What Kind of Buddhist are You?

Take this Quiz and Find Out!!

No, I don’t mean are you Soto Zen or Thai Forest or Jodo Shinshu.  I don’t even mean are you a “Bookstore Buddhist” a “Retreat Buddhist” or a “Secular Buddhist.”

The question I am interested in is: Are you the kind of Buddhist who can handle the truth?

Or, to be a bit more serious about it, what is your position with respect to what I like to call the Buddha Event?  I mean “event” in the sense that Badiou uses the term: the emergence of a truth in human discourse or practice, the appearance of some truth which, although already true, was not recognized as true in the World.  There are only ever truths, for Badiou, in the human World, never in nature—because it is only the humanly constructed World, the realm of ideology, of social structures and symbolic systems, that can ever exclude some truth from appearing; this cannot happen in nature, where what exists simply is. In the course of what is often referred to as the Axial Age, a number of truth events occurred, a number of truths appearing in the Worlds of various cultures.  What I call the Buddha Event, then, is the appearance in India of one of the most important but elusive truths for the human species: the truth that there are two realms or levels or registers of reality, the mind-independent reality of the universe which is intransitive and exists completely indifferent to us, and the humanly produced reality which is transitive, open to change, and coterminous with humanity, but still possesses real causal powers—we can change our World, but we cannot change it on a whim, or in any way we might please, because it has a certain structural and causal influence over our actions.

I’ve discussed this “Buddha Event” in other essays on this blog.  What I want to discuss briefly here are the kinds of subjects such a truth event tends to engender—and the Buddha event is no exception here.  Badiou, in Logics of Worlds, offers a typology of the subject in terms of its relation to the appearance of a truth.  The subject may be faithful, reactionary, or obscurantist.  (The latter two are sometimes translated as “reactive” and “obscure,” but I prefer this translation because it emphasizes that the term names the function of the subject position, not its qualities.)

The faithful subject is the one that notices the truth event and tries to force its acceptance in the World.  “Forcing” is a term borrowed from set theory, and refers to the attempt to transform the discursive practices and institutions of the World in such a way that the truth becomes demonstrable, is able to appear and be spoken of; in a sense, it is offering a “proof” of a truth that it as yet only “intuitively” grasped. Until it is “forced” into appearing, a truth is indeterminate, it does not seem to belong to the World, and is on the fringes of the discourses and institutions—it exists, but it does not officially appear (Badiou uses the example of undocumented workers in France).  The faithful subject notices the truth event, the occurrence in a World of something that seems a contradiction, an excess, something that cannot be accounted for, and this subject struggles to remake the World to bring this truth into appearance. As Badiou puts it, the faithful subject “engenders the expansion of the present and exposes, fragment by fragment, a truth”(53).

The reactionary subject rejects the existence of this truth.  Like the faithful subject, the reactionary subject only becomes a subject because of the existence of a truth that threatens the stability and closure of the World; all subjects are subjects only in relation to some truth.  For the reactionary subject, it is imperative to deny the very existence of this truth, to contain the expansion of the faithful subject, and to ensure that everything will go on as it was, pretending that the present state of things is complete, full, non-contradictory; this subject assures us that all the benefits of progress can be obtained without any fundamental change in our existing discourses and practices.  We see this, for instance, in the present fad of neuroscience and meditation, attempting to insist that we can get any useful benefits from Buddhism completely within the positivist and empiricist ideologies of capitalism; or, in the popular insistence that Buddhism has always been “apolitical,” a “personal” religion that asks us to change nothing in the world; or, at its worst, in the assertions that Buddhism is perfectly compatible with capitalism, is nothing but the best ideology in which we can survive the horrible future of global capitalism and global destruction we cannot hope to prevent.

The obscurantist subject is that subject who “systematically resorts to the invocation of a full and pure transcendent Body, an ahistorical or anti-evental body” which “has the power to reduce to silence that which affirms the event, thus forbidding the real body from existing”(59-60).  The obscurantist subject appeals to some ineffable truth beyond words, which science threatens to destroy, the “truly human” that escapes reason, and can only be found in miraculous revelations and is always hidden in obscure origins.  We see this in x-buddhism whenever there is an insistence that awakening is beyond language, that Buddha never used language to teach, that we must never think if we hope to become enlightened, or that the ultimate goal is some full and pure “substrate consciousness,” Buddha-nature, or “true self.”  We see this subject whenever argument is squashed with appeals to tradition or sutra-quoting or lineages.

It is important that we remember that in this sense, as Badiou uses the term, the subject is not an individual.  The subject is a collective social practice, a discourse, an ideology, and always requires multiple individuals acting together.  This is the only way we ever have any agency at all, through the production of social practices that “expose, fragment by fragment, a truth.”  The reactionary and obscurantist subjects, then, will tend to take the form of strategies of containment, of social institutions designed to prevent the emergence of the truth and halt the incorporation of greater numbers of individuals into the collective of the faithful subject.  These may be educational institutions, which function exactly to prevent any threatening truth by producing endless “modifications” of the knowledge system and calling them change.  Gary Potter, in an excellent essay in The Journal of Critical Realism, explains how the educational system works by means of what he calls “structural mystification,” not forbidding the production of truth but organizing discursive practices in such a way that nobody who succeeds in the academic institution will have any real interest in producing any dangerous truths; those who succeed will be only those who are thoroughly invested in the persistence of the status quo.  These strategies of containment may also be far less “official” than this, though, appearing as grass-roots organizations seeking to “get back to nature” or “return to our true human nature.”  In x-buddhism, we can see a mix of strategies of containment, with the threatening truth of the Buddha Event being suffocated under loving attention of both reactionary and obscure subjects, who battle one another to distract attention from the faithful subject they are attempting to smother.

Here, for your entertainment and personal edification, is the promised quiz:

Part One

  • Do you dismiss any Buddhist text or practice that cannot be put to the test empirically, labeling it a superstitious accretion or simply part of the culture of the time, and not an “important” or “true” part of Buddhism?
  • Do you meditate for stress reduction?
  • Are you more enthusiastic about a color brain-scan than a scholarly edition of Chandrakirti?
  • When you read the Sutras, do you cringe in embarrassment at all the superstitious beliefs Buddhists had back then?
  • Do you say things like “all paths are the same” or “there is no  right way to practice Buddhism”?

If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, you may be a reactionary subject.

Part Two

  • Do you love the ritual, but tune out when the name “Nagarjuna” is mentioned?
  • Do you cite the Sutras incessantly, usually without ever reading them all the way through?
  • Do you begin statements with the phrase “Buddhism teaches” or “The Buddha says,” without attributing the claim to any specific source?
  • Are you always trying to find the “true” or “original” Buddhism?
  • Have you ever said that “discursive thought” must be “transcended,” or do you often accuse other of “clinging to views” and use the phrase “finger pointing at the moon”?
  • Do you believe that you will transcend this world and live in a permanent bliss of thought-free consciousness when your reach enlightenment?

If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, you may be an obscurantist subject.

Part Three

  • When you ask questions after the dharma talk, do others in the group roll their eyes and smile condescendingly?
  • Have you ever been asked to leave a retreat center (or been banned from an x-buddhist website) for asking too many questions?
  • Would you rather examine the structure of the capitalist subject than seek your true Buddha-nature?
  • Do you hate the very word “mindfulness”?
  • Are you too concerned with the suffering of the majority of the human race to fully focus on chopping a carrot or sipping your tea?

If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, you may be a faithful subject.

Now, in all seriousness, I would ask readers to consider what kind of subject they see being produced in the various x-buddhist practices in the Western world.  For those individuals who post comments on this blog that participate in the obscuration of or reaction against the Buddha Event: why are you so terrified of the truth?  What are you attached to that the truth might destroy?  For those who participate in the small and scattered faithful subject, seeking to remove our illusions so we can better remake our world: let’s hear more from you–don’t let the truth be suffocated under the soft pillow of loving-kindness.  Can you see any way to use your local x-buddhism to promote the expansion of the faithful subject?  Or is the practice inherently designed to avoid the appearance of the truth?



Tom Pepper teaches English at Southern Connecticut State University. He has a Ph.D. in English from the Stony Brook University, and is a graduate student in counseling psychology, as well as pursuing a further degree in mathematics.


53 thoughts on “What Kind of Buddhist are You?

  1. Thanks for this blog Tom. How can I locate a copy of the Garry Potter essay? I tried Googling it but – looks like it is hermetically sealed in the world of academia!

  2. Roger: Sorry, I should have included the citation (and spelled Potter’s name correctly). The essay is called “Power and Knowledge: A Dialectical Contradiction,” and appears in Journal of Critical Realism 9.2, 2010. If you don’t have access to the journal, send me an email at wtompepper@cox.net and I can send you a pdf if you want it.

  3. Tom. How ironic that the “faithful” subject, in this reckoning, is the one who comes across as so unfaithful to the committed x-buddhist. (The latter would be the ones rolling their eyes, and I include the cryptos, the mindfulnistas, the secularists, the atheists.) But in this categorization, of course, even that wording is turned on its head: the committed x-buddhist is the one who, in forcing the human truth into the world, is censured or constrained by the nominal x-buddhist. At this point, I wonder about the necessity of retaining the particular terms and conditions of the event that inaugurated the truth’s appearance in the World. Are collective institutional structures required for the “forcing,” or is it a matter of random, scattered individual action’s lumbering toward broad acceptance? Does Badiou’s notion of fragmentary exposure carry any implications one way or the other? To your final question–Or is the practice inherently designed to avoid the appearance of the truth?–my experience in the world of x-buddhism has taught me that the institution that is designed to contain the truth is also the institution that hinders the forcing of the event. Maybe there is something inherent in institutions, something that engenders the avoidance. Like an astronomer peering back into time at the formation of a galaxy, I have been observing the system-building process behind the Secular Buddhist Association. It is really something to observe how what began as an apparently genuine attempt to foster “faithful” x-buddhist subjects so quickly devolved into a lockstep reactionary movement. But the Secular Buddhists are certainly not alone. We have all of these x-buddhist institutions operating as custodians of–forcers of–the truth of the event. Yet, literally every single x-buddhist institution that I know of–and I include x-buddhist teachers, like Ken McLeod, Stephen Schettini, the Batchelors, Jon Kabot-Zinn, the proud, protective armies of Bhikkhus, Roshis, Rinpoches, and all the other Venerables–are indisputably reactionary or obscurantists. They a producing hordes of reactionary and obscurantists subjects. The sum total is the current landscape of x-buddhism in the West.

    Can anyone out there reading this post name a single “faithful” subject at work today? While we’re at it, why not name names: how would you classify the teachers and institutions with which you are familiar? I find this classification to be a powerful heuristic tool. I’d really like to see it put to work.

  4. Glenn: The word “institution” carries such a powerful conservative connotation that it is hard for us to conceive of something that produces real change as an “institution” in any sense, isn’t it? But my sense is that for Badiou the forcing of the truth really does require some kind of practice, and so multiple individuals working together in some way. It could be a radical political party or a group of artists with a shared aesthetic project, but the subject is inherently collective. Of course, any political party can be taken over by the less radical element within it, seeking to work “within the system” for change; and any artistic movement can be co-opted for popular entertainment, its few hold-outs dismissed as the immature or “less talented’ individuals whose work wasn’t good enough to have greater appeal. The reactionary subject and the obscurantist subject are always subjects in relation to a truth–if there is no truth, there are no subjects at all, just automatons replicating a World. Until there is some event, some emergence of a truth, there isn’t a reactionary subject to deny its existence, to take over its practices and strip them of their capacity for real change.

    I’m also curious what others think about “retaining the particular terms and conditions of the event.” Sometimes it seems somewhat counterproductive, Western Buddhism having become the subject that will save us from the truth, insulating us from the threat of change in a comfortable pillow of mindfulness. Other times, I wonder if it might be a useful place to force the truth back into appearance exactly because it is still a bit strange, not quite “mainstream,” to be Buddhist. Is there some example out there of a faithful subject? Does anyone know of one?

  5. As I ask my question, I know the answer can’t be good, but here it is anyway:

    I answered “no” to all the questions in all 3 categories – what kind of Buddhist does this make me?

  6. Re 4 & 5: Tom (or Glenn), would either or you be interested in more specifically outlining what a theoretical “faithful” subject would do? I understand that s/he would not: 1. meditate for stress reduction, 2. systematically resort to an “ineffable” canon of “truths,” 3. seek to “transcend discursive thought,” and that s/he would think carefully and critically in her attempt to “force” the truth into the world, but what this looks like in the context of x-buddhism is a bit murky for me, not just because I haven’t encountered it (and, I think I haven’t; the Zen teachers I have met, mostly in the White Plum lineage and including Roshi Gerry Shishin Wick and Roshi Sidney Musai Walter would likely fall under the “obscurantist” classification, despite being a professional scientist and a psychotherapist respectively), but also because I don’t understand exactly what is meant. What does the faithful subject actually do (for example)?

    Also, in regards to resorting to ineffability, I will not defend it, nor will I deride “thinking,” including discursive thought. I do want to try to point to what I think might be a good point that such ideas are making, though: our reasoning is often motivated by unconscious materials and processes, at least that’s what it feels like to me, and I think that’s what a lot of current and not-so-current psychological research suggests. This remains true no matter how hard we are trying to reason faithfully. This is not to say that reasoning is always disingenuous or evil, but that it is often unreliable because we reason in order to confirm what we already believe (in other words we use our reasoning to justify intuitional beliefs).



  7. Re #7: Matthew, It is a standard response to say that reasoning is unreliable because we usually reason to confirm what we already believe. Fortunately, that is demonstrably not always the case, or we would still believe in a geocentric universe–we sometimes reason to solve problems that our existing beliefs cannot solve, right?. The trick is to find out why and when we are seeking confirmation, just “rationalizing” instead of reasoning, and to stop doing it.

    Still, it is true that there is a place for the “ineffable.” There are things that are beyond our present World, our current discourses, our symbolic system–clearly that’s the case, right? I often use the example of the “truth” of Fermat’s last theorem, which we “knew” was true although we could not explain it in any symbolic system until recently–it was, in a sense an “ineffable” truth. What is important is not to say it is just ineffable in its nature, but to recognize it can be made effable. This is what the faithful subject does, insist that we can find ways to explain things we currently cannot, to make the truth appear. So, the mathematicians who worked to prove this were, collectively, a faithful subject.

    What does the faithful subject of what I call the Buddha Event do? It would be some kind of collective y-buddhist practice which pushes forward the comprehension of the truth that there are “two truths,” that we are always a result of convention, that we live in a dependently arisen world, and we can change that world–the truth that we can, precisely, use thought to explain the way things really are, not just to confirm what we believe, once we understand how many of our beliefs are conventional, not ultimate. The faithful subject would stop insisting on reifying our existing beliefs, and start working on a more complete understanding of what our ideologies are and how we can set about changing them–ultimately, so that we can reduce the suffering caused by ideology, our samsaric suffering. A faithful subject of the Buddha Event, then, would be able to point out to the enquiring student what her or his ideology is, instead of supporting and encouraging it, to point out that such things as romantic love, private property, exchange value, are not inevitable things we must learn to accept with equanimity, but ideologies we must learn to change. Does this answer your question at all? (I’m trying to be brief)

    Atomic: You do know that this “quiz” is meant ironically, right? What kind of Buddhist do you think you are?

  8. Hi Matthew (#7).

    the Zen teachers I have met, mostly in the White Plum lineage and including Roshi Gerry Shishin Wick and Roshi Sidney Musai Walter would likely fall under the “obscurantist” classification, despite being a professional scientist and a psychotherapist respectively),

    I find that kind of cognitive blockading fascinating. I see so many examples of it in daily life, it’s scary. I’ll give one example. I know a chief financial officer who is meticulous and hyper-rigorous in his financial reasoning. He is almost neurotically cautious to catch, know, and minutely examine every single assumption that is driving his thinking before he draws any conclusions. But when it comes to “spirituality,” he’s an idiot. His assumptions are perfectly opaque to him. The extreme psychological distress driving his quest for cosmic certainly is, to him, the grand virtue of all true “seekers.” And so on. I suspect that the good Roshis are no different. As an experiment, spend some time viewing their medieval Japanese farmer garb, their childish Zen names, their ventriliquized buddhemic utterance, their sameness, indeed their very obscurantism, for what they are: symptoms. Or am I mistaken> Are these not symptoms? If not, what are they? What, whom do such display rhetorics serve? Such an investigations bears on the question:

    What does the faithful subject actually do (for example)?

    Well, this faithful subject begins right there. Whatever value exists for the human will remain after the critical operation on the materials. One of the many common misunderstandings about this project is that it has little or nothing to do with practice. In fact, it has everything to do with practice. It does, however, eschew the common x-buddhist practice of wrapping things up in a nice little package for mass consumption. That refusal means: a crucial feature of the practice is to figure it out for yourself.

    Just to be clear: I would wager that I practice more and more seriously than any Roshi, Bhikkhu, Lama, or other Venerable than you could name.

  9. Re #8: Tom, thanks for your answer. While I agree that it is quite clear that “we sometimes reason to solve problems that our existing beliefs cannot solve,” my point is that it seems like the reasoning that actually accomplishes those insights often occurs offline, and I think that may be what proponents of meditation like “silent illumination” are getting at. When a meditator experiences (what they perceive to be) an insight, could that not be said to be a product of offline reasoning? It may feel like a “direct insight,” but perhaps it is the product of a lot of conscious discursive reasoning gone “underground,” where it is synthesized. Some, many, or a majority of x-buddhists and proponents of “mindfulness” disparage “thinking”, which is patently fallacious and even fundamentalist. I’m just trying to salvage meditation (perhaps I am attempting to use reasoning to save my precious hobby) by presenting it as an essential companion and enabler of good discursive thought and reasoning.

    Also, thanks for pointing to some of the activities a faithful subject would engage in (although I would still appreciate more detail). You write,

    “A faithful subject of the Buddha Event, then, would be able to point out to the enquiring student what her or his ideology is, instead of supporting and encouraging it, to point out that such things as romantic love, private property, exchange value, are not inevitable things we must learn to accept with equanimity, but ideologies we must learn to change,”

    and indeed that is always what I have wanted from my Buddhist teachers and never gotten.

    Re #9: Glen, you write that the trappings of Zen practice, like the superhero robes and the cool nicknames, are “symptoms.” Symptoms of what, exactly? These teachers explain these accessories as symbols of their connection to their own teachers – symbols of respect; do you interpret that as meaning they are actually symbols of their uncritical acceptance of the self-sufficiency of their religion? Symptoms of a failure to see and question their spiritual assumptions, like your friend?

    You write: “Whatever value exists for the human will remain after the critical operation on the materials.” The materials being those items listed above? The “teachings”? Please walk me through this, if you care to spend the time. I appreciate it.

    You also write: “That refusal means: a crucial feature of the practice is to figure it out for yourself.” I have been told the same thing by Soto teachers, like Angie Boissevain (from Kobun Chino’s lineage). She sits zazen with groups of practitioners, and she wears robes, and she also gives dharma talks (consisting, if I remember correctly, primarily in reflections on her own practice), but she gives no instruction for how to practice zazen, and no moral prescriptions. I don’t know to what degree she meets Tom’s other criteria, like pointing to students’ ideologies or accurately teaching anatman or the “two truths,” but based on the limited description I offer, might she be a candidate for a faithful practitioner? Might she be practicing as seriously as you?

    thanks again


  10. Re #10: I would still say, Matthew, that there is some value to meditation. Just that there is a lot more value if we also do serious thought. I would also agree that most of the time the true insights occur outside of conscious effort, in the symbolic order that is produced by the collective mind. We’ve discussed this somewhere on these boards, but I can’t remember why. This is why it is so common for dramatic changes in our World to be simultaneously produced by multiple individuals (eg, calculus, theory of evolution). To access that collective mind, though, we need to put in a lot of mental effort. What I object to is the myth of the thought-free meditator who can access some world-transcendent consciousness if he never thinks at all. The more rigorous your thinking, the more useful you meditation will be–if, that is, you want insight into, and not avoidance of, truth.

    Right now, we threatened with power outage at any moment, so I should really shut down. However, when the storm passes over, I will try to offer some other suggestions concerning what a faithful subject might do. Remember that the important thing is that a single teacher alone cannot be a subject in the sense I am using it here–the entire group of practitioners would be some kind of subject, not just the teacher. What the teacher does is important, but the real interest is whether the practice group does actually uncover a truth, instead of just leaving it as some kind of ineffable mystery we always have to “figure out” but never make any progress on. Is there any actual “figuring it out” going on?

  11. Re “Institution”

    I find this an interesting topic. Aren’t we already an institution here – simply in the sense that this here is a structure and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given community?

    It would be interesting to look at roles, styles of argumentation, hierarchical positions etc. to make visible the social structure which is crystallizing here. What is said and what is not said? How is the discourse structured? Which qualities it has and which not? Are there forbidden discourses?

    Institutions have rules for mindful speaking. Don’t curse in church. Don’t say anything nice about Obama in the quarters of Romney. Distinguish alcohol and drugs. Don’t play minor chords on a sitar.

    Are there general rules how a discourse should look like for to make visible a truth? How does a truth could be promoted if we don’t know it? How can the student be sure about the faithful subject guiding him?

    And what is this truth? The two truths of Nagarjuna? Is this new? What is the truth today we want to force here? The constructedness of sociality and individual is nothing new. Since the times of Marx and Nietzsche it is a constant theme of progressive thinking. What is the truth here we want to force, if any?

    Do we really speculate?

    What is the difference between a faithful subject and a heretic subject?

  12. Thanks, Tom. I find Badiou helpful in thinking about some parts of these questions. I’ve always done well at quizzes, though. I think I aced this one. I racked up points in all three columns. It’s probably a decent description of my typical state of mind to say that I’m a faithfully reactionary obscurantist. Or, on good days, maybe an obscurely reactionary practitioner of fidelity 😉

  13. Matthias and Matthew:

    My response overall to these questions is that we must find some way to force and engagement with truth, and that there is no formula for this in advance—there may even be many ways to do it, perhaps as many as there are ways to avoid the truth.

    Let’s consider the example of meditation. Perhaps we could call it thought, or contemplation to avoid the idea that meditation means not thinking (it once meant particularly effortful or focused thinking, but now it means something like going into a hypnotic trance, so… thought, instead). When we sit and think, what should we think about? What if we get beyond “following the breath” (which might be a good way to induce hypnotic trance, or just a way to focus our concentration and stop our minds from wandering), and begin to actually think about something—perhaps a particularly intractable problem. Say, the problem of free will and determinism. We should thing about all the ways this problem can go round in circles until we can see how this very circularity, the insolubility of the problem, is a symptom indicating that the symbolic system/discourse/World in which this problem is framed is flawed, lacking, or contradictory. But, if we were to pose this problem to the average college student today, it would simply waste her time, right? She would not have sufficient resources to make any sense of the problem at all, either experientially or conceptually, and would at best come up with some naïve solution requiring a soul or atomistic mind of some kind.

    This is why a teacher is necessary, to guide the beginner who wants to jump right to the final answer without doing the work in advance. The teacher can offer the student the question she or he is ready to push beyond. But these questions would be unique for every discursive system. This is the problem with the Zen practice of using ancient koans, puzzles which may have been at the aporetic point of an ancient discourse, much like free will problem is for us, but which are not a part of our World at all. They then become a way to avoid the truth, puzzling over silly nonsense, instead of engaging the truth. In his book Re-Thinking the Cogito, Christopher Norris suggests that the progress of thought occurs out of consciousness, through changes to the symbolic system rather than through working within it, but first the very limits of the symbolic system must be grasped through effortful conscious thought.

    So to answer Matthias’s question about how the student “knows” the teacher is a faithful subject—the teacher isn’t. The relationship between the two is where the faithful subject occurs, in a practice that works to force into appearance something that is true in our World but that cannot be discussed in the existing discourses.

    The faithful subject does not need to be “correct”, to have a “right answer,” in the form of a doctrine, to offer. If such a doctrine existed, it could only exist in the World as it is (ie, it would already be in the textbooks, be the received opinion). The faithful subject is working toward a truth that “inexists,” in Badiou’s terms—that has real impact in the World, but cannot officially appear. For me, this truth is the truth if ideology/conventional truth/Worlds. The accepted opinion is still that ideology is a “false consciousness” or “illusion,” that conventional truth can be “transcended” and we can live in “ultimate truth.” This occludes the possibility of coming to a greater understanding, in concepts, of how our ideology works, how it has real causal power and “momentum” even though, perhaps because, it is completely the construct of human consciousness and has not essential nature. We don’t have a clear understanding of how ideology works at every level, from the structure of the “individual mind” to the structure of social institutions, and we have numerous “institutions” in place specifically created to prevent any such real understanding: the disciplines of psychology, Literature, economics; the news media and entertainment industries; the electoral/political machine. We don’t have a thorough theory of ideology, only some “notes toward and investigation” (as Althusser subtitled his ISA essay). This terrifying essay produced an enormous response in the form of denial: yes, there once was ideology, but now we are post-ideological—no need to produce those scary concepts, that thing no longer exists.

    The constructedness of the social, Matthias, is far from a given. It is a forbidden topic. Marxist economics make no appearance in American economic theory, and in Literature “theory” is dead, we’ve returned to appreciating the universally beautiful. There are languages and there are bodies—but they must only adapt to the existing World of global capitalism, which is not “constructed” at all, but ineluctable.

    Badiou uses the term “body” to refer to this structure that incorporates individuals into the process of forcing a truth into appearance. Perhaps this is a better way to put it than “institutions.” The goal of what we think of as “institutions” is always to produce what Badiou calls “les mondes atones.” That is, Worlds in which all points of decision, all points at which a truth might appear, must become weak, dull, not emphasized, unimportant. (Toscano translate this as “atonic,” which is exactly correct but only if we understand the full range of the metaphor). Bodies function to make the World “tendu,” tensed, strained, reaching, tending towards something.

    So can we construct a body here, across the internet? I don’t know. What else might we need to do to construct such a body/subject? Can we discuss what kind of “social structure is crystallizing here” and whether it is the best one to serve this purpose? For instance, do my hostile attacks on the idiotic comments of reactionary and obscurantist subjects work to prevent them from making our discussion into “un monde atone,” or do they merely scare of those who might be incorporated into a possible faithful subject? I don’t know the answer—so, Matthias, go ahead, make visible the hidden structure to whatever extent you can!

    And no, this truth isn’t “new,” in the sense of something that never existed before, it is only “new” in the much more limited sense that it is excluded from our World, and its exclusion prevent the alleviation of suffering, prevents us from making needed changes in the social system. I would agree with Badiou here that a truth can appear in any World, but it must always only appear in a World (there are not “pure truths” that can be presented outside of thought). The goal, for me, is to make this truth appear in OUR World.

    Sorry for such a long post—I’m afraid I’ve rambled a bit.

  14. Matthew (#10). I have a colleague who is fascinated with western Theravadin monks and nuns. She has pictures of them hanging up in our shared office. She considers herself a “Thai Forest practitioner.” She’s also a practicing psychoanalyst/therapist. For fun, I occasionally ask her what she would make of a middle-aged middle-class white man or woman walking into her downtown Philadelphia office dressed like a ancient ascetic, speaking incessantly about some curative fantasy called “The Dharma” that is derived from the enlightened awareness of a man who spent the majority of his life sitting under trees and begging alms. She just gives me blank stares or, at most, chuckles and turns away. Think about it. How would you view your physician if he started wearing a top hat and frock coat to symbolize his connection to his own medical forebears–a waxed handle-bar mustache as a “symbol of respect.”

    Why do I find such gestures silly, even disturbing, while the pious find them so uplifting? I ask the pious: Why should our standards of behavior be any different for a Zen teacher than for a bus driver? Is Zen such an extraordinarily special variety of human exchange that such displays are to be received without any questioning–indeed, even admired as evidence of advancement on “the spiritual path”?

    Tom can correct me, but I think that in the terms of the current post, robe-wearing and other instances of what I call the rhetorics of display can be seen as obscurantist modelling. It’s a form of theater disguised as hyper-realism–as, that is, something that captures the very pith of reality. As such, it’s a type of lie we humans enjoy having told to us. It obscures the truths of the teachings. In another context, I would go ahead and call it exhibition of a symptom, much along the lines of what you say.

    From my particular non-buddhist perspective, “Zen” means, among things, a particular manner of subjugation. The materials of Zen are both means and the ends of the subjugation. By “material,” by the way, I literally mean the concrete forms that comprise the tradition–actual objects, rituals, books, protocols, speech habits, sitting arrangements, hierarchies, etc., that condition, strengthen, and perpetuate affective and cognitive decision. If there is any value in such materials, then shouldn’t the materials be able to withstand evacuation of the ideology juice coursing through them? If not, what does that suggest (reveal?) about the identity of the whole? I want to perform the critique in order to see whether the only reason this juice–or charism or vibrato that tugs on the soul’s heartstrings–flows through them is because they are woven into the vast system of postulation that is x-buddhism–Zen-Buddhism, in the case of Angie Boissevain’s performance. I want to know what force, what value such individual materials possess subtracted from the system as a whole. Contemporary western x-buddhism does not claim that its materials are significant only in the context of particular kinds of performances. It claims efficacy for its materials precisely because those materials are forms that are purely “natural,” “self-evident,” “empirically observable. X-buddhism presents its forms as phenomenological truths and precisely not as articles of faith requiring subscription to the program. Ask Angie Boissevain what she might eliminate from her Zen performance as just so much superfluous adornment. I’d love to hear her answer. While you’re at it, can you ask her to take Tom Pepper’s quiz? That would be great and edifying fun, wouldn’t it?

    By the way, yesterday I told a Very Serious Zen practitioner/Buddhist studies professor about Tom’s quiz. His response was a series of indignant huffs, head tilted upward, lips pursed. I suspect that that’s what’s going on when our many x-b-t-blurkers (x-buddhist-teacher blog lurkers) read this post. To answer one of Tom’s persistent questions: No, they can’t handle the truth.

    Keep it coming Matthew. Ciao.

  15. Well, nobody want to name names, to offer challenges, so I’ll offer one. What’s more, I’ll name an x-buddhist teacher whose work I actually like, even admire, because there are too many x-buddhist con-artists out there who would just pose too easy a target, who wouldn’t have the intellect or the “attainment” to respond to a challenge.

    I would honestly hope that Thanissaro Bikkhu would be able to be honest about what he teaches, and I would put him squarely within the “obscurantist subject.”

    His assertion is that there is a pure consciousness that escapes this world upon achieving enlightenment—or at least upon the death of the arahant. To cite just one example, his book The Paradox of Becoming explains that the “experience of Unbinding in this lifetime” which is “a foretaste of Unbinding after death, in which all experience of the six senses is absent” (102). After death, the final Unbinding leaves a “consciousness [that] is not only devoid of passion, etc.; it is also separate from the senses”(103). He explains that there are two sense of consciousness, the “aggregate of sensory consciousness,” which ceases, and the “consciousness without surface,” which he explains “would not be touched by that cessation”(108). The renunciation of the world, then, is a renunciation of the human world with the belief in a pure and world-transcendent consciousness to come.

    This faith in an ineffable full “body” that forbids the “real body” from existing is the core strategy of obscurantism. I would suggest that all the many sutra passages Thanissaro Bikkhu cites in this book could be read without any paradox at all, if we could simply give up on this idea of an atman-that-is-not-one.

  16. Tom, #14

    my #12 has been an badly timed and performed attempt to get going some reflective discussion about this very project. I leave this aside for some time. Maybe a more an elaborate and explicite text will do in the future.

    What attracted me to this blog was the motto “in spiritu ludi” to be put to be real. For one thing that means everything can be put to test. At least I think that this is an implication of it. Put in another way, a question which cannot be asked is a distortion of reality. As I see it, we have here already some questions we shouldn’t ask anymore. The most obvious one is about neuroscience. Badiou doesn’t like it and so we do not discuss it. It is not that Badiou is not very interesting and maybe a real source for us of new thinking – in fact I do think so – it is only that I don’t see why anybody should refrain from forming an authentic knowledgable opinion about the topic instead just skipping it because a french philosopher says s/he should do so. The least thing what would be needed would be an essay to make explicite the positions of neuroscientist and anti-neuroscientist.

    Something similar goes for the topic “meditation”. So whole thing seems to be framed in a binary called no-thinking vs. thinking. I think the main error here is, first and foremost, to beginn to think about the problem by beginning with “meditation” in the first place. Second, there is more to life than thinking and no-thinking – thinking being taken as discursive problem solving. There have been several attempts here to reframe what we are speaking about: the experience to be somebody, that is how would put it, and the expression to be somebody, and the relationship of expression and experience. There have been several attempts here to get away from the dichotomy of effortful focused thinking vs. hypnotic trance. There is a much wieder range than this black and white sketch. Here too would be needed a thoroughly thought about essay.

    Another point here, in this context, is about truth. It should be made very clear that Badiou is not about going back to some real (representationalist) truth to escape the horror of postmodernity. Unfortunately it seems that few people take the pains here to read through some of the more basic texts (e.g. Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism and Samsara as the Realm of Ideology), so it is no wonder that the truth event, after postmodernity isn’t understood or even seen as a problem worth thinking of.

    There are more points but I leave it here.

  17. Matthias: I’m not opposed to neuroscience. That would be pointless–like objecting to computer science because the content of the internet is mostly crap. I simply object to the ridiculous belief that our mind is completely in our brain, and thoughts can be “reduced” to neural processes. Clearly we need our brains just as the internet needs computers, but a better functioning brain won’t make for better “content” of the mind. Detecting changes in the brain and suggesting they indicate happiness is asinine, and a pseudo-science. Neuroscience as the study of how the brain works is just as important as any other biological science, but it is of no real immediate use in the register of ideology, which is what Buddhist thought is concerned with. The reductionists and the eliminative materialists are just he new manifestation of empiricism, which failed to be a science and turned into a capitalist ideology centuries ago.

    My response in #14 was an attempt to do what you suggest, get beyond the though/non-thought dichotomy. To do this, it is important NOT to reduce thought to “discursive problem solving,” but to understand that emotions and perception are ALSO thought, that we “think” as long as we are alive, and to pretend that we stop doing it is to mistake thought directed by the Other for an absolute truth–sorry to be so cryptically Lacanian, but I have to go to class now. Perhaps I can expand on this later.

  18. Okay, so how about Ken McLeod? It might seem that he would have to be a part of the obscurantist subject, because of his Tibetan training. Surprisingly (for me at least) he is a part of the reactionary subject, assuring us that the ancient wisdom of Buddhism is exactly what we already think, and all the benefits of Buddhism can be obtained completely within the strange blend of positivism and relativism that is postmodern ideology.

    In his book Wake Up to Your Life, for instance, he explains karma as the “complex process” of simple habit formation, in which “every action establishes a predisposition to similar actions and perceptions” and “action and experienced result reinforces behavioral patterns”(40-41). Sound like I’m quoting Skinner, right?

    When he gets as close as he ever does to discussions of anatman, in his instructions on how to see that “life is but a dream” and “mind is empty” (362-367), he simply repeats the same old exercises we see in Hume, looking within to find the observer who has the experience, assuming that if there is a mind it must be atomistic and in opposition to the external world. He then presents the same old empiricism paradoxes as if their insolvability proves their truth, instead of indicating that they are the wrong questions to ask. We are assured there is no need to solve this (perfectly soluble) problem: instead, we are to believe that the contradictions and incoherence of the empiricist model of the mind is proof of its absolute truth! We get a reified capitalist ideology of the subject labeled as a profound Buddhist insight.

  19. Matthias (#17). Just as a quick aside, I am currently taking a class called “The Science of Meditation,” taught by a neuroscientist. Last week we read and discussed several research studies on what researches call the “default mode network.” As the term suggests, the default mode network is, in a nutshell, the brain regions that are operating even when the person is in a “task-negative” condition, or in a resting (yet wakeful) state. The point I want to make here is that one of the many consequences–both demonstrable and hypothesized–is that we are through and through thinking beings. “Thinking,” contrary to contemporary x-buddhist rhetoric, isn’t limited to mind-wandering and discursiveness. Thinking is something that human beings can’t help but doing. The problem is that for most people the word “thinking” evokes a very narrow variety of the phenomenon. We are perpetually organizing sense data, interpreting patterns in our environment, constructing and employing schemata, decoding sensory data, making intuitive assumptions, visualizing non-existent states of affair, and so on. All of this is thinking.

    One of the reasons I find this kind of research valuable is that it verifies my own experience over and against the x-buddhist ideology of no-thought. Even in those moments when, in attentive-still-silent-sitting (let’s call it asss practice: I am a practitioner of asss), I am not overtly conceptualizing experience, I am still thinking. My mind continues to function as my thinking mind. It is just a different register of thinking than conceptualizing or discursiveness. In other words, my own observations and this sort of mind-brain study both put the lie to the x-buddhist belief in a thought-free (judgement-free, reaction-free, concept-free) mindfulness.

    About your #12, I’d like to hear more analysis. Organization is, I imagine, inevitable as long as some particular grouping persist long enough. And, along with organization inevitably come the kinds of things you mention in that comment. I think that while organization and institutionalization (of forms, questions, styles, topics, preferences, etc.) are inevitable, the kinds of narrowing and shunning practices we see at the Secular Buddhist Association, for example, are not. Our ideas may not be met with interest here or they may be rejected, but they will never be considered out of bounds. I like the image–I think it’s Bakhtin’s–of a “site of struggle.” That says it all about a blog like this, I think.

  20. Tom (#16, 19). I agree with both assessments. I am going to mention a few people and organizations that I think exemplify your descriptions. Rather than make a case here, as you did for Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Ken McCleod, I will just make a brief comment that summarizes the position. The reader can then visit the site to see for him-herself. I think it will be obvious. I’ll list my examples over the next few days. To begin:


    Buddhist Geeks. I could hardly imagine a more robust manifestation of the reactionary subject than their site. Just consider the sum total of views represented by their podcast guests. In regard to their exuberant celebration of multi-buddhism, they are, come to think of it, similar to the big three glossy consensus organs. (Now this reactionary subject has gone over to multi-spiritualism. Their newest podcast is with David Frenette, a senior teacher in the Christian Centering Prayer movement: “Meditating with God.”) Vincent Horn and Ryan Oelke may like to believe that they are faithful subjects, but as the following statement from one of Horn’s posts shows, their reactionary ways will be hard to overcome:

    Now what makes me feel that there’s something that Buddhist Geeks still has to offer–despite being “Buddhist”–is that one way of understanding what Buddhism is pointing to, is to see that attachment to any idea, point of view, or identity is going to cause an unnecessary impedance to the flow of reality…[A] Buddhist identity is just as problematic as any other identity. As Jon Kabat-Zinn has pointed out, seeing this is what makes you a real Buddhist. (Bold added.)

    The Secular Buddhist Association. Another premier exemplar of the reactionary subject. Their guiding definition says it all, even if, as is typical of the SBA, it says it obliquely:

    Secular Buddhism is concerned with the practice of Siddhattha Gotama’s four noble truths in this world. It encourages a naturalistic and pragmatic approach to the teaching, seeking to provide a framework for personal and social development within the cultural context of our time.

    This is a veiled manifesto of the reactionary subject. It says: our (read: not the originary “truth”) framework reveals (read: determines) what is true (read: (i) scientism; (ii) the “natural” parts of the Buddha’s teachings; (iii) that which enables comforting, non-reactive, stress-free abiding in the western capitalist status quo) and false (read: whatever challenges our version of the true).


    Kenneth Folk. His site reads like that of a modern-day, x-buddhist snake oil salesman. What’s for sale is the “enlightened experience” of pure objective surrender. This “awakened state” exists beyond body, feelings, mind states, and thought.

    You are unenlightened to the extent that you are embedded in your experience. You think that your experience is you. You must dis-embed. Do that by taking each aspect of experience as object (looking at it and recognizing it) in a systematic way. Then, surrender entirely.

    Brad Warner, Noah Levine, etc. Someday I’ll write up my criticism of the all-too-raucously-pious reformed neo-conformist punk rockers. For now, maybe you’ll catch my drift from statements such as

    “I’m very concerned with getting to the heart of what it means to be a Buddhist in this time and place” (Warner); and “I offer this book [Dharma Punx]to all of my friends that didn’t make it…Or maybe they did. And we are the flunkies still hangin around trying figure out that we are not these bodies” (Levine).

    Lama Surya Das. I give you as evidence of the obscurantist subject the very first paragraph on his blog (that’s how abundant this obscuring rhetoric is):

    Breathe, relax, center and smile. Let things come and go, and just let be. Practice Presencing. It’s not about trying not to think but about letting things come and go. Learning to relax, just be, center, and naturally meditate is a well known spiritual secret that people ought to be able to learn and integrate into life. Like mental flossing, it keeps one open and free, calm and clear. I too was a teenage thinkaholic, even till recently, but I’m much more spacious now. American Buddhas, awaken! Loosen your attachments.

    He was a thinkaholic!

    This is nastier business than I expected. I’ll continue later.

  21. continued from #21

    #19 points out reactionary features of Ken McLeod. McLeod’s piece “Buddha Nature” is a good example of the obscurantist subject, too. Note the master-authoritarian yet spiritualized resistance to clear conceptual explanation (rationality as the enemy of the true) coupled with a deep faith in some ineffable, transcendent value and meaning. The latter, moreover, is accessed through some sort of “silent supra-cognitive or mystical intuition” (as Badiou says of Heidegger).

    His site as a whole exhibits a mix of the obscurantist and the reactionary subjects. I can report no evidence of the faithful subject.

    McLeod comes across as an old-school Thaumaturge-Master-MagicGuru type. Look at his fantastic bombastic practice text, written in the spirit and style of the worst of the TibetObscurantists (and that’s a huge gang).

    One bizarre obscurantist feature of the site is the way it includes quotes from non-Buddhist figures that are then completely contradicted in the writings and overall rhetoric of the site itself. We get, for instance, “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” — EUGENE IONESCO, (1912-1994). Yet, the entire site consists of nothing if not answers. There are dozens of such examples.

    How in the world could any thinking person follow such a man? It’s disturbing.

    By the way, he calls his way “Pragmatic Buddhism.” Add “TibetOrwellian” to the non-buddhist lexicon.

  22. G’day

    Re #20 Just as a quick aside, I am currently taking a class called “The Science of Meditation,” taught by a neuroscientist….One of the reasons I find this kind of research valuable is that it verifies my own experience over and against the x-buddhist ideology of no-thought.

    #21 re The Secular Buddhist Association
    This is a veiled manifesto of the reactionary subject. It says: our (read: not the originary “truth”) framework reveals (read: determines) what is true (read: (i) scientism;

    & (TNH’s Imaginary Soul#24)
    The strategy you’re referring to blindly assumes and accepts the value system that accords science such status. Ted Meissner and Sujato reflexively accept the hierarchy of local knowledges in which science holds pride of place.

    & Tom’s piece above
    We see this, for instance, in the present fad of neuroscience and meditation, attempting to insist that we can get any useful benefits from Buddhism completely within the positivist and empiricist ideologies of capitalism;

    I’m interested where you see science fitting into the non-buddhist analysis. As you say re #20, you find the neuroscientist’s research valuable but else you (& Tom) seem critical of science being held in high regard, generating scientism and fads.

    Could you please clarify



  23. Geoff: My response to this would be that science is of course useful and important, but pseudoscience is the worst kind of delusion. It is absolutely useful to know how the brain actually works, to the extent that we can. It is not useful to pretend that we can tell what someone is thinking from an mri. To use the dangerous computer metaphor, knowing how a computer works is useful to a software engineer who needs to know what kind of software he can write for a computer, but knowing how the hardware works will not help fix the bugs in your software, much less tell you if the content of you web page is well written. Real neuroscience is a useful field and might help reduce human suffering; the preposterous popular misrepresentations of neuroscience, which claim an mri can tell you if your happy, or suggest that we can increase happiness by increasing the density of a particular region of the brain, are pure delusion. We can have a neurologically perfect brain with all the wrong kinds of thoughts in it!

  24. #22:

    i was a devotee of McLeod for some time. however, my gut always seemed to say that ‘this is the same BS as everything else i’ve encountered in x-buddhism’. as expected, in my discussions here about McLeod i was essentially lambasted for a thinking-emotional response to him as basically delusion. i just wasn’t getting it, the responder seemed to suggest. yet another way to stop the conversation, flinch and be utterly predictable. the reactionary calling me the ‘reactionary’.

    how can people follow ken mcleod? he plucks the heart strings. luckily, for me, he was the end of the road. if practical buddhism was still x-buddhism through and through, then it was time to move on.

    fwiw, i love that mcleod is a reactionary buddhist even though his whole premise is to ‘cut reactive patterns’!

  25. Geoff (#23). I’ll respond in full later. I wanted to change “verify” in my #20 to “suggest.” If there is one thing I’ve learned in reading the primary research it is that the scientists are extremely cautious in their claims. Regarding their findings, they uniformly use terms that make it clear that they are making incremental steps toward a body of evidence. The rhetoric of the primary literature contrasts vastly from the accounts of the research presented by journalist for mass consumption. I wanted to correct myself on that point even before I saw your comment. More later…

  26. Geoff (#23). Now that I just read through the comments, I see that I don’t have anything to add really. I agree with Tom’s #25. I will reiterate that learning how to read primary neuroscience research has taught me a few things. One is that it takes real skill and expertise to get even the basic gist of one of these papers. They are written, obviously, for a highly specialized audience. I now know what people feel like who are reading a “mystical” religious text or abstract philosophy for the first time. I’ve been reading both for a long time, so it comes fairly easily. But I am really struggling to understand the “arguments” of neuroscience studies. This brings me to a second point. The journalistic renderings of these studies are asinine to an extreme. The “Mindfulness Improves Your [fill in the blank with literally anything you need to be true]” nonsense that gets the Secularites and other reactionary x-buddhists fist-pumping one another is righteous self-congratulation is groundless bullshit. This is because of the third thing I’ve learned. As I said above, the studies I’ve been exposed to are content to make the most miniscule progress. When I question the course professor about this, she seems surprised that I’d expect anything different. “That’s how science works,” she repeats. This leads to my last point. This science, while interesting to me personally, plays no role whatsoever in my employment of non-buddhist thinking or practice. What is interesting to me in this regard is the way science generally and neuroscience specifically are used as rhetorical moves in x-buddhist argumentation.

  27. Tom / Glenn

    Thanks for your clarification re science vis a vis SNB.


    Could you please expand further on your comment I referred to in #23. I couldn’t quite figure it out.

    (TNH’s Imaginary Soul#24)
    The strategy you’re referring to blindly assumes and accepts the value system that accords science such status. Ted Meissner and Sujato reflexively accept the hierarchy of local knowledges in which science holds pride of place.

    Do you also accept the hierarchy of local knowledges in which science holds pride of place over x-buddhism? Or is it that you don’t do it reflexively?

    Or is this the point you are making in #28?

    This science, while interesting to me personally, plays no role whatsoever in my employment of non-buddhist thinking or practice. What is interesting to me in this regard is the way science generally and neuroscience specifically are used as rhetorical moves in x-buddhist argumentation.

    Sorry its a bit off the topic but I’m still getting through the SNB 101 class….



  28. Re ‘meditation’

    “Thinking is something that human beings can’t help but doing.”

    Yes, I tried to formulate this a lot of times. I am just a bit frustrated that we come back to an opposition of trance vs. “particularly effortful or focused thinking” as Tom did in #14, whereas thinking than is thinking about something. Obviously we have different modes of thinking, and trance is one of them – whereby one should ask what exactly trance means? I see a good/bad dichotomy at work here which doesn’t fit my standards of interrogation. If I want to hear from somebody what mediation is I want to create a situation in which the empty signifiers are left out and the person who wants to express an experience begins to be creative with her expression. It is about something new!

    Furthermore, the fixation on the notion of meditation sets an overall false reference point which colors the whole discurse in a certain way as we can see here again and again. I recently found a text by Hegel. It’s a lecture about philosophie of religion. In this lecture he describes the praxis of buddhism in terms which sound astonishingly similar to what is said about meditation today: look inside for happiness. I am not able to trace the history of this interpretation but I guess it is that he equates “the buddhist cult” with sentimentalism and romanticism. Tom, and we all I think, rightfully opposes this inner cult of happiness. But then we should skip this kind of reference point once and for all.

    In contrast to this we have a long tradition of introspection in our culture which does anything but looking for happiness within. Augustinus leads to Descartes for example in his treatment of doubt as a proof of the existence of the experiencer. Regardless of the question of right or wrong this shows a history of phenomenology which is completely different from the neo-buddhist delusion of happiness. In this regard I want to mention again the Tibetan mahamudra-tradition. This tradition gives a very detailed account of interrogation into one’s individual mind. It is possible to simply substract any metaphysical conclusion from the purely technical descriptions of interrogation and their possible (auto-referential) effects on the interrogator. An important keyword in these technical treatments is normaly “liberation”. In technical texts about praxis normally one finds no mention of some infinit being. This only comes later when it is about to realgin the practitioner with a rather stupid orthodoxy. The false conclusion which leads from phenomena named, for example, “bare awareness” to an transcorporal entity is fairly easy to dismiss today. (Btw: “Happiness” and other experiences occurring in praxis are dismissed in technical mahamudra texts as irrelevant)

    Just to be sure: no, “bare awareness” is not atman. It is, perhaps, a denominator which, of course, has to be unfolded and expressed. It is a question of creativity and experience in which both act and change together. The proof of the pudding is if there comes into being something truely new.

    I guess that this kind of phenomenology simply does not fit with Badiou’s approach.


    re ‘neuroscience’.

    As far as I remember there hasn’t been any discussion here in which somebody wanted to reduce thought to brain. I am really not that interested in neuroscience at the moment, I mentioned it only because I detect a strong bias to dismiss it outright. I don’t see Boyer mapping thought x on neurological structure y. I rather think that he provides with a interesting hypothesis, namely that phylogenetically old cognitive structures are ‘misused’ by structures which developed in the socio-cultural sphere. This has nothing to do with saying that certain ideologies are hardwired into our brain. Personally I find this thought so absurd I really don’t need any discusion about it. It is like with the efficient markets theory in economics, the empirical datum decries the metaphysical factum to such an extent that there is no use to discuss it. Anyway, a hardwired capitalism in the brain would be paradox: This would mean that there is some kind of teleology at work in evolution. I leave this kind of thinking to the Dalai Lamas.


    Btw: Would do you think about “Critical Buddhism” by Hakayama Noriaki as a candidate for a faithful subject?

  29. I don’t see Boyer mapping thought x on neurological structure y. I rather think that he provides with a interesting hypothesis, namely that phylogenetically old cognitive structures are ‘misused’ by structures which developed in the socio-cultural sphere. This has nothing to do with saying that certain ideologies are hardwired into our brain. Personally I find this thought so absurd I really don’t need any discusion about it.

    Matthias (# 32), thanks for the above, and here is, I think, a relevant fragment from Boyer:

    “As I have pointed out repeatedly, the building of religious concepts requires mental systems and capacities that are there anyway, religious concepts or not. Religious morality uses moral intuitions, religious notions of supernatural agents recruit our intuitions about agency in general, and so on. This is why I said that religious concepts are parasitic upon other mental capacities. Our capacities to play music, paint pictures or even make sense of printed ink-patterns on a page are also parasitic in this sense. This means that we can explain how people play music, paint pictures and learn to read by examining how mental capacities are recruited by these activities. The same goes for religion. Because the concepts require all sorts of specific human capacities (an intuitive psychology, a tendency to attend to some counterintuitive concepts, as well as various social mind adaptations), we can explain religion by describing how these various capacities get recruited, how they contribute to the features of religion that we find in so many different cultures. We do not need to assume that there is a special way of functioning that occurs only when processing religious thoughts.
    Indeed, if I wanted to be the egregious anthropologist, I would point out that this notion of religion as a special domain is not just unfounded but in fact rather ethnocentric.”Religion Explained p. 311

  30. Matthias: Do you have more information about “critical Buddhism” or Hakayama Noriaki? Why would critical Buddhism be a faithful subject? I’m curious about this because I have heard it mentioned, always negatively and with enormous hostility, but haven’t ever met a “critical Buddhist” or read anything by one of them. Is the movement still around? What are its goals? Other than the fact that they made some people in the Zen community very angry about a decade ago, I don’t know anything about it; however, making mainstream x-buddhism flare up in anger and then silence the debate would seem to be a good sign that this is a faithful subject, and might be worth investigating.

  31. continued from #21 and 22

    I am reading this article by Winton Higgins in the recent issue of The Journal of Global Buddhism. It’s called “The Coming of Secular Buddhism: A Synoptic View.” I will probably write a full response to it at some point. For now, I wanted to point out that Higgins wants to make the case that Secular Buddhism is what is termed “the faithful subject” in the post here. I admit that I have not yet read the piece thoroughly. But, so far, the major premise of the entire argument seems to be that Secular Buddhism escapes the various forms of “naïveté” inherent in both traditionalist and Buddhist modernist discourse.

    When a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which give to that tradition its particular point or purpose… Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict” (222). In this way MacIntyre characterises a living tradition, which reveals “those future possibilities which the past has made available to the present” (223). A dead (or “sedimented”) tradition, by contrast, is one in which the generative questions have been lost, along with knowledge of how the conversation has developed—a tradition whose practitioners are thereby condemned to merely defend,

    [The major premise:] Seen through this prism, secular Buddhists—with their penchant for examining afresh the canonical sources, asking probing questions and adapting the teachings to the time and culture in which they live—stand out as upholders of the Buddha’s living tradition rather than apostates.

    This premise, if fulfilled, would point to a faithful subject. But the premise is utterly mistaken.

    examining afresh. The Secular Buddhist corpus reveals a thoroughly reactionary examination of the canonical sources. Because of Secular Buddhism’s penchant for circular argumentation (in which its conclusions are already given in its premises and its premises are already given in its conclusions) they (the Batchelors, The Secular Buddhist Association, Ted Meissner, Ken McLeod, Stephen Schettini, the Buddhist Geeks, BuddhaSunTricycleShambhalaDharma, Secular Buddhism UK/Australia/Ireland, and so on)–are wholly incapable of such an examination. Their examination of the canonical sources is as thorough as George Bush’s examination of the Iraqi WMD data. They already know what they want to find, so they find that, and only that.

    asking probing questions. All of those secularists just mentioned, without a single exception, ask precisely facile questions that embed predetermined answers. Many of their “questions” exhibit the worst kind of pseudo-intellectualism in that the questions are deceptive carriers of answers. Schettini’s blog is an absurd instance of this. His tagline is “Question life’s big answers; expose yourself to doubt.” And then, post after post, comment reply after comment reply, he, Stephen Schettini, the Naked Monk, offers answers to your big-life-questions. Like Schettini, “questioning” is a rhetorical feature of Secular Buddhist argumentation, not an actual value.

    adapting the teachings. They are not so much as “adapting the teachings to the time and culture in which they live” as they are refusing to use the teachings as a force for changing the time and culture in which they live. That’s what makes them reactionary. They refuse to allow x-buddhist ideas and practices to radically disrupt “the time and culture in which they live.”

    Also, Higgins himself makes a bizarre reactionary-obscurantist anti-intellectual move at the end when he says,

    Heidegger’s opus [Being and Time]also provides the conceptual backbone of Stephen Batchelor’s earliest book, Alone with Others (1983), which exemplifies how phenomenology provides a conceptually rich post-metaphysical meeting point for ancient and modern thought and practice, far from the noisy arenas wherein gladiatorial truth-claims do endless battle.

    But maybe I should not be surprised at the apologetic thrust and tone of Higgins’s piece. After all, he outright admits, as does Batchelor, that Secular Buddhism is a variety of religion: “it answers to the call of today’s secularity—a complex and frequently misunderstood religio-cultural development in the West” (emphasis in original).

    I wonder when the conversation will occur between those secularistas who hoist the banner of scientism and claim to be rationalists, skeptics, atheists, and agnostics, and those who, like Batchelor and now Higgins, argue from the ground of spiritualism and good old religion. Perhaps the answer is contained in Higgins’s statement that “Buddhists lack the Christian taste for spirited contention, and baulk at ’embodying continuities of conflict’ as MacIntyre would have a vital tradition do.” In other words: it ain’t gonna happen.

    Secularists: Why do you so vigorously uphold the burden of a gutless “compassion” and a paralyzing commitment to a subjugating “right speech”? These are the bane–bana, killer, murderer–of the faithful subject.

  32. Tom: re Critical Buddhism. I came across it only a few days ago and am not familiar with the case. There is an essay by Noriaki in which he explains the case. The initial phase of Critical Buddhism was in the mid eighties.

    Noriaki says “only that which is critical is Buddhism.” He makes a distinction between “Critical Buddhism” and “Topical Buddhism”. In Critical Buddhism there are two concepts which make Buddhism Buddhism: pratitya-samutpada and anatta. Nothing else. The term “topical” stems from Gambattista Vico and denotes, I think, something like the art of rhetorics or rhetorical philosophie as opposed to critical, dialectical philosophie.

    Here is a review of the book Pruning the Bodhi Tree which is about Critical Buddhism. On the first few pages is a summary of the positon of Critical Buddhism. Beginning at the second page: An Overview of the Issue

    1. True Buddhism is nothing other than pratitya-samutpada.
    2. Buddhism is selfless action to benefit others.
    3. Buddhism is not a matter of transcendent mystical experience but entails a commitment of faith, as well as reason and the use of language to discriminate truth from falsehood.

    I think it is worthwhile to take a look at this.

    On first sight it looks to me like a very no bullshit approach to Buddhism which cuts off a lot of those transcendental tathagata jingle bells.

  33. Glenn,

    re #35

    Higgins wants to make the case that Secular Buddhism is what is termed “the faithful subject” in the post here.

    They are not so much as “adapting the teachings to the time and culture in which they live” as they are refusing to use the teachings as a force for changing the time and culture in which they live.

    Secularists: Why do you so vigorously uphold the burden of a gutless “compassion” and a paralyzing commitment to a subjugating “right speech”? These are the bane–bana, killer, murderer–of the faithful subject.

    Interesting observations about Winton Higgins’ piece. I read an earlier version but should read it again…

    How ironic that Winton has apparently changed from a radical academic socialist in the 70’s & 80’s (not dissimilar to Tom) who very much advocated political change and critical of others for abstaining from politics, to one who is now criticised for the same thing.

    I suppose this is what happens when you advocate secular Buddhism as a progressive social movement. From my experience the psychotherapeutic inclinations of the mostly comfortably middle class members were much stronger than any political inclinations.



  34. Re #28: I think it is worth the time to actually read some of the neuroscience. Almost always, we find that the neuroscientists themselves are not making any of the preposterous claims we see in books like Buddha’s Brain and in the glossy mags. They mostly report what they actually see, and suggest further research. In fact, they are often careful to warn against exactly the conclusions we see in the popular press. I read the research cited in several articles about meditation making us “happier,” and it said nothing of the kind–it simply says that those who are long-term meditators are less easily distracted and quicker to recover focus after distraction. So if not noticing what is going on around you is a sign of happiness (it may very well be a prerequisite for it these days), then they are happier, but the study also explicitly said this was a correlation, not a causation–that is, the authors pointed out that it might be the case that people become long-term meditators because they are already predisposed to the particular brain differences involved, and meditation doesn’t cause them, but is the result of them.

    When I point this out to the Buddhism=Science crowd, I am accused of arrogance for daring to think I know more about neuroscience than and actual scientist does–but of course I am not claiming anything of the kind. My arrogance is limited to believing I am a better reader than the authors of the popular press article making preposterous claims, that I actually understand what the scientists are saying. This reactionary subject is very dependent on not knowing what science actually does or says, and a serious scientist is just as likely to make them furious as a non-buddhist.

  35. Here’s a more amusing version of the obscurantist subject, from Ajahn Brahm’s MIndfulness, Bliss, and Beyond, in the chapter called “The Nature of Deep Insight”:

    A monk I know told be that as a layman he had once had a powerful meditation experience of deep prolonged bliss, better than sexual orgasm, wherein the body had vanished and everything was still…That was a deep insight.

    Lacanians would call that jouissance, not insight. I guess for Theravadins, “insight” is a world-transcendent experience of pure bliss? For Ajahn Brahm, this experience of this world, and all thought, vanishing in an orgasmic experience is “seeing things as they truly are.” I suppose I can see why that might be appealing, but wouldn’t one eventually get tired of chasing that particular impossible high? Unless we believe in a unchanging other-worldly soul, what could this be except a delusion to encourage ascetic renunciation? Suffer now, bliss later? No thanks.

  36. Tom (# 39), are you sure that there is no place for some kind of “wholesome high” in Buddhism? How would you interpret the above fragment from Brahm if the “deep insight” would be replaced by the words “deep thought”, which is actually how R. Gethin proposes to translate buddhemes such as samadhi, jhana or dhyana. Do you as a self-proclaimed Buddhist accept what your tradition says about how “calming the mind” (understood as a prerequisite for “seeing things as they truly are”) is reached by the way of deep thought/samadhi, where it happens that “there is no part of [the] whole body unpervaded by the rapture and pleasure born of seclusion.”? Let me spew out an example. Take the well-known passage from Majjhima Nikaya (i. 276).

    “Having abandoned these five hindrances, imperfections of the mind that weaken wisdom, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, he enters upon and abides in the first jhana, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. He makes the rapture and pleasure born of seclusion drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of his whole body unpervaded by the rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. Just as a skilled bath man or a bath man’s apprentice heaps bath powder in a metal basin and, sprinkling it gradually with water, kneads it until the moisture wets his ball of bath powder, soaks it, and pervades it inside and out, yet the ball itself does not ooze; so too, a bhikkhu makes the rapture and pleasure born of seclusion drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of his whole body unpervaded by the rapture and pleasure born of seclusion.” (Nyanamoli and Bodhi, p. 240)

    Or you would rather excise that fragment, and others similar to it, from the body of your tradition as a perfect example of what you call “delusion to encourage ascetic renunciation”?

  37. Re #41: I just can’t figure it out. Are you really so stupid, Tomek, or just trying to be obnoxious? I’ve made it clear dozens of times that I do not take the collection of Buddhist texts to be some kind of revealed and unquestionable truth. They are no different from any other “tradition,” and should be treated in the same way. Some will be true and insightful, some will be wrong. To say we must accept the entire canon or be heretics is like saying we cannot accept Ernest Mandel’s theory of late capitalism without also accepting Rush Limbaugh’s quite different explanation of the economy–both are part of the western 20th-century “tradition” of economic and political discourse, and one could imagine passages from both appearing in an anthology on the subject 500 years from now. We need to evaluate the truth and effects of each idea we encounter; that may take more work than accepting everything that is in some “canon”, but that’s the only option if we want to be thinking humans.

  38. So, Tom (# 42), should I understand that you entirely reject the whole notion of meditational/devotional hydraulics of the body that thoroughly pervades so many sectors of the “tradition” and is supposed to lead to the end of suffering, the issue that seems to be so dear to you? Believe me or not, but I’m truly curious how you manage to dodge such a huge portion of your buddhistic tradition, where the ascetic, gradual ideal of replacing the truly unwholesome states of mind with the less unwholesome states (like bodily pleasure, for example, which is to be a result of certain devotional acts or techniques) seems to be a pivotal stage for a Dharma devotee, who desires to reach the end of suffering.

  39. I really just can’t answer you any differently. I cannot grasp what you are failing to understand. My response remains: there will always be, created by any truth, a reactionary and obscurantist subject alongside any faithful subject. The goal is not to “dodge” the reactionary response, but to confront it and expose it as an obscurantist/reactionary attempt to smother the truth. I’ve said this so many times, it hardly seems worth continuing to post it in response to you repeated reframing of the same question.

  40. Tom, certainly, I cannot grasp many things, and among them there is your persistent manner of calling yourself a “Buddhist”. Why do you – with your highly idiosyncratic interpretation of “Nagarjuna”, through rejection of early buddhistic fundamental ideals such as nirvana, etc., in sum, grotesquely alienated stance against juggernaut of x-buddhistic history – still need to call yourself “Buddhist”? What’s the point? Why not drop it and instead wholeheartedly energize with your fierceness the defeated revolutionary vanguard?

    I do not await your answer to this difficult question…

  41. I’m sure you don’t Tomek–because I’ve answered this same question for you many times, and your response is always to refuse to listen to the answer, then repeat that you have stumped me with your profound question.

    Honestly, I’ve been thinking about this all morning, and I’m tired of posting responses to right-wind ideologues, who tell me in advance they will refuse to listen to my answer. So I’m done for a while. If my comments attract nothing but reactionary/obscurantist response, then I suppose this isn’t the way to change anything, and is not the best use of my time.

  42. Well at least he’s figured out his current strategy isn’t working. I guess that’s progress of sorts.

  43. Some nominations for faithful subjects: I would suggest that the scholars calling themselves The Cowherds are perhaps faithful to the truth of Buddhism, more so than almost any non-academic Buddhists. And I would say that not because they have some true “doctrine” to reveal—they don’t seem to completely agree on many things—but because they are interested in a kind of examination of Buddhist texts that evaluates the truth value in them, instead of taking them as revealed truths or, like many Buddhologists, treating them as the naïve and foolish beliefs of primitives we can examine like specimens but must never evaluate. That is, the willingness to treat Buddhist ideas in the same fashion as we would western ideas, to take Buddhist thought seriously as thought.

    To offer one brief example, in an essay about Santideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, Garfield suggests that to understand this work we must stop trying to reduce through comparison to western thought, and treat is as a serious theory of ethics, one that has (in my terms) truth value, not simply ideological value. Santideva, on Garfield’s reading, offers us the truth that our ignorance is so powerful because it results from our attempt to repress a truth which terrifies us, but which we nonetheless cannot completely forget. The goal of meditation becomes to “embed discursive knowledge into one’s character,” not to free ourselves of all thought. So, what is important is that we must fully understand the fundamental teaching of dependent origination, because only that will enable us to act with compassion in the world, to be fully awakened beings. To put it in my own idiom, Santideva offers us a theory of how Buddhist practice can allow us to know our ideology and still live within and be motivated by it—but this can only be done through a thorough understanding and acceptance of dependent arising or anatman. If we do not practice Buddhism in this way, meditating to stop thought instead of to “embed discursive knowledge,” we are left with the typical western dilemma of either being agents in an ideology we are ignorant of, or being “outside” of ideology but with no capacity for agency. Santideva, on Garfield’s reading, offers a solution to one of the most intractable problems of modern ideology theory. Such reading are only possible if we set aside faith in some unified tradition, and are willing to engage Buddhist texts not as scripture but as philosophy.

    One other note: I have pursued the suggestion about “critical Buddhism,” and am quite surprised to find how very engaged in producing truth some Japanese Zen scholars are. I am not so surprise that this approach did not get much traction here in the U.S. Hakayama and Matumoto are particularly concerned to, in the words of Jamie Hubbard, “critique” ideologies that “masquerade as Buddhism in Japan.” These Zen scholars “contend that much of the Buddhist tradition has …been busy denying the very possibility of talking about truth,” and they see the goal of Buddhism as “critical discrimination of truth” and “social justice.” Matsumoto’s position is that we must “be willing to criticize even the teachings of Buddha if they contradict the teachings of dependent origination and no-self. Critical Buddhism denotes a philosophically critical pursuit of truth, not a historical or textual search for origins.”

    I have several more essays to read about critical Buddhism, but I have not idea if it is even still a movement in Japan—its translation into western Buddhism seems to have stopped cold about decade ago. They seem to be fellow-travelers on the non-buddhist path; does anyone know more about them? Is there still such a collective “subject” alive and active in Japan?

  44. Hello Tom,

    Thanks for suggesting some nominations for faithful Buddhist subjects. Of course I’m familiar with Garfield from his translation of the MMK, which I absolutely read as philosophy and not scripture. I found a book online by them (The Cowherds, I wonder where they came by this name?), entitled “Moonshadows, Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy”. It appears to be 14 essays, some written individually and some collectively with others in the group. Are you familiar with it? It looked good to me so I went on and ordered a copy.


  45. Danny: I’ve read Moonshadows, and it’s great stuff. They don’t all advance the same position (there’s no “official doctrine of the Cowherds), so one can’t agree with all the essays, but the first essay alone, the “Introduction to Conventional Truth,” should be on every non-buddhist’s reading list, in my opinion.

  46. Years ago, when I was mostly a bookstore Buddhist, interested in reading whatever I could find about Buddhist thought, I was under the impression that those interested in Buddhism must be those willing to face the truth of our existence. The longer I’ve been involved in the Buddhist community, the more convinced I’ve become that most westerners come to Buddhism exactly to avoid facing up to certain truths. It is hard to find another Buddhist who is interested in discussing Nagarjuna or the concept of anatman, but easy to find one who believes in chokras and auras. Most people seem to come to Buddhism as a way of escaping any sense of responsibility in the world–their christian religion has too many rules to follow, but Buddhism will allow you to do anything you want in the world and still go to some state of transcendent bliss when you die.

    Lacan says that our greatest desire is always a desire NOT to know, to avoid truth at all costs. Lacanian psychoanalysis, then, is meant to lead people into an ability to accept knowledge. Western Buddhism has only “skillful means,” which seems to mean that it is okay to encourage delusions if that comforts people. In fact, to be “skillful” has come to mean to encourage a thorough denial of our impermanence and the absence of a transcendent soul–any suggestion to the contrary is seen as cruel and not “right speech.”

    Matthias asks often if it might be better to abandon the term Buddhism completely, and I wonder if it just might be. More and more I come across people who angrily insist that the teaching of nonself is “not real Buddhism,” that they know, from Thich Nhat Hanh or Pema Chodron or whoever, that “real Buddhism” teaches the existence of a unified, world-transcendent and indestructible consciousness, pure and permanently in a state of bliss. If this is, for most people, the only thing they can understand Buddhism to mean, perhaps it is better to drop the term.

    Tricycle has published some surprisingly challenging articles lately, and it seems the audience is staying away in droves. Nobody wants to consider Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s advice that one should read the entire sutra and not quote passages out of context to support whatever you wish to believe. And not many people seem to be enthusiastic about two new articles suggesting that all that neuroscience really has nothing much to do with Buddhism. Nobody wants to hear that Buddhism hasn’t always been an apolitical stress-reduction technique. I wonder how long it will take the folks at Tricycle to revert to revert to their Buddhism=science=soul position.

  47. Another faithful subject?: => Sulak Sivaraksa

    P.S. What I find strange is that the author of the article sits, among other, on the executive council of the Rigpa Fellowship – an organisation of Sogyal Rinpoche who is one of the worst x-buddhists under the sun.

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