Putting Nothing in Boxes and Selling It

[Richard K. Payne (bio at bottom) wrote the following post in response to the previous one, Aggressive Buddhist Appeasement.]

Matthias Steingass’ discussion suggests an additional issue, rooted in the very nature of “Buddhism as religion.” As part of almost any society engaged in economic exchange of one kind or another (i.e., not limited to late Capitalism), the attempt to commodify the intangible moves to the realm of brand-identification (“liking” as Steingass says) and avoids critical evaluation. “Brand-claims” can include indistinguishably meaningful and meaningless ones (one of the things that makes it hard to talk about “religion” as a general category).

The consumer is motivated in the case of intangibles to make purchases (as distinct from making critical and informed judgements) according to qualities attributed to the product by its promoter. What, for example, distinguishes Fiji Water from Great Value Purified Water (sold via Walmart)? One is reminded here of Bourdieu’s concept of “distinction.” Which would the trendy person prefer to be seen consuming? Which would the thrifty person prefer to be seen consuming? Product as reflection of self-image, rather than evaluation of any objective characteristic of the product itself—because the objective characteristics of the product itself are intangibles related to consumer concerns other than the product itself, such as quenching thirst. (Personally I think Voss has groovier bottling, while I like the level of carbonation of Pellegrino and Perrier, the latter also having pretty groovy bottling.)

Awakening may be considered to be the perfect product, even better than experiences. It is entirely intangible, yet infinitely reproducible—constituted as it is by the aspirant/customer. It is the aspirant/consumer who constitutes the product in their own conception and self-understanding. (Note here that I am specifically referring to “awakening” in all of its myriad forms, and not to meditation. In my own opinion, meditation is a skill that can in fact be taught. The marketing of meditation is sometimes tied to tangible consequences, such as lowered blood pressure, stress reduction, and so on, or it can be tied to intangible consequences, such as awakening, fulfillment, self-realization, and so on—depending on the brand-claims made by different kinds of meditation trainings.)

Perhaps it is just exactly the intangible character of the goal that makes authority such an important part of brand-claims. What constitutes a set of teachings as authoritative—as the teachings of the Buddha, or of a buddha—has been a long-debated topic in Buddhism: how do we know buddhavacana, the speech of a/the buddha? Similarly, the role of other founders following after Śākyamuni for brand-claims is legitimation: these are the authoritative teachings of founder XYZ, I’m here to tell you so, and to make them available to you.

Fundamentally it seems that when products are intangible in the way in which awakening is, there is an additional dynamic involved in the creation of institutions to promote those intangibles, that is, mastery of a form of discourse—the accomplished practitioner of the intangible comes to control a way of speaking that demonstrates mastery of the tradition’s discourse, and mastery of a discourse is to be distinguished from attainment of the intangible goal. This is, of course, not limited to Buddhism by any means, but is a dynamic of any institution dealing in intangibles, such as literary criticism. This is not to say that such discourses are meaningless or without import (consider the significance of mastery of legal discourse), but rather that mastery of such discourses works within their own otherwise intangible frames of reference rather than in the realm of the tangible.

An instance of this comes to mind as I reflect on possible reactions to the above, including the criticism that I don’t believe in awakening. My initial response is to say, well, I was trained in those strains of Zen, Dzogschen and tantra that describe the mind as fundamentally already awakened, so there is no distinction between ordinary mind and awakened mind. Then I rear back in horror realizing that this is the discourse that I have myself mastered. Is there anything tangibly there to allow a critical evaluation of the claims regarding the original purity of mind? Am I a better, happier person? Not that I know of. Perhaps that is why for myself I avoid any claims of religious authority (other than performing weddings and giving an occasional dharma talk).


Richard K. Payne is Dean and Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, in Berkeley, California. He is also founder of the blog “Critical Reflections on Buddhist Thought: Contemporary and Classical.” Payne is the author or co-editor of numerous books and articles on Buddhism, including, most recently, Discourse and Ideology in Medieval Japanese Buddhism (London: Routledge, 2006), and Approaching the Land of Bliss: Religious Praxis in the Cult of Amitabha (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004). (Additional publications here.) Richard Payne is also the editor of the highly regarded journal Pacific World – Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies. Visit the journal’s site here. You can find further information at Payne’s faculty website.

Image: Transparent box by Dan Graham.

44 thoughts on “Putting Nothing in Boxes and Selling It

  1. Great article. I have a few reactions.

    I used to always drive past the local Shambhala getting that warm and envious feeling that awakening and awakened people were inside the cool looking building. I even went once, but didn’t go back (their sitting cushions don’t allow the knees to hit the floor!). This giving up brought on guilt. Now, since reading SNB my outlook has changed. I drove by yesterday and immediately thought SCAM! People give shitloads of money and time to that place in search of something that does not exist. Using the negative thinking from the previous articles I would say that the exotic, enticing building is actually classic capitalist marketing of air (?).

    The other comment I had concerns the discourse. In buddhism it seems one can learn how to talk the talk and maybe act like they are walking the walk, but there really is no walk! It’s all just coded language for the nonexistent that we so desperately want. I’m reminded of my work in addiction. I learned the talk immediately. The discourse was used in discussing patients, treating patients and writing treatment plans. The latter being mythological narratives of the patients seeking help. It all meant absolutely nothing and I had a really hard time with it and could not do it, especially with the patients. I did play the game to keep my job.

  2. PS-i’ve heard from more than one individual that when Rinpoche’s come to the Shambhala Center harems and drinks are expected. Seriously. One friend went to pick up such an individual at the airport and was floored when the great Rinpoche inquired about women companions for the weekend. Alas, not too surprising give it’s founder. I recently read an article that discusses Pema Chaldren’s utterly exhausted look as the result of her adherence to Trungpa.

  3. Reblogged this on Der Unbuddhist und kommentierte:

    Richard K. Payne adds an important aspect to the discussion about authority in Buddhism: Awakening may be considered to be the perfect product. It’s the Unique Selling Proposition of Buddhism. But it’s intangible. As such one has to relie on the trustworthiness of the one who is selling the product. That’s the problem. …or is Buddhism to been seen today as just another product and nothing else. Should one look at it and its promoters as a brand-name and as people talking in terms of branding, promoting, selling, creating desires for a product which nobody needs?

  4. I love the article.
    Matthias (#4), yes Buddhism is a product, and teachers sell their brand; but, no, its promoters are not “creating desires for a product which nobody needs”. That is the pathetic part. Everybody needs something.
    Nothing. The elixir of choice for modern quacksalvers.

  5. Dear Craig,
    Thank you for your supportive comment, one that I found made me reflect further on my own dynamic in relation to these issues. The accusation of resentment over my own failure is one that could be made–that is, that the problem is not with the goal of awakening, but rather that since I have myself not attained any permanently exalted state, I blame the proponents of awakening, rather than acknowledging my own failings. Perhaps not unexpectedly, this is not an interpretation that I am ready to accept as it stands. It does suggest, however, that the situation involved a complex interplay, and that I myself played a part in constructing the object of desire.
    My grandmother (maternal) was something of a follower of Rudolf Steiner, and his anthroposophy, so I grew up in an environment where such ideas as self-transcendence and mystical awakening were already present, and were readily reinforced by popular religious culture, such as reading Huxley (Doors of Perception, and Heaven and Hell) as an adolescent. Then along comes Buddhism, especially in the form of Zen, and out of this mysterious empty signifier I construct that which I want Buddhism to be.
    I, therefore, need to take responsibility for my own role in creating my own disappointment, and thereby attempt to avoid its conversion to a Nietzschean ressentiment. Consider the complexity of responsibilities involved in the break up of any other love affair–why am I so angry with the silly bitch, anyway? I hope that my critique is, thereby, more adequately grounded in critical reflection than in lashing out in bitterness. The critique can therefore be more effectively directed at the promotion of standard Western dualistic self-help teachings promoted under the guise, exoticism and authority of Buddhism. (In other words, I find much of value for critical thinking in the works of classic Buddhist thinkers, such as Nagarjuna, et al.)
    On a different matter, regarding accusations of orgies and such (think Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon”: “telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty”), please see Norman Cohn’s excellent study, Europe’s Inner Demons, (rev. ed. University of Chicago, 1993), which traces the consistency of accusations of orgies, cannibalism, and the like from those made against members of the early Christian church into medieval accusations against witches, and on to those made against Jews. I suspect that we are seeing some of this same complex of behaviors being now projected onto yet another minority group, Buddhists. This, of course, does not invalidate in any way the actuality of sexual misconduct (see Steingass’s appendix to his “Aggressive Buddhist Appeasement”) but that is hardly limited to Buddhist teachers after all. I’ve heard that even politicians do it. Perhaps we expect more of Buddhist teachers, but then again, why should we? They’re not Christian saints, after all.
    all the best, Richard

  6. Richard, you make an important point (among others)

    The situation involved a complex interplay, and that I myself played a part in constructing the object of desire.

    I can say for my part that my anger, especially with Tibetan Buddhism, has to do with an idealization. When beginning looking into this Buddhism in 2005 I was only interested in its knowledge about experimenting with thought. I was looking for all texts about mahamudra, for example, I could lay my hands on and I tried to find people with whom to discuss this topic and to learn from them. To find such people was definitely the more difficult part.

    While doing this I deliberately left out such topics like reincarnation, karma, the afterlife or bardo, vajrayana stuff like yidam practices, awakening etc. These topics where for me out of question and irrelevant. “Reincarnation” for example, why should I even think about something like this? Or they where too obscure and muddy like “awakening”.

    I didn’t read a lot written by the Dalai Lama for example. I just thought that he is an honest guy. His Mind and Life Institute sounded like a good idea but I never checked it. Then I became more interested in Tibetan history and I remember well a point that I, although feeling like behaving rationally, realized I was indeed still idealizing: I read about the search for the present Dalai Lama in Goldstein’s Demise of the Lamaist State. Finding him wasn’t a big deal for the search party. The Panchen Lama gave them the adress. That’s the story in a nutshell. Checking the version of ‘His Holiness’ I found out that he upholds an occult version of the story which basically supports the worldview of personal reincarnation and which simply isn’t true. I really became angry about this and the further I checked the more it became apparent that the guy in my head wasn’t fitting the guy in reality. I began also checking other proponents of Tibetan Buddhism. Soygal ‘Rinpoche’ for example (whose biography how he came to be a yogi is just one big scam).

    What made me angry was that the clear thinking I saw in mahamudra wasn’t reflected in the behavior if these people. They were lying in my face. I hate people who deny the obvious. That is where my own biography comes in and where idealization and anger become part of the complex interplay in constructing the object of desire. I was looking for honesty and found the obscure again.

  7. Matthias and Richard (#6, #7).

    Your comments highlight an important element operating in the practice of critique: it is always personal. The extent to which criticism is valuable depends, I think, on the intensity of the criticizer’s engagement with whatever it is that’s under investigation. Genuine engagement with the x-buddhist forms we are critiquing on this blog (and on Richard’s) presupposes that each of us has practiced over an extensive period of time. In most cases, practice is, furthermore, on-going, although in some cases it has been abandoned. Yet, people who reject out of hand the very project of x-buddhist criticism seem invariably to assume that the person offering the criticism suffers from one or all of the following: s/he has rejected x-buddhist forms wholesale; s/he has failed to realize the promise of the practice; s/he is angry (or some variation: frustrated, disappointed, resentful, etc., etc) either generally or at accomplished authorities.

    The response to criticism per se is, of course, a vicious form of circularity. It says: your criticism argues that x is such and such; but x is not such and such, for x itself tells me so; thus, your critique is wrong; and you are against x anyway, and/or incapable, angry, disappointed, frustrated. This response is common. I even see it at work in the kind of half-hearted efforts at critique by, for instance, Vince Horn at Buddhist Geeks or Ted Meissner at the Secular Buddhist Association or Justin Whitaker at American Buddhist Perspective. It’s a kind of x-buddhist castration complex. In less graphic terms, it is simply the fear of allowing critique to do its work.

    Many examples of the circularity cum ad hominem rebuttal of x-buddhist reactionaries and obscurantists can be found in, for instance (and for fun!) in Seth Segall’s post “About ‘Speculative Non-Buddhism'” at the Existential Buddhist and Stephen Schettini’s post, “So What,” at the Secular Buddhist Association.

    You can also find it in full force wherever Tom Pepper has left a comment!

  8. Forgive me for being ignorant of continental philosophy, Lacan, Marxism etc,. I’ve been busy being a prole and occasional meditator rather than philosophy student or autodidact. One of the reasons that I’ve never looked into any capitalist or Marxist philosphies very closely is that they never seem to mention the sorts of things that you find in meditation practice – which to me seems to make them incomplete, or the experience of the philosophers limited. So I may be missing something.
    Say I’ve had the experience of feeling super blissfull, dissolving boundaries, seeing myself in all things etc.- which seems revelatory, or did at the time, and which I understand is quite common to meditators. Who in your canon of Freud, Marx, Lacan etc. understands that sort of shift first hand, and if they don’t why should I pay attention to them, or any economic, social or psychological theory that comes from them?
    And if yourselves have direct experience of the states found in meditative or contemplative practice, then why do you adhere to or value philosophers who do not share your experience, if that is indeed the case ?

  9. Re #9: If you have “never looked into” continental philosophy, how are you so sure about what it does or does not say? Lacanians would not deny the existence of “feeling super blissful.” They would, however, seek to explain how and why this occurs. Are you afraid to understand the real causes and conditions of your “revelatory” experience? Would understanding its causes and conditions somehow “ruin” it?

  10. Hi John (#9). I prefer to speak only for myself; but I’ll take a risk and say that I don’t think anyone writing on this blog sees him- or herself as being particularly interested in philosophy or psychology or even Buddhism in and of themselves. I think the interest here is in thinking and in the ideas and insights of others that facilitate thinking.

    You, too, express interest in thought. You ask, for example, whether any of the people you mention has spoken of the kinds of experiences that you report having had in meditation. Have a look! See what they say. Google “Freud oceanic” or “Lacan language ineffable” or “Marx consciousness materialism.” Do that, and you will be engaging other thinkers. It’s not necessarily a high-falutin’ project to engage the ideas of others, is it? (We’re doing that right now.)

  11. I’ve been thinking about this post for two days. It raises so many interesting points, in such suggestive combination, that I have the literary critic’s impulse to expand on it, to say more about it, to “fill in the blanks” in order to make it say—less. That is, after all, what we usually do in a work of literary criticism: say more about a text, pretend to explain it, in order to close off its troubling suggestion of a lack in our discourse. So, hopefully this comment won’t do that.

    I’m wondering about the assertion that this kind of commodification of the intangible is a universal, that it occurs in any kind of society at all (since we can assume that exchange of some sort must be part of what defines something as a society, right?) Isn’t commodification, by definition, a capitalist phenomenon: the social production of an exchange value which is substituted for, which comes to dominate, a use value? So, to “sell nothing” is, perhaps, to get rid of use value altogether, to simply trade in pure exchange value—and the ability to do this is, it seems to me, peculiar to late capitalism.

    When we have a discourse that seems to deal in intangibles, isn’t it always a discourse that functions to produce “pure” ideology, ideology separated from any other economic function? That is, in Literature we have a discourse that is meant to operate purely on the level of the symbolic order, to shape and direct other ideological discourses/practices. Education, for instance, is an ideological state apparatus that functions to reproduce technical skills, information, and knowledge—it is not “purely” ideological in the way Literature is.

    In an x-buddhist concept of “enlightenment,” we have a combination of these: a “pure ideology” that doesn’t have even the limited content of a work of Literature—that sells nothing but the belief that “buying” this particular ideology will, as a matter of sheer contentless form, be enough to make one perfectly happy. The teacher then becomes the Lacanian “subject presumed to …” (know, desire properly, believe ardently, but most of all presumed to enjoy!), and the student seeks the teacher onto whom they can project this imaginary subject position. The student then must pick the teacher who appears to have the very thing he insists he doesn’t—or to put it another way, the student must simply produce a transference onto the teacher, to believe that if this teacher approves of her then she is complete, desirable, and eternal.

    Perhaps if we didn’t think of enlightenment as being a state of some kind of “perfection,” either in the “already awakened/original enlightenment” version or in the future attainment version, then we wouldn’t have this problem of people buying nothing at all. What could we “buy” when nobody can explain, define–or even admit to experiencing–enlightenment? Only the chance to have an emotionally crippling and intellectually stunting unexamined transference to some performance artist who embodies, for us, the impossible position of the gaze we wish to be attractive to? We are, then, only “buying” a futile bid for imaginary plentitude—the hope to return to the perfect infantile bliss which we imagine we once had in our “original” state. We didn’t ever have it, and won’t ever get it, so seeking it can only make one dissatisfied, despairing and angry at anyone who suggests we stop wasting our time looking for it.

    What if we were to define enlightenment as something we don’t already have, but can get, can explain, can recognize in others—and that it need not have anything to do with some fantasy of the “perfected” subject presumed to…? What if we see enlightenment as simply the insight that there is a mind-independent reality, but we always know it through a humanly constructed discourse: that there is reality, and there is ideology, and that ideology is not permanent and true, but humanly created, changeable, and temporary. Once we see this, and see that being humanly created and changeable does not mean it is not “real” or that it is “mere” illusion lacking causal powers (the legal system, for instance, is not a mere illusion)—then we are enlightened, in the only sense that the term can have. In my experience, once people see this truth, there is no way to “forget” or “unsee” it. It doesn’t make anyone “perfect,” but that isn’t the point at all. There are no superhuman powers or amazing abilities, merely the capacity to see this one truth—the nature of conventional reality–which so few people can really grasp, in its full significance.

    I personally choose to seek a kind of pleasure in un-alienated labor, in effortful work for a purpose, instead of seeking the delusional bliss of imaginary plenitude. What I always sought in Buddhism was not some assurance of a fantasy blissful eternity, but a way to grasp and accept the full truth of our absolute impermanence and insignificance. Perhaps because of this, I never wound up disappointed in Buddhism itself, but frustrated and annoyed by those desperately trying to use Buddhist practice and Buddhist thought to avoid this truth.

    Sorry for rambling, but as I said I’ve been thinking about this for two days now.

  12. John (#9),

    I considered philosophy to be a waste of time until I got here….

    The criterion for having that opinion and changing it was the same: applicability.

    I remember computing integrals in school while our teacher was teaching us how to analyse texts. I knew that you could use calculus to do a lots of things, but nobody ever explained to us why we should learn how to analyse texts.

    Now, I’m part of a Buddhist meditation group and I read Buddhist literature and what I learned from reading the blog posts and comments here helps me to be aware of unspoken assumptions or rhetorical tricks. (It also changed my way of reading texts about other topics e.g. political issues etc.)

    So I guess that’s the main reason why I value philosophy (if at all), it helps to critically reflect on certain things.

  13. 6:

    I’m confused. Are you subtly admonishing me through this post talking about your taking responsibility for your disappointment? Of course sexual misconduct is an issue pretty much everywhere, not just Buddhism. Also, resentment’s a great place to start for any critical project.


  14. #10.
    I have looked a wee bit, didn’t really recognise anything, and I’m lazy and the internet is cheap so I ask.
    I think we’re a long way from understanding causes and conditions – and possibly that will never occur, so I really don’t know what there is to be frightened of.
    I guess you may mean that any intimations of eternal life and non embodied consciousness may turn out, in light of some sort of materialist/Marxist revelation, to be illusiory, and then I will be faced with a terrible atheist oblivion at death, rather than rebirth or beautiful heavenly dissolution in a great white light – or something?
    Or maybe that I am afraid to say that oceanic perceptions are illusiory in the first place, and that I should replace any aim for further experience of that sort for a struggle against the terrifying and heavily armed forces of capitalism?
    Or maybe that I am misperceiving the nature of the feeling based experience due to mislabelling of it by spiritual tradition?
    Or maybe that it’s a product of my nervous system, which is heading for the grave along with all it produces?

    But if Lacanians have an explanation, and I would prefer it to be derived from first hand experience, then it may be worth a read. That could be a personal prejudice, after all there are lots of experiences that I would prefer to talk about theoreticaly than experience first hand, but in this case I think it would be better for a philosopher to show some curiosity and try it first hand rather than try and cram it into a preformed philosophical framework.

    Yeah I understand that Freud, as I remember, refers to mystical experiences as ‘oceanic’, and is quite dismissive relegating them to regressive hangover from childhood. That was the point at which Freud went back on the bookstore shelf and I kept hold of my £10 thinking if full maturity was equivalent to never experiencing that then I’ll stay childish thanks.
    Similar with Marx, and for that matter other more right wing economic philosophers – they can beat each other up over who should own what and who should do the work but it doesn’t seem to have a huge amount to do with ‘oceanic’ feelings – which seem to be available to people regardless of political persuasion or place in the social pecking order.
    I guess that’s bad news to anyone with a Marxist intent on the world, because chasing the mystical could be quite a distraction, and if that can be incorporated and subsumed into a capitalist lifestyle then you have someone who isn’t toeing the line and in fact is just fine with capitalism.
    But I don’t want to go on about Marxism because I’m not aquainted with it’s texts, only with popular ideas of it, and people have really kicked his ball a long way down the field since he was alive.
    My own impression is that social situation is different for anyone undergoing mystical experience – that’s what history seems to tell us, and the social reaction is the luck of the draw for anyone talking about it – maybe you get cast out from the tribe, maybe you get called the shaman, maybe you get burned at the stake, maybe you get canonised, maybe you get people to pay thousands for your wisdom, maybe you get discarded as an annoyance spoiling someone’s profit, maybe you get shot by the secret police and your photographs burned. Eh, rambling.

    For sure I’m seeing some interesting and pertinent criticism here, things like ‘is Thich Thanh Nhat simple minded’ ? – that’s quite funny.

    I’ve never seen any teacher or guru that didn’t say something illogical, wrongheaded, misinformed or ill considered or deceitful. Then again I’ve never seen anyone that didn’t have those qualities to one degree or another, in my small sampling of the 7,000,000,000 or so global population, including myself.

  15. Well, John, if you just want to be lazy and avoid learning anything that might disturb your pleasant illusions, then I don’t really see why you would be interested in this blog at all. Nobody would deny that such experiences really occur. If you don’t want to know why, and have no internest in the world or your fellow humans, and want only to continue in your blissful state, then certainly you don’t want to bother with such things as thinking, reading, and discussion of important idea. It is much safer to convince yourself that you know exactly everything Marx, Lacan, Freud, and anybody else says, because you once glanced at the book in a bookshop. That’s what most people here in the U.S. do.

  16. no internest in the world or your fellow humans
    -hate them
    -enough already
    convince yourself that you know exactly everything Marx, Lacan, Freud, and anybody else says
    -marvel at my omniscience, straight from the Akashic records
    the book in a bookshop
    -should have stolen it. Take that, bookshop pig.

    I will give them a read, seeing as it’s all free and dished up for me online nowadays.

  17. (#14) Dear Craig,
    My apologies if it seemed that my intent was to admonish you, subtly or otherwise. I do think that if we/any of us allow ourselves to slide from frustration, or anger, or a sense of having been betrayed into being a victim, a state in which one is trapped by their own passivity (which is how I might render “Nietzschean ressentiment”, as distinct from a “piss off” kind of resentment) then we disempower ourselves, and can make no difference in the situation. And, at least as I understand it, that means a dual process, one looking outward and the other in. One of the great contributions that I think this blog makes is that it encourages us to not be passive victims of institutionalized stupidity and those self-serving spiritual bureaucrats who operate those institutions. Encouragement and advice were my intent, not admonishment. Such unsolicited advice may sound like chastisement, and I should no doubt have signaled my intent more clearly.
    I guess my comment regarding sexual transgressions was motivated by the fact that there have been so many, that personally I find the topic boring. This is not to say that I don’t care about the harm inflicted, but rather that I am no longer surprised. I think that these are institutional matters and solutions come from within the communities where they take place, though no doubt valuable support can come from the wider community (both the wider Buddhist community, and the wider community of religious professionals). A friend of mine with expertise in the realm of psychotherapy and counseling has mentioned to me that it is those therapists who are isolated who are most likely to be responsible for sexual misconduct. By analogy, any Buddhist group that is isolated (strong insider/outsider boundaries) can also be similarly responsible. Insiders wanting to keep secrets because it is the group to which they themselves belong, and any criticism is felt as impinging on their own self-identity. So often one reads of the personal devastation that results for the person breaking the code of silence–they lose their social support system and their former friends turn against them. The movie Serpico, although dealing with police corruption, examines the same group dynamics.
    And, thank you for asking.

  18. Richard-
    Thanks for the response. My initial remarks were precisely examples of me not being the victim. So we’re on the same page. Also, I see where you’re coming from concerning sex abuse. It’s horrible and the story I mentioned above keep me from being complacent with its ridiculous regularity. It’s on my mind as I recently found out that a former favorite teacher was guilty.

    Again, thanks for the article and comments.

  19. I have a question regarding the concept that Richard mentions in the final paragraph of this post: the idea of original enlightenment.

    My question is, simply: are there any x-buddhists who do NOT believe in an eternal, transcendent consciousness of some kind? I don’t mean this as a rhetorical question: is there any school of Buddhism that does not accept the existence of some kind of “original mind”? Have I always been completely mistaken to believe that the Buddhist teaching of anatman actually rejects the Vedantic concept of atman? Are they ultimately always the same thing, in different terms?

    I take the Vedantic concept of Brahmin to be as Deutsch described it decades ago in his book Advaita Vedanta (1968): Brahmin is a world-transcendent consciousness, a “big mind,” of which we are all small, limited parts, and the goal of life is to unite, in eternity, with this “timeless plenitude of being.” This is done, in Vedanta, by cessation of all thought, because the ultimate is ineffable, and the only way to approach it is “through negation of what is thinkable.” In Vedanta, atman is “a supreme power of awareness, transcendent to ordinary sense-mental consciousness, aware only of the Oneness of being…wherein the divisions of subject and object…are overcome.”

    My understanding had always been that a fundamental teaching of Buddhism was that this idea was a delusion, and the source of suffering. That is, when the Buddha of the Pali canon says “I do not see any doctrine of self that would not arouse sorrow” and tells his followers that there is nothing that “is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and that might last as long as eternity” (MN 1.138, Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Nanamoli, trans.), when he taught anatman, that he was rejecting this basic concept of atman, common in his time.

    But the more involved I am with x-buddhists, the more convinced I am that there are absolutely no x-buddhists in the Western world who reject the concept of atman. Every one of them seems to think that anatman means exactly the same thing as the Vedantic teaching of atman.

    I’ve come to believe that the reason my discussions with others interested in Buddhism always disintegrates into misunderstanding and rancor is that I do not accept the existence of this “self-luminous” consciousness with no object that precedes and will outlast the phenomenal world, while every x-buddhist I interact with assumes that this is exactly the very definition of “anatman” or non-self: i.e., that my body, thoughts, actions, and experiences are “not a self” but my transcendent “substrate consciousness” IS my “true self.”

    I’m seriously asking here: is there anyone who understands anatman in the way I do, or have I simply been mistaken and confused for all these years, reading into Buddhist texts something that they simply do not intend to say?

    My concern is that, as my semester is drawing to a close, I had planned to spend the intersession writing something about the ethical implications of the absolute non-existence of any essential self. I’m beginning to think this is not the kind of thing a Buddhist audience would be at all interested in, that they would simply reject it as a Christian audience would an essay about the implications of the non-existence of God. I wouldn’t waste my time writing such a thing to a Vedantic audience, since they openly assert the existence of an atman; perhaps I am wasting my time with a Buddhist audience as well?

  20. #12/20: Tom, your definition of enlightenment moved me. Like you, I’m a PhD in English teaching for “decades” in a challenging setting (full-time but no tenure offered) and my conditions in late capitalism given a careerist mandate at my institution daily make me question if I’m following my bliss (heh) into non-alienated labor. After a few years studying Buddhism (but I don’t call myself one) wisely if unwittingly not finding SN-B until this past spring, the timing right, I follow this blog steadily if quietly. Sometimes I lag and need a few hours a month to catch up on what transpires rapidly here. (For instance, as I typed this, up you pop with the exact #20 inquiry that has long stumped me.) So, on this grey day inside myself and outside, I wanted to perk up and express my thanks to you and colleagues whom I learn from. I’m an outlier in many ways and where I teach (increasingly online) and how I study removes me from much direct interaction with those who’d support–or oppose–me. SN-B lets me peer at peers, to stay informed. Adding Richard Payne et al. to contributors provocatively expands its range, and keeps us all questioning.

    #13 via Saibhu on #10 to John, by way of #11 from Glenn: I’ve found albeit as a lurker that John’s initial unease at the levels of discussion and reference precedes acclimatization. I wrote about this learning curve on my own blog last June in three related posts. Altitude sickness knocks out some; other climbers up Mount Analogue or Mount Meru’s mysteries endure. I may lack the patience most here have for ideological smackdowns. Grad school wearied me for theory. I lack training in political philosophy or clinical psychology, but teaching (to techies or managers) gen ed humanities and lit tilts me towards simply expressed prose if only after being shifted down to that level by my duties in not grad seminars but urban classrooms for immigrants, vets, or retrained and downsized and laid-off folks my age. Yet, it’s stimulating for me to step outside these settings (which ivory-towered tenurati fetishize but rarely teach remedial English or frosh study skills at), to wander in where mindful meaning matters. SN-B–where I’ve pointed a few in or out of the Comp Religions course I teach and my own clan of louche inquirers–channels some fiery froth along with tonic blasts. Blundering along with no x-dog in my hunt, it’s fun. Part of the buzz of imbibing potions is to watch my own reaction vs. others at the bar/coven/thread.

    P.S. I heard a while back re: WordBlood that Tom would be tackling Donald S. Lopez’ new book The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life. I reviewed it myself here recently. Sure, distilled for a non-specialist audience, but reading SN-B blends with my past exposure to Lopez’s critiques to infuse it.Slán all.

  21. 20


    I would love to read an article on the ethical implications of non-self. In my x-Buddhist experience I was never really aware of the subtle belief in some transcendent self. Looking back I can see it now. It’s quite confusing hearing a zen teacher talk about losing self to find true self!

    The way I’ve come go understand this concept is that there is no preordained cosmic being called Craig. There is, however, a unique human that others call Craig that has heaps of conditioning on it making it believe it is some special person. This human is somehow ‘alive’ and at some point will not and will continue to decompose as it has since….

    So, I get it intellectually and sometimes I experience it, but I haven’t internalized this understanding. There is no going back though, as you’ve said.


  22. Tom (#21).

    I’m seriously asking here: is there anyone who understands anatman in the way I do, or have I simply been mistaken and confused for all these years, reading into Buddhist texts something that they simply do not intend to say?

    I know, it sounds like an ironic question, doesn’t it? Drawing on your essay “What Kind of Buddhist are You?” we can ask: are there any faithful x-buddhists? My quick answer is: no, they are without exception reactionary or obscurantist. That faithfulness to the event of unequivocal anatman (to use the historical marker) is still viable, as your own understanding shows, is made possible by the presence of the event in the literature. That is, we can still catch the lingering scent of radical no-self in the figure of the Buddha. The passage you quote is an example. Yet, that same literature contains an equally unequivocal rejection of anatman. Perhaps the most telling instance occurs at Anguttara Nikaya 1.5.9 (in the PTS edition). It reads:

    Pabhassaramidam bhikkhave cittam | tañca kho agantukehi upakkilesehi upakkilittham || (Rough translation:) Luminous, monks, is this mind. But it is stained by adventitious defilements

    I think that the canon has memorialized the fact that the struggle to accept the Buddha-figure’s radical rejection of atman is as old as Buddhism. I would argue that it is, in fact, woven into the very DNA of Buddhism. In my unpublishable piece “Meditation as Organon of Dissolution,” I argue that the Buddha-figure was a nihilist, but his followers were eternalists who could not abide by the nihilism of their teacher. (In ancient India, the view of anatman was a defining characteristic of a nihilist [natthika], and that of atman, of an eternalist [sassata].) This explains in part the vehement rejection of nihilism in the early canon. An argument can be made that, by extension, we have an implicit rejection of anatman.

    This rejection of anatman/no-self is inseparable from contemporary x-buddhism. In Asian x-buddhisms, some version of atman is so taken for granted that it is unthought and unstated. (Some forms even have a God-notion in, for instance, dharmakayabuddha.) In western x-buddhism, the versions of atman seem to run along the continuum from a Christian soul to New Age pure consciousness/true mind. Actually, it would be a worthwhile project to map the varieties of x-buddhist atman in play in the current scene. I even see a version of essential, inhering Self operating in so-called atheist-buddhism. Secular-buddhism has a Theosophical-Protestant soul notion in play. People like Brad Warner have a Zen-inflected New Age Mind at work. What other varieties are there?

    One quick note: In my nearly four decades in the thick of x-buddhist practice, I can tell you that I have never, never, met any teacher who taught unequivocal anatman/no-self. That is not to say that they didn’t talk the good talk. It is to say that every single x-buddhist I have ever met has, in the end, flinched.

    Great question. More later . . .

  23. Glenn: as you point out, there are just as many Buddhist texts promoting the idea of atman as their are arguing for anatman. This struggle seems to have existed from the time the Pali Canon was written down–and, for the most part, in our day, the “subtle-atman” side seems the overwhelming victor. I just cannot see why, if what early Buddhism was teaching was exactly the same as Vedanta/Brahmanism, there ever would have been a reason for a new practice, for an entirely new collective subject. But the x-buddhist will cling to those passages about “luminous mind,” and can easily translate the passages about anatman in such a way that they simply say that there is not permanent phenomenal/physical entity.

    I used to, even a year or two ago, foolishly believe that the goal of Buddhist practice was to come to a better understanding of anatman, to be able to fully think within that concept and stop reifying our ideologies and mistaking conventional truths for ultimate truths, to let go of the persistent and powerful assumption of an essential self. For this reason, I thought people would want to see the subtle atman pointed out and exposed for what it is–that this was why they interacted with other Buddhists: to help expose their conceptual errors and blind spots. As the response to my review of Alan Wallace’s book, or to my responses to Rodney Smith or Josh Korda on Tricycle, made clear to me, this is not at all what x-buddhists are looking for: the extreme fury and ad-hominem attacks that followed from pointing out that they are assuming the existence of an atman made it clear that this is exactly what they want to do, and they absolutely don’t want anyone pointing out to their naive unsuspecting followers that they are deluding and manipulating them.

    Craig: For me, this is the goal of practice: we can get this concept “intellectually,” but it is much harder to really think from within the concept of anatman, and we all slide back into our illusion of a self. At least, I know that I do, that it is hard to avoid, and it is particularly hard, perhaps impossible, to do alone. If what I have argued in “Naturalizing Buddhism” is correct, if we are completely the effect of symbolic/imaginary systems, then it would by definition be impossible to fully think within the concept of anatman without some kind of a collective subject working on it together.

  24. Regarding “anatman”: one of the problems for the discussion of this in x-buddhist circles is the highly psychologized popular culture within which such discussions take place. The therapeutic culture as a whole is not only focused on the psyche, but on the individual psyche. (We may note as an aside the fairly frequent equation made between awakening [or in this case “enlightenment” actually is the appropriate term] and the Jungian concept of individuation, which is itself an expression of the Enlightenment goal of complete individual autonomy–i.e., freedom from causes and conditions, which would be just the opposite of anatman.)
    As I understand the significance of “atman” (and I am open to correction here by those who actually know the primary literature) it has to do with a more general meaning of essence, that is, a permanent, abiding, unchanging nature of anything, rather than the personal self specifically. Of course, my understanding may be filtered through a Madhaymaka understanding that focuses on the emptiness of all things as well as all persons. (Hmm, perhaps that is the Madhyamaka contribution/extension?)
    When I try to talk about inherent awakening it is that the emptiness of consciousness/mind/self/soul is identical with the emptiness of all things, including the buddha–that the universality of emptiness means that there is no difference between a buddha and oneself already. But try explaining that to an x-buddhist audience.
    My apologies if you are already aware of this, The line of argument that you, Tom, are taking is that of what is known in English as “critical Buddhism” whose founders argued that not only was buddhanature not Buddhist, but that it contributed to the ethical outrages of the Japanese empire. This was the topic of Hubbard and Swanson, eds., Pruning the Bodhi Tree. One would also, however, want to look at Sally King’s essay in which she responds by emphasizing the emptiness of tathagatagarbha, that it is itself not the Vedantic atman in disguise.

  25. Tom: I’d be very interested in an article by you on the ethical implications of no self.
    I wanted to mention an audio lecture series on Buddhism where Malcolm David Eckel discusses no-self–one of the three “marks” of existence; i.e. Nothing has any self, or “all is no self” (anatta), the Buddha negating the Vedic atman. He explains that traditional Buddhists mean by “no self” that no permanent identity continues from one moment to the next, there are only the aggregates, momentary, but they group together to give the illusion permanence, “like the flow of a river or flame of a candle”.
    But then he goes on to ask, “if there is no self, what is reborn?” His answer; the “stream” or “flame” of (vinnana) consciousness. One of the aggregates becomes reincarnated as a not-so-subtle atman…

  26. re: question in comment #20

    “I’m seriously asking here: is there anyone who understands anatman in the way I do, or have I simply been mistaken and confused for all these years, reading into Buddhist texts something that they simply do not intend to say?”

    If I correctly understand how you have expressed your conception of anatman, then yes, it is quite similar to how I experience anatta and conceive of the anatta as explicated within the Pali Suttas. My perceptions and conceptions of anatman are completely universal; there is no essence, core, soul, or pure mind, primordial mind, buddhanature or permanent or ongoing self of any kind to be found any where or any time. All notions of self anywhere, anytime are strictly temporary, provisional and contingent.

    My day to day experiences of the contingent conceptions of self are typically a consequence of the functional necessities of social roles and interpersonal communications. Among the deepest seated expressions of these contingent self conceptions would be the forms found within family relationships, where one is expected to conform to the given notions of what it means to be a son or a brother and so on, and wherein various aspects of behavior are expected to conform to various longstanding preconceptions and expectations based on past observation and experience.

    Apart from these socially constructed kinds of self, whether projected by others or adopted on behalf of others, I experience no perception(s) of a self essence either internally, in regards to my own makeup or externally in regards to the makeup of any other being(s).

    I have been this way for over thirty years now. I’ve spent a significant portion of my life since becoming this way searching for relevant insights. Unsurprisingly, this led to an ever more careful study of buddhist texts, traditions, thinking and culture.

    While there was a time when I thought the possibility might exist that I may find some like minded people within what is referred to here as X-buddhism I have since come to a similar conclusion, that anatman is actually anathema to X-buddhists on many levels.

    What I have commonly encountered in buddhist circles is the thinking that if one refers, as one frequently must, to the socially constructed self, such as by using the pronoun ‘I’ or ‘me’ in a post or email, this is often an opportunity for pointing out that one has not overcome in some allegedly necessary way references to or reliance upon self conceptions. This is a ridiculous and unnecessary game played repeatedly by online buddhists in contexts where personal pronouns are necessary referents within effective communications. This kind of thinking both refuses to acknowledge the necessity for these kinds of referents and the entirely provisional and temporary nature of these referents. This kind of interaction often demonstrates how shallow the understanding of anatman actually is and how difficult it can be to move beyond this kind of thinking into discussions of deeper appreciations of perceptions of anatta.

    As buddhism is practiced today, I don’t think there is any place within its structures for someone with no sense of atman whatsoever. I have looked into it both in the west and the east, as both a monastic and as a layman.

    I came to my understanding of anatman quite directly and quite outside of any kind of buddhist context. For many years in my study of buddhism it was necessary for me to approach it as a kind of exercise in reverse engineering.

    I know what it is like when consciousness ceases and why it is enigmatic to speak of what exists in the absence of consciousness, I have insights into why it is that consciousness continually re-arises and into how it is that these processes of being and becoming may be fully resolved but within X-buddhism all such discussions of actually accomplishing the aims of Buddhist doctrines and disciplines are taboo in a whole range of ways and for a plethora of reasons.

    For a brief time the so called “pragmatic dharma community” seemed as though it might afford the possibility for more open discussions of the actualities involved in accomplishing the aims of buddhist practices but what were initially iconoclastic forums rapidly devolved as these groups adopted even more eccentrically rigid dogmas and various members adopted even more absurd authoritarian roles.

    On the basis of the Pali Tipitaka it seems most probable to me that the Buddha was dealing with the same realities that my circumstances have likewise compelled me to contend with. It appears to me that he was able to articulate both a suitable theoretical framework for conceptualizing insights into these realities and an effective discipline for resolving the existential dilemma uncovered by these insights.

    However neither the theory as initially presented nor the practices as initially prescribed are any longer supported by X-buddhist institutions anywhere. As a consequence, I don’t consider it in any way useful for my purposes to uphold yet another socially notional self and refer to that self as “a buddhist”. It is more accurate and useful to refer to what I have become and increasingly am being in the sort of way that the Pali Tipitaka Buddha suggested, as an island or as a rogue elephant or some such analogue. Maybe Kafka’s metamorphic ‘Vermin’ would be more suitable in today’s climate.

    There is no place for soulless islands of clarity within hegemonic religious institutions. Just as a universalized compassion makes me anathema to christians, a universalized anatta makes me anathema to buddhists. The unwashed are expected to come to buddhist experts to gradually and painstakingly acquire no-self-ness. If one says, look, I’ve got all the no-self-ness I can manage, I’ve got nothing but comprehensive perceptions of anatta, then this is taken as an intention to claim some kind of expertise or even sainthood of one’s own.

    The discussion of anatta is then further complicated by all of the doctrinal and insititutional conflations of no-self-perceptions with expectations of purity of thought, speech and action. Anatta is one thing, purification of thought speech and action are another. The expectation that these qualities are necessarily found only together is yet another expression of the kinds of distortions and conflations common in X-buddhism.

    If X-buddhist institutions were interested in people like me, who have no perceptions of self, and who consequently can easily understand the necessity for solitude and strict self discipline in order to bring to a complete resolution the entire process of being and becoming, then I would naturally be very interested in involvement with such institutions. However there are no such sanctuaries within an X-buddhism which cannot even understand the necessity for strict moral discipline in such a context much less the necessity for monastic seclusion.

    X-buddhism is and is increasingly becoming, as Zizek correctly perceives, the re-purposing of a group of suitably obscure philosophical traditions into a suitable psychotherapeutic balm for the management class of a totalitarian capitalism and a suitable set of psychological tools for promoting the acceptance of an emergent hegemonic global feudalism.

    This leaves only the default mode for practicing dhamma, old fashioned, non-institutional recluseship, now commonly known as homelessness or living on the streets. In our times this way of life is undertaken in an increasingly hostile environment which, from the point of view of the realities the Tipitaka Buddha addresses and the methodologies which that Buddha prescribes, almost ideal.

    Does this, my kind of perception of universal, everywhere, all the time, anatta resemble your conception of anatman? If so, you should then know where to more profitably search for sages and saints, assuming you can tolerate the filth and depravity.

  27. Richard: if what you meant by “inherent awakening” were simply that we have the capacity to become awakened—that, say, this is feature of human beings as a species that uses symbolic communication—then I wouldn’t disagree. But I can’t agree that being empty/dependently arisen is the same as knowing we are empty/dependently arisen. Human consciousness is not already enlightened because it is not already aware of its impermanent and socially-constructed nature.

    I have read King’s essay, and I found it poorly reasoned and unconvincing. When she claims that “not matter what condition one is in, one has within oneself something pure, precious, beautiful. But don’t take this ‘something’ as an entity!” she essentially makes the same argument that most proponents of a subtle atman do. She describes exactly what an atman is, then simply asserts that because she calls it something else “buddhanature” it is not the same thing.

    In Avaita Vedanta, at least, atman refers specifically to a transcendent but non-conceptual consciousness—the underlying “process” that is eternal, while the “content” of the world is ephemeral—the individual’s “true mind” or atman is exactly the same as that of Brahman, and so always already “enlightened,” because “in the depth of my being I am not-different from Reality”( Deutsch, Avdaita Vedanta).

    Danny: The problem of rebirth will always be a sticking point if we try to insist on an atomistic “self” which arises from a chain of causes in the body and brain. Instead, if we can grasp that consciousness and the self are effects of the symbolic/imaginary network created between multiple individuals—that the thoughts going through my brain do not arise from sensory stimuli, as Locke suggests, but are structured in and by a symbolic system, then this problem dissolves. Then, when the body dies, the symbolic system, which is the primary support of consciousness, continues. We create a disposition for a certain kind of subject position to exist after we are gone by virtue of how we participate in the symbolic system. In this sense, there is no soul or essential self, but simply a symbolic process that continues longer than any individual, that makes it possible for individuals to “awaken” and escape the blind determinism of natural history, but that will eventually disappear when we finish destroying the earth. This, as I have argued elsewhere, is simply the classical Buddhist concept of non-self and conventional self, explained in modern idiom. For modern Buddhist thinkers, there seems to be an assumption that consciousness must be atomistic, arising as the effect of causes that are non-conscious, but each “mind” arising separately; they never see the possibility that the primary cause of consciousness is in socially produced structures like language, and that the mind is not in the brain, but is a collective practice.

    I haven’t heard the Eckel lecture, but the bit you describe is a classic error, the same one Hume discovered in his own thought: there is an assumed “self” for whom the aggregates present the “illusion of permanence”—this self being tricked by the impermanent phenomenal world is itself the atman, and what it must realize is simply that the aggregates are not as eternal as “it” is. The real challenge is to recognize that the aggregates are exactly the self—they are impermanent, dependently arisen, and as such are the only “self” we could possibly have. We are not duped by this self, but we are duped when we think we have some other “true self” more permanent and abiding than the phenomenal self is.

    Instead of the constant refrain that I am “not my body, thoughts, emotions, job, habits” etc, I should realize that I am ONLY my body, thoughts, emotions, job, habits, etc, and that all of these are socially constructed—I am NOTHING BUT my place in a social structure. This is why it is so imperative to be socially engaged. I cannot change my “self” unless I change the social symbolic/imaginary structure of which I am an effect.

  28. “Instead of the constant refrain that I am “not my body, thoughts, emotions, job, habits” etc, I should realize that I am ONLY my body, thoughts, emotions, job, habits, etc, and that all of these are socially constructed—I am NOTHING BUT my place in a social structure.”

    So you reject that there is a physical world providing the materials for your body which is not under your control and manifests before any social awareness or even any society? The mountains, the fields, the corn that makes your cornflakes, the breakfast that becomes your bones, fat and neurotransmitters – are they part of the same social construction ? How does your body take on socially constructed nature if it is constructed from impersonal materials ?

    If I am part of that society how am I creating that?

    “I cannot change my “self” unless I change the social symbolic/imaginary structure of which I am an effect.”

    This sounds like the ultimate in control freakery, I’m sure you realise.

  29. John: I’m not sure I understand your question. I cannot see why you would think I am denying the existence of the physical world–I am insisting that it is one of the conditions of our existence, that there is no “atman” outside of the physical world. The social is, of course, physically real, with real causal powers (if you don’t believe this, try to just “stop believing” in taxes). The self, however, is not reducible to the material causes (ie, not reducible to the brain), but exists in the social, interpersonal structure. Like a radio signal that needs a receiver to make sound, it exists in a very real social practice, but is NOT therefore reducible to the individual body. We cannot discover the cause of a particular radio broadcast by taking apart the radio.

    The body takes on socially constructed nature exactly because it IS, as you say, CONSTRUCTED FROM impersonal materials. It shouldn’t be too hard to recognize that human bodies are socially shaped, right? But more importantly, the social construction is the “self,” the bodily “raw material” is not. My particular socially constructed perceptions of the world are my self–I hear certain sounds (eg certain phonemes), for instance, that people in other cultures don’t, and they hear sounds that I don’t–my socially constructed body IS a part of my “self,” because there is nothing transcendent at all that exists separate from this constructed set of “impersonal materials.”

    I cannot grasp how it is “control freakery” to suggest that I am completely an effect of structures, and in control of absolutely nothing at all (as an individual).

    That we can be aware of the social structure that create us, and collectively, as a group (this can never be done individually) change them, is what I understand to be the awakening–human beings, as a “symbolic species” have this capacity, although we rarely seem inclined to use it.

  30. RE #27: Nathan, I agree with much of what you say. I know the experience of the tedious and annoying comment about “ego” whenever you use the word “I”; this is clearly coming from those who have an very limited knowledge of concept of anatman, and are ridiculously confident in their “knowledge” and willing to “correct” those who know more than they do. I can imagine, also, that if you were to go to any x-buddhist center in America and suggest that you get the concept of anatman, and explain it in the way you have, the response from the teacher in all his “higher spiritual attainment” would be a patronizing condescension and a suggestion that you continue “following the breath.” I have yet to meet a teacher at a retreat center or Zen temple or monastery who grasps the concept of anatman in any way other than as a world-transcendent luminous mind. Of course, I have only met a few x-buddhist teachers, and so I am interested to find if there are any among the thousands I have not met who take antaman “full strength.” Your experience seems to suggest there are not.

    That said, I do not agree that the goal is to become homeless or a recluse, so while I would agree with most of your description of anatman, I think there must be some disagreement somewhere I haven’t detected, because I arrive at an absolutely different conclusion from this concept. If there is no atman at all, if the socially constructed self is “all there is,” then there is no reason to eliminate it by entering seclusion. Such elimination of the socially constructed self is only useful if one believe there IS an atman, and that once we eliminate the “self” we will dwell in eternal bliss. For someone who thoroughly understands atman, then, the goal would be to interact with society, to help produce the conditions in which all (socially constructed) selves can live happy, active, purposeful lives.

    I’m curious: why do you see retreating from existence as the goal? I would see “monastic seclusion” as the means to achieving the understanding of anatman–but once it is achieved, then there is no need for seclusion. What do you understand the “complete resolution of the process” to be? Simply the ending of consciousness completely? We needn’t worry about that–it will happen when the sun burns out, or sooner at the rate we’re destroying the planet. I see the end of ”becoming” as the end of producing reification of our ideologies, and an eternal openness to changing the social structures of which we are an effect. This cannot be done by individuals in seclusion. Do you, perhaps, assume that there is something in your consciousness which will survive the “resolution of the process”? If so, that may be where we disagree, because I would insist there is not such thing, and that only the belief in such a soul or atman could motivate permanent (post-insight?) seclusion.

  31. When you wrote – ” I should realize that I am ONLY my body, thoughts, emotions, job, habits, etc, and that all of these are socially constructed.” – to me it looks like you are listing a set of things that are *only* socially constructed – hence the body is socially constructed. Perhaps I am not seeing things in corrext context or you are writing rhetorically and I am missing that fact.
    For sure I agree that our bodies are socially influenced, though I would hesitate to refuse a direct brain-mind causality (or even distinction) categorically, even though any such connection seems so far to have escaped capture.

    The control freakery seems to me to be in –

    “This is why it is so imperative to be socially engaged. I cannot change my “self” unless I change the social symbolic/imaginary structure of which I am an effect.”

    – it reads, and I apologise if I have misread, as if your mind is the tail of a large social dog consisting of the mental processes of society, and you wish to stop being wagged by altering the dog/society. That is, it sounds a little like a kind of projection in which you feel you have to change others (and possibly ALL others) in order to be free of something. in yourself (which isn’t unusual, of course).

  32. back to #12
    Dear Tom,
    Having had a chance to brush up on terminology, I find that I should perhaps have used the term “commodotization” (though it is rather clunky) rather than “commodification,” since my meaning was the general one of “any good or service produced by human labor and offered for sale on the general market” (to paraphrase Wikipedia, s.v. “Commodity (Marxism).”
    What I was thinking of is that the exchange of tangible goods for intangible ones has always been an aspect of Buddhist institutions. Such exchange structures are not limited to capitalism per se, i.e., the investment of capital in expectation of profit.
    From a comparative perspective an example that strikes me is the at least superficial similarity between the notions of merit-generation and the selling of indulgences. In both cases an intangible commodity (merit toward a better rebirth or early release from Limbo) is exchanged for tangible goods (food, land, money, whatever…). I suppose that a more fine grained economic analysis would be able to discern the difference between the use value and the exchange value of the piece of red thread that a lama puts around one’s neck for protection, but with an intangible like that, it would seem that the difference is vanishingly small–i.e., that with intangibles there is only its exchange value.
    One might argue that the use value is the sense of well-being the recipient feels (though one might also want to take into account the creation of the felt need for protection by the religious system itself). But the only way to quantify that would be by looking to the exchange value.
    At the same time the more technical use in business terms of commodities as goods or services lacking any “qualitative or product differentiation” is also relevant in considering the marketing of intangibles. Since intangibles are inherently lacking in any differentiation from one another, it is only in by reference to the claims made about them, i.e., branding, that they can become discriminated for the consumer. Hence, issues such as authority and lineage. Does it matter (and how can we know other than by brand claims), for example, that a particular form of meditation goes back to the Buddha Śākyamuni himself (or at that point are we in the realm of “religion speak” and should use “Himself”?).

  33. John: I guess I can see why it would “read” that way. Certainly, if you reject my basic premises and all of my arguments, and attend only to the conclusion, then it seems absurd, right? You are assuming I am wrong about the nature of the “self.” and so you reject my definition of a self–then you suggest that on YOUR definition of a self, my conclusion sounds terrible–which, I agree, it does. If there were atomistic “selves” which had things “in themselves” that they could be “free of” somehow, if such a self did exist (which is the very opposite of my premise), then yes, the suggestion that one must change others to change one’s self would sound pathologically controlling.

    On your atomistic, autonomist conception of a self, I cannot see any reason why one would be interested in changing society at all–the only goal one could conceivably have would be to manipulate the system and get as much as one can for oneself at all costs. This is, of course, the American way, and follows logically from the common conception of the self, right?

    The goal is not to “stop being wagged,” because this is absolutely impossible short of death. The goal is to recognize that one is part of a larger whole, and to sit in seclusion and try to improve oneself–the whole “be the change you want to see in the world” crap–is stupid and a waste of time. One cannot change oneself in any important way without changing the World (in Badiou’s sense) in which one lives, and one cannot change the World alone–unless at least one other person participates in the change, there hasn’t been a change in the World at all.

    I think your reluctance to reject the brain-mind assumption would indicate a reluctance to accept the collective mind which exists in the symbolic system, as a structure of which we are effects. Unless you reject the premise that the mind could possibly arise from a brain experiencing stimuli, then you probably can’t understand my terms, and so my conclusions will seem, I think, absurd and perhaps even evil.

  34. Richard: I think the terms we’re using are just confusing me. I can’t keep straight the different possible meanings of commodity, tangible/intangible, use value/exchange value, and how they might or might not line up. For instance, a “sense of well-being” could be called intangible, or it could be called the most purely “tangible” thing there is; you list money as a “tangible” thing, but I would see money as purely symbolic, representing exchange value, and so the most intangible thing of all.

    Nevertheless, and although it is making me a bit dizzy, I think there is an important point here (I’m not completely sure I can figure out what it is, though).

    For instance, it seems to me that at some level there is a connection between the idea that we need some ancient authority for a particular form of meditation, and the absolute privileging of exchange value—I’m just not clear on how to trace the connection. You say that the red thread that the lama gives a Tibetan practitioner has only exchange value, or that the only way to “quantify” its use value is by its exchange value. This is clearly the case for us today, right? We cannot imagine anything having any value at all that is not in some sense “quantifiable,” but the marxist concept of use value is that it is exactly something that never can match up with any exchange value, that is qualitative, concrete, particular, and never quantitative and abstract. So, the thread has enormous use value exactly because the use to which it is put has no relation to its exchange value at all. The use to which it is put may seem foolish or unimportant to us, but that is also the point—it has no value that can be quantified and transferred. The “intangible” use value turns out to be much more “real” than what we mistakenly think of as “tangible” the illusion of exchange value in money.

    So what is the connection between this absolute privileging of exchange value as the only thing that makes something “real” and the need to trace lineages to prove that a particular form of meditation is the one “actually practiced by the original Sakyamuni! (Guaranteed to get results, or your next life is half price!)”? Perhaps it is a complete lack of ability to see the use value in something? We cannot judge whether we are actually understanding more or feeling better, so we need an authority to tell us that we are? We need a quantifiable quiz to tell us if we feel happy or sad, and a universal “technique” for meditation to assure us we are acquiring insight?

    It does seem, though, that our modern subjectivity is organized differently from that of individuals in the past. This idea we have that without an abstract essence (exchange value) something just isn’t really real, that use value (the much more “concrete” and “real” side of this pair, in marxist terms) is illusory and unimportant compared to some imagined abstract and universal “value.” What this suggests to me is that in the late capitalist world, where money has so thoroughly penetrated our existence, where we think only in terms of exchange value and universals, we might need a different form of meditation than was needed in ancient India during Sakyamuni’s lifetime, when money was a brand new invention, and it use was still limited to certain kinds of social relationships. We have no problem today being detached from anything of real use, but cling desperately to the illusion that money has some real and transcendent value; in the same way, we can easily understand our concrete material existence as not a self, but cling to the transcendent “true self” purified of all messy particularity. Even if we could by some amazing discovery of some long-lost text discover Sakyamuni’s real instructions for a meditative practice to realize the truth of non-self, it would probably serve, for us, merely to further reify our attachment to the “exchange-value soul.”
    Anyway, just some random thoughts. As I said, this is making my head spin.

    On an only somewhat related point, while sitting here trying to read student papers I have been, as usual, drifting repeatedly to more engaging and less depressing tasks. I just came across an essay on Santideva by Jon Westlesen in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics“(here)” target=”_blank”>http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/files/2010/04/wetle021.pdf. He says that Santideva’s argument for the Bodhisattva path is dependent on an assumption of “some kind of interpersonal conception of a person.” I want to read the essay again, but on a first reading he seems to be arguing something along the lines of what I have been trying to explain: that the only way Buddhist concepts make sense at all is if we stop assuming the “self” can only be understood individualistically and reductively (ie, as separate “minds” arising in separate brains out of individual experiences). The only question, then, is exactly what the nature of this “interpersonal person” is.

  35. re: Tom’s reply to Nathan 32 re 27

    I wasn’t suggesting that “the goal” is to become homeless or a recluse. However now I’m curious, is there a “the goal”? Why should there be? Why should your “the goal” be the same as my “the goal” or anyone else’s “the goal”.

    I might have been suggesting that some recluses and homeless people are on to something so far as getting out from under socially imposed selves goes.

    I have the impression that you’re expressing a similar compulsion to reform society/the world in some vaguely particular way that plagues most religious and perhaps all human institutions. I’m not opposed to it. Go ahead and toss your hat in the ring if you have some kind of a viable upgrade to upload into the mix. I think the actual progress on that front is roughly darwinian and not the result of any one person’s or one institution’s take on what will “help produce the conditions in which all (allegedly merely socially constructed) selves can live happy, active, purposeful lives.

    Maybe your idea of my happy, active, purposeful life, is my confinement to hard labor in a gulag. Perhaps we will see if and when you have established your SpecNonX new world order. Perhaps it will rain peaches. In the meantime I will remain primarily suspicious of both religious and formerly religious social reformers as a consequence of what I’ve gathered from their known track record so far.

    I like the nature of the overall insight and critique on this SpecNon blog. I’ve encountered the same dynamics involving socially constructed selves everywhere. It is not by any measure unique to X-buddhism, to religion, to politics, to education or to relationships. It is a force to be reckoned with anywhere there is a consciousness of an agenda.

    I have the sense that these socially constructed selves you speak about are a blind spot for many (most?) people and so even if simply for this reason it seems worth pointing out and investigating at length. I wish your blog long life in this regard. Similarly the many transcendent pseudo atmans or whatever you want to call them, in X-buddhism are probably worthy of being subjected to countless years of academic scrutiny, comparison and philosophical soul searching. So similarly I hope many professors will grow comfortably fat and useless on this bountiful miasma.

    I also think the impulse to fashion a new improved self out of some kind of attempt to better life for other people can profit from some considerable scrutiny of its own.

    For my purposes, the utility of solitude is that it removes me from the company of fools, all of them, regardless of how it is that they are going to improve the world or themselves.

    For me solitude is not a goal, solitude is a part of an overall methodology which would probably be better labeled relinquishment. Solitude is like any other virtue, virtues are a means to an end. I’m not evangelical about my particular ‘the end’, relinquishment. I’m not secretive about it either but I don’t get the impression that you’d be interested or that most people would be.

    Honestly I don’t really understand why anyone is at all interested in buddhism unless they have been compelled by circumstances in their own lives to deal with realities that aren’t dealt with more expediently elsewhere.

    I’d had exposure to aspects of my conscious nature that only some of the buddhist texts specifically addressed. I took an interest in the literature out of necessity not because I liked the intellectual flavor of it or something. I’m not the kind of person who believes in things. I just deal with what I have to deal with. For me that began with trying to figure out what I was, what a human being is, and why it is. That inquiry has led to ever deepening insights supportive of an understanding that being and its ongoing becoming is the product of a delusional process involving a continual re-acquisition of phenomena – conscious and otherwise – sometimes also with and sometimes also without the additional delusion of self conceptions.

    For me the end of self conceptions began when I naively turned the nature of consciousness directly back on itself until arriving at the end of it. In the course of that investigation I discovered conditions equatable to the concentration states and to the nibbana that the Buddha speaks about in the Pali Sutta Discourses.

    Since no one else has ever had much that is lucid much less useful to say about these particular kinds of conscious phenomena and the non-phenomena that exists in the absence of conscious phenomena, I’ve found what he had to say about it exceptionally if not uniquely helpful. Consequently it seemed prudent to spend some time examining if he had mentioned anything else that might be worth considering.

    To try to clarify, about the transcendent atman thingie, I don’t take the view that there is some kind of an eternal pure consciousness. I do know that consciousness can be concentrated to the point that it is free of other contacts and further concentrated to various extents but under these conditions it doesn’t serve any purpose except to be present, all shiny and pleased with itself and while that is gratifying it is as delusional as when its fully connected to the body and gratified by a tongue licking an ice cream cone or whatever.

    In my experience consciousness can also be, by means of successive concentrations, made to consciously and completely cease. As the various acquired configurations of consciousness both can change and altogether cease, it can’t be said to persist in any ongoing way.

    In the absence of consciousness there is what the Buddha called nibbana. I can’t see any point in giving it some other name or attempting any modifications of the Buddha’s description. Mostly negations should be sufficient in the context of this discussion anyways. That nibbana that exists in the absence of my consciousness IS. Which is the only positive comment on it that it seems reasonable to me to attempt expressing. At the same time that nibbana is not in any way phenomenological in the sense that anything you can label a thing is in some way phenomenological. That nibbana is, when consciousness and all that it might be conscious of is not. That nibbana is, as clearly as every kind of consciousness is, without any sort of atman or core or essence or whateverness. That nibbana is, and it neither comes nor goes, it is what is realized in the absence of the acquired conditional or phenomenal arrangements and it only is realized when my consciousness and all that my consciousness makes contact with is entirely abandoned.

    I don’t expect those comments are likely to make conventionally rational sense, its beyond merely enigmatic and paradoxical to try to describe nibbana, but I think it is entirely accurate to describe it as atman free, at the very least it is more comprehensively atman free than anything phenomenal will ever be. It certainly lacks everything conditional and phenomenological that makes for the utility of contingent temporary atmans in reference to conditions and phenomena.

    Granted, perhaps for your seemingly more ideological and rhetorical purposes, a non-conditional, enigmatic, seemingly eternal, non- arising non-perishing, non-state like this would be equatable to some kind of atman. Fair enough, just that I think if and when you encounter it you will find labeling it atman is kind of stupid. If it is stupid to mislabel conditional phenomena as atman or belonging to atman then I think you’d see immediately that this would be an even more gross mislabeling. But I won’t belabor the point since the real nature of nibbana can only be realized directly for oneself. Short of that discussion is all confined to the realm of speculation wherein it is as possible to mislabel nibbana as some kind of transcendent atman as it is to mislabel anything else as some kind of atman of whatever kind. Those who are resigned to living and working with nothing but misperceptions and misconceptions of one kind or another can and will continue to misapply whatever labels they like.

    What I’ve found, and for me the Sutta Discourse Buddha has been very helpful and instructive with this, is that self conceptions, self views, self referencing processes in the mind and body, socially imposed self implying roles and all of that stuff are just a superficial overlay on a deeper and more significant problem.

    That more consequential problem the Sutta Discourse Buddha frames as being and becoming and treats as the main problem. The obsession with the whole self thing is, as far as I can see, a more superficial and at best merely preliminary problem, almost a ruse problem, which obscures the deeper and far more intractable problem which is a process of ongoing existence rooted in ignorance about conditions and kamma making and all that being and becoming implies whether you involve a self notion or not.

    In the context of the bigger problem solitude, virtue, restraint, concentration, purification of the mind and so on are all means to bringing to an end processes which, like mushrooms, occasionally bloom with kinds of fruit we could call self conceptions. Like mushrooms, most of the process is not at all dependent on or rooted in self conceptions but rather is rooted in ignorance of the nature of conditionality, ignorance of how conditions arise and how they cease and ignorance of how all conditions are akin to suffering and of how the cessation of all of them is akin to complete relief from suffering.

    It doesn’t seem at all common for people to see this deeper more intractable problem, be they X-buddhists or otherwise, most people with any kind of an axe to grind on the atta/anatta stone seem to think the atman/anatman problem is the beginning and end of it all. That’s not my finding.

    My finding is that the atman/anatman stuff is just a superficial problem and that the more intractable problem surfaces in all of its hideous fullness once the anatta perception is all there is to work with. But it won’t become apparent at all if one expects that either the problem or the solution is to be found somewhere ‘out there’ beyond one’s own body and this mind. So in this we likely differ.

    I don’t locate that bigger problem out there in the social world. I locate the bigger problem within an individuated appropriation of phenomenal conditions such as consciousness, body, feelings, thoughts, etc. It is a gross ignorance of the nature of being that produces the misconceptions of any kind of ongoing self. It is an even grosser ignorance of the processes of continued being and becoming which is involved in continually re-appropriating consciousness, bodies, thoughts, feelings and the ten thousand things that can thereby be further appropriated which likewise perpetuate that same being and becoming and all of the suffering that goes along with it.

    If I hadn’t been looking for a soul somewhere on the other side of consciousness I wouldn’t have found instead of a soul or spirit or whatever what seems best referred to as nibbana and I wouldn’t have taken an interest in what the Buddha had to say about consciousness or being and becoming or suffering or cessation or nibbana. However, I did encounter all of this directly and it did consequently become of paramount relevance to me.

    So for me, solitude, reclusiveness, silence and simplicity, virtue and concentration, purity, knowledge and understanding are all purposeful as my ‘the goal’ is liberation from being and becoming. Liberation is not simply liberation from any and all kinds of self conceptions but liberation from being and becoming in any and all forms.

    This is why virtue, meditation and wisdom, the entire 8fold path has demonstrated its utility to me and why I intend to pursue it as opposed to plunging back into the delusion, in any form, that I can more profitably spend my time attempting to change the world somehow by imposing some kind of superior social agenda on other people.

    I’m not a salesman for reclusiveness or relinquishment. Individuals can only determine the value of these for themselves. If someone knows and sees the value of these things they don’t need a sermon to motivate them in these regards.

    I think of that allegedly “world transcendent luminous mind” as “tar baby consciousness”. It is the first acquisition consequent to the persistence of ignorance and craving. Surely you are familiar with this DO 101 stuff – ignorance, craving, consciousness, birth, yadda yadda…

    It seems obvious (maybe it isn’t?) that ignorance (an absence of accurate knowledge and understanding) can take all kinds of forms, one of which would be to imagine that the supreme goop that is the phenomenon known as consciousness, on its own, in all of its primordial lustre, is some kind of world transcendent phenomena. I do think consciousness is the primary ingredient in any and all kinds of compound being and becoming. I don’t think it belongs to anyone or that there is any way to rid the universe of it.

    When it is concentrated and withdrawn from making external contacts, consciousness can appear really shiny and pure looking. This lunatic quality of consciousness doesn’t change its functional nature which is to make contacts.

    That’s why I call it tar baby consciousness. Either it just continues compulsively making contacts, good, bad and otherwise or else it can be re-purposed and applied to discovering that for all its incredible ranges of application, phenomenologically it is an idiot machine on auto pilot. When the hunk of consciousness that a person has apprehended observes directly what an obsessive idiot device it is and observes how apart from that obsessive process, of making contact, making contact, making contact, consciousness serves no greater purpose, relinquishing that consciousness becomes far more attractive.

    When first the ignorance about what consciousness is like is eliminated, then the craving for continuing to acquire consciousness begins to wane precipitously as a consequence of observing how consciousness is an insufferable and mindless suck.

    If there was no escape from this insufferable suck (aka the continual re-acquisition of consciousness) I would probably just call it a day and go fishing from now on. However, it looks to me as though consciousness can be comprehensively rehabilitated away from being and re-becoming a serial idiot and toward wizening up to its own bullshit. Reclusiveness, simplicity, virtue, appropriate attention and any number of other skillful means have proven valuable in relation to accomplishing this.

    I agree with you in so far as X-buddhism has not retained much value in terms equatable to the antisocial and subversive agenda that to my way of seeing seems to have been laid out by the Buddha initially or in relation to ‘my goal’ which is a similarly subversive and antisocial ‘complete release from ongoing being and becoming’.

    I think for some very few individuals abandoning the ignorant compulsion to exist is a realizable goal. In relation to that kind of effort I’ve found the Pali Tipitaka uniquely helpful as I’m quite sure have some others. As for X-buddhism, I’m indifferent to whether it tortures itself or whether you grind on it. It’s all the same piss in the same wind from this point of view.

    I don’t think X-buddhism is fixable, and I don’t think the world is fixable. If the world was to be improved until it is heaven on earth, I don’t think that even begins to address ‘my goal’. So far as improving the world goes, that is about as far from my goal as I can imagine getting.

    But as far as world improving goes, have at it. Seems to me that is why so many atmans are called for. How could a presumed buddhism or X-buddhism of the more seminal anatta variety profitably engage with the greater ship of fools marketplace at all unless they sell the same old bs, the only bs that people ever buy into en masse?

    “Well it’s the only thing
    That can pick me up
    Better than a cup of gold
    See only a chocolate Jesus
    Can satisfy my soul

    When the weather gets rough
    And it’s whiskey in the shade
    It’s best to wrap your savior
    Up in cellophane
    He flows like the big muddy
    But that’s ok
    Pour him over ice cream
    For a nice parfait”

    Tom Waits – Chocolate Jesus

  36. Dear Tom,
    Thank you for the lead on Westlesen. It looks like an interesting article–I’d seen the title in passing through JBE, but not looked more closely.
    As for terminological confusions, I think that, as I do want to pursue the issues of the economics of popularized Buddhism, it will take more study on my part. My interest in the commodity aspects were initiated by the question of how does one market intangible products? I will need to more carefully distinguish between the analysis of a product as intangible, and the seemingly similar notion that such marketing is inherently a scam. Intangibles, like education (intangible despite efforts to quantify and standardize it as a consumer product), do have real effects. The “nothing” of the title was intended as an allusion to śunyatā. Also, since my mother was a hoarder, avant la lettre, I once gave her an empty box for Christmas. Hmmm, not appreciated.

  37. How do we market emptiness? It seems that perhaps “emptiness,” like “mindfulness,” is really just a catch-phrase for what is really being marketed. Like when everything used to be called “turbo-charged.” Even food was marketed as “turbo-charged” and the term itself lost all meaning–except that it vaguely meant “this is better than the other kind.”

    Today, “emptiness” was the topic of the Tricycle “daily dharma,” a link to an article by Stephen Batchelor. One click, and I found half a dozen tricyclists pronouncing that what emptiness “really means” is that we have an eternal self. Our actions, thoughts, feeling, and bodies are “empty” because the teaching of Buddhism is that our “true self” which is eternal and unchanging is the only thing that is real. This is what sunyata means today–a term with which to sell people reassurance that any evil act in the world is not their “true self” and they will one day dwell in eternal bliss, infinitely suckling at the teat of Buddha in infantile thought-free contentment. All we have to do, it seems, is be apolitical, become indifferent to the suffering of others, and focus on the “present moment.”

    At the this morning’s gathering of the sangha to which I belong, I listened to a twenty-minute “dharma talk” on the virtues of not “intellectualizing,” the teaching of our “true self” and the importance of thought-free “intuitive” perception of the present moment. I didn’t have the energy to play the contrarian one more time. I feel that I should, that I shouldn’t let these people I’ve known for years, people I like, work so hard at self-delusion without offering some lame attempt to wake them up. But I’m not sure anymore that it is worth it. People come to Buddhism looking to “buy” a guarantee that they will someday gain the eternal bliss of imaginary plenitude. They don’t want insight, thought, or even to reduce their own present suffering (most of them are endlessly struggling with the same problems, and desperate not to solve them–we love our symptoms as ourselves, as Lacan says). They want delusion, and the guarantee that things in fact could NOT be any better, that they couldn’t, and shouldn’t, change things.

    I think that perhaps once someone comes to Buddhism in America, it is just generally too late–they are in the market for an eternal soul in a box marked “emptiness.”

  38. ‘enlightenment business of american buddhism has made “enlightenment” into something out of the context of the four truths and eightfold path. it has become a vain object of desire. but even this supports the main theories of buddhas: “buddhism”, the world and the stupid ignorant people will never be just the way we want them to be. it does not nean we have to leave everything as it is and never try to make a change, if we are ready to face the frustration and anger that will inevitably come in the end calmly, why not dive into samsara and try to deal with the ignorance and unnecessary suffering of others.

  39. Nathan #37

    I think for some very few individuals abandoning the ignorant compulsion to exist is a realizable goal.

    A sincere question; I’m having trouble understanding why on earth would anyone want to do this? Isn’t there easier and more efficient ways to do this, to cease to exist?


  40. Conventional truth, to me is just so much more prudent and common-sensical approach to existence. And it addresses the alievation of suffering of all sentient beings. This from Garfield’s translation of MMK:

    Ceasing reification of “this and that”, of grasping which binds us to suffering, we can achieve Nirvana, a Nirvana not found in an escape from the world but in an enlightened and awakened engagement with it..

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