbolized in various ways, each symbol expressing more or less inadequately some one particular aspect of it. ‘The Real is one; men describe it in many ways’ (Rig Veda).

    The writings of the seers cannot and must not be read as if they were so many sets of interesting ideas to be judged by their logical coherency. They are descriptions of experience; and the first necessity, if we would understand them, is to realize that their statements refer to something which is neither a word nor an ‘idea.’ [words like “atman” or “substrate consciousness”, for example] The words of the seer are finger-posts pointing to experience, and we shall never understand them aright if we persist in interpreting them according to the method of academic philosophy, which is merely a logicalization and a drawing of inferences from the experience available to all in normal waking consciousness.

    (From Sri Krishna Prem, “Symbolism and Knowledge”, in his “Initiation Into Yoga”

    or to put it another way, you can try to teach a music student to hear the difference between a C Major chord and an A Minor chord, but as long as their attention is focused on the individual notes (“hmm, that’s a C, E and a G, and that’s an A, C and E”) they’ll never “get” the harmony.

    Ear training for Stephen Batchelor, anybody?

  50. David Chapman Avatar

    Don, this is Perennialism: “all religions are essentially the same, and (hidden behind language-induced confusions) are really Advaita Vedanta.”

    There is a totalitarian political agenda behind this nice-seeming idea: Advaita hegemony. It sounds really nice to say “Buddhism is really ultimately the same as Advaita, so we shouldn’t have nasty arguments about it, that’s divisive and hostile; we’re all brothers here, and all paths lead to the same ultimate truth.” But the intention is to obscure differences in order to annihilate Buddhism—not Advaita.

    This piece deploys an additional strategy, which is to dismiss any attempt at coherent thought as “academic” and “merely a logicalization”. The fact that Perennialism is obviously wrong, as a truth-claim, has to be defended that way, by appealing to the listener to turn off their brain in order to accept emotionally attractive falsehoods.

    These strategies have been successful enough in the contemporary West that it’s imperative to call them out and denounce them whenever they are invoked. Several of my recent blog posts have been about this—most recently “Preventing holy wars, by consensus“.

  51. Geoff Avatar


    I’m interested in your view that eg Bhikkhus Sujato / Brahmali’s (Thai buddhists) explanation of karma also requires a kind of atman – not just Wallace’s (Tibetan).

    I’d be interest in your elaboration, as you say to Brahmali below. (If you feel up to it! Sorry, you might have already covered this?)

    If I can quote Sujato and your response to Brahmali (on Sujato’s blog):

    “The Atman and the Original Mind: Pepper is, I think, absolutely correct to say that the radiant ‘original mind’ spoken of so breathlessly by so many Buddhist teachers is in fact an atman in all but name. Despite the countless times that the Buddha asserted that the mind is conditioned, so many teachers seem to be driven by a need to take up one or two passages that can be read to speak of an ‘unconditioned’ mind or some such. Of course the passages have to be twisted to take on such a meaning; the locus classicus is the passage in the Anguttara Nikaya, which speaks of the mind that is developed in samadhi as abandoning the hindrances – no different than countless other statements on meditation. But somehow the word ‘naturally’ or ‘intrinsic’ gets inserted into the text, and what was an exhortation to practice meditation becomes a mysterious assertion of the mind that is ‘naturally radiant’. No, the mind is not ‘naturally’ radiant. It is ‘naturally’ conditioned. If you want to make it radiant, do the work!”

    (Pepper -in response to Bhikkhu Brahmali)
    “And yes, your explanation of karma really does require a kind of subtle atman–a kind of transcendent supernatural entity separate from the physical world. I could explain to you why, if you’re interested….”

    I’m interested!



  52. don salmon Avatar

    where is it said that the “one true” teaching is “Advaita Vedanta” – at least Krishna Prem never said that (quite the opposite)

  53. don salmon Avatar

    i realize there’s a catechism here and to deviate from it is probably useless. but one might think in a realm where one is encouraged to question platitudes, some questioning of platitudes might be in order?

  54. don salmon Avatar

    actually, it’s interesting to reflect on my motivations for posting here. When you say, “Hey, look at that man holding that green pen over by the deli”, and someone responds by saying, “Why do you keep insisting on talking about the woman with a parrot on her shoulder over by the train station,” you have to wonder about how muddle headed I must be to keep trying to talk about the guy with the green pen! It’s interesting to see, once I’ve recovered from that irrational state, to look back and see what it was that caught me again. Fascinating (at least, it seems so to me). And I guess part of the intrigue is to see how the man with the green pen will be transformed (Oh don, don’ t you see that by trying to find the substrate, the oneness of the man with the green pa=en and the woman with the parrot you’re simply trying to put forward a totalitarian view of the one True Truth (which by the way, is against our catechism and could lead to excommunication!) ear training for don?

  55. Tom Pepper Avatar


    Actually, it is interesting to reflect on your motivation. Perhaps you are less fully indoctrinated into the silly anti-intellectual ideology you’ve been preaching than you think you are? I wonder if your need to engage with this site is an indication that your blind faith in the exaltation of mindless feeling is not so solid as you’d like to think? That your realize there is some truth in what is being discussed here?

  56. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Hi Geoff,

    I’ll try to explain briefly. I don’t mean that all of Theravada or Thai Buddhism insists on the existence of an atman, or on karma as a magical Santa-Clause-like entity; in fact, it is my impression that Thanissaro Bhikku, for instance, completely rejects the idea of an atman, and when he uses a term like “Buddha nature” does not see it as a substrate-consciousness like Wallace does but as an innate capacity of human beings which we may or may not use.

    I am referring, then, to Bhikku Brahmali’s explanation of karma in his response to me: he suggests that since I am so obviously ignorant about Buddhism, and not “truly” a Buddhist, I have fallen under the mistaken impression that karma can be explained naturalistically. He wants to assure me that any real Buddhist knows, from the Pali Canon, that karma is a world-transcendent magical force that totes up our merits and demerits and doles out rewards and punishment. Karma, he says, has nothing to do with social structures that shape our lives, but is a “force that determines one’s rebirth.”

    This assumes, of course, that a “person” is an enduring entity who moves from one life to the next, whose particular birth is determined by this magical force: “individuals are ‘assigned’ positions within . . . society.” The individual, then, must in some sense have an enduring “soul” which experiences different lives, and karma is a god-like force external to us, which does the judging and assigning. Brahmali’s insistence that this does not require an atman just because he says it does not is simply that, insistence. Sort of like when somebody says “no offense but. . .” before they offend you, it doesn’t change anything.

    I gave up on that post because I was a bit bothered by the one idiot who kept trying to antagonize a woman who had posted there, by spouting misogynist “functionalist” gender ideology, and by the total inability of the Bhikkus to comprehend what others were saying to them (I don’t mean me—Brahmali seems to have no ability to understand what ANYONE says, and just replies to everything with a canned “party-line” quote from the sutras). They are so thoroughly devoted to the ideological project of their brand of x-buddhism, that I doubt anyone will make much headway with them. Really, the Stevenson crap again? Over the years, researchers have debunked those few cases one by one, each time proving that the supposed “suggestive evidence” was just fraud or deception—and each time, the defenders say, sure, that’s true of that one (or those two, or those three, etc.) but the rest of the cases are convincing. No thinking person could give any weight to that crap—but many still hold to it. I guess we humans are just desperately in need of belief in an immortal soul.

    Their ideological project is clearest, of course, when Brahmali simply asserts that I am naïve to believe that we need to change social formations in order to alleviate human suffering. This is simply “not required” he tells me, apparently because the karmic Santa Clause will, eventually, take care of that for us. This, I assume, is why my naturalized understanding of karma as the embodiment of human actions in the momentum, the crushing weight, of ideological beliefs and practices, is so upsetting to him. It suggests an understanding of Buddhist thought that is not a post-modern capitalist ideology.

    Of course, there are many groups in the western world preaching that we should suffer through capitalist oppression because we’ll be rewarded in the next world, or the next life. These monks don’t have a monopoly on the idea of an eternal soul, or the idea that capitalism is not a social formation but a natural occurrence. I just like to point out what they are really saying, to call a pot a pot so to speak, because it takes some of the power away from their ideological rhetoric.

    I hope I clarified my point–my response at that point was not to Sujato but to Brahmali’s little lecture on the one true understadnign of karma.


  57. Geoff Avatar

    Thanks Tom – I’ve just printed your comments off to read with a cup of coffee…
    Cheers Geoff

  58. don salmon Avatar

    actually it’s my interest in exploring a mindless ideology I used to be indoctrinated in (actually, I figured it out when I was about 7 and gave up at at 17. it was then I saw how much it was about irrational feeling and not at all about rationality. What’s espeically interesting is how similar it is to fundamentalists. I was struck when talking to bob jones students in Greenville SC – really smart kids, just as capable as the literary post modernist types from columbia and princeton and harvard I used to talk with in NYC, and just as fully indoctrinated in their own brand of mindless belief as the new yorkers.

    what I find fascinating is to explore views that are very different from my own, from christian fundamentalists to post modern fundamentalist.s what’s especially interesting, as your post exemplifies, is to see how the refusal to engage with a different perspective is no different from the post modernists to the fundamenalists.

    i was particularly struck by this when i visted the ashevile skeptics. There happened to be 3 evangelists – very fundamentalist and proudly so – who regularly attended in order to “convert the enemy”. In listening to both groups, I was struck how the type of thinking was so similar – very linear, abstract, and quite divorced from feeling, while putting forth incredibly passionate denials of any hint that they themselves might be swayed by feeling.

    Since I know the mindset of scientism, having grown up with it (came to the conclusion myself, wasn’t taught it by anyone – I found whn I read “Why I am not a christian” by bertrand russell, when i was 14, that it was essentially the same reasoning I had developed when i was 7 and first became an atheist). I understand, by switching to the mindset i had when I was 17, how almost impossible it is for someone from one mindset to “get” the other.

    On the other hand, I can slip into the mindset discussed here, and in that place everything that is being said here makes perfect sense – from a very deep place of feeling that the whole natural mind/substrate/atman thing is utter nonsense. I can feel it in my bones.

    What was harder was getting intot he bob jones mindset – since i’ve never personally had the fundamentlaist mindset, I find it actually more fascinating, i can’t imagine what’ it’s like ot “feel” that way.

    Same when I worked with developmentally disabled adults, The mild and moderate folks were interesing, but I found it utterly fascinating to explore an dtry and get into the mindset of people with iqs in the 20s, 30s and 40s. What a different universe thye lived in. It was fun to playl music and dance and be nonverbal with them. And they had no pretensions of being superior, unlike the fundamentalists of the christian and scientistic stripe.

    The other group that has fascinated me is floridly psychotic bipolar or schizophrenic indviduals. I found them also similarly open and fluid and able to connect when i worked with them at bellevue and other places.

    The other group I’ve never been able to get inside of is the New Age group. I think on the tricycle site, Frank B mentioned he had “once thought the way I did, but then saw the erorr of his ways” (obviously not an exact quote). That fascinated me, as I have never been in th new age belief category either.

    Among the groups that have been least willing to engage with other beliefs, I think the scientistic ones and the christian fundamentalists have been most extreme. I’ve found islamists, hindu fundamentalists, buddhists of all persuasians, and agnostics more easily move in and out of their belief systems. Even new agers sometimes. But the christians and scientistic types, I think, are extremely close in mindset, and just as utterly absolutist.

    But I keep looking – it keeps me on my ties to talk with people who disagree with me – I mostly am looking for people to refute my beliefs and blind spots. Just found a buddhist/agnostic/skeptic here in town and we had a great conversation. I dont think he agreed with anything I said, and it inspired me to examine many root beliefs I hadn’t questioned for years. Fun! doesn’t look like it’s going to happen here though, so excpet for a quote from krishna prem, I don’t think it’s worth the time.

    k prem, by the way- it was funny you thought he was promoting advaita. He was a krishna bhakta (born ronald nixon, science and math prodigy as a child, spoiled by nearly being killed as a fighter pilot in WW! and turned to literature and philosophy, – supposedly a brilliant student at cambridge. upset the british by hanging out iwht the natives in India, and then left his professorship to be a sannyasi. I remember some passage where he was talking to an advaita friend of his, feling it absolutely hopeless ot ‘explain” krishna. As I think he said to dilip kumar roy somewhere, Nagarjuna takes you striaght beyond th mind, but krishna is even more “beyond” the mimd (he said it much better) than nagarjuna. To all his vedantic friend’s question, he could not provide any answer but, “this is what it is”. Sounds like a fanatic, irrational mindless “feeling” person to you, I imagine. what could be worse!

    You should really look at the last chapter of Iain McGilchrists’ The Master and His Emissary” – hardly an irrational book, he explains why the left hemisphere’s perspective is unable to see anything rational about the right hemisphere’s perspective (not that we don’t need both and more; and he doesn’t have anything about cardioneurology either, whihc is a shame).

    ear training, anybody?

    anyway, it was fun:>))) please read this all in good humor, no offense meant.

  59. don salmon Avatar

    another take on the tom pepper/alan wallace dialogue – check out abbott and costello’s who’s on first (and note the wikipedia story about “hu’s on first”).

    you might want to check out Tom Edsall (sp?) who has 2 NYTimes articles on what liberals acknowledge is good about conservatives and vice versa. interestingly, liberals are more open about considering opposite views than conservatives. Brings to mind progressive writer Molly Ivins’ observation: “if you tell a liberal he’s wrong, he’ll probably say something like, ‘Well, you might have something there; i’ll think about it.’ If you tell a conservative he’s wrong, he’ll probably punch you in the nose.’

    The interesting thing is, in this dialog, who’s the conservative and who’s the liberal? (or neither – back to abbott and costello:>)))

    oh, one more – Scott Simon (NPR Saturday morning edition) hosted a dialog series years ago on PBS. The first episode was a leftist who was ardently pro-castro, and a conservative who was anti castro. The conservative presented his viewpoint first. Then it was the job of the pro castro leftist to restate – in first person – the conservative position. he couldn’t do it. It was amazing. It certainly had nothing to do with intellectual understanding. he just couldn’t do it. And he couldn’t see that he couldn’t do it. That was the most interesting part.

    The question for me I guess is, when you see that an attempt at dialog is ending up more like an abbott and costello routine than a conversation, do you persist? Do you try to find some other way to talk? Or do you just give it up as hopeless? I don’t know.

  60. don salmon Avatar

    some more “silly intellectual ideology” from physicist Andrei Linde:

    The standard assumption is that consciousness, just like spacetime before the invention of general relativity, plays a secondary, subservient role, being just a function of matter and a tool for the description of the truly existing material world.

    But let us remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions. I know for sure that my pain exists, my “green” exists, and my “sweet” exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory. Later we find out that our perceptions obey some laws, which can be most conveniently formulated if we assume that there is some underlying reality beyond our perceptions. This model of a material world obeying laws of physics is so successful that soon we forget about our starting point and say that matter is the only reality, and perceptions are nothing but a useful tool for the description of matter. This assumption is almost as natural (and maybe as false) as our previous assumption that space is only a mathematical tool for the description of matter. We are substituting reality of our feelings by the successfully working theory of an independently existing material world. And the theory is so successful that we almost never think about its possible limitations.

    Is it possible that consciousness, like spacetime, has its own intrinsic degrees of freedom, and that neglecting these will lead to a description of the universe that is fundamentally incomplete? …Could it be that consciousness is an equally important part of the consistent picture of our world, despite the fact that so far one could safely ignore it in the description of the well-studied physical processes? Will it not turn out, with the further development of science, that the study of the universe and the study of consciousness are inseparably linked, and that ultimate progress in the one will be impossible without progress in the other?

  61. Tom Pepper Avatar

    This is surprising, and I’m curious when and where Linde said this. For whom is this version of consciousness a “standard assumption”? It isn’t the common understanding, nor is it commonly assumed among philosophers–some few may argue for it, but nobody assumes it. Perhaps Linde needs to read a bit of philosophy, because he seems to want to go back and reinvent the Kantian synthetic a priori, completely unaware of the two-hundred year long debate.

    First of all, we shouldn’t accept so readily that we “know for sure” our own perceptions. They are changeable, influenced by culture, and instead of always appearing to “obey” laws sometimes seem to contradict them. “Greenness” is not a universal, but a subject sense of perception of certain wavelengths of light that do not themselves have the property of “green.” It should be clear enough that our perception of color is very much influenced by culture and language–I think of one experience just recently when several people I knew were looking for a yoga mat that we referred to as yellow, orange, and brown. We all meant the same mat, but saw a different color. This idea of starting with the certainty of the truth of experience and working toward abstraction is ancient, but by no means commonly accepted. To say that we “never think about the limitation on a theory of an independently existing reality is kind of funny, given the hundreds of thousands of pages that have been written about such limitations.

    I would say, though, that for a realist, it is certainly the case that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon, but is a really existing part of reality with causal powers. Maybe not on the order of space/time, but not completely “determined” either. And for a realist like Badiou, our consciousness, in the sense of capacity for thought, is certainly expandable, because it is not individual but exists in the trans-individual subject; so, of course we cannot make progress in the study of the universe without making progress in the expansion of our capacity for thought. The two are definitely linked.

    None of this requires that our consciousness creates the mind-independent world. If this were the case, the conflicts between perception and thought that led to the theory of relativity would never have occured. If our perceptions always preceded matter, we would never be surprised by reality.

  62. hui hai Avatar
    hui hai

    Linde didn’t assert that we know perceptions are reliable, he asserted that we know they exist.

    ” I know for sure that my pain exists, my “green” exists, and my “sweet” exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory. Later we find out that our perceptions obey some laws, which can be most conveniently formulated if we assume that there is some underlying reality beyond our perceptions.”

    He’s not making an assertion here about the universality of “greenness”, he’s saying that I have an experience, one which I call green, and that experience is really a part of my world. After all, no one can prove you don’t feel what you feel. It is in this sense that dreams are real.

  63. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Hui Hai,

    I don’t know what Linde may have meant, but that is clearly what the passage Don Salmon cites SAYS. It very clearly indicates that our perception are real, and our error comes in assuming, incorrectly, that there is some reality external to our consciousness that causes them. It ignores the cultural production of the meaning of terms like green, sweet, and pain, and assumes we can have perceptions prior to language, that consciousness precedes and creates the universe. This may not be Linde’s actual position–it would seem pretty stupid if it were–but it is clearly what that particular passage is meant to indicate. That’s why I was curious when and in what context he might have said or written such a thing.

    To say perceptions “exist” is just a lame sophistry, because clearly they have to exist for somebody, for some perceiving mind (which, I would argue, is a socially produced symbolic/imaginary system), and they have to be perceptions of something, which is external to them, and usually unaffected by the act of being perceived. You say “I have an experience, one which I call green” simply makes the same error in a different way, assuming that there is a transcending “I” which has, or creates (in dreams) experiences, with no constraints from the external world or the social structure.

    Again, I don’t know about Linde at all–I have only heard his name. He wouldn’t be the first physicist to say something stupid when discussing philosophy–or perhaps this is just taken out of context.

  64. hui hai Avatar
    hui hai

    “It very clearly indicates that …our error comes in assuming, incorrectly, that there is some reality external to our consciousness that causes them.”

    Where does it say this? On my reading Linde here says that the error is:

    “…substituting reality of our feelings by the successfully working theory of an independently existing material world.”

    In other words we believe that our thoughts about the external world are more real than our feelings and immediate perceptions. There’s no claim here that the assumption of an external reality is wrong, simply that it doesn’t have the truth-status that we impute to it.

    “It ignores the cultural production of the meaning of terms like green, sweet, and pain”

    Again, the quotes around “green” etc. suggest that his statement has nothing to do with the meanings of those terms, however they are constructed, and everything to do with the directly experienced truth that my world is composed entirely of sense phenomena.

    “and assumes we can have perceptions prior to language,”

    In deep meditation you’ll see that it is perfectly possible to have perceptions prior to language.

    “that consciousness precedes and creates the universe.”

    Nowhere does the passage assert this.

    “To say perceptions “exist” is just a lame sophistry, because clearly they have to exist for somebody, for some perceiving mind (which, I would argue, is a socially produced symbolic/imaginary system), and they have to be perceptions of something, which is external to them, and usually unaffected by the act of being perceived. You say “I have an experience, one which I call green” simply makes the same error in a different way, assuming that there is a transcending “I” which has, or creates (in dreams) experiences, with no constraints from the external world or the social structure.”

    When using everyday language we cannot avoid these confusions. I am happy to switch to a different register. How about:

    “…consciousness is the supporting condition for mentality-materiality, mentality-materiality is the supporting condition for the sixfold sense base, the sixfold sense base is the supporting condition for contact, contact is the supporting condition for feeling…”


  65. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hello Hui Hai. Statements such as your “In deep meditation you’ll see that it is perfectly possible to have perceptions prior to language;” and citations such as your very last one are, in the language of this blog’s project, instances of “ventriloquism.” What is being ventriloquized are, furthermore, fashioned here “buddhemes.” The idea is that x-buddhism speaks; the x-buddhist only moves his mouth. (An implicit value here is speech close to the bone. The person may speak x-buddhistically-inspired; but such speech won’t be formed from buddhemes.) A related idea is that x-buddhistic (buddhemic) utterance is a particular type of performance, one, namely, that is fatally hindered by a bombastic network of postulation (premises, theoretical assumptions, etc,). This network, the idea continues, restricts x-buddhism’s ability to communicate outside of its own circle of performativity. Performativity is fine–it makes thinking cum communication possible. But statements such as your “in deep meditation,” etc., and citation of words burning with the charism of the Awakened One, indicate a performativity that is trapped in x-buddhism’s orbit of specular self-sufficiency. It also points to a central contention of this blog: an x-buddhist is a person (to paraphrase Ray Brassier on Laruelle on philosophers) who never says what he is really doing (in doing x-buddhism) nor does what he is actually saying (when uttering buddhemes).

    I hope this makes some sense. I am just trying to clue you in a bit to the project here. I hope you’ll hang around awhile.

  66. David Chapman Avatar

    Hi Glenn—this is just to say that, whereas for a long time I found statements like your last comment #65 largely opaque, they increasingly make sense. I’m not sure whether that’s due to my growing familiarity with your proprietary jargon, or because you are gradually finding ways to use it more effectively.

    I’d kind of like to try to translate it into ordinary English sometime. I think that should be possible; but maybe not something you’d want even if it were.

    I do think it’s hugely valuable to taxonomize and point out and denounce these rhetorical strategies, which I find malignant.

    I cursed “deep meditation” up a storm on Twitter a few days ago. I think it’s rhetorically highly problematic. I got a lot of unexpectedly strong reactions, many of which I didn’t really understand. It seems to have hit a nerve.

    Maybe “deep” meditation really means “that which has oracular authority”. And people really, really don’t want to contemplate the possibility that there isn’t such a thing.


  67. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Hui Hai: Where does is say this? I already explained where it says it–in exactly the sentence you cite. I would guess that my explanation of the problem with the passage is probably evident to most people, and that like me most readers would not be able to make sense of your statement that there is an external reality, but that it doesn’t have truth-status. I would assume that others could see that your faith in “directly experienced truth” of your phenomenal world is exactly what I am trying to call into question. The old claim that we can’t avoid confusions in everyday language is not convincing. If you can’t think or reason clearly, it isn’t necessarily because language makes it impossible. Even when you are exactly proving my point, you continue to insist I am misreading this passage. I don’t know how to make it clear to you if you just don’t want to listen.

    However, your claim that deep meditative states prove that there are perceptions prior to language is exactly my point. This is an attachment to an transcendent consciousness. This, as I was saying, is what poor reasoning like the passage supposedly from LInde leads to. There are two ways to support this belief. One is by the mistaken reasoning of the kind in the passage Don Salmon gives us. The other is by appealing to scriptural authority or to deep meditative states which your opponent (and 99% of humanity) has not achieved, or is not capable of achieving. My response is to point out the faulty reasoning, or to suggest that I have no reason to believe in the mystical experiences of a handful of people, who may just be liars, stupid, or crazy.

    I simply cannot understand why anybody would be convinced by the claim that some small handful of people have the karma to reach deep mystical states and see reality purely, and the rest of us must simply take their word for it. Yet, I do personally know people who have spent over two decades seeking these deep meditative states, some of them even going on meditation retreats lasting several months at a time–and none of them have ever said they actually reached these states. Some of them are educated people, who otherwise seem quite rational. I don’t get this kind of addiction to the pure empty rhetoric.

    Anyway, part of my point, in the essay, was to indicate what kind of social and political action in the world such belief in a “substrate consciousness” was likely to lead to. This appeal to mystical states that are just a chimera, or perhaps a simple delusion, is just a trick to help perpetuate an oppressive, unjust, and irrational social system. The appeal to authorities is just as bad. Just because a bit of poor thinking can be attributed to a well known scientist doesn’t make it true. If we can see were it is wrong, then it is still wrong, no matter how often the speaker was right on other matters.

  68. Frank Jude Boccio Avatar

    Tom, I must say that I find your explanation of the problem with the Linde Passage spot on.

    I only wish to add a point or two: in Comment #61, you write, “It should be clear enough that our perception of color is very much influenced by culture and language–I think of one experience just recently when several people I knew were looking for a yoga mat that we referred to as yellow, orange, and brown.” I think along with culture and language, we must remember that perception is also conditioned by our bodies! No perception of color without the cones! Along with culture and language, we see as we do because of our particular optic and neural system.

    I think the forgetting of the body is one of the major reasons behind the positing of alleged “deep states of meditation” taking practitioners to some totally unmediated, unconditioned, “direct experience” of “reality.” I think this is an example of how perceptions can be reified from a phenomenological experience (it “feels” like an unmediated experience) to an ontological claim (reality was directly experienced). I’ve “experienced” all sorts of phenomena in meditation, but I would not think to posit that I “really” levitated, expanded in size, or literally “dropped the body and mind.”

  69. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    There once was a zombie
    Who was rather swanky
    He looked to replicate
    To really meditate
    Turning into a donkey

  70. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Yes, we do need to remember the body as well, which clearly affects experiences that we sometimes have too much confidence in. That our senses are unreliable should be obvious, but the body is produced by causes and conditions, just as the “mind” is, some long range ones and some more immediate and cultural ones. And if, as you suggest, you are aware that your experience in meditation are phenomena, then you can actually learn something about the working of the mind and how it interacts with the world–a useful goal for meditation. If we mistake these experiences for unmediated “pure” contact with deep reality, then we are only using mediation to produce delusion and cloud our thinking, and we might as well just drop acid or smoke a joint and save ourselves the effort.

    I’m still curious about the Linde quote. As I said before, it would seem a rather stupid thing to say, unless it is just out of context. My guess would be that he must go on to say that our phenomenal experiences are corrigible, that we can study how they arise and determine when they are incorrect, and that this corrigibility of our experience must go hand in hand with improvement in our understanding of the mind-external physical laws. On the other hand, the passage does seem to suggest that he is heading toward a claim that consciousness, if it is to be taken as real, must be primary and actually create the world we mistakenly believe it perceives. As Wordsworth says, “the mighty world of eye and ear–both what they half create and what perceive.”

  71. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi David. Thanks. I do think that there are bright light photons rushing against the language-mind interface of my writing on this blog. I would claim for my language that it is perfectly clear and transparent; so that it’s the mind of the reader that creates opacity. (If that were not the case, could the writing ever “become clear”?) Personally, I love to engage incomprehensible language. Often, I don’t get anywhere with it–and blame my failure, of course, on the writing itself. But when I do, when I start making sense of what at first appeared utterly foreign, non-sensical, incomprehensible, wrong-headed, frustrating, unnecessarily abstract, man, what a thrill that is. When that happens, I have an experience of an orbital breakthrough, of having thrust my ship into into new space, and of not being able, ever, to return to my previous place of understanding.

    I think virtually ever Buddhist I encounter, in real life or on the web, is in a trance. (And–or maybe because?–I work at a Buddhist institution.) I don’t claim to know that because I am somehow trace-free. I know that because they exhibit common and indisputable systems of being in entranced. I refer to the sorts of conditions that my heuristic is meant to capture: reflexive grasping at buddhemes; heart’s chiming with dharmic vibrato; subscription to the Dharmic warrant; being enraptured by Enlightened charism–and all the rest. You see it all the time, too, I’m sure. It’s hard to have a conversation with a zombie. So, one function of my language is to force either (1) a non-oracular engagement with me (or whomever) as interlocutor and with the x-buddhistic material or (2) retreat and, I presume, give thought to the interlocutor’s views (a la Habermas). I do engage a person who brandishes the burning, triple-jeweled Sword of the Dispensation; but I respond with incomprehensible speech–speech like the chatter of a beggar’s teeth (Artaud). Comprehension is to be had by someone who is finding himself exiled from the x-buddhistic vallation.

    Anyway, this language issue never goes away, does it? If you ever feel so inclined, please do translate my speech into ordinary language. I’d bebe very curious to see what it looks like. Translation always involves spillage. Nothing can be done about that.

    I hope you’ll continue to push the nerve of “Consensus Buddhism,” and of “deep meditation.” And I wish you the strength and courage you need to persist in your writing. It’s not all that pleasant being the critic in the room, is it? I realized a long time ago that I have a choice: have a perpetual headache from withholding my real opinion about Buddhism, or have a perpetual stomachache from offering it.

    peace, brother!

  72. hui hai Avatar
    hui hai

    Glenn – Thanks for the elucidation. It does help. Regarding my brief quotation, I had intended that tongue-in-cheek, marking it with a smiley face. I found it amusing that my use of the word “I” had been called into question by someone who used that same word “I” to refer to himself. There’s not a lot we can do to get around the problem of colloquial language without resorting to strange or antique formulations.

    Regarding the “deep meditation”, while I’ll grant that “deep” might not be the correct adjective, since I don’t know just how deep deep is, I feel I must explain that I was not referring to the proclamations of some enlightened sage but to my own personal experience. In your terms, I’m ventriloquizing myself. If speaking of one’s personal experience is being trapped, then what is freedom?

    Tom – I think I see one error. In my statement “There’s no claim here that the assumption of an external reality is wrong, simply that it doesn’t have the truth-status that we impute to it.”, the antecedent of “it” is “assumption”, not “external reality”. Poor writing on my part. I hope that makes clear that I am, and on my reading Linde is, not saying anything about external reality, but about our assumptions about it.

    I’m not quite sure how your attempt to question my faith in my “directly experienced truth” is meant to work. I feel pain in my stubbed toe – should I disbelieve that? Please clarify this for me. Dumb it down – I’m not all that clever.

    I am also not clear about how my meditative experience is an attachment to transcendent consciousness based in faulty reasoning. However your wider point, that no one is under any obligation to accept my experience, I fully accept. I’ve seen things in meditation that, had someone tried to convince me of them, I’d have rejected him as a loony. So let’s clear that from the table. I have better evidence that sense perceptions pre-exist language: babies. Babies have sense perceptions long before they have language.

    “I simply cannot understand why anybody would be convinced by the claim that some small handful of people have the karma to reach deep mystical states and see reality purely, and the rest of us must simply take their word for it. Yet, I do personally know people who have spent over two decades seeking these deep meditative states, some of them even going on meditation retreats lasting several months at a time–and none of them have ever said they actually reached these states. Some of them are educated people, who otherwise seem quite rational. I don’t get this kind of addiction to the pure empty rhetoric.”

    As I said I will drop this but for my own part it’s not empty rhetoric. My own understanding of the world and the way my mind works have changed as a result of things I’ve seen in meditation, and I have met people who have practiced for over two decades and have gone “further” than I have. So talk of such states is not a myth for me. It’s as real as apples and knives.

    “Anyway, part of my point, in the essay, was to indicate what kind of social and political action in the world such belief in a “substrate consciousness” was likely to lead to. This appeal to mystical states that are just a chimera, or perhaps a simple delusion, is just a trick to help perpetuate an oppressive, unjust, and irrational social system. The appeal to authorities is just as bad. Just because a bit of poor thinking can be attributed to a well known scientist doesn’t make it true. If we can see were it is wrong, then it is still wrong, no matter how often the speaker was right on other matters.”

    The relationship between mystical practice and political environment is certainly an interesting one. Mystical schools have tended to flourish in imperial settings – medieval Europe, Ashokan India, Tang China, and so forth. And the Protestants have always been hostile to mysticism.

    Frank Jude Boccio said “I think this is an example of how perceptions can be reified from a phenomenological experience (it “feels” like an unmediated experience) to an ontological claim (reality was directly experienced).”

    Permit me to clarify that I am not claiming I’ve “directly experienced reality”, or making but that I and others have experienced aspects of the mind’s functioning that are unusual when considered from everyday consciousness.

    There is a quick rule of thumb by which you can tell if a meditative experience is genuine or not.

    Glenn – “I think virtually ever Buddhist I encounter, in real life or on the web, is in a trance.”

    Re: this, I’ll end with a citation of an authority 😀

    “Man is asleep.” – Gurdjieff

  73. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Hui Hai,

    I’ll try to briefly explain my position, without “dumbing it down” too much, I hope.

    I would argue that there is no transcendent mind, soul, atman, whatever. That the “mind” is a product of our human ability to think and communicate symbolically, that it is collectively created in relatively enduring social formations, and that each individual, on entering into a symbolic/imaginary system becomes part of this mind. The mind is not part of the brain, and so does not precede the individuals entrance into the symbolic system. The infants sensations are physical responses, but not necessarily perception (part of the problem seems to be a loose use of that word, “perception’). Sensations, the impact of the external world on sense organs, are not (on my definition) perceptions before some symbolic/imaginary system gives them meaning. The infant is introduced into a meaningful construal of the world long before language (language is a major part of the symbolic/imaginary system, but not the entirety of it). The way an infant is handled, fed, responded to, differs in different cultures, and guides that biological individual toward a position in the “mind” which precedes it. For most (all?) of us, our subject position is ready and waiting for us before we leave the womb, as bodily machines to be connected to the network (not a great metaphor, but close enough for now).

    Of course you can stub your toe, or fall off a cliff, or die from eating poison mushrooms, or collide with the mind-independent world in all sorts of ways. My point is that exactly how we collide with reality, and what it means and what we do about it, is not something we each face individually, atomistically discovering the world for ourselves. This is the problem with the idea that I experience ‘green’ and then correct that experience against future experiences. ‘Greenness’ precedes the capacity of your biological organism to experience it–it is a particular way of dividing and naming the impact of wavelengths of light. “YOUR green’ is never really ‘yours,’ in any pure way.

    My point is that the passage supposedly from Linde makes the assumption that our mind exists atomistically first, then enters social practice. On this understanding, the mind can only be either an epiphenomenon of the brain, or it must be a metaphysical entity, a sort of atman. I’m trying to suggest that this is not the only alternative, if we can grasp the mind as being produced by causes and conditions, in a social system, and so having to essential existence.

    The problem I usually run into with this is that people either want to insist they have a soul or that they have had deep mystical experiences which disprove this, which I cannot argue with, or they assume that my position leads to absolute postmodern relativism. However, I see it as a rejection of relativism: if there is a mind independent reality, we cannot simply change our perception of the world in ANY way we choose (we’ll stub our toes!). And we cannot change our perception of the world toe greatly individually, since our “perception,” a product of the mind, is collective, not atomistic. Human nature may change, but at an evolutionary pace.

    I hope this clarifies my position a bit.

  74. don salmon Avatar

    Hui Hai:

    It’s not even close to a matter of disagreement. Tom and Glenn are embedded in a faith based belief system. The difference between them and most fundamentalists is that their belief system is so widely assumed to be the way things are (even when postmodernists claim it’s not, while speaking as if it is without realizing it) that they are able to take a kind of superior position and look down on those who are entranced. Every word you try to say to convey another way of understanding is taken by them of proof of their own belief system. It’s like talking to Bob Jones student (I had these discussions with Bob Jones students for about 8 years) but at least the BJU students know that they have a particular belief system – they just believe their beliefs are the one true way. The difference here is that there’s no way to convey to Tom that he’s embedded in a belief system because anything you try to say to him will sound like you’re stuck in a “trance”, or some kind of belief system. That’s why I keep appealing to “Who’s on First”- it’s quite interesting, I think. What do you say to get out of a strange loop? I’m still working on it.

    If y’all want a more “intellectual” version of this (instead of my – what did Tom call it? anti-intellectual emotionalism or something like that?) try Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary”. I think I said it earlier, but there’s a few paragraphs in the last chapter that almost convince me McGilchrist is precognitive – it’s like he was writing about Tom’s essay here. It describes EXACTLY the belief system and also explains why it’s so impenetrable. It’s really about a whole particular kind of brain functioning.

    The other place to look is at split brain experiments, understanding how the “interpreter module” (Gazzaniga’s phrase; sorry, probably wrong spelling of his name), the left hemisphere, that is, confabulates in such a way that it’s simply impossible to show someone who is confabulating the nature of their error. McGilchrist shows how almost all social oppression stems from this error as well. (Romney may reflect some of this way of thinking; I suspect he may have a bit of this syndrome)

  75. don salmon Avatar

    I’m still wondering if someone is thinking, “Why is he being so insulting? Why doesn’t he get to the point? Why this or that?” If so, I’m puzzled (writing this just in case – sort of a semi precognition:>)) The thing is, if what I’m saying is valid, why would it be insulting? Is there another way to say this more politely? And if it’s not valid, then I’m just being a fool.

    What does Richard Wiseman mean when he says that the evidence for psi is as good as the evidence for anything in any other area of science (see “A Context for Trimming Ken Wilber’s Evolutionary View With Ockham’s Razor” at the integral world forum)? And what does he mean by citing (incorrectly) the old canard (wrongly attributed to Carl Sagan) “extraordinary claims… you know the rest”. Why extraordinary unless he shares Tom and Glenn’s faith based belief system? (hmmm, getting a bit specific here).

    I think the BJU views are rather extraordinary, though no more so than those of Dawkins and even more so, Dennett (and many Buddhists too, ok).

    Does anybody really think that religion is going to survive the 21st century? It’s only going to be another several decades before psi becomes mainstream, and it will not be long after that that even the religion of (19th-20th century) science will be over. Then we won’t need to argue about Buddhism (non or existent) any more because it won’t be. Then we can actually talk about who!

  76. Tom Pepper Avatar

    don salmon,

    The only thing I’ve been wondering is whether you’re mentally ill, or just a moron. I’m leaning toward the latter.

    As you argue, if this is valid, it can’t be insulting, and if not . . .

  77. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Don. You are confusing sustained critique and response with “belief system.” If you claim X and I come back with Y, that is not evidence of a belief system on either side; it’s just a position being proffered for the sake of dialogue. If I feel I have identified a feature of your X that you are overlooking or somehow just not seeing, that’s not an accusation of “trance.” Again, it’s a basic feature of robust dialogue. I think Habermas’s views of the nature of dialogue as central to the process of rational decision-making and knowledge creation useful. Two major concerns of his is how to create the very conditions for dialogue and how to continuously clarify systematic self deception. Just saying things like “you are embedded in a belief system” doesn’t get us anywhere. We are all embedded in ever-changing modes of thought and belief. So? Maybe it’s good to be reminded of that fact occasionally. But we still need to do the hard work of dialogue, regardless.

    Thanks for your comment.

  78. don salmon Avatar

    If you think I’m a moron, then there’s no point in taking the Wiseman challenge. I’ve found some very intelligent folks have been willing to try it. I’ve tried dialog over the past several decade with people who express the kinds of viewpoints that Tom expresses and I’ve rarely found it works. So I either make some comments (that sound moronic or mentally ill to Tom, I understand) that genuinely express my observations, or i invite the other person to try something different. Otherwise, it doesn’t feel like dialog it feels like the other person is just trying to prove their position. Frank and I had an attempt at dialog over at Tricycle (it’s public; I’m not revealing anything private). To me it was a complete failure .In fact, – one of the reasons I keep referring to “whos on first” – no matter how hard I tried, Frank kept taking me to be saying almost the opposite of what I was saying. I tried spelling it out, point by point, and nothing worked. It just leaves me breathless, and wondering how it’s possible for someone who is so obviously intelligent and sincere can post to a blog in a manner that sounds like a [fill in the blank; fundamentalist, libertarian conservative, hard left marxist, phenomenologist, islamicist, buddhist meditator] trying to make a point

    I stopped trying to dialog with physicalists for awhile, then after 2 months working on an article that was posted at integral world several months ago (“Shaving Science With Ockham’s Razor”) I tried again, with several dozen people – physicists, philosophers (east and west), biologists, neuroscientists). In some cases, there was an amazing level of dialog, with both sides (myself included) exploring and changing long held views – it works, I know it can work. But in the majority of cases, people just get entrenched in their views.

    Jan (my wife) and I worked with Greg Kramer for a year or so doing insight dialog. Greg’s a vipassana teacher (I know, I know, don’t get you started, right?). I myself had a lot of qualms about the format, but the spirit of it, the aspiration for really listening, was beautiful. As a clinical psychologist (perhaps mentally ill, Tom – care to offer a diagnosis?) I know that the most profoundly healing experience – or one of the most profound – is for people to be really and truly heard. And I found the combination of quiet attentiveness (let’s not even go near the whole issue of what mindfulness is) with the genuine desire to hear and be vulnerable, to question one’s deepest assumptions, was quite unusual. And Greg is unusually sincere about having his own way of seeing things questioned. Jan and I certainly learned a great deal from him, so I know it can be done.

    It’s just that with people who lean toward physicalist views (especially the ones who claim they don’t) I find it so beyond exasperating that usually, every few years, when I decide to jump in the waters again, it’s so baffling and utterly exasperating that I decide, “enough”.

    At this point, I’ve decided to offer the Wiseman challenge as a way of having the other person do some work for once. usually, they are so convinced that they have the absolute truth (and equally convinced, often in a kind of snide, superior way, that they are as far from absolutist as imaginable) that they say something like, “well, why don’t you take the Wiseman challenge and assume physcialism is the case.” The probllem is that anybody interested in these topics who lives in the “developed” world and is over 20 years old has been required to learn how to speak from within that paradigm for at least 12 to 14 years – as long as they’ve been in school. And this is actually hard for the phsycialist to grasp, presenting himself as an embattled minority desperately seeking to hold up the ideal of clarity and rigorous intellectual thought against the marauding hordes of mystical, meditative, fundamentalist, irrationalist barbarians.

    Hence, the wiseman challenge. You might think of it as the start of a research project to develop a measure for physicalist sincerity – perhaps using a Likert scale and some sort of multiple regression (pun intended) measure.

  79. don salmon Avatar

    Ok, should I talk in a more down to earth manner? it may sound less mentally ill or moronic:>)) The “reason” for the challenge is, I don’t trust Tom to engage in a sincere dialog. That’s about the core of it. (Glenn possibly).

    Then why write here? Two reasons – when I’m challenged, my first step is always to ask myself what is the truth in what the challenger is saying. I find that the more intelligent the challenge, the more I learn. So I learn a lot by posting here. That’s the selfish reason. The other is, that I find Tom’s article so bizarre and irrational, yet intelligent sounding, that I think others who read it and are confused, might find the comments not moronic or mentally ill, but somewhat helpful. (not that I think my comments are that profound or even meagerly intelligent; I do think if anybody takes the time to look at McGilchrist’s book – and I don’t have the time or trust to summarize it here – they’ll understand what I’m saying about Tom’s article). And I’m sorry, at this point, referring to Tom specifically, no, i don’t trust his intellectual sincerity enough to take the time to engage in a dialog. IAnd I’m not interested in proving myself here either. hence, we’re back to the challenge. I’d be very willing to have that conversation.

  80. don salmon Avatar

    is tom the same as “Thomas Adams Pepper”?

  81. don salmon Avatar

    (this one’s for Tom): here’s another way you could prove me wrong, that you’re really sincerely interested in dialog. What do you think Alan Wallace “thinks” he’s saying? Obviously, we know what you think about his ideas. But nowhere in your article could I find anything that suggests you’ve even given a moment’s thought to what he thinks his viewpoint is. If you feel it might be worthwhile to enter into his “moronic” or “mentally ill” way of thought – or just think it might be an interesting exercise, that might shed some light on things. (although I should admit, I’d personally prefer the Richard Wiseman conversation, as I don’t really have that much interest in Buddhism, particularly the old variety).

    I first became interested in psychology when I was 17. It was during a year off from high school, practicing hours a day and composing in preparation for juilliard. Being away from school, my intellectual curiosity awoke. I started where I figured I was supposed to start, and read 6 volumes of Freud. I came away baffled that anybody took this guy seriously. But, I assumed I simply didn’t understand what he was saying, rather than simply writing him off. I read a great deal, and talked to many people who believed in psychoanalysis (I’m sorry, in this field, i can’t imagine saying anything but “believe in”, now that, except among literary theorists, it’s totally discredited).

    The main thing was – and it’s similar to the way I feel about this site – these people are not only obviously intelligent, but seem in many ways so much more intelligent than me – how can they believe this stuff? What am I missing, what am I not seeing, what am I not capable of understanding? So i continue to investigate, to see if I can find my blind spot(s).

    I still felt this way the 3rd year into my doctoral program (clinical psych). There MUST be something I’m missing about psychoanalysis. I read all the latest revisions, Kohut and many beyond him, who seemed to me to be saying things strikingly different from Freud while still claiming the analytic mantle.

    You know what finally did it? I heard a story. Someone interviewed Freud’s nephew. The interviewer said, “I heard that your uncle didn’t like music.”

    “Didn’t like music? He hated it.”

    That was it. 35 years of self-doubt gone. I was right. How could anybody who hates music understand anything about the human psyche?

    I’m still not that sure about physicalism or Christian fundamentalism. I was only interested in physicalist skeptics all the years I lived in NY – I never met any fundamentalists there (or if I did, they never identified themselves). Moving to Greenville, I had the same reaction I had talking to psychoanalysts. I have to admit my prejudice – i was truly surprised, astonished even, to find very intelligent, otherwise rational people (many quite a bit smarter than me) who believed in what appeared to me to be fundamentalist gibberish. So I talked to them. And learned a lot. I learned that “in him we live and move and have our being” was a bad translation from the Greek, and there are actually quite subtle theological arguments against the kind of mystical interpretation of that phrase I’d long been familiar with that were quite compelling. Not that I agree with them, but the point wasn’t to convince or be convinced or agree or disagree; the point was to see my blind spots. Nothing like being a left-wing East Villager moving to Greenville, SC to have a new blind spot pointed out every day, and often more than once a day (listening to Fox radio from time to time – never did it in NY – also helped, not that there was any intelligent conversation there, and usually only for a few minutes at a time; the Bob Jones students, though, were very impressive at times. Very kind, thoughtful, and even dialogic. More than a lot of physicalists I met – if you told me this might have been the case back when I was in NY, I would never have believed you.

  82. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Ah. I see I was wrong. My apologies.

    And no, I am not Thomas Adam Pepper. I am also not the psychiatrist from Chicago, or the Philadelphia antique dealer, or the English stand-up comic, or the male prostitute from the Riviera. It’s a surprisingly common name.

  83. don salmon Avatar

    McGilchrist was a literary scholar as well, before becoming a psychiatrist. He left because of – well, because of what he wrote about in the final chapter of “The Master and His Emissary”. I may put up some passages from the book.

    Essentially, he says in a brilliant, almost poetic fashion, what I’ve been rather clumsily attempting to convey above. Alan Wallace, in the opening chapter of his book, has some passages from 1984 that are pertinent as well. As far as the question of faith vs dialog (“You are confusing sustained critique and response with “belief system.” If you claim X and I come back with Y, that is not evidence of a belief system on either side; it’s just a position being proffered for the sake of dialogue”, both Wallace and McGilchrist have some remarkably clear comments about this

    (the point is if you claim Y, but think you’re claiming X, and someone says, “but you’re not talking about X at all, you’re talking about Y” and then that someone comes back and says, “why do you think I’m talking about Z when I’m really talking about A” and anything you say to try and clarify the situation makes you look crazy or invested in mindless, anti-intellectual emotionalism, what do you do?)

    Paul Davis has an interesting article on science as faith in the NY Times – but again, I’m left with the same dilemma – how, if it is the case that someone is primarily invested in supporting a faith based system of ideas, but thinks they are engaged in sustained critique, do you communicate the difference? This seems to me to be the crux of the difference between the critique posted here and the ideas that Wallace is trying to convey. And is it impolite (or moronic, or sign of mental illness) to try to point this out? perhaps naivete – I could see that.

    I was thinking of posting something from Neal Grossman, a lovely, person statement about his bafflement after decades as a philosopher, finding it virtually impossible to have a reasoned discussion with his colleagues on psi research or near death experiences. But it seemed perhaps impolite to quote it. So, not sure what to do about that.

    If the “Atman” (‘the’ Atman?) – or anything else for that matter – is spoken of as unthinkable, and someone writes about it as if they’re writing about a particularly unpleasant cousin, what is one to make of it? I studied meditation with a former professor of Indian Philosophy at Columbia (not Robert Thurman) for about 10 years. Whenever I tried to raise a question or make a comment related to “Atman”, or if I tried to say anything along the lines of the essay posted here, he’d just steer me away from that as fast as possible.

    It’s quite baffling – kind of makes one aporetic:>)

  84. don salmon Avatar

    (about “The Master and His Emissary” – Grayling’s comment, along with that of the Economist, is good as a “who’s on first” example. Of course, this may simply be an example of a rational critique)

    A review by Bryan Appleyard in Times Online describes the work as “A landmark new book [which] suggests we are thinking more and more like machines, and risk losing what makes us human.”[13]

    David Cox in the London Evening Standard writes that the author is “a giant in his vital field [who] shows convincingly that the degeneracy of the West springs from our failure to manage the binary division of our brains.”[14]

    David Lorimer writes in the Scientific and Medical Network’s Network Review No 101 that “It is no exaggeration to say that this quite remarkable book will radically change the way you understand the world and yourself.”[15] Lorimer is of the opinion that the book is a “genuine tour de force, a monumental achievement – I can think of no one else who could have conceived, let alone written, a book of such penetrating brilliance.[15]

    Professor of philosophy A. C. Grayling writes in the Literary Review that it is “A beautifully written, erudite, fascinating and adventurous book. It embraces a prodigious range of enquiry, from neurology to psychology, from philosophy to primatology, from myth to history to literature. It goes from the microstructure of the brain to great epochs of Western civilisation, confidently and readably. One turns its five hundred pages – a further hundred are dense with notes and references in tiny print – as if it were an adventure story … McGilchrist tells us about the rapidly evolving technologies and experimental work in fascinating and lucid detail.” However, his conclusion is less encouraging: “The fact is that the findings of brain science are nowhere near fine-grained enough yet to support the large psychological and cultural conclusions Iain McGilchrist draws from them. Absorbing and fascinating though the book is, it does not persuade one that returning our Western civilisation to the government of such supposed right-hemisphere possessions as religion and instinct would be anywhere near a good thing.” [2]

    A review in The Economist is critical in its assessment that the reader is “treated to some very loose talk and to generalisations of breathtaking sweep”.[4] Though the reviewer sees “a scintillating intelligence […] at work” in the second part of the book, he states that “it has plainly become untethered from its moorings in brain science”[4] and goes on to point out that the author provides no physiological evidence for his assertion that the pronounced left-right dichotomy is not present in Asian cultures.[4] Finally, the reviewer concludes that “Mr (sic.) McGilchrist would not be unhappy to learn that what he has to say about the roles of the hemispheres in Western culture is simply a metaphor and is not literally true.”[4]

    In The Guardian, the philosopher Mary Midgley writes that The Master and His Emissary is “a very remarkable book.”[9] She is of the opinion that “It is not […] just one more glorification of feeling at the expense of thought. Rather, it points out the complexity, the divided nature of thought itself and asks about its connection with the structure of the brain.”[9] Going on to describe in detail the theories behind the book, she concludes that “though neurologists may well not welcome it because it asks them new questions, the rest of us will surely find it splendidly thought-provoking” and describes the explanations as “penetrating, lively, thorough and fascinating.”[9]

    Professor Adam Zeman, consultant neurologist, senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh on the medical and mystical levels of consciousness, and author of A Portrait of the Brain and Consciousness: A User’s Guide, writes in Standpoint magazine that Iain McGilcrist’s presentation is “immensely erudite”. He finds the book “remarkable”, written “with great clarity” and “a treasure chest of fascinating detail and memorable quotation.” In Zeman’s opinion, McGilchrist “extends [the] received wisdom with a hugely ambitious, absorbing and questionable thesis: the two hemispheres have radically contrasting personalities; that they live in a state of creative tension, sometimes declining into open war; and that their struggle for supremacy provides the key to understanding the major cultural movements of human history.”[16]

    Writing in the Royal College of General Practitioners’s British Journal of General Practice in March 2010, James Willis is of the opinion that “Iain McGilchrist’s qualifications for his massive undertaking are ideal, perhaps unique.”[17] and that “[his] grasp of this vast field, and the depth of his philosophical and artistic insight, are staggering.”[17] The work “underpins, validates, explains a whole slew of intuitions about general practice and life.”[17]

    W. F. Bynum, Professor Emeritus of the History of Medicine at University College London, and former head of the Academic Unit of the Wellcome Centre, writes in The Times Literary Supplement: “McGilchrist’s careful analysis of how brains work is a veritable tour de force, gradually and skilfully revealed. I know of no better exposition of the current state of functional brain neuroscience.”[18]

    In the April/May 2010 edition of Bookforum, American author Jonah Lehrer writes “Like Jaynes, McGilchrist interprets human history as an unresolved quarrel between the left and right hemispheres.” However, “distinct hemispheric talents lead McGilchrist to invert Jaynes’s hypothesis. While Jaynes argued that the Greek gods were invented to explain the breakdown of the bicameral mind—our hemispheres were finally able to listen to each other—McGilchrist argues the opposite.”[19]

    On 19 June 2010, McGilchrist was interviewed at length for ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind programme by the show’s host, Natasha Mitchell. In the programme, McGilchrist describes and explains his work in detail. The interview is available as an audio podcast, together with a transcript,[8] and further mp3 audio clips are available on the show’s official blog.[20]

    In the journal Brain in September 2010, Professor Andrew Scull writes that “It is no exaggeration to say that Part One of the book is a tour de force … [in Part Two] McGilchrist puts on display a remarkable erudition, an ability to discuss with intelligence and insight the history of Western art and literature, philosophy of a whole range of stripes, musicology (and the relationships between music and the brain), and the varieties of religious experience, just to mention a few of the topics he touches upon.”[21]

    The Master and His Emissary was shortlisted for the 2010 Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize.[22] Currently one of the largest book prizes in the UK, the award is given annually to a book which presents new, important and challenging ideas, and which is engaging, accessible and rigorously argued. It was also longlisted for the Royal Society 2010 Prize for Science Books.[23] The judges said of the book: “McGilchrist welcomes you straight into his world, without making too many presumptions about what you already know, presenting beautiful ideas in an eminently readable and engrossing manner.”

    In the Financial Times in January 2011, Harry Eyres describes The Master and His Emissary as “a fascinating book”, and is of the opinion that McGilchrist “is a subtle and clever thinker, and unusually qualified to range with such authority over so many different domains of knowledge.”[24]

    Reviewing The Master and His Emissary in the American Journal of Psychiatry in June 2011, Jacob Freedman, M.D. informs his readers that: “In essence, Iain McGilchrist’s book is an exploration of the link between the brain’s hemispheric asymmetry and the historical development of Western society. This is no small task: chronicling how the left brain’s determined reductionism and the right brain’s insightful and holistic approach have shaped music, language, politics, and art.”[25] The first half of the book, Freedman says, “provides a thorough understanding of brain lateralization”,[25] and in the second half, “the author takes his framework of the left hemisphere’s self-obsessed reductionism and the right hemisphere’s empathic holism and tries to “understand the structure of the world that the brain has in part created.”[25] Freedman is of the opinion that The Master and His Emissary is an “epic”, “brilliantly written book that valiantly addresses the effect hemispheric asymmetry has had on Western civilization”[25] and that “while the author quotes Ramachandran and Heidegger more frequently than Freud and Bleuler, The Master and His Emissary is still certainly a relevant book for any psychiatrist (and any neuroscientist or philosopher for that matter).”[25]

    Norman Doidge, psychiatrist and author of The Brain That Changes Itself chose The Master and his Emissary as his Book of the Year for 2011 in the Canadian national newspaper The Globe and Mail. He writes that the book is “a dazzling masterpiece, hugely ambitious and the most comprehensive, profound book ever written on brain laterality, which examines how our two brain hemispheres differ, relate to each other, and the huge implications of this discovery … [a] beautifully written, profound, philosophically sophisticated book.”[26]

    In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Gary Lachman writes that The Master and His Emissary is “fascinating, groundbreaking, relentlessly research and eloquently written.”[27] “[Though] the newcomer to neuroscience may find it daunting”, the work is “beautifully written and eminently quotable.”[27] According to Lachman, it is “a fascinating treasure trove of insights into language, music, society, love, and other fundamental human concerns.”[27] The reviewer is of the opinion that “One of [the author’s] most important suggestions is that the view of human life as ruthlessly driven by ‘selfish genes’, and other ‘competitor’ metaphors, may be only a ploy of left brain propaganda, and through a right brain appreciation of the big picture, we may escape the remorseless push and shove of ‘necessity.’ I leave it to the reader to discover just how important this insight is.”[27]

    In unpublished testimonials on the author’s web site, Professor Jaak Panksepp, author of Affective Neuroscience, and A Textbook of Biological Psychiatry describes The Master and his Emissary as “Really superb! The best book on laterality I have ever read, with profound implications for the nature of consciousness … Interdisciplinary scholarship unparalleled in recent years … a true masterpiece … The best book I’ve read in the past decade.”[28]

    In another unpublished testimonial, again quoted on the author’s web site, Professor Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and head of the Neurosciences Graduate Program at the University of California, San Diego, author of The Tell-Tale Brain, and Phantoms in the Brain writes that the book is “A marvellous and highly original synthesis of ideas on how the division of labour between the two brain hemispheres can provide key insights into human nature – it’s odd that such an important subject has been neglected.”[28]

  85. hui hai Avatar
    hui hai


    Thanks for the clarification. I was indeed using the word perception to refer to what you call sensation. It’s also clear to me that given your definition of “mind”, mind certainly is constructed collectively by cultural symbolic systems. (Reminds me a bit of Heidegger’s they-self.)

    But although ‘greenness’ historically precedes the capacity of a given human to sense it, since culture is there before humans are born, it seems to me undeniable that the wavelength of light and the rods and cones and optic nerves, and the DNA that generates the proteins that form them, precede ‘greenness’. The specific wavelength of light that may be named green or zielony is not itself constructed by the collective mind you describe, and physical contact with this wavelength is present so to speak underneath any named experience of ‘greenness’. Culture comes before perception, but light, sensation, comes before culture. Protozoans and fetuses respond to their environment with no intervening symbolic system.

    I further maintain that it is possible to descend to this level of sensation in concentration. I understand that you personally disbelieve in such things but to insist that no one could possibly know them seems to me a privileging of what we might call ciscendent states of mind.

    More importantly: you say elsewhere that what you find interesting in Buddhism is its assertion that escape from ideology is possible (correct me if I’ve got this wrong). If there is nothing outside of perception, that is to say, if it is impossible not to participate in the collective symbolic construal of sensation, then where do you see the possibility of an escape from ideology? It’s my experience that one can’t think one’s way out of thinking. Am I wrong?



  86. hui hai Avatar
    hui hai

    Incidentally, my view is not something especially Buddhist: others experience escape from symbolic systems: http://unsanesafe.blogspot.com/2012/02/some-differences-between-postmodernism.html

  87. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Hui Hai,

    Yes, there undoubtedly is physical interaction that is totally removed from human culture, existing a billion years before there was a human mind or anything we might call culture, and probably there were multiple wavelengths of light. But that has nothing to do with the experience of greenness, which is always, because it is named, prior to our perceptions and shapes them. I absolutely do not accept that you can reach a state of sensation void of all thought, like a protozoa or a plant–but even if you could, why would you possibly want to? The point here usually is that there is an attachment to some transcendent mind that will be accessed if we get to “pure sensations.” If your body could just be bombarded with stimuli without giving rise to perceptions, well, why would that be of any use, if there ISN”T a world-transcendent consciousness. I will say this without qualification, because I will insist it is absolutely always the case: anyone who thinks they can have experiences outside of any symbolic/imaginary system is fooling themselves, and is absolutely clinging to a subtle belief in atman. I don’t really care how many different groups make this claim, or whether they are Buddhist or not, they are always deluded.

    If you think you can get there, go ahead. Good luck. I doubt it will do any lasting damage, and it’s just a waste of your own time. Think about this, though–if there are no perceptions, and no mind, who is doing the “concentration” and noticing these concept free unperceived stimuli?

    And of course we can can think our way out of our wrong thoughts. We no longer believe the sun revolves around the earth, right? Don’t fall for the silly postmodern sophistry. WE can certainly get outside of ideology–don’t assume that thought occurs atomistically, with each mind solipsistically contained in a separate brain.

  88. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Hui Hai,

    I took a look at the link in post #87. Yes, I can see that my position would be completely at odds with this belief in a world-transcendent atomistic self/atman/soul. And I can see that no argument would be of use here, since this belief is by definition not one that can be discussed in concepts, and available only to the elite few–if I don’t “know” that I have a concept-transcndent self, I am just not yet one of the enlightened. When we reach this point, it’s like trying to argue with people who believe in psychics and witches and alien abductions.

    My version of Buddhism begins with anatman as a founding assumption, and tries to take this concept to its limit. This is why I so often argue against people who say they are teaching how to experience anatman, but mean by that how to purify the true and abiding self.

  89. don salmon Avatar

    “people who believe in psychics” – like Richard Wiseman?

    Ok, so, stepping back a little. Is that comment a bit snarky? (quoting Tom then mentioning Wiseman). I’ve asked a few people (not members of the spec-non-b cult) to give me feedback. Like about that comment too (calling this a cult). Am I being insensitive, inappropriate? Am I being foolish for continuing to write about ideas so far outside the sphere of interest represented here?

    Yes, I’ve been what I felt was playful, and perhaps foolish (moronic?) and a bit crazy-sounding no doubt. But what is proper ethical conduct in this situation. If you truly believe that dialog is not likely to happen, and you believe that in some way, it might be of benefit to other people coming to the site to – however playfully or foolishly – offer a different way of approaching the whole subject, is it wrong to be playfully critical?

    This came up some years ago when I was a member of the Journal of Consciousness Studies forum. The issue of whether certain kinds of thinking in the cognitive sciences – particularly in the area of philosophy – might be considered to be “autistic” in some way – was discussed. It went very much along the lines of what McGilchrist talks about. I think if his book had been published at the time, it might have been easier to discuss – to put it in terms of brain functioning rather than using a psychiatric label.

    Along similar lines, I recently happened upon a Christian site, warning people (other Christians, that is) who take up meditation that they are making themselves susceptible to demonic influences. The interesting thing is, the writer cited all kinds of complex scholastic writers to support his thesis, and possessed of a doctorate in theology (and some other grad degrees as well) he was obviously an intelligent writer.

    So the question is, is it improper, unethical, impolite of me to mention that, while looking at the site, I couldn’t come up with a way to distinguish the kind of reasoning exhibited there and the kind found here. (in other words, I’m coming back to saying the discussion here feels very cultish).

    I think it’s more fascinating to me what goes on here, because my cultural conditioning leads me to reject offhand just about anything a conservative christian site has to say. But the same conditioning might have led me some years ago to make exactly the same comment about psychics that Tom did. That’s one reason why the article and subsequent comments are so interesting to me.

    I guess another excuse for my bluntness and what no doubt appears as lack of politeness to some (to many) is that Alan Wallace seems essentially to be referring to the thoughts expressed here as cultish also. And actually, I find his repeated references to the “Church Scientific” somewhat problematic also. Not that I don’t agree with him – I do. But if you’re writing a book criticizing mindless materialism, do you have any interest in reaching materialist minded scientists who have some doubts about materialism? Then if you do, I don’t think you want to accuse them of being members of the cult of the Church Scientific. I’m not trying to reach Tom here – i don’t think (again, apologies, I’m being, according to your perspective, overly direct or outrightly impolite) he’s unreachable – at least for now. But for others reading this, it’s interesting, I think, to reflect on.

  90. don salmon Avatar

    Ha -talk about conditioning “I dont’ think he’s unreachable” – good freudian slip (freudian slip definition: When you say one thing and you really mean a mother)

  91. don salmon Avatar

    Love is not selflessness. It is the giving of one’s best self, giving one’s highest self unto the world. It is finding true selfhood. Selflessness is martyrdom, dying for a cause. Selfhood is living for a cause. It is choosing to create good in the world. To love another as one loves oneself is to love the universal self that unites us all. If our body dies, it is the love that we have lived that will remain—what the religious understand as the soul—as the irreducible essence of life. It is the small, inconspicuous things we do that reveal the pity and beauty and ultimate power and mystery of human existence.

    Chris Hedges, former NY Times reporter.

  92. […] When spirituality gets used such, it “ends up acting like a food colouring or additive that masks the less savoury ingredients in the product that is being sold to us,” they demonstrate convincingly. This content throughout this short treatise remains accessible, as the authors admirably seek “to raise a series of questions in a narrative style that is more open-ended and provocative than traditional academic discourse allows,” hearkening to the French “essai” to address “wider political concerns and constituencies than are usually appealed to in scholarly works.” (ix-x)  This way to The Feast of Knowledge? […]

  93. […] many reasons why the Gelug worldview isn’t compatible with science! (Cf. Tom Pepper’s Feast Interrupted where the author analyzes the strict duality of Gelug […]

  94. Radical Identity and Non-Duality | Post-Traditional Buddhism Avatar

    […] lines that we are run through with, for Buddhist that could start with a willingness to engage with the feast of knowledge and all its riches, the ethical decision we are faced with becomes one of choosing which lines to […]

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