The Power of Negative Thinking

“Critique” is that form of discourse which seeks to inhabit the experience of the subject from inside, in order to elicit those “valid” features of that experience which point beyond the subject’s present condition —Terry Eagleton, Ideology, xiv

One of the animating ideas of the non-buddhism critique is that contemporary x-buddhism persistently “denies its own promises and potentialities.” That phrase is from Herbert Marcuse’s 1960 essay “A Note on Dialectic.”* In this post, I will briefly present Marcuse’s notion of dialectical, or negative, thinking. Then, I will suggest ways that readers might use this analytical tool in their own encounters with x-buddhist teachers, literature, on-line sites and beyond. Finally, I will make a few predictions.

The Concept and Practice of Negative Thinking

Marcuse’s concept—and practice—of negative thinking is encapsulated in Hegel’s definition of thinking itself: “Thinking is essentially the negation of that which is immediately before us.” To disabuse the reader of the excuse that this is an abstract philosophical principle, Marcuse immediately says that it is, on the contrary, “saturated with experience—”

experience of a world in which the unreasonable becomes reasonable and, as such, determines the facts; in which unfreedom is the condition of freedom, and war the guarantor of peace. This world contradicts itself (64).

The negative is thus “the central category of dialectic” (64). It is so because thinking the negative is what enables us to recognize that the status quo—the conglomeration of socially posited and accepted “facts”—maintains itself only through systematic, if often blind, disregard of “the fatal contradictions” which constitute it. For a political thinker like Marcuse, an example of how a fatal contradiction manifests might be the chasm between the American rhetoric of social justice and equality and the reality of injustice and inequality.  To extrapolate from Marcuse’s argument in Eros and Civilization, although the United States possesses the wealth and resources required to significantly reduce, if not eradicate, poverty, scarcity, and exploitation, somehow the latter increases along with the former. As we, as a society, increase the conditions for a just and equal society, our society in fact becomes even more oppressive. This contradiction, when recognized, is fatal in two senses. First, it abolishes any pretense to a national identity of being “the home of the free and the brave,” where “all men are created equal,” and all that. Second, it makes clear that we, as a society, deny ourselves the very “promise and potentialities” inherent in our ideology of freedom and equality.

Negative thinking is in this manner “the driving power of dialectical thought, used as a tool for analyzing the world of facts in terms of its internal inadequacy” (64-65). Marcuse followed Hegel in viewing dialectic not merely as a method to be applied to phenomena, but as an inherent feature of reality. Viewing the world only in terms of the established “facts” (the American political system is democratic) is thus inadequate because it is woefully incomplete (our “democracy” is rigged toward the wealthy, rife with cronyism, lists toward disenfranchisement). Thus, “all thinking that does not testify to an awareness of the radical falsity of the established forms of life is faulty thinking” (70). Any form of thinking, moreover, that “excludes contradiction from its logic is a faulty” form of thinking (66). “Thought,” in fact, “‘corresponds’ to reality only as it transforms reality by comprehending its contradictory structure” (66). And it is in this possibility of transformation that negative thought has its ultimate value.


Next, I want to invite the reader to spend some time digging up evidence for him/herself for what I claim to be happening with x-buddhist materials. Denying the promise and potential of, say, social equality, is serious business. It is equally serious when human potentialities such as “awakening” and “seeing things as they are” and “wisdom” are at issue. In Marcuse’s terms, denial stems from the refusal of an x-buddhist community to acknowledge “the reality of contradictions” (64) inherent in its system of thought and action. I encourage you to look at Ken McLeod’s site “Unfettered Mind” as a good example of what Marcuse is calling denial of promise and potential (links at bottom). McLeod’s site is rife with instances of the “conformistic logic” (64) which ensues from denial of contradiction. This is a logic that simultaneously “repels its own real possibilities” (67) and impels the very conditions of potential-denying subjugation that McLeod, as x-buddhist teacher, claims to be ameliorating. That is not to say, of course, that McLeod’s site is free from contradiction. Quite the contrary. I hope the reader will notice the site’s incoherent appropriation of, for instance, Enlightenment rationality and skepticism together with Romantic anti-rationalism and exuberant emotionalism, or of its pervasive scientistic empiricism in conjunction with obscurantist mysticism. Notice in particular how all of these (unacknowledged, flattened out) contradictory forces are garnered to create a totalizing system of self-realization—one that is run through with coercive strategies of person formation, and thus leaves little or no room for individual prerogatives. Again, given McLeod’s x-buddhist rhetoric of emancipation, the problem here should be obvious.

While you’re at it, you may want to do the same kind of examination of your favorite x-buddhist material—website, dharma talk, book, Shambhala Sun article, and so on. Ask yourself: does this material exhibit contradictions that are somehow suppressed through non-elaboration, thereby denying the promise and potentialities that are, ostensibly, the material’s very reason for being? The “power of negative thinking” that Marcuse promotes in “A Note on Dialectic” will surely prove useful in your investigations of x-buddhist material.

The Negative of the Positive

Marcuse’s apparently intentional reversal of Norman Vincent Peale’s multi-million-selling 1952 publication The Power of Positive Thinking has significance for us even beyond what Marcuse intended. I say this because contemporary western x-buddhism is nothing if not a “positive thinking” movement. It is one, moreover, in the grand tradition of the movements surrounding people like Peale, Dale Carnegie, James Allen, and Napoleon Hill, It is positive in two additional senses that Marcuse’s negative thinking is intended to counter.

First, x-buddhism is a complex system of valorization. It valorizes practices and dispositions that it deems positive—constructive, affirmative, helpful—and does so to the point of making them essential spiritualized qualities. A visit to McLeod’s site reveals the all-too predictable list of such positive qualities: right speech, balance, generosity, goodness, compassion, loving kindness, non-judgmental mindfulness, meditation, devotion, equanimity, top-down student-teacher relationship, and many more. In the world of x-buddhism, these “positive” qualities, significantly, are not merely recommended: they are required for sustained admission to the community. To act or speak with, say, judgmentalism or emotional imbalance or to reject the hierarchical teacher-student relationship is seen at best as a breach of good-buddhist propriety and at worst as want of “spiritual” accomplishment and forfeiture of authority. I encourage you to test this claim by leaving an “unmindful,” unrightspeechified, yet nonetheless thoughtful, comment on some topic on the Tricycle blog, at the Secular Buddhist Association, or at Dharma Wheel.

Western x-buddhism is positive in another sense, as well. It employs its “facts” as a means of creating a false unity. For Marcuse, to repeat, facts are what constitute the present order of a situation, such as the values mentioned on McLeod’s site. The facts are thus “positive” in the sense that they are granted visibility by the community, made explicit, put on display, presented on the surface, rendered status quo, and so forth. But, says Marcuse, the facts remain positive only through suppression of “that which they exclude” (67), namely, their opposite, their negative, that which opposes and negates them. I predict that your investigations will confirm that, from the conservative zen- and theravadan-buddhists to the ostensibly progressive secular- and atheist-buddhists, contradictions are as a matter of course masked, diminished, flattened out or outright suppressed. Again, you can test this hypothesis yourself through robust dialogue with fellow practitioners, teachers, and on-line communities.

A Couple More Predictions

I also predict that you will discover that your x-buddhist interlocutors will repel your inquisitive probing into the negative aspect of their thought. The obvious result of a community’s safeguarding of the “positive,” in all senses of the term mentioned here, is that its contradictions remain hidden, and the status quo of the enforcers reigns. Given that this anti-negative one-sidedness constitutes “denial of promise and potentiality,” a less obvious but quite real consequence follows. Marcuse argues that the primary condition for the maintenance of the enforcement-domination cycle is hereby established: participation in Ken McLeod’s “Pragmatic Buddhism,” for example, leads the participant to voluntarily internalize the oppressive values that disable the promise of social and personal emancipation potentially inherent in the material. Only robust, persistent negative thinking (and dialogical interaction) can prohibit such repression and enable emancipatory potential.

Finally, it will be interesting to note, given many previous discussions on this blog, that Marcuse claims that negative thinking is “the mode of thought capable of piercing [our] ideology” (71). With that, I will leave you with one final prediction: drawing out the negative in our current x-buddhist materials and teachers, in our search for their promise and potential, will be prove to be as liberating as it is destructive.

* The essay served as a preface to the revised edition of Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, originally published in 1941. I referred to Andrew Feenberg and William Leiss, The Essential Marcuse: Selected Writings of Philosopher and Social Critic Herbert Marcuse (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007).


Ken McLeod’s site (with quotes such as: “One cannot be free by opposing another.” –James Carse)
Secular Buddhist Association (their “Community Standards” page exemplifies what Marcuse calls “surplus repression.”)
Tricycle blog
Dharma Wheel forum (discussion of a Tom Pepper essay)


Glenn Wallis holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Harvard University. He is the author of Mediating the Power of Buddhas and several other books and articles on Buddhism. Wallis also blogs at Ovenbird. He co-founded, with Tom Pepper and Matthias Steingass, the e-journal non + x. For more information, visit:

66 thoughts on “The Power of Negative Thinking

  1. On Mcleod. I was interested in him because he seemed to have ‘stripped away’ all the religious and Tibetan baggage from Buddhism and taught a practical application of practice. The practice, accordin to him, is to ‘rest in the breath to cultivate attention’. When one has developed a sufficient capacity of attention, one can then become aware and cut ‘reactive patterns’. Using Marcuse’s Negative Thinking I see meditation as not resting at all, but actually quite active and at times a painful nightmare…the opposite of rest. Cultivating attention seems to be just taking tried and true concentration practices and making the seem mystical/practical. Finally, the negative of reactive patterns is pro-active patterns. My so-called reaction that some of McLeod’s teaching is manipulating must be attended to and cut. For example, I made a comment on a Buddhist board that I found McLeod’s speaking to be obnoxious and condescending. I was told that I was reacting and that that was a personal issue for me to deal with.

    I’m also reminded of a time when I dared question a Zen Master about the use of the ‘wake up stick’. I said I thought it was absolutely violent. His response was, ‘That’s just the way do it’. The negative of the wake up stick is a beat down.

  2. Glenn,

    What when we see all views as equally valid expressing needs ?

    What when we see alternative courses of action not as good and bad but as competing goods, as many of them which can possibly be elicited ?

    Isnt trying to reach agreement for pulling work together for the useful for betterment of all what really matters ?

    It seems to me that the very premise of bipolar dialectical thinking is as narrow as the views that you (and Marcuse) critique (or perhaps even more totalizing given the fact that it pretends a final way if dealing with things, another form of methodolatry).

    In the end, the old, all-pervasive pragmatist question lingers: what are we solving ???

  3. Most western Buddhist teachers present a “Buddhanature” version of Buddhism which is inherently positivist, and does not permit the negative thought necessary to grasp concepts like anatman, sunyata, or dependent origination. For teachers like Thich Nhat or McLeod , anatman is understood to mean that the phenomenal world is “not my self”: that is, my habits, my job, my relationships, my social class, my gender, these are “not my self” because I have a “true self” that can be separate from and untouched by these things, that will escape this world and remain in permanent bliss once I become sufficiently detached from this world.

    This is how the idea of “reactive patterns” which we can break operates: we must have a core observer self that is somehow separate from these habits, and can notice them and restrain the outer “false” self from acting in habitual ways. This is the same approach we see in CBT, Transactional Analysis, REBT, Interpersonal Therapy, or Ego Psychology, and it never works in any of them, because it operates on the incorrect assumption that we really DO have an atomistic and transcendent true self. (Psychoanalysis in the Freudian or Lacanian school, by contrast, would try to remove the desire to act in a certain way, to change the structure of the subject so that there is no more need to “restrain” ourselves from acting on our “impulses” by changing our desires—because there is no “true self,” only a completely dependently arisen “conventional self”).

    This kind of therapy, or this kind of Buddhist practice, never works—it doesn’t even work for the “masters” themselves. I recall an article which interviewed the “masters” of cognitive therapy about how the practice worked in their own lives, and they all admitted it didn’t work at all, that they couldn’t do it themselves; we can all recall stories of the devoted Buddhist who loses all equanimity the minute he has to interact with people in ordinary life. This is because when this practice does work, it works not because there is a “core self” monitoring the phenomenal self, but because of identification with the therapist/teacher—a kind of unexamined transference modifying our behavior. This is the reason for the condescending, patronizing behavior of these therapists and x-buddhist teachers: they know their practice depends on having clients/students who will accept them as father/mother figures, and that it will stop working the minute they are seen as ordinary people. Any mention of a contradiction or of being bothered by the teacher’s ignorance or condescension must be dismissed as “resistance” because it will expose the lack at the core of this practice and prevent its temporary success—it works sort of like hypnosis, which powerfully depends on the belief in the skill and intelligence of the hypnotist, and so often depends on a lot of performance and staging to create the right atmosphere.

    Teachers like McLeod attempt to reify our attachment to our idea of a self, under the name of “nonself” teaching, and when the method fails miserably (once the power of the transference fades) the student can only decide that she has tried Buddhism and it is a dismal failure. In the Buddhism and addiction field, there is the same kind of absolute positivism: addiction must be a “habit” learned to cope with “stress,” it must be a matter of too much>/em> positive pressure, and never a sign of the lack of something in the symbolic/imaginary system which produces the subject. To see the problem as a lack would be to suggest we must change the social system; to see it as a response of the core “true self” to stress would enable us to merely suggest that that addict must identify with a teacher or therapist and learn to reify his illusory ego and resist his bad impulses—an approach that has failed for decades now.

    The power of positivist thinking is that it convinces us that all problems are a result of too much (stress, attachment, complexity, thought), and we cannot see how often problems are a sign of lack, of what our World excludes.

  4. Tom,

    A quick (genuine) question: for you, does meta-cognition always imply an atman, or is it more that you think that that advocating meta-cognition without an appropriate contextual cognitive framework is likely to lead to the idea of a reified meta-cognizer? In a sense, isn’t analysis of the type that you advocate a form of meta-cognition, i.e. to question what has given rise to, and continues to structure, the thoughts, perceptions and emotions that a person may be experiencing?

  5. I’m not sure what you mean by meta-cognition. I would say that there is no such thing as meta-cognition, and that creating the illusion that we can do such a thing always serves to reinforce the illusion that there is an atman, the attachment to the belief in some “core self” that is outside of all conceptual thought. What occurs when CBT or ego psychology works is a sort of identification in the imaginary register, which we mistake for meta-cognition. The goal of Lacanian analysis is not to arrive at a “correct” idea of what has given rise to the neurotic symptom. That is, this knowledge may theoretically be possible, and may even be of interest, but it is not the goal of psychoanalysis to provide the analysand with such knowledge, because this knowledge will do nothing to remove the neurotic symptom. Rather, the goal of analysis is more along the lines of working with the analysand to restructure the symbolic/imaginary system in such a way that there are no more disabling symptoms (there will always be some repression, and so some symptom, because any symbolic system is incomplete). The goal is not “knowledge” which enables us to “restrain” our cognitive impulses (to learn to “ignore” our “irrational” thinking and live in perfect identification with the father-therapist, believing we are practicing “meta-cognition”); instead, we seek to change our desires by reworking our symbolic system. At the theoretical/scientific level we may have correct “knowledge,” but knowing the world completely will give us not idea of what to do in it. At the ideological level, we have a symbolic/imaginary system which does not seek to “know” the world correctly, but to construct a relation to the world. If our ideology requires us not to know the world correctly, it is a bad ideology and will lead to problems, but even assuming we know the mind-independent world fully there are infinite ideological symbolic/imaginary systems we could produce in relation to it.

    If by “meta-cognition” you mean scientific knowledge of how the world is, separate from what we choose to do in the world, then no, it doesn’t require an atman. But such knowledge occurs in the symbolic order, in discourses, and not in an atomistic individual. The subject, as a subject of an ideology, does not practice meta-cognition. There will always be ideology, no matter how good our scientific discourses get; knowledge of the mind-independent world, even scientific knowledge of ideology, can never give us any idea of what to do without some level of ideology. And ideology may influence the kinds of scientific knowledge we try to produce, but it never attempts to directly describe the mind-independent universe, only to produce a relation to it. To try to condense these two registers into one individual, to suggest the individual has “cognitions” and “meta-cognitions,” is to fall back into methodological atomism and will only lead to confused thinking and the return of the same old “mind-body problem.”

  6. Mr Pepper, I’m very curious about the article you mention in 3, in which cognitive therapy ‘masters’ were interviewed. Could you give a source please?

  7. Bart: I don’t really recall the name of the article. It was about ten years ago, and it was in some counseling or clinical psychology journal. I’m pretty sure one of the authors was Albert Ellis, and he humorously described his own inability to use REBT in his own life, and his tendency to get irate and overreact to things. If you’re really interested, you could probably find it with a psychinfo search of articles with Ellis as an author from between, say, eight and fifteen years ago. I would speculate that you’ll get a hundred or so hits, and you should be able to find it.

  8. It’s taken all of my brain to roughly decode this article. I think I agree with the majority of it, however further investigation is needed on my part. I’m not used to reading this style of writing; not to mention the choice of terminology being used is different from what I’ve chosen to represent (what I estimate to be) the same ideas.

  9. Chris (#8). Thanks for joining us here. Abstraction and “difficulty” are used on this blog as both bait and weapon. As bait, it brings to the surface the myriad forms of contemporary western Buddhist anti-intellectualism and pseudo-knowledge. As weapon, it bludgeons x-buddhists’ pretense to fairness, compassion, rigorous debate, and other ostensible Buddhist values. Do you want to expose contemporary western Buddhists’ hypocrisy? Well, may I recommend “difficult” yet eminently coherent argumentation.

    ADDED: Two additional reasons for “difficulty.” (1) It forces the interested reader to work and think, in short, to robustly engage. (2) It discourages, perhaps disables, thoughtless agreement or, as I like to call it, locking onto the grooves of borrowed thought.

  10. Tom Pepper, #3:

    In what way do you mean that “…CBT … never works …”? The multitude of scientific research on the effectivenesss of CBT for fobia, depression, anxiety, etc. ,indicates that it works for improving the psychological well-being of people with these type of problems, so you have to refer to another definition of “doesn’t work”.
    Unless you reject the field of psychology as a whole that is.

  11. G.: I do think that what psychology would call “well-being” is not something any human should wish on another–see my essay on Buddhism and Therapy in non+X. However, even on its own criteria, there has never been a single study conducted according to the APA guidelines for “evidence-based practice” which demonstrates that CBT is successful at relieving any problem. There are some studies that demonstrate that behavioral therapy is effective for treating phobia, but CBT cannot even succeed with depression, which has always been its bailiwick. Don’t trust what you read in the textbooks or what gets asserted in journal articles: try to locate even one single study that meets the APA guidelines and results in successful alleviation of depression; none exist. This is fine with me, because if it did it would be just one more way to delude people and produce more effective capitalist corporate cubicle-dwellers. CBT might be temporarily effective in the few cases where there is an identification/transference with the therapist, usually produced in young or emotionally vulnerable people, and its effect will wear off once the treatment is over and the transference effect fades–a horrible way to manipulate and troubled people to make a buck, it seems to me; in the majority of cases, it won’t have any effect at all, other than to annoy the client–which the therapist will never know, because the client will simply quit therapy.

    If CBT worked, everyone would be pushed to do it, and we would all be happy little consumers. It doesn’t work, and that’s why antidepressant medications are so popular today.

  12. I just glimpsed though non+x. In general it is sad to see so much repetition. Cultural criticism is important, but solving inequality is more important. How do you deal with irrelevance? With the fact that your writings are simply not where relevant problems are? I mean rebranding buddhism, comunism and Marcuse will not change things much.

    A good combination of geography, sociology, systems thinking and internet technology would take this project much further at any time, just to put an example.


    What when we see all views as equally valid expressing needs ? And what when we do not ? This latter seems to be your case. Arguing and counterarguing. Where is the anchor, the absence of which made Artaud and so many “seekers” simply evaporate in thin air and nhilism ? The anchor is usefulness, usefulness the betterment of all. When one considers all views as equally valid expressing needs, some see a ghost reflected, the very ghost of irrelevance, other as me see that the real challenge then is in getting to agree on competing needs, and the in working together to improve things. Something which by the way can only be done in democracy.

    What when we see alternative courses of action not as good and bad but as competing goods, as many of them which can possibly be elicited ? Again, the anchor is what is useful, not what is positive or negative. Buddhism could be seen, which is not, as a process of deconditioning the individual for eliciting effective action in solidarity with others.

    Isnt trying to reach agreement for pulling work together for the useful betterment of all, what really matters ? Yes, yes, yes.

    It seems to me that the very premise of bipolar dialectical thinking is as narrow as the views that you (Fallis and Marcuse) critique, or perhaps – without a doubt actually – even more totalizing given the fact that it pretends a final way if dealing with things, yet another form of redundant methodolatry in the face of the inability to cope with concrete relevant problems -such as world hunger, etc-.

    In the end, the old, all-pervasive pragmatist question lingers: what are we solving ???

    As any good philosopher gets rid of philosophy as such, any good buddhist does away with budhism as such. Got it ?

  13. I wonder if we can perhaps transfer some of the discussion that is emerging on other posts over to this one? The issue of the refusal of thought, of the fear of thought, the assumption that any thought is a form of suffering and a sign of hostility and repressed anger, is a natural adjunct of the positivist epistemology still so pervasive in our world. The power of positiv(ist) thinking is that it seems so obviously correct: we reason logically from concrete observable “facts”; in the process, we find endless “contradictions,” in the form of insoluble dilemmas, and simply see them as a clash of opposites. If we can squash one side completely, the dilemma will be resolved; we fail to see that economic crisis, terrorist acts, crime, school shootings, are not extra “positives” we can “subtract” from the world, but are the necessary effect of the system we are attached to, are the sign of an inherent but invisible contradiction. “Facts” must be positive and materially concrete, and the system of social relationships is masked by appeal to “objectivity.” As Marcuse puts it:
    “as always before, the subject that has conquered matter suffers under the dead weight of this conquest. Those who enforce and direct this conquest have used it to create a world in which the increasing comforts of life and the ubiquitous power of the productive apparatus keep man enslaved to the prevailing state of affairs… This power of facts is an oppressive power; it is the power of man over man, appearing as objective and rational condition. Against this appearance, thought continues to protest in the name of truth.”

    Thinking is so often rejected because the only kind of thinking we can recognize as such is positivist reason, manipulation of “facts” with statistical procedures, the clash of one positive against another. We cannot grasp that the clash of the positive forces are a necessary effect of the social system, because things like “social systems” are not “positive facts” and so are invisible. We are left with either pure positivist thought, or pure obscurantist irrationalism, the old choice between Romanticism and utilitarian empiricism, and since both leave every problem unsolved, thinking itself is rejected, and we retreat into the “comforts of life.”

    Real thought, dialectical thought, is always dangerous, because it always threatens the belief in the inevitability of the present World; but dialectical thought is not suffering or pain or torture: it can be liberating, and fun, and is the only way we can live as awakened humans instead of as comfortably overfed animals to be sacrificed to perpetuate the stability of the World.

    Perhaps it is inevitable that this would seem hostile, angry, antagonistic, because it threatens the destruction of the feedlot. To those enjoying the fodder, thought could only seem cruel: “before the power of given facts, the power of negative thinking stands condemned.”

    Even the master of Soto Zen, Dogen, says that we can only awaken through discriminating thought, and that those who have awakened must “constantly endeavor in body, word, and mind to arouse this mind in all sentient beings.” If you like citations from the great Buddhism masters, there you have it: we are obliged to push all others to awaken, we cannot help but do it, not matter how much they might complain and resist and seek the comforts of the body over the awakening of the mind.

  14. Tom (#14). Thanks for making those points. A few responses.

    We are left with either pure positivist thought, or pure obscurantist irrationalism, the old choice between Romanticism and utilitarian empiricism, and since both leave every problem unsolved, thinking itself is rejected, and we retreat into the “comforts of life.”

    This strikes me as the perfect crystallization of the current sphere of x-buddhist discourse. (It captures, I think, our culture as a whole, but I’ll stick to the blog’s subject.) That the “cut” is happening right where you say it is should be obvious to anyone willing to look. But of course, the terms of your statement already predict that, and why, that won’t happen. I recently left my first comment on a Buddhist Geeks post called “Selling the Dharma,” by the founder of the company Sounds True, Tami Simon. I simply pointed out what I thought was a clear-enough contradiction; namely, that between Simon’s rhetoric of improving the world through her products’ offering “ultimate value,” and the fact that a Sounds True catalog is the perfect reflection and toxic enhancer of our late-capitalist mental-emotional schizophrenia. Vince Horn responded in just the manner your statement predicts he would. This rejection of thought and retreat into comfort is invariably–literally, invariably–masked as insistence that criticizing an x-buddhist begin, if at all, “from a place of common human decency and mutual respect” (Horn’s words). This strategy to snuff out thinking and discussion with right-speech preciousness is so prevalent in x-buddhist circles that I wonder if it isn’t something like an inviolable, if unconscious, principle of x-buddhist subjectivity. We all know how deeply into Buddhist soil its roots reach. I saw this paper title in a notice on a conference on the history of Buddhist meditation: “Je pense, donc je ne suis pas: Aspects of Sudden Awakening in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition.”

    Real thought, dialectical thought, is always dangerous, because it always threatens the belief in the inevitability of the present World; but dialectical thought is not suffering or pain or torture: it can be liberating, and fun, and is the only way we can live as awakened humans instead of as comfortably overfed animals to be sacrificed to perpetuate the stability of the World.

    I am endlessly amazed that so few x-buddhists find dialectical thinking and probing questioning liberating. Is the reason that it is, indeed, threatening? Does it have something to do with temperament? To re-frame a question you asked recently, is it a question of Buddhism’s attracting people predisposed to reject thought, or does participation in an x-buddhist community create such a person? I practiced for many years in a Dogen-oriented Soto Zen community. I can tell you that no one would have let that Dogen quote stand on its own. It would inevitably be construed to mean that “true thinking is non-thinking, “think not thinking,” and that sort of all-too-predictable nonsense. Talk about eel-wrigglers!

  15. Luis Daniel (#13). The non + x site is also an archive for previous posts and essays published here. So, of course there is repetition! Only the most recent Issue is new.

    You say, “Cultural criticism is important, but solving inequality is more important. How do you deal with irrelevance?” One way to get at the very existence of inequality is through criticism. Many inequalities that were tolerated in 1860 or 1960 have been leveled. We can thank critical thinkers for that fact as much as we can politicians and activists. The relevance or irrelevance of critical work consists in whether or not it addresses and exposes real social-cultural situations, processes, and relations. I think we are doing that here, within the limited scope of x-buddhist. But much of our critique can be extrapolated out to the culture at large.

    Why do you so fervently believe that thought and action are mutually exclusive modes of being?

    I completely disagree with your view that “all views [should be seen] as equally valid expressing needs.” But I might not understand your meaning. Maybe all views express some need or another, I don’t know. But not all views are equally valid. That idea is so easy to refute that I’ll leave it to you to come up with your own examples.

    What are we solving? It depends on what you do with it. It depends, too, on how committed you are.

  16. Re 15: I often wonder whether Buddhism attracts people who are afraid of thinking, or simply convinces them not to think. Maybe it is a matter of “filtering.” I’ve mentioned before that many years ago, when I was a graduate student in Clinical Psychology, I was told by one of the faculty in my first semester that he didn’t expect me to finish, because it had always been his experience that the smartest students can’t tolerate the field; he said he’d seen many really smart people get into the graduate program and leave by their second year, frustrated. At other graduate programs I applied to, I was told my GRE scores were too high, that highly intelligent people did not make good psychologists. Psychology may attract as many people interested in thinking as any other discipline, but it works hard to filter them out, and make sure the profession remains ignorant of its own epistemological naivety, that there is nobody who can recognize that it doesn’t succeed, much less explain why. I think perhaps this is what happens in Buddhism–it attracts many intelligent people, just as many as any other area of interest, but it works hard to discourage them, to filter them out, with its insistence that ignorance and poor reasoning are signs of higher levels of attainment. Perhaps a few will stubbornly hang around anyway, but they will tend to be the pig-headed, obsessive and obnoxious types, like me.

    Oh, and when I switched to English, I was no longer the smartest one in the group, but the same filtering occurred. Most of those who were smarter than me either never finished, or couldn’t get jobs. Smart people, they were often told, don’t make good teachers. And their ideas weren’t “mainstream” enough to be publishable. That’s our culture–in the words of Heidegger, there is no greater anxiety today than the anxiety in the face of thought.

  17. Tom (#17) What I’ve seen is a Buddhism that encourages us not to think. Although I’ve long had a marginal interest in Buddhism, it’s only been about two years that I’ve taken on a harder study with an intent to practice. There are no sanghas where I live, so it’s been bookstore and internet buddhism for me. But the “comfort food” variety dominates; memeorize a few lists, otherwise let go of any serious thought and get busy meditating mindfully. And forget about looking at the social structure as a cause of suffering. Trickle-down compassion. I just checked Amazon and they list over one hundred titles for Think-Not Hanh. Unbelievable. How many ways can someone basically say the same thing over and over?
    It was comment and argument by you and between you and Matthias on the Tricycle blog that brought me here, thank goodness, and of course that has changed everything. Here, the thinking goes on. Were it not for that, I’m sure I would have givin up on Buddhism by now.

  18. Glenn, thanks again for making the effort to expose this sad racket. Although we don’t need any more reminders, I came across yet another indication of how vitally necessary the work you are doing is. If you can stomach it, read this woman’s brave account of the despicable ends to which McLeod allegedly utilized his bogus authority:

    Sexual predation, the usual MO for these clowns.

    Of course, McLeod is a go-to golden boy for Shambhala Sun dharmablather, so he is just about the last person who would get any negative Buddhist media attention (if such a thing even existed). Thank god for the internet.

  19. RE 18: Danny, I know what you mean. I first encountered Buddhism thirty years ago, with a self-styled Zen teacher who also taught yoga classes at the local community college. She said she had studied with somebody in California whose name I had never heard, and all she ever taught was “following the breath” mediation, and talks about the power of compassion and environmentalism. It was very dull, mostly an exercise in self-discipline (how long can you sit still and do nothing?). Wherever I went there seemed to be someone around who fancied themselves a Zen teacher, but they seemed to think that Zen was equivalent to stopping all rational thought and that the only sign of spiritual “attainment” was how long one could sit still. That’s why I was for a very long time a bookstore Buddhist–and before the days of Amazon, there was not a whole lot to read! Still, most of the practicing Buddhists I know insist that thinking is anathema to a true Buddhist, and all those philosophers like Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti were not real Buddhists.

    Glenn, re 15: I read your comments on Buddhist Geeks, and they didn’t seem hostile or inappropriate to me–I would have been much more vitriolic, myself. Horn’s response is the typical tyranny of tolerance reaction: he cannot address the argument, so he simply asserts you have no right to make it, that it is “rude” to point out that SoundsTrue is selling snake-oil. The foundation of anything calling itself “Buddhist” in any form should be a willingness to accept the truth; it is dishonest to pretend not to notice that SoundsTrue is taking advantage of people who are perhaps in a vulnerable state, unhappy, confused, not thinking clearly, and desperate for some kind of help. Who else would buy their amulets to protect against the harmful forces of electronic devices? Who else would buy their “multimedia” packages on alchemy or on being aligned with the “hidden frequencies of the universe”? It’s pure crap, deluding desperate people for a quick buck, and we should call it what it is. Of course, Horn also adds the standard “complex and nuanced” rhetoric of the postmodern relativist–everything is always so complex and nuanced, we can never say anything at all about anything at all.

    Re 19: I’ve seen this controversy on “Sweeping Zen” and other websites, and it isn’t surprising. I’ve recently read one of McCleod’s books, and I’m familiar with his website, and the kind of incoherent nonsense he calls Buddhism could only indicate a man who is either profoundly confused or a manipulative con-artist. I’ve preferred to assume the former–that he just doesn’t have the intellect to understand even basic Buddhist concepts. I’d still like to think he creates these situations because he has mistaken his profound narcissism for some kind of “enlightenment.” Perhaps with enough publicity, he could lose all his students and the flow of money will dry up and he will have an opportunity to actually learn something important. Male Buddhist teachers always seem to find attractive women the most “spiritually advanced” and in need of individual attention; when they come across a woman in a confused or vulnerable state, this leads to trouble. The women themselves are unlikely to see that they are being taken advantage of, and the so-called teacher is too narcissistic and deluded himself to see it, but those around him (and her) need to stop assuming the need to be “polite” and “civil” and speak up.

  20. Katie (#19). Thank you for your comment. The most recent post, by Matthias Steingass, was inspired by it. That post started as a reply to you, but got so long that it turned into a post.

    Maybe you can pass the link to the post along to Patricia? Her story should be heard. It should make at the very least the western Buddhist press. That is, of course, unlikely. Both for the reasons you give and for the fact that western Buddhists just don’t want to see, hear about, speak of, or even think about such matters.

    One of the premises of this blog is that Buddhist materials may contain vital human truths and practices. But, as they are ensconced within a blindly, and hence repressive, ideological structure, the very possibility of their vitality is annulled. We are experimenting with ways to open up the possibility of a genuine exploration of those materials. It is a critical experiment because we think that the whole thing needs to be busted open so that the genies and demons can can come flying out. I say “we,” but really the three main writers of this blog (so far) have three different approaches to that critical work. I hope you’ll stay with us for a while.

    Peace and passion . . .

  21. Hello all,

    Thank you Katie for linking to my story and for the comment you left on my blog and for forwarding me the link to this discussion; and thank you Tom and Glenn for your intelligent and critical reflections on the subject. I am pleased to see that there is a place for such discussions on the internet.

    I appreciate Tom’s saying that “The women themselves are unlikely to see that they are being taken advantage of, and the so-called teacher is too narcissistic and deluded himself to see it, but those around him (and her) need to stop assuming the need to be “polite” and “civil” and speak up.” Well said!

  22. I wonder how much conflating Buddhism with therapy contributes to the problems being discussed here. In psychology, there is an absolute but often unspoken assumption that the client must never be challenged, must always be comforted and given what she wants–that the goal of the therapist is always to be “nice” no matter what, never to deal with real problems that might make someone uncomfortable, always to “empathize” and never to “theorize” about the client’s problem. This leads to all kinds of problems with therapists abusing their position. Denying the truth at all costs, always pretending to “empathy” and kindness, is horribly unhealthy. When Glenn criticizes SoundsTrue for selling snake-oil, Vince Horn can only respond that he lacks “decency” and is not acting “human.” Apparently, it is okay to lie to and steal from people as long as we do it in a kind, gentle voice–that is “human decency,” but since pointing out the lies makes the liar uncomfortable it isn’t “right speech.” When I read these comments, what strikes me as horribly disturbing it the dishonesty in Horn’s response; he resorts to insults and ad-hominem arguments, and the hostility in his response is quite evident, but he cannot admit that he is being hostile and critical and defensive. DISHONESTY IS THE FIRST CRITERIA OF WRONG SPEECH!! That includes dishonesty about one’s real intention in speaking, lying about one’s own hostile intentions is the very worst thing one can do. Glenn speaks bluntly and harshly, but with absolutely no pretense to anything but annoyance at the obvious deception going on. To Horn, and the x-buddhist community at large, frankly admitting to one’s frustration or anger is unacceptable, but hostility presented as personal disappointment and hurt feelings is “human decency,” exactly because it doesn’t tell the truth.

    People like McLeod and “Think-Not” Hahn (to borrow Danny’s name for him) can avoid addressing any questions that point out their dishonesty and the contradictions in their thought, because any such dialectical argument must always be blunt, aggressive, and outside the rules of “pleasant conversation.” This has to be the case, because if it can be said pleasantly that is always only because it doesn’t expose the “lack” at the core of the hegemonic discourse.

    When the TNH followers post hostile personal insults and refuse to acknowledge that they are in fact hostile, when the folks on Dharma Wheel call me an arrogant jerk but insist it is done out of loving kindness and with not hostility at all, then how does one respond? They are lying to themselves, unable to admit their own anger, pretending that their own words aren’t hostile. I don’t care about insults, but if you’re going to insult somebody at least admit you’re doing it, and that you’re pissed off. This refusal to become aware of or honest about one’s own emotions is understood as the height of wisdom, but it is the very opposite. This kind of willful dishonesty and repression is what lead to a culture in which sexual predators are worshipped as spiritual gurus, and nobody has the courage to be “inhuman” enough to say the emperor is naked.

    Therapy in America is limited to comforting the troubled, reassuring them that if they just persist in their denial everything will be okay, refusing to point out the contradictions and self-deceptions in their discourse. It doesn’t help anybody, but the therapist always appears “nice” and “wise” and “compassionate,” and keeps getting business. People come to Buddhism for much the same reason–to be reassured that their “true self” is perfect just as it is, that they are good and kind and will reach eternal bliss when they dies. The only way to change Buddhism is going to be to tell these “cult of niceness gurus” to shut the hell up, and create communities willing to try to face the truth, even if it is uncomfortable. I don’t see many western Buddhist teachers who would put truth over appealing to the broadest possible audience. Niceness suffocates dialectical thought, and does nobody any good.

  23. ”X-buddhism, I think, identifies many such truths: the Pali canonical version of anicca as perpetual vanishing, for instance, or Nagarjuna’s articulation of pratītyasamutpāda as radical contingency. (I claim, of course, that their value as truths is evident only once we disable decision, but that’s another topic.)” (fragment Glenn’s comment #134 in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Imaginary Soul thread

    Every utterance, every written word, every claim of the type “Buddhism holds” or “the Buddha taught” or “according to the Heart Sutra/Pali canon/Shobogenzo/this or that teacher,” every attempt to formulate a “Buddhist” (or crypto-Buddhist/mindfulness) response/solution to X invariably instantiates buddhistic decision. This decisional operation constitutes the structural syntax of buddhistic discourse, and, in so doing, governs all such discourse …” Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism p. 5

    Glenn, tell me, how can you think that the disabling of the decision can ever be possible in the case of those examples of an x-buddhistic truths as anicca or pratītyasamutpāda, when they’re the most important building blocks of the entire syntactical structure of the dharmic vallation. In other words, how possibly can you separate such crucial terms for investigation from the hallucinatory matrix of the One, from the complex network of the dharmic Law, that is the very source that legitimizes those very terms and makes them meaningful? Don’t you think that the decision that you want to disable emerges precisely from the constant replication of those terms, that in turn create the One, and then the loop continues? I ask why not simply switch to decision neutral, universalized terms as those you propose, that is “perpetual vanishing” and “radical contingency” respectively and forget about those highly charged, potentially toxic truths of anicca, pratītyasamutpāda, and doing that let the whole hallucinated fortress crumble down?

  24. Hi Tomek (#24). Because of the brutal subtractive nature of my approach to non-buddhist analysis, the x-buddhist terms do not survive intact. In the text that Tom, Matthias, and I are working on, I have an addendum where I experiment with just this sort of re-calculation. I am using Laruelle’s idea of the “first name.” He defines first names as:

    Fundamental terms which symbolize the Real and its modes according to its radical immanence or its identity. They are deprived of their philosophical sense and become, via axiomatized abstraction, the terms—axioms and theorems —of non-philosophy.

    Axiomatized abstraction leaves the original, given x-buddhist term decimated of the nodes of postulation that enable it as x-buddhist term. Decimation, then, disables the continuous looping that you refer to. One of the ways in which my non-buddhist analysis renders x-buddhism unrecognizable to itself is that its very terminology cannot withstand this process.

  25. Tomek: I’m going to speak frankly, so if you’re really sensitive and don’t want to get your feeling hurt, stop reading.

    I’ve argued with you at length because I had the impression that you may have been unable to comprehend things because of a powerful ideological attachment. I’ve begun to think it more likely that you just lack the intellectual capacity for abstract thought, and so will never really understand this. Maybe you just need to accept that about yourself. Nevertheless, I’ll give it one more try.

    First: there is not such thing as a “neutral” or “universal” terms; that is a positivist fantasy. All terms entail an ideological position.

    Second: disabling the “decision” is not an attempt to have a purely objective position, since this is not possible. It is a matter of not mistaking one’s ideological position for a universal or objective truth. It is having an ideology and knowing that it is an ideology.

    Third: there is an important distinction between ideology, which is neither true nor false (necessarily), and the description of the intransitive dimension, the mind-independent world. Anicca and pratityasamutpada refer to the latter, and so are not part of the ideological “decision.” They are truths about how the world works regardless of whether or not we are aware of this, and regardless of what our ideological position/decisional structure happens to be. If the universe, completely independently of our ideology, turns out NOT to be dependently arisen, then pratityasamutpada could be falsified. Rejecting a truth about the mind-independent universe because it has troubling implications for our ideology is the very worst kind of “decision.”

    This last point is the one you seem incapable of grasping. Changing the terms in which we discuss the intransitive dimension does nothing to dismantle the decision at all—it simply shifts to a new “decision” we fail to recognize as one. “Radical Contingency” has all kinds of ideological baggage to it, but you don’t see it because it is yours. If you want it to refer to exactly the same concept as dependent arising, then why produce a new term at all? Merely to suggest the superiority of the new and “radical” to the old and traditional? Why is that “decision” so important to you? At any rate, it does nothing to change the concept. On the other hand, if the goal is to avoid the full understanding of the concept of dependent arising (which absolutely rejects the ideological implications of “contingency” as chance, random, not caused), then you are simply calling a truth ideology because it is inconvenient and you want to ignore it. Again, confusing the ideological and the scientific, the transitive and the intransitive, is the cause of most delusions and suffering

  26. Tom (# 26), why do you actually butt in this discussion between me and Glenn? Why do you bother yourself to address the questions not directed at you? What really causes this impulsivity? But if you can’t help stop talking to such a “reactionary” as I am supposed to be according to your penetrating analysis, why not openly confront Glenn with your issues? If my “positivistic” terms does not make sense to you, I wonder what is your position toward that what Glenn calls after Laruelle “first name” – does it sound to you as “fantasy” as well? Why not risk? Or you are simply afraid of such a confrontation during which your cherished x-buddhistic “truths” such as anicca or pratītyasamutpāda can be “brutalized” and “deprived of their x-buddhistic sense”?

    BTW, Glenn, I’d be really interested what do you as a scholar think about such statements as the following just made by Tom: “Anicca and pratityasamutpada refer to the latter [the mind-independent world], and so are not part of the ideological “decision.” They are truths about how the world works regardless of whether or not we are aware of this, and regardless of what our ideological position/decisional structure happens to be.”

    I think that this questionable leveling of anicca and pratītyasamutpāda with “the mind-independent world” might be one of the causes of Tom’s decisional investment (understood in both ways).

  27. OK, Tomek, I will resume assiduously ignoring you. I didn’t know you were having a private conversation (this might not be the place for privacy, though). It just as well–you clearly cannot understand anything anyone says, and I’m tired of having to be cautious of you feelings. I’m just not in the mood to keep apologizing to stupid people for being smarter than them.

  28. I didn’t know you were having a private conversation (this might not be the place for privacy, though).

    Tom, this lame spin you try to put on my comment says a lot of how smart in fact you are, not to mention how brave.

  29. I had not heard about Mcleod’s scandal. i’m not surprised though. not to minimize the specific issue at hand, but sexual ABUSE is only one of many many things these teachers are doing. subtle psychological manipulation, lying, emotional abuse, etc. all of this needs to be brought to light. there is absolutely no corrective for these deluded assholes out there selling snake oil. they absolutely need to be removed from their pedestals immediately.

    at least analysts go through psychoanalysis as part of their training and are vetted to some extent incidentally, although it’s harped about constantly, therapists’ number one ethical transgression continues to be having sex with their patients.

  30. RE 30: Analysts may be required to go through analysis, but most therapists are not analysts, and there is not requirement that they go through therapy. In the culture of psychology and counseling departments today, it is not expected, and is often (subtly) frowned upon for a therapist in training to have gone to therapy. There is an assumption, which I have sometimes heard explicitly stated, that a therapist must be completely “normal” and have not “issues” of their own in order to be competent.

    One of the reasons I am so overly hostile these days towards the supreme arrogance of the truly stupid is that I am working on finishing my graduate degree in counseling psychology. Many of the courses are taken with students in School Psychology, and these students are almost universally of below average intelligence and extremely hostile to the “gifted” students in the schools where they work. Not a single class ever goes by without some comment about how socially inept intelligent people are, or how physically unattractive or unathletic they are. Some idiot always volunteers the story of the “genius who couldn’t figure out how to tie her shoes.” It is a commonplace that if a “gifted” child seeks counseling, the problem is that they “think too much,” and they should stop reading and thinking and be more “normal.” I once asked if they would say that the athlete should stop playing sports or the musician should quit band, or if the poor student would be told she should think and read more. I got the usual response: I don’t understand the “culture of therapy” and wouldn’t make a good therapist. In our culture, the only type of person it is universally acceptable to be hostile and insulting toward is intelligent people–pop culture is full of hostile depictions of the “nerd-genius,” generally mistaking some kind of autism for intelligence. (Really intelligent people are not generally obsessed with memorizing insignificant facts about old science fiction television shows.)

    This extreme hostility toward thought in the fields of psychology and education appears to be mirrored in the world of Buddhism. Thinking is seen as a pathology, and it is shameful to admit to intelligence, a sign of “pride” or “arrogance.” On the other hand, insisting on being treated with respect because of having foolishly believed in some Tibetan bullshit about Lamas controlling the weather isn’t shameful, prideful, or arrogant at all. The whole thing is embarrassing. It does seem that the less intelligent one is, the more hostility he will have toward intelligent people in general. People with average intelligence don’t generally seem as angry at someone smarter than them. The less intelligent someone is, the more likely he is to arrogantly insist that the sheer force of his stupidity is the evidence that he is more likely to be right than one of those “nerds.”

    In psychology, it seems that the danger of intelligence is that smart people tend to point out that popular therapies like EMDR and CBT don’t really do anybody any good. This is true, but pointing it out makes one “arrogant” and combative and not suited for the discipline/cult of psychology. In x-buddhism, I think it serves a similar function: if we are all too ashamed of letting on that we might be intelligent (it is the most shameful thing to be in our culture), then we won’t point out all the dishonesty and psychological manipulation going on in x-buddhist practice. If you can’t get rid of the smart people, at least you can make the ashamed of their intelligence, and insist it is a sign of their lack of spiritual attainment.

  31. 31:


    you are preaching to the choir. my degrees in counseling and psychology were less about training for me and more about seeing it for what it is. universities are cranking out counselors left and right. i just couldn’t take the kool-aid of the ‘cult’. i could go on, but you’ve brought up the main points above. incidentally, i left the field, kind of like i left buddhism. it’s hard to find a place in this world when you can SEE what is actually going on. what’s ironic is that those who society seems to see as the smartest (doctors, CEOs) are some of the dumbest, evil sons of bitches i have ever had the pleasure of interacting with.

    as a side note, i’m with you on CBT. i convinced myself early in training that CBT was my theory of choice. then i started working with patients. that went out the window with the first words of my first patients. i think even Ellis said it was bullshit. good times.

  32. Craig: your response to practicing CBT was unusual–clearly you were not properly interpellated into the “culture of counseling.” Most counselors, when a client says that CBT or REBT is not helpful, would insist that they are “in denial” or “resisting.” They then either try to coerce the client into lying to the (if the client is court mandated, for instance, or being pressured by family to get therapy), or they give up on them because they don’t really “want to change.” That’s the proper response for a counselor–to insist that the client learn to deny the truth. x-buddhism works the same way: if someone says “that Lama isn’t really controlling the weather,” then he is stuck in “dualistic thinking” and lacks “attainment.” Once the student learns to deny the truth, and to fully “see” the world from within a shared delusion, then he has reached a high enough level of “spiritual attainment” to go on to teach others.

    There is no evidence that CBT actually works–try tracing down the chain of references in an article claiming that it does. I’ve done it, and it always leads nowhere. Ultimately, most often the chain leads to a single study done about thirty years ago that found that for treating depression CBT is not significantly worse than traditional behavioral conditioning. It is slightly, but not significantly, less “effective.” So, being on slightly less effective than a treatment that is NOT considered experimentally validated is the source of all the claims that CBT has been experimentally validated. My take on the Buddhism and Therapy marriage is that the lack of real scientific evidence in the pseudo-science of psychology has led to a crisis, and the solution is to claim that there are some “spiritual” and immeasurable effects and benefits to therapy. Thus, adding “mindful” to all the existing forms of therapy can extend their lifespan by a decade or so. Then, not doubt, psychology will do what it has done for a century now, and reinvent the wheel: simply “discover” a new therapy, which will simply be the same Adlerian ideological interpellation with fresh labels that they have been repackaging and reselling every ten years or so (most don’t even realize they are doing exactly the same thing with a new name, because they would never bother to read a text more than ten years old–in fact, in my graduate classes in psychology we are explicitly told that we can not use “references” more than a decade old).

    As for doctors, well, that’s sad. I worked as a research assistant at a medical school once, and they are quite difficult to work with. They tend to have amazing capacity for exact memorization, but very limited capacity to understand a sustained argument. The doctors I worked with were poor readers and writers, and usually skimmed through research looking for tables and graphs–understandably, because the articles in medical journals are generally syntactical and grammatical horrors. Try reading through the responses, many by medical professionals or self-described neuroscientists, to Donald Lopez’s recent article in Tricycle. None of them can grasp what Lopez is saying at all–and this is not a difficult essay by any means. Still, doctors, nurses, and psychologists seem to be incapable of following his argument, and respond with irrational hostility and absurdly poor reasoning to something they (mis)understand him to have said. It is a sad state of affairs when people like that have lives in their hands.

  33. Tomek and Tom (#26-29). I think this is an interesting and important topic. Your discussion reminds me of one of the eternal debates in translation theory. The debate revolves around the question when, if ever, is a term untranslatable? Maybe the version in your discussion is not as absolute, something like when, if ever, is it necessary to alter a term?

    I want to try to get clearer about the issue. I think we all agree with points 1-4 in comment #26, right? As I understand them: (1) there are no ideologically pure terms; (2) disabling “decision” functions to create transparency where there was opacity regarding one’s ideological commitments (it changes our relation to, in our case, x-buddhist materials); (3) certain terms name mind-independent aspects of our shared intransitive dimension; and (4) because “decision” has been disabled, these same terms no longer function in the transitive mode, therefore (and given the truth of #1) there is no compelling reason to alter the original truth-naming terms, terms that are descriptors of the intransitive dimension.

    Do I have that right? Is one major reason for retaining an original term the fact that its replacement changes, and certainly solves, nothing? In fact, if it changes anything, it is that it influences us with its own inevitable historically determined lexical-ideological nuances. As Tom puts it:

    “Radical Contingency” [as a replacement for pratityasamutpada] has all kinds of ideological baggage to it, but you don’t see it because it is yours. If you want it to refer to exactly the same concept as dependent arising, then why produce a new term at all?

    This seems to be a major point; namely, the contention that retaining the original term is in fact a better choice because we thereby avoid, or at least delimit, the always present, if often subtle, ideological push and pull inherent in our language games. Is that right? Is that what the choice to retain the original terms boils down to?

    Or is there an additional issue tacitly at work here? Do you, Tom, understand the original term to offer a necessarily better angle on the truth it names? If so, I am wondering what makes that so. I understand the disabling of decision to constitute a shutdown or radical depotentialization of a given term’s network of postulation. In that case, the term becomes a denuded descriptor; and so, given the fact that it names a human truth, is now open to translation. Some translators argue that this is not the case, that, on the contrary, the truth-term requires more than itself to be a descriptor of the intransitive dimension. Translators of Heidegger, for example, typically retain terms like Dasein and Ereignis and so on for some version of this reason. Sometimes, the reason given suggests Heidegger’s own: Dasein speaks German, or German best thinks Being, and so on. Sometimes, the translator claims that Dasein carries connotations and resonances that English “Being” does not capture. The reason for this failure is related to Tom’s #1 and #4: our terms are soiled–encrusted–with layers of historical usage, and nothing can alter this fact. But it is here, too, that the question can be asked: how far have we come with our project of disabling decision, or of making our ideological commitment transparent, by retaining the original precisely given that this is the case? Can re-naming–translation–constitute a step out of the decisional circle for just this reason?

    I certainly agree that “confusing the ideological and the scientific, the transitive and the intransitive, is the cause of most delusions and suffering.” I am still not sure what role our actual terminology plays in perpetuating this confusion. But I think it is a debate worth having. So, I will continue to give it thought.

  34. RE 34: I don’t think that the term necessarily offers a “better” approach to the concept—a different term could do just as well. The problem is that the shift from one term to another is often just a way to cut off or prevent exactly the kind of “subtractive” efforts that might strip a concept of its ideological mystification. Translation is always only a problem when the term being translated refers to the transitive dimension—when the term refers to the intransitive dimension, any subtle nuances and connotations it might lose in translation are not part of its intransitive function, but of its ideological function. The problem is that too often we want to shift from an older term, one that is in the process of being stripped of its ideological baggage, only to substitute a new term with enormous ideological baggage we are completely unaware of; the goal of this is often to avoid, rather than facilitate, making ideology transparent.

    Changing the term, then, isn’t a problem, so long as we don’t fool ourselves that this solves the problem completely, and we remain aware that we now need to start all over with the subtractive process of removing the ideological encrustation from the scientific concept. This applies, of course, only to terms that are meant to describe and explain the intransitive dimension. We will never be “free of ideology,” and should not seek to be. No scientific truth about the world, in and of itself, can ever give us any reason to do one thing instead of another in the world—we always need to add some ideological position. My assertion is that the concept of dependent arising is a concept that refers to the intransitive dimension, and so can be stripped of its ideological clothing and submitted to critical evaluation—it is, unlike ideology, falsifiable.

    If someone is overly attached to a specific translation of a term (arguing, for instance, that it is imperative to say “non-self” instead of “not-self”), then they are usually trying to use the term to serve an ideological function. Again, ideological functions are not evil, they are unavoidable and essential, but the goal is to be aware that they are ideological. On that note, as a hopeless Freudian, I couldn’t help noticing your substitution of the term “altar” for “alter” (as in “is it necessary to altar a term”). Altering is fine, “altaring” is the problem.

  35. Tom (#35).

    as a hopeless Freudian, I couldn’t help noticing your substitution of the term “altar” for “alter” (as in “is it necessary to altar a term”). Altering is fine, “altaring” is the problem.

    I am a hopeless Freudian, too, and caught that myself. I paused before correcting it, and just shook my head and chuckled at the “mistake.” The implications of “altaring” stuck me as rich, and worth exploring. Maybe we can. Maybe the question, after all, is whether a term is altered or altared–whatever the language.

    More later–have to teach.

  36. I certainly agree that “confusing the ideological and the scientific, the transitive and the intransitive, is the cause of most delusions and suffering.” I am still not sure what role our actual terminology plays in perpetuating this confusion.

    Glenn (# 34), as I signaled above I have a great reservations towards this widespread tendency in protestant Buddhism to equate buddhemes such as anicca and pratītyasamutpāda with the “intransitive dimension”, “the mind-independent world”, tendency that tacitly tries to smuggle the dharmic truths into this popular discussion about ostensible convergence of Buddhism and science, and in that to make of those two mentioned terms (especially the latter) sort of buddhistic equivalent of scientific theory of everything.

    But it was Bhikkhu Bodhi who wrote in his translation of Samyutta Nikaya the following words:

    “The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience.”

    I think that the crucial point here is to understand that ‘the world of experience’ simply means here nothing else then the world as experienced through the senses rather then as external physical reality.

    In the Loka Sutta (S 12.43) the Buddha asks the question: “what is the origin of the world?” and answers it:

    With the eye and forms as condition, eye-consciousness arises. The coincidence of the three is contact. On the basis of contact there are sensations, which give rise to desires. Desires are fuel which support becoming. With becoming there is birth, and from birth old-age, and death; and grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble are produced. This is the origin of the world.

    The world of experience in buddhistic context is directly equated with dukkha itself. And furthermore, the nidana sequence is to explain constant arising and vanishing of that ever changing workings of the apparatus of experience, as S. Hamilton calls it, not the workings of the mind independent universe. Our „world‟ in the above sense is always changing, even when the object of consciousness, the external physical world, is not observably changing. So actually equating anicca and pratītyasamutpāda with “intransitive dimension” turns the meaning of those terms upside down.

  37. Hi Patricia (#38). I have a class in ten minutes; so I’ll have a look at Batchelor’s article later today. In the meantime, it would be helpful to hear why you think it could benefit from some more critical reflection. Thanks!

    Hi Tomek (#37). Same thing–back later or tomorrow. This clarification that the very notion of an “intransitive dimension” is at the heart of the issue is very helpful. In the meantime, what do you think of of Meillesioux’s thesis in After Finitude or Brassier’s last chapter (I think) in Nihil Unbound?

  38. Hi Glenn,

    You invited me to share some of my own reflections. So here goes:

    Stephen Batchelor talks about the sociological history of Zen/Tibetan practice in a way that skirts the real issues behind teacher misconduct.

    To begin with, as I wrote in my comment to the article, it is not necessary to give a teacher power (for example, by seeing him as “enlightened”) for there to be a power differential. A teacher is powerful by virtue of his position in the relationship. Period. The same goes for University professors, therapists, etc. The power differential is built into the student-teacher relationship. It is there with or without the Buddhist framework.

    Also, in my particular case, none of what Batchelor says is relevant. As I posted elsewhere on the Sweeping Zen site (in response to Joshu Martin’s post about Sasaki), although Ken is technically a “lama”, he does not go by any title or present as traditional in any way. His own organization, Unfettered Mind, was set up to consciously and deliberately get away from the hierarchical structures of traditional Buddhist organizations and proffered “a path outside established institutions”. So one cannot blame the institutionalization of Buddhism for the abuse of his power with students. There are institutional problems, for sure!, but they are the same as in any institution spear-headed by a narcissist who is surrounded by sycophants.

    I also question the relevance of Mr. Batchelor’s very first point about sex. Abuse is just not about the sex drive; no more than rape is. It is an assault on another person. In the case of teachers and students, it is, minimally, a violation of another person’s trust. So, in my opinion, Mr. Batchelor he gets off to a false start.

    There is also his third point:
    “3.The Buddha himself was accused of having sexual intercourse with the female ascetics Sundari and Cinca. Tradition explains that these accusations were unfounded, and used by those jealous of his success to discredit him. Having sex with one’s students is not a contemporary issue that has only started to rear its head in the simultaneously permissive and puritanical societies of the West. It is simply what human beings in positions of authority are liable to do or be accused of doing.”

    What exactly is he insinuating and how is it relevant to the “bigger picture”? It looks to me like a vague attempt to undermine the reports of survivors coming forward.

  39. I also found it a bit odd that Batchelor begins by discussing how “inevitable” and universal sexual misconduct is, and that there will never be a “foolproof” way to prevent it. Certainly it is a common occurrence, but I cannot see how that relates to the problem. Murder is as old as human history, and there is not “foolproof’ way to prevent it, but certainly we still want to punish the offender, right? Rhetorically, he seems to be minimizing the problem.

    However, I do think he is right to say that belief in the teacher’s “enlightenment’ is a additional component peculiar to Buddhism. Certainly, power is in the role of teacher, therapist, doctor, boss, etc, regardless of what the student or patient or employee “believes’ about that particular person. One is forced to go to school and have a teacher, and does not usually choose a teacher for their level of “enlightenment”; in fact, most students don’t “choose” their teacher at all. In x-buddhist practices the student is never required to seek out a teacher, and does, most of the time, choose the teacher because he or she is believed to have some kind of special wisdom or “attainment” that ordinary people don’t have. This does, I think, increase the teacher’s ability to manipulate the student. The “belief” on the part of the student, however, doesn’t excuse the behavior of the teacher, or in any way make the student culpable.

    I think Batchelor, and far too many x-buddhists, exaggerate the temptations to sexual misconduct. I have been a teacher for decades, and have never been tempted to have sex with one of my students. I don’t mean to say I never had a student who was physically attractive, but I certainly never entertained the thought of having a sexual relationship with a student. It is not so very hard to resist, for most of us. If a teacher does have such a relationship, they are not the innocent victim of temptation, but are seeking such relationships. They should not be allowed to continue to teach. The same should be true for Buddhist teachers; if they use their position to fulfill their sexual desires, they are not suited to teaching. That doesn’t mean they can no longer practice Buddhism, but if they will not stop their teaching then their activities should be made public so that students will be warned to avoid seeking a teacher-student relationship with them.

    I also think Batcheolor’s comment does have a relationship to the question of the difference between the transitive and intransitive dimension. Batchelor says that the distinction between conventional and ultimate truth never appears in the Pali canon, but in fact it quite obviously does–although not in those exact terms. In the Samyutta Nikaya, this comes up in a couple of very often cited sutras, but the distinction is the opposite of the one Batchelor describes. The ultimate dimension is the intransitive truth, the “objective” description of the world, and is the level of thought that is in fact available to everyone. What is unique about the enlightened is that they see the transitive dimension, the conventional truth, for what it is: they recognize it as conventional, and the failure to grasp the nature of the conventional truth (not of the ultimate truth, which anyone can grasp) is what indicates that someone is not enlightened, is not yet a “stream-enterer.” The idea that there is some ineffable and esoteric “ultimate dimension” that only the special few can see is one of the strategies for deluding and manipulating people, for producing oppressive ideologies and calling them ancient asian wisdom. It is particularly effective since it cannot be denied–if you deny this esoteric experience, that is simply proof that you are not enlightened, and the “teacher” has greater attainment. It is also a strange quality which absolutely nobody would ever claim to have, but everyone seems to feel qualified to say who does not have it. I cannot claim I am enlightened, but I can claim somebody else is not–the only indicator of enlightenment, it seems, is charismatic appeal.

    The Tibetan Buddhists who believe in some form of “substrate consciousness” and the Zen Buddhists who believe in “original enlightenment” or “true self” are exactly reversing the conventional and the ultimate. They are assuming that the dependently arisen world is “conventional,” when in fact it is the ultimate (intransitive, mind-independent) dimension, and they assume that this ultimate transcendent entity is the “ultimate” truth when in fact it is the humanly created conventional (and illusory) belief. It should come as no surprise that those schools of Buddhist who confuse the intransitive and transitive dimensions turn out to be the ones attached to authoritarian power structures that tend to lead to abuse. In the terms I have used on this blog, these are the reactionary schools of Buddhism which seek to deny truth at all costs and produce ideology while mistaking it for eternal truth.

    One final note, because i really should be grading papers. Does anybody else, whenever they see Ken McCleod, immediately think of the character played by Malcolm McDowell on “The Mentalist”?

  40. 33-


    I haven’t looked at that Tricycle article. I need to check that out.

    As for my experience as a therapist, yes, when a patient is sitting there crying their eyes out I just could not tow the party line and do solution-focused/CBT crap. These patients needed basic attending to and someone to listen. The research on CBT always seems good if you look only at abstracts. However, as you say, the proof is in the details. Those studies are so tightly controlled and the results are questionable.

    The other thing I ran into was counter-transference immediately. This also was a barrier to playing by the book. Unfortunately, most, if not all clinical supervision is focused on paperwork, ethics and treatment plans. Counter-transference was never discussed. Of course, I figured all this stuff out the hard way. There are a lot of Axis II folks out there ‘being’ therapists. Icing on the cake was that my doc program was full of Adlerians! ‘Just encourage the client and they’ll get better,” they used to say. I laughed out loud the first time I heard that.

    I just kind of see Buddhism teachers and therapists as similar in how the one on one relationship occurs as well as group issues that come up. As I said, with more dynamic therapy training one will get good supervision and at the end of training may be advised to do something else. There is no such corrective with these ‘transmitted’ teachers. The big buddhist churches seem to be able to deal with these things a bit. Jodo Shu in America seems to model after mainline Christain Churchs and vets their ministers to some degree. At the same time, those ministers or not seen as Enlightened Beings so it’s not as huge a fall when one acts unethically.

  41. Hi Glenn,
    I was surprised to find anyone interested in my post on Buddhist Geeks. I dropped that criticism in there after watching Slavoj Zizek pick over buddhism as a salve to capitalist moralities and practice, or as a vehicle for furthering capitalism. I think he makes some good points, whilst not being exactly new to me – and I’m far from sold on Marxism. But it’s worth asking whether it is possible to live any buddhist precepts at all without maing a severe break from the standard modes of living that we are lumped with. Either you have to adopt our way of life into buddhism, or you drop out of society, or you live with the contradictions. Unfortunately I’m not versed in buddhist literature at all, except that I know the most popular version of the buddha story features a severe case of dropping out, and anyone professing to follow that old style of buddhism seems to need a good explanation as to why they are still living, as it were, in the palace.
    On the other hand, of the enlightened people who are alive today, how many of them have shown that it really isn’t necessary to drop out and live in the woods, and that the demands of any particular social system really don’t make too much difference?
    Given the case that Zizek, for example, gives of Zen being blended with Imperial martial activity, its understandable that people may balk at what may seem to be an amorality inherent in the search for enlightenment. Or is someone like Zizek cherry picking very bad examples, pointing at the priestly manipulations rather than looking at the genuine seekers. Every country and tribe has its version of the divine warrior, after all. I guess someone like Zizek – and yourself – would be categorising Tami Simon as a divine warrior for capitalism, that someone is playing Krishna to her Arjuna and saying go for it, I’ll sort out the enlightenment for you.

    What’s the anecdotal evidence? Do people become enlightened while working as slaves, while working as communist nomenklatura, while living in the jungle, while working in a factory, while being a CEO ?

  42. 43:

    Enlightenment is an utterly meaningless term. Tami sells plastic shit to depressed and anxious customers.

  43. Oop, stumbled down from my tree into the middle of a philosophy grad meeting. Sorry for intruding, bye.

  44. Patricia (#38). I left a comment on Batchelor’s post over at Sweeping Zen. I’ll copy it here just in case. Many of my comments around the web somehow disappear. I never did get “right speech” down. I invite other readers to have a look at the discussion at Sweeping Zen.

    My response:

    Hi Stephen,

    After so many thoughtful and insightful comments on your post, mine will probably sound largely redundant. But I want nonetheless to add to the critical mass accumulating around the criticism of abuse of authority by Buddhist teachers.

    Your position is that the issue is not Buddhist per se. Maybe the particularly Buddhist variety of abuse of authority overlaps with more generalizable instances. But, as most of your own examples suggest, Buddhism’s very structures, history, self-understanding, and so on, contribute to its non-generalizable situation. In the end, your strategy to “step back from an analysis of specific cases, and consider elements of the bigger picture in which this kind of abusive behavior manifests” not only fails to address the real issue of abuse of authority in Buddhist circles, it serves to diminish the issue altogether.

    1. Is it a problem of “sexual desire”? This assertion is problematic for two reasons. First, it is probably wrong. Second, it places your argument—and the very issue—within the very heart of Buddhism’s self-proclaimed area of expertise; and, in so doing, places the solution, however tacitly, yet again within what I call the Principle of Sufficient Buddhism. That “sexual desire” is your #1 “element” further suggests that it is the first cause, the prime mover, of abuse of authority. So, I’ll give it the most attention.

    Since at least the 1970s, many experts in the field of sexual violence have been building the case that brute aggression, not “sexual desire,” is the driving force of abuse. You can begin your education on this matter with an old article: “Sexual Arousal and Aggression: Recent Experiments and Theoretical Issues” (Journal of Social Issue, Volume 33, Number 2, 1977). The researchers begin by noting that “Recent studies have found that under differing experimental conditions there are both mutually facilitative and inverse relationships between sex and aggression.” One of the crucial factors determining the confluence of aggression and sexual arousal is whether there are “mitigating or enhancing internal and environmental factors.”

    “Presently available empirical data, on the whole, are consistent with the popular stereotype that the male who is aggressively (assertively) uninhibited is also likely to be more sexually responsive than his more aggressively inhibited counterpart. However, contrary to the popular image, this relationship holds for the female no less than the male; that is, a reduction in restraints, in this instance aggressive restraints, facilitates sexual arousal in both sexes. In addition, while the sexual response may appear to be vulnerable to inhibitions applied to other behavior domains, it is also responsive to reductions in inhibition of other taboo behaviors, notably aggression.”

    What if we viewed people like Sasaki Roshi and Ken McLeod not as men simply being driven by the “most powerful biological drive known to humankind,” but as brute aggressors, ones who themselves established the very conditions for their acts of aggression? They did so, as the article suggests, by creating the kinds of teaching structures that reduced the taboos and constraints that normally inhibit aggression. This notion also refutes your contention that “lust can arise unbidden under any circumstances.” People like McLeod and Sasaki and all the others created the circumstances that permit damaging transgressive behavior.

    Second, by invoking the force of “lust,” you are perpetuating one of the very conditions that enable the aggressors; namely, the sufficiency, indeed superiority, of Buddhism for identifying and remedying human ills. The hidden machinations of your contention here are too numerous to name here. For instance, by invoking “lust” you implicitly suggest that all parties involved have simply proven the Buddhist truth that, first, lust wreaks havoc, and second, until you “uproot” it you will be damaged by, and damage others with, its natural (because “biological) hence inevitable force.

    2. This statement merely re-states the problem, as well as your “first cause” theory. So, it adds nothing to your argument. The term “inevitable,” by the way, sounds like a rhetorical shrug of the shoulders: Eh, what can ya do? Boys will be boys. If you begin seeing the issue not through the lens of your “sexual desire” premise, but through that of “creating the material-organizational conditions for abuse,” then “inevitable” becomes “predictable,” given certain manifest conditions.

    3. What does this add? So, we now know how committed you are to the argument that abuse of authority is endemic to humanity. We know that you arrive at this view through your faith in the Buddhist truth that asserts that “lust is the cause of suffering.” Again, rhetorically, you are shrugging your shoulders. But now, in invoking the Buddha, you lift your chin somewhat defiantly.

    4. Apparently there are, Stephen! This is where the discussion should go next; namely, which institutional elements within x-buddhism are contributing to the problem? I have many suggestions. Most of what I consider to be contributing institutional factors, however, are so much a part of x-buddhism that they, one, operate almost invisibly, and two, are unlikely to change. Can you, for instance, have an x-buddhist institution that eschews any notion of advanced knowledge of exigent matters, and thus of people (teachers) who possess that special knowledge? (See below.) Hard to imagine.

    5. This point partly answers your previous question. Maybe in some instances “belief” that the teacher has some special knowledge plays a role in abuse of authority. So, that set-up would be an instance of an institutional feature of x-buddhism. But what about your theory of lust as the prime mover of abuse? Now it’s “belief”? Or is it lust for the perpetrators and belief for the victims? How does this work? Referring back to #4, can you imagine x-buddhism stripped of its myth of enlightenment, and, by extension, of the enlightened teacher?

    6. But, Stephen, your traditional-historical model here applies to only a segment of the x-buddhist teacher population. Ken McLeod, for instance, claims to have taken pains to alter the traditional model. So, really, your point is not very helpful in terms of the current western situation. (But, again, your own comment here should further help you answer #4.)

    7. Again, you’re answering your own question #4. Because some of the forms you mention have been replicated in the West, your statement adds a little to explaining our current situation. But given what I said in #6, it doesn’t help much.

    8. So, abuse is not “inevitable” after all? That’s what I think, too. (See my #1.) Again, you’re providing additional data for your own question #4.

    9. What does this have to do with anything, much less the issue at hand? It’s irrelevant.

    10. You are repeating irrelevancies.

    Contra your enthusiastic responders here who applaud your “great,” “terrific” “thoughtful,” etc. analysis of a very serious problem, I see it as a wholly unhelpful piece. Maybe your reasoning here is so shoddy because you, like me, wrote it quickly. I don’t know. I hope you’ll try again, though. When not missing the point, what you have written here comes dangerously close to letting the abusers off the hook.

    Glenn Wallis

  45. Thanks Patricia (#48). That’s a powerful and courageous statement. I wonder if Batchelor will respond. I will take the risk of looking the fool here and predict that he most certainly will not. He will read it, of course. Let’s be honest, we all read stuff about ourselves, even if it’s negative or challenging. But one difference between people like Batchelor and McLeod and so many other x-buddhist figures and you and me and virtually everyone else is that our personae do not depend on phony claims to wisdom and enlightened morality. I almost feel sorry (no I don’t!) for these figures whose statu$ depend$ on such bogus$ “realization$.” These people bring to mind Wilhelm Reich’s book Listen Little Man!

  46. Patricia, Glenn.

    Your comments don address other extremely important forms of abuse such psychological abuse and economic abuse. Criminals are only people without the skills to carry out their purposes, said Machiavello. And these other sphisticated abusers really step away from sexual abuse, I know one or two WOMEN techer who especialize in psychological abuse and economic abuse – “after all you cant take it with you, so donate it to the Sangha “. Buddhist practice in per se abusive unless it becomes truly democratica. There cannot be a fair relationship if it is not amongst equals in power. Transference problems are all over humanity or society. The only standing hero in that field is my old good conversational part in psychonalsis. And he is solid because he has worked his ass out in that regard. Period.

    For a more daring, useful and more thorough analysis on this subject you may wish to enrich your views with this:

    And Glenn: Let me congratulate you. Yes really congratulate you !!!!!! I sincerely think that your last post is by far the best you have ever written. This is because it poses an open question, with an unprecedented plea for help, and it is a question which is dear to you/us: who or what are we ? (as opposed to these is who we are, read my definitions, methodolatries, bla bla bla).

    I sincerely think that the ONLY difference between your thinking and that of other buddhist revisionists is your daring and exquicitly irrevent attitude to question – until now however not able to question non-x buddhism itself – despite my continous suggestion to do so. The answer is not relevant: nothing is fixed, no discourse ever a final description, we ARE contingent and so is language, so your question is the most congruent – hate that word – approach to this practice, it is a floating open attitude ready for anything necessary and useful to be undertaken, an succesion of endeavors hopefully relevant in terms of the BIG WE – that is for all of humanity.

    Cheers !!!!!

  47. Hi Luis,

    My response to Stephen Batchelor was in reference to his views on sexual misconduct but can be easily applied to others forms of exploitation as well. As I see it, sexual misconduct is not about sex, but the misuse of power. In fact, one of my main issues with Stephen’s treatment of the subject is that he blames sexual misconduct on lust rather than on less wholesome psychological motives or blindspots of the kind that you allude to.

    That said, I am not convinced that the misdeeds of persons in positions of authority can always be blamed on their “crossing over” to the dark side. Although, interestingly, Ken McLeod would probably agree with you. He has given classes on Bary Oshry’s “Total System Power” that blames moral transgressions on what he calls “the terrible dance of power” . I suppose that, from Ken’s point of view, We (Glenn, this site and those posting on it) are the violent radicals:

    The Radicals can do all of this
    without guilt or shame
    because they see the High-Power people as “Them,”
    and they see the Moderates as “Them”—
    as lesser,
    or evil.

    I do not believe in “evil” or subscribe to the “seductiveness of power” theory. Nor do I believe, à la Oshry, that “the power of negative thinking” (to get back to the subject of this thread) is doomed to cross over to the dark side. The misuse of power can be ascribed to a lack of awareness or concern about the consequences of one’s use of power on those affected by it and, in intractable cases, possibly to an under-developed conscience or even a lack of it, but it is not an institutional fait accompli.

  48. Patricia,

    In simple terms that is what I call egoism. Thus as I see it power abuse is about powerful egoism. But your need to differentiate youself from batchelor´s view diminishes to a point of ridiculization the structure FOR abuse created by traditional buddhism. Or what do you think was the cause and responsability of lending yourself to pose as a victim of “abuse”?

  49. Luis,

    I never “lent myself to pose as a victim of “abuse”. I agreed to be the student of someone whose basic humanity I had no reason to mistrust.

    I am not denying that power disparities can be abused. What I am saying is that power disparities, or the institutions that create them, are not the cause of their misuse, and that getting rid of them is not the solution.

    Getting rid of power disparities to stop abuse is about as realistic as getting rid of cars to stop drunk drivers from killing people.

  50. Patricia,

    Your analogy is wrong. The power structures that are the car. No car, no killing. Motives are just irrelevant without the means. Just as much as child mortality is correlative to economic income means that poverty kills people, these religious structure are the means that enable power abuse be it sexual, psychological or economic. Having said that, I think “abuse” should be meassures bybits consecunces en each case. And well the sexual abuse you talk about is relatively harmsless compared with the devastating consecuences that the fraud the traditional buddhist belief system entails.

  51. #54


    I am utterly amazed at the continued response to abuse being ‘blame the victim’. Even in a place as high-minded, aware and compassionate as buddhism is supposed to be. Talking about abuse in relative terms is dangerous, deluded and in this case, patently mysogenistic. Discussing the ultimate cause of an abuser’s behavior is interesting, but no cause will excuse said behavior. However, that’s beside the point, Luis. Your assumption of Patricia’s need to ‘differentiate herself from Bachelor’s view’ reads as a less than sly way of saying ‘shut up you victim.’ It’s indefensible. Much like Batchelor’s ridiculous reduction of lust being the cause of sexual abuse.

  52. This a male dominated world where orgasm is just for the few enlightened according to this practice. You can always be born male amd rich next time. Meanwhile you have to suffer your own castration as best a you can. Enjoy.

  53. Craig,

    Unless you have been abused yourself this not a matter of blaming games. It is eady to accuse other without assuming responsability and really speaking out the real consecuences of hidden and not so hidden play of power. I shit muself on you mysginistic claims and all the politically convenient modern days stupidoties talk in the so called name of the eeak. The inly think i am for is for the weak to speak for themselves which sadly in this case seems to be just a obvious exageration of an emotional dissapointment unless proben othrwise.

  54. Luis,

    As expected, a complete dismissal of my assertion and yet a strong need to respond. Did I hit a nerve? Also, I didn’t know I was powerful enough to make someone ‘shit themselves’. That’s good to know. FWIW, I really couldn’t get what you were writing here. Were you drunk while writing this response?

  55. I’m still waiting for some kind of indication of the spec non x perspective on self immolation. It is as an X buddhist act and (am I wrong in presuming?) it is some kind of an ideological act as modern as the present. Where does anatta figure into it, ritual, ideology? Attachment to what X leads one to conclude that the right action is incineration? Is is right action or not as informed by a spec non X approach? Does spec non X prove inadequate to comment on this?

  56. Luis,

    Your comments and the ensuing exchange have haunted me so I feel compelled to try to respond to you again.

    You seem to be against oppressive power structures, and so am I. You seem to think it is good to get rid of them, and so do I.

    What Batchelor (and you?) seem to overlook is that not all power is oppressive; and not all abuse stems from institutionalized inequalities.

    The power disparity between, say, guru and disciple may be great, but it is not necessarily oppressive or abusive. Conversely, the power disparity between a secular teacher and student may be minimal, but it can still be extremely psychologically oppressive and abusive. This was the basis of my disagreement with Batchelor and his insinuation that the secularization of Buddhism and the elimination of traditional power disparities (say, between guru and disciple) will solve the problem of teacher sexual misconduct. That is simply not true.

    To eliminate oppression and abuse, it is not power disparities that have to be got rid of, but the exploitation of power (i.e. via oppressive institutions or psychopathic individuals), because that is the real problem.

    Another point I have wanted to make in these discussions (on a subject that never seems to be broached) is that devotional practices that encourage child-like trust can be a beautiful and liberating practice when not focused on the guru qua person or manipulated by him for personal gain. Unfortunately, these practices are often taken prosaically at face value rather than explored poetically.

    I consider it a personal challenge to safeguard the poetic without sacrificing the rational. This requires constant vigilance; no pat answers; no guarantees.

    By the way, I posted my response to Batchelor on Sweeping Zen and also sent it to him personally, but he has not responded…

  57. Patricia,

    I completely agree with you. There is power for good, which as I see it, is basically for social justice and democracy, which as far as I can grasp your writing in your case would mean amogst other things power for personal support in a parent-child like relationship. I agree with that too.

    The case you describe for secular teaching is however a bit puzzling for me. I think that the next worse thing to the traditional master – student power asymmetry is the disguised or unassumed limits necessary is that sort of “new” form relationship (secular-secular) for from the moment there is someone in a position of telling others how things are, in other words talk more than others in a position of guidance, “teaching”, defining the rules, owning the physical place, representing the group, defining the schedule or simply having something you want, the dance of and for power is on. This is proben in an extreme way in gestaltic-like no limits dynamics which from my point of view have been enourmously destructive.

    The psychoanalitical concept of operational distance here is useful, which is to have a relatively open minded way of saying “if we want to work we need to separate that from any sexual activity between us.” In that direction I also find the term “emotional anchoring” from Daniel Kanheman´s book Thinking Fast and Slow extremely clarifying and useful and simply a fact of life that taints as all, as present as hunger and food. I am inclined to think that everyone would benefit from knowing about these concepts for a start. In other words, if there can be abuse and manipultaion in any social exchange, certainly you are right that the same can take place in a secular buddhist setting.

    But the indicators are clear and can be used in a preventive way: map out the sexual and financial flows in any group, once painted out, see for yourself and decide. Of course your own motivations/needs regarding sex and money or any other sort of power are also to be taken into account. Also when a group is not open, democractic, or is so only apparently – familiarity is key here to distinguish one from the other- it generally doesnt help. The leader of the sangha in the Zen group I use to belong to used to say “this is not a democracy”. It turned out I had to be the one which denounced his misconduct, the master teacher decided to cover the whole up to protect the “integrity” of the group, I confronted both and then left quietly. And from this corner of the world where I stand, that is how I see things today … I hope this is somewhat useful to you.

    As for Mr. Batchelor, I cant respond at all.

  58. Thanks for your response, Luis. Your position is clearer to me now.

    We seem to agree that abuse arises from the exploitation of power and this whether in a secular or non-secular context. I also agree with your remarks about prevention and the importance of looking for (and recognizing) the signs of “the dance of power”, i.e. by mapping the flow of power in a group. Awareness of this dance needs to be cultivated much more than it currently is so that, as you say, individuals can observe and judge the groups to which they belong with more critical intelligence. I also think that individuals have to recognize the danger of being a bystander and learn how to stand behind the ones who do call out the dance in order to really change the flow of power from inside the group.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with the Zen group you belonged to. I have had similar experiences with psychiatrists on multidisciplinary teams, one of whom once told me, when I confronted his autocratic leadership style: “get used to it”. I left the team which, in my case, also meant leaving my job.

    Getting back to Buddhist teachers, sometimes a teacher works exclusively with a student one-on-one, in which case there is no group for the student to observe. This is how it is with a teacher like Ken McLeod, whose “consulting model” cleverly masks his power in the relationship and the concomitant risk of exploitation, and whose students were only virtually connected by an online networking site (which has since been disbanded due to, I suspect, a need to control the flow of information). In such a set-up, there is little opportunity to observe some of the (cult) dynamics you mention, Luis. Moreover, these days, many teachers (and therapists) use Skype to meet with their “clients” in isolation of any group. To your list of preventive measures I would therefore add familiarity with the signs of narcissistic personality disorder and how they manifest one-on-one as well as in groups.

    While I don’t believe, as you apparently do, that power is an appetite that “taints us all”, I do think positions of power are a natural draw for predators who bait the needy and that- when we are in a vulnerable position- we should beware of the potential for fishing.

    “I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I went fishing, I didn’t think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted. I didn’t bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangled a worm or grasshopper in front of the fish.”
    (Dale Carnegie)

  59. Patricia,

    I completely agree with you again. As you describe it, McLeod discovered and is using the world (quite) wide web as his fishing pond … aberrations sell, no doubt about it – witness a cannibal´s ad in Germany, who another guy answered, they got together and had wine before the former cutting, cooking and eating the other´s pennis ! -. As you mention I know asswholes who sell stupid new-ageish advice from their cabin in Hawaii through skype. And what is worse, I know intelligent people who pay for their services. So yes, absolutely agree, narcissistic personality disorder should be on the warning list. Mind you: most Zen groups hide their narcissism behind the ego bashing stupidity, so it is as complex as sutil.

    I have long sustained that one of the most useful things this critical Buddhism we do here can do is help bury itself with all of buddhism alongside. Those of us who have been deep within the buddhist system are especially qualified to help prevent Buddhism from frying more brains and hearts in blind obedience, from selling the fraudulent scam of escaping time through the Absolute, through Buddhanature or whatever. We can do that since we know their terminology and concrete settings and dynamics, just as you do with regard to McLeod –he is in my list also as a fake pragmatist !-.

    I would argue that this is not a call to unite the resented or teacher wanabes or power hungry intellectuals but certainly a genuine new form of practice or praxis, one that feeds itself on crashing the delusions of all-abusive traditional buddhism one by one, teacher by teacher, sangha by sangha.

  60. Denying contradictory charactheristic of dependent arising in the name of transcending dualistic thinking/action is simply fooling oneself and/or others. but the problem is you can’t transcend or go beyond one form of contradiction with attachment to one side of controversy.
    Right speech, balance, generosity, goodness, compassion, loving kindness, non-judgmental mindfulness, meditation, devotion, equanimity are not “positive qualities”, they are somewhat inadequate translations of the parts of eightfold path. e.g. “right” speech is not always saying pleasant words. it may include criticism or strong words, if it will create a change that is beneficial to others you are conversing with and won’t be just the expression of a whining, egoistic personality.

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