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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.