What does speculative non-buddhism have to say about practice? I feel compelled to raise this thorny issue because of a comment on this blog by Craig and, just a day later, an email by Rod Abbott. Craig wrote:

I’d like to say that I suffer in this life and as a result I came to buddhism. Seeing the non-buddhist critique has kind of left me feeling a little hopeless and ungrounded. Of course there needs to be a major system change…but is there anything that can help in the mean time. I have to say that I feel guilty about just wanting to do my little meditation/chanting practice and not read this or any other blog and mindfully live out my days…but that seems to be dangerous. I still have to deal with basic day to day suffering…i.e: getting out of bed :-). (Craig, comment #294 on “X-buddhist Provocateurs?”)

Then came this email by Rod Abbott:

I love ritual and “aesthetic beauty and complexity,” but I’ve have been struggling with how to manifest it meaningfully without transcendence, without anthropocentrism. I would very much like for us to explore this “form” side more. It would be nice to once again explore the Tridentine Mass without the transcendence, and I’d love to talk more about witchcraft and tarot.

“Aesthetic beauty and complexity” was a phrase I used to describe my own practice life. Since I also value conceptual austerity, that richness seems contradictory to people who don’t know me. Both of these modes follow from my involvement with speculative non-buddhism. So, let’s talk about it.

What is a non-buddhist response to Craig and Rod? One quick answer is: practice is your own business. That answer assumes that by “practice” you mean something like meditation or devotion. Another quick answer is: speculative non-buddhism is the practice. That answer assumes that that previous sense of “practice” prejudices you to dismiss theoretical thinking as a viable and valuable practice in and of itself.

The second quick answer would, I imagine, leave Craig cold. And I think Rod would find the first answer a bit disingenuous. So, maybe we can bring these two senses together and offer this: speculative non-buddhist theory serves to create the very conditions for determining some form of consoling ritualized practice. In this view, ritualized practice is determined by theory in the first instance. It is because theoretical practice always stands as the first instance that no one here ever articulates what a ritualized practice should look like. Such an articulation is not possible. That move to a second instance and beyond, to a grand system of Dharma-like justification, is simply not possible. It is not possible for the very reason stated by Craig: the non-buddhist critique refuses to make proclamations concerning hope and ground. How could it be otherwise, given that the non-buddhist theory itself is a clone of x-buddhism’s particular brand of nihilism.

Nihilism has such a bad reputation these days, especially among x-buddhist promoters of consoling practice. Why is that? Am I the only one who finds the x-buddhist calculus of nihil a cause for rejoicing?

You would think that x-buddhists would join me in this sentiment. After all, every major trope of x-buddhist thought hurls us toward nihil: emptiness, absolute contingency, no-self and insubstantiality, perpetual vanishing and ineluctable impermanence, and that mother of all x-buddhist tropes, extinction. No one can deny that x-buddhist thought turns darkly, potently, and destructively on such perspectives. No one, that is, who thinks these perspectives beyond the anodyne stress-reducing, happiness-producing banalities of contemporary x-buddhism. Hence, no x-buddhists in sight.  Where are they? In their “refuge,” of course. What are they doing? Consoling themselves, and bracing themselves for another “stressful” round of daily life. And as Craig might say: who can blame them?!

Indeed, who can blame them for struggling to construct barriers to the catastrophic implications of their beloved Dharma? When I am feeling generous, I completely understand their fervent yearning “to stave off the ‘threat’ of nihilism by safeguarding the experience of meaning— characterized as the defining feature of human existence.” But, my agreement with both the Buddha-figure and Ray Brassier prevents me from acquiescing to that all-too-human yearning.

Nihilism is not…a pathological exacerbation of subjectivism, which annuls the world and reduces reality to a correlate of the absolute ego, but on the contrary, the unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality, which despite the presumptions of human narcissism, is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the “values” and “meanings” which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable…The disenchantment of the world deserves to be celebrated as an achievement of intellectual maturity, not bewailed as a debilitating impoverishment.*

Recall that the earliest formulation of speculative non-buddhism went:

Speculative non-buddhism is a way of thinking that takes as its raw material “Buddhism.” It is a thought-experiment that poses the question: shorn of its transcendental representations, what might Buddhism offer us?

That’s a question that both Craig and Rod seem to be asking. Craig finds it “dangerous” to be seduced by the consoling x-buddhist siren song that plucks on the heartstrings of the soul’s vibrato. Rod seeks ritualized practice rooted in immanence, “without transcendence.” Under such conditions, how is an aesthetically rich and complex practice life possible? Or, in other words, can we have it both ways?

That question was at the the heart of a famous debate on “the works of the spirit” and “the hardness of fate.” I am referring to the 1929 disputation in Davos, Switzerland between Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger. I researched this debate two years ago on a visit to Davos. The debate revolves around the issue of human freedom. The two thinkers agree that human beings possess a capacity for freedom, and that this capacity is, furthermore, of extraordinary significance in defining what we, as our particular species, are. Their divergent views of the nature, function, and consequences of freedom, however, appear to be irreconcilable.

Cassirer holds that freedom is the seemingly inexhaustible ability of human consciousness to produce symbolic forms. What ensues from these images of consciousness is precisely human culture—language, myth, politics, morality, and so on, literally, infinitum. For Cassirer, the key to freedom is “spontaneity.” Spontaneity is a world-making process whereby imaginative, symbolic mental creation becomes the objective sphere of human culture, of our lived world. For Heidegger, the significant fact about this lived world is not that it is spontaneously, imaginatively created, but rather that the individual finds himself “thrown” into it. The causes and conditions governing this world are outside of each of our control. For Heidegger, a clear-eyed assessment of our most basic situation, moreover, reveals that our life in the world is marked by irrevocable finitude. The individual’s only hope is to become increasingly receptive or “open” to his situation as a finite being in a finite world; a world, moreover, conspicuously devoid of the finitude-revoking Ground that culture (myth, religion, ritualized practice, etc.) so yearns to provide. And herein lies the difference between the two notions of freedom. Cassirer’s “works of the spirit”—works, that is, of creative, transcendent, spontaneous imagination—could be employed to untether ourselves from debilitating fears of finitude and other ostensibly life-denying limits and affix instead to ideal scenarios (truth, beauty, God, afterlife, justice). This approach, said Heidegger, exemplifies the greatest error of philosophy while denying it its greatest merit. Philosophy’s task–or let’s say thinking’s task–is precisely not to provide us with ennobling manifestos for self-improvement. It is, rather, to render transparent our situation in the world—finitude, fear, the nothing, and all.**

I wonder if the approach taken by speculative non-buddhism can reconcile these two positions. I think a strong case can be made that features of x-buddhism can be decimated to the point of defining a tempering process, whereby the practitioner is edified for living life with an unflinching regard for the “hardness of fate,” or, in x-buddhist terms, for “things as they are.” Once that is the case, we might have a immanental version of St. Augustine’s dictum “love and do what you will.” In our case, that might be “know nothing and practice whatever you want.” That would be a “works of the spirit” attitude, wouldn’t it?

This dictum is predicated on the belief, of course, that nihil functions as a potent inoculation against the subjugating seductions of a saving “refuge” such as The Dharma. To fulfill the dictum, won’t the practitioner have to remain true to x-buddhism’s path—via its nihilistic calculus—to empty reality? That is, after all, a requirement dictated by x-buddhism’s self-created logical necessity to remain empty. The problem for x-buddhists, of course, is that The Dharma evades reality’s nullity through its re-population of reality with an inexhaustible inventory of beliefs, objects, terms, concepts—in short, with transcendental representations.

Hence, the non-buddhist’s fidelity to the Protagonist’s truth utterance: emptiness is form, form is emptiness. A truth, I believe, that contemporary x-buddhists avoid with the same horror Christians do the Angel of the Bottomless Pit.

  • Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), p. 13.

** Readers interested in exploring this debate further can consult Peter E. Gordon, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010). The German term that is typically translated as “spirit” in accounts of this debate is Geist, which also means “mind” or, by extension, “imagination.”

35 Comment on “Works of the Spirit and the Hardness of Fate

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