Works of the Spirit and the Hardness of Fate

Tree of Life4What 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 thoughts on “Works of the Spirit and the Hardness of Fate

  1. 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.”

    Gotama was a nihilist. I remember you made that interesting point on Ted Meissner’s blog (back in the good ol’d days when you were on more civil terms….)

    Unfortunately, I don’t think it quite matches that promise of transcendence that most people would hope for, especially when they are suffering ….


  2. Thanks for this Glenn. I’m still digesting it and will comment more later. I vacillate between Nihilism and Absurdism 🙂

  3. Craig,

    Isn’t that vacillation, in some ways, the very reconciliation between Cassirer and Heidegger that Glenn talks about. If impermanence is in fact the case, vacillation is unavoidable. One could easily say, “Practice and vacillate as you will.”


    I love this topic. Are you trying to pull me back in to the conversation and out of the lurking corner? 😉

  4. Yo bro – please help me figure your meaning.

    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.

    Glenn – Isn’t one of your critiques of x-nuddhists that they use ritual and “Aesthetic beauty and complexity” to obscure the truth of empty reality and thereby console themselves? I’m surprised that you express interest in “consolation,” especially since you credit your ability to live a rich life to your willingness to refrain from flinching in the face of the “hardness of fate,” and later in the piece you poke a little fun at the x-buddhists hiding in their refuge consoling themselves.

    Is your practice life of “Aesthetic beauty and complexity” primarily meant for consolation? For fun? What is its purpose? Gregorian Chant, Tarrot, herbs, etc., sound like a lot of fun to me. I like to ride my bike. What id the difference between a hobby and a “practice.” Can you give a fuller explanation of your understanding of Augustine’s dictum – does it mean “do whateva you want?”

    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..

    Here you do seem to say that a non-buddhist articulation of practice is impossible because of empty reality(?) Are you saying that any attempt at articulation of practice have the same result as the infinite permutations of x-buddhism and require the repopulating of empty reality with objects, concepts, etc.?

    By the way, I just read Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism. Where may I ask questions about it?

    thanks a million


  5. Much appreciated, Glenn and colleagues. As with you all, I’ve been mulling over SN-B’s potent and sobering reminder of the Buddha-figure’s nihilism, however obscured and obfuscated. Skeptical as I am, I know that the jolt of music, the embrace of a loved one, the glance at beauty, the sight of a sunset, or the impact of reading can provide for me “refuge” against this life’s isolation and intrusion. We all seek some interior shelter. It cannot endure, but in its form, we find a way to harmonize meaning with our and its formlessness. A lot of us have had to grow up–through and then away from faith or belief in ritual or transcendence emanating from a mind-independent force or energy, and this emptiness may haunt us. While some with fortitude seem constitutionally capable of delight in this void, most, I find among my family, friends, and students, cannot contemplate this gaze too directly, and turn away from the abyss.

    I happened upon this yesterday. I’m curious what you all think. Granted the brief, pop-journalistic treatment, it still raises relevant points for this thread.

    The search for meaning can be exhausting. Philosopher Julian Baggini writes in The Shrink & the Sage that there is a yearning for something more. “My short reply is that you can yearn for higher as much as you like, but what you’re yearning for ain’t there. But the desire won’t go away.”

    That doesn’t make it a bad thing, [Mark, author of How to Be an Agnostic] Vernon says. But it may lead to awkward questions. And that may explain why the research finds that spiritual people have more mental health problems.

    “You’re going on an interior mental journey. It’s risky to go and try and see things from a bigger perspective. The promise is tremendous but the journey can be very painful.”

    The original article (3 Jan ’13) via BBC News glances, if in familiar fashion (dig the sidebars for “spiritual bestsellers” and the Maharishi), at the humanist “deadlock” over the nature of this persistent, however ethereal, search for meaning beyond ourselves–whether illusory or substantial–that remains embedded. in many of us. Daniel Dennett’s work comes to my mind; like it or not, we’re stuck with our evolutionary inheritance of seeking patterns in clouds, dreams, portents. I also consider Donald Lopez’s new The Scientific Buddha, which argues how that figure sought to end existence rather than perpetuate it. Spiritual, but not religious

  6. Thanks, this clears many questions up for me about american superheros. Such as what it might be like if Don Quixote while picking through one of his turds were to discover therein, fully grown, an immaculately conceived Stalin.

    Got to go, late for the lithium.

  7. Glenn,

    So when you choose to do something, how important is solidarity as opposed to egoism and why ? How important is it to calculate the effects of your actions in terms of real social change, of reducing suffering for all of humanity ? How do you meassure, if at all, the consecuences of your actions ? Does this praxis helps you in making better ethical choices ? If so why ? if not why ?

  8. Glenn,

    Thank you for the post and addressing this thorny issue (and so quickly!).

    Your comment (x-buddhist provocateurs comment (#296)) about your eclectic and ecumenical practices struck a real cord. It’s helpful to see examples of the the playful and creative possibilities non-buddhism provides (and non-philosophy, non-christianity…non-x). I see how non-buddhism cloning is about taking the transcendental material of x-buddhism (or x-christianity, x-witchcraft, etc.) and, shorn of transcendence, force (create?) new decisions and break current limits without recourse to “hope and ground.”

    Actually I don’t find the answer that “practice is your own business” disingenuous. It’s kind of liberating to read, and it really makes me reconsider the motivation for my question about meaning and practice in the first place. If we accept the nihilist/non-buddhist axiom, then the whats and hows of practice is open and undefinable. I love Brassier’s quote that nihilism is not the “pathological exacerbation of subjectivism, which annuls the world and reduces reality to a correlate of the absolute ego” but “an achievement of intellectual maturity.” From this realization practice is freed and we can truly follow the cloned Augustinian dictum of “love and do what you will” that neutralizes the self-destructive urge to reify emptiness and fall into despair.

    Am I the only one who finds the x-buddhist calculus of nihil a cause for rejoicing?

    I recall in the early-90s, after my exodus out of fundamentalist Christianity, I got so excited by the realization that one day the sun would go dark. It was oddly liberating.

    I’ve wrestled with (and suffered from) the feeling of hopelessness and ungroundedness that Craig described, yet the truth is that there are no foundations, no Archimedean point. Suffering is thinking otherwise. I realized my feelings of hopelessness and groundedness were symptoms of a reified nihilism (emptiness). Jay Garfield’s translation and commentary of Nagarjuna’s The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika (OUP 1995) was very helpful for me as he relentlessly attacks all forms of reification especially the reification of emptiness itself (emptiness is empty) (thanks Tom Pepper for this recommendation).

    [W]e 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?

    I like this.

    Glenn, I would like if you could briefly share what your experience is like during a Catholic Mass or witchcraft practice from a non-buddhist perspective?

    Thanks again!

  9. I’ve re-read this article a few times. If I understand correctly, one can pretty much practice anything and critique anything. Now is this because it’s all made up and we will end? I think about all things I’d like to have control over in my life. But what’s the point. I can control absolutely nothing. Add in a concern and love for your children and life can be downright paralyzing. So, in the midst of this Nihilist outlook, I look to ‘practice’ as a soothing exercise. Soothing is a lot different than bliss and mindfulness. It’s literally sitting with what’s going on and purposefully not flinching and lavishing in hopelessness and the liberation that’s all too soon to come.

    Anyway, that’s where I’m at today. This has been a great reflection piece.

  10. Rod (#8), Craig (#9).

    I would like if you could briefly share what your experience is like during a Catholic Mass or witchcraft practice from a non-buddhist perspective? [Same for Craig’s “soothing practice”?]

    On the + side: enjoyment, pleasure, inspiration, new ideas and perspectives, relaxation, fun. On the – side: I become troubled by my fellow participants’ extraordinary capacity for delusion and ungrounded hope. On the 0 side:

    For me, the theater [x-buddhism/practice/meditation/mass/tarot, etc.,] is not a moral institution in Schiller’s sense. I want neither to instruct nor to improve nor to keep people from getting bored. I want to bring poetry into drama, a poetry which has been through the void and makes a new start in a new room-space. I think in new dimensions and basically am not very worried about whether I can be followed. I couldn’t give answers, which were hoped for. There are no easy solutions. [Bold added]


  11. Some dimension of thought passed through an allegedly objective void might have a slim hope of actually establishing the long promised new ground if a Speculative Non-New Left agenda were to be applied to the Higher Superstition itself.

  12. On the + side: enjoyment, pleasure, inspiration, new ideas and perspectives, relaxation, fun. On the – side: I become troubled by my fellow participants’ extraordinary capacity for delusion and ungrounded hope.

    Well said, Glenn. This enjoyment sounds similar to the joy Tom Pepper wrote about in “Taking Anatman Full Strength and Śāntideva’s Ethics of Truth”:

    “Whatever we do, we must choose to do with no reason at all other than the joy it offers to the collective subject, impermanent and inconsequential thought it is.”

    Bringing poetry (thought/ideas/concepts/beliefs…) “through the void” into a new beginning is just excellent way of understanding this — open, playful, terrifying. Inspired by this quote and your recommendation for Beckett in general, I’ve just started reading Knowlson’s bio (as well as Beckett himself).

    Ray Brassier’s work inspires your creative but more positive nihilism, while it encourages Thomas Ligotti’s creative but more negative nihilism (essentially antinatalism). Do you see a conflict in these two positions or do you think it’s just a matter of emphasis? Nihilism is too often associated with pessimism, a pessimism I guess born from a reified self.

  13. Rod (#12). People who don’t know Thomas Ligotti might want to start with this interview.

    Ligotti says somewhere that no intelligent person whould ever think of himself as a nihilist. I don’t know why he says that. To me, calling yourself a nihilist just means that you refuse to argue for ultimate grounds for any given position. In that regard, antinatalism is a counter-nihilist position: it posits an absolute value. I, as an unintelligent nihilist, can’t agree with the absoluteness of the antinatalists.

    As I understand and practice it, nihil is what makes truth possible. And because nihil establishes for me the limit of my life–of my lived experience–it is in play in whatever joy and optimism I may have (as well as in the opposite). It is a limit the thought of which incessantly throws me back into raw experience. Maybe it is, as Ligotti says of his writing method, just a matter of my “personal pathology.” Like, I suppose, every pathology, my view of nihil–my nihilistic outlook–does not feel like a matter of choice. It’s necessarily “positive;” but it does fuel a life fully lived–with no belief in or hope for anything more that that.

  14. Hello Craig (#9)
    In your comment you say;
    ‘I can control absolutely nothing. Add in a concern and love for your children and life can be downright paralyzing.’
    This is a ‘level ‘of experience often sidelined when nihilism is examined in the context of ‘making philosophy ‘ This is understandable since by its nature making philosophy seems to requires a level of detachment.( is that detachment necessary, or my statement even true?)
    Extracting three words from your comment – control, love, paralysis -and using them not as concepts embedded in a discourse (although they are always that) but as cyphers for levels of visceral experience, I enter a darker place.Here the best guide is not the philosopher but the poet,novelist,or visual artist. I would choose Dostoevsky and Goya without question. As for the poets the problem there is a surfeit of choices!
    In Dostoevsky’s Crime and punishment there are unforgeable vignettes of cruelty and compassion,, exploited and exploiter, perpetrator and victim. Often they are depicted as interior states in which victim and perpetrator are embodied as one.(in this way our most well-used means of escape is blocked— simplistic and irrelevant moralizing)
    The most memorable of these vignettes concerns the character Svidrigaïlov ( who has already admitted to the rape of a helpless fifteen year old girl who is deaf and mute and therefore cannot accuse him.) He recounts a story about how he was out walking one night and was accosted by a panic stricken six year old girl who followed him, continually dragging at his arm and begging him to come and help her mother who was obviously in immediate danger of death. His irritated response to her was to push her aside in a gesture of visceral hatred and continue on his way. The fact that he recounts the story with a sort of bewildered detachment, has often acted in the past with great compassion, and later commits suicide, only adds to the impossibility of fitting either his character or his actions into any simplistic scheme of how things are.
    In this little story Dostoevsky lays before us our existential position in its raw form, Here control and hatred, (read love too) are depicted as states of reactivity conditioned by a matrix of factors so complex as to induce ethical paralysis— a sort of visceral horror of what we are capable of and of what we cannot prevent!—– an abyss into which we are sucked by forces we can never control. This is the other face of emptiness or dependent origination—the one xBuddhists refuse even to acknowledge– It ‘originates’ unutterable and paralytic horror.

  15. Patrick,

    Thanks for that response. Validating and thought provoking. Yes, when I was an aspiring Zennist, i couldn’t get one colleague or teacher to acknowledge much less respond to the nausea zazen was doing to me. This was pure experience of that paralytic horror you discuss above. I too look to art, mostly music for guidance. Unfortunately, as i get older, even that has lost some of its effect on me. I’ve been scouring the antinatalist blogs and find that a bit validating, but I aspire to practice the nihil as Glenn suggests. Dealing with the no hope part is tough though. Why do we get out of bed?

  16. >strong<Craig (#15).

    Why do we get out of bed?

    I hope you won’t mistake the following for an answer of any sort, just rumination on your question.

    Maybe one way of looking at religious, philosophical, political and all other systems of thought and action reveals them to be precisely as answers to your question. And maybe there are good materials–truths–to be found therein. Maybe that’s why some people are able to settle on one, and that’s that. But some of us can’t do that, for whatever reason. Still, there is no shortage of valuable materials in the world’s cultural storehouse to work with in formulating some kind of answer to your question. The answer of course is always yours and always, in my case at least, changing. Change and instability seem to be inevitable consequences of not subscribing to the system whole hog.

    The first thing I thought of when I read your question was Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s note on a comment that Emily Dickinson made on his visit to her. She stared out the window at the early-morning passers-by and said something like “what makes them get out of bed in the morning?” I guess that she had asked herself that question, and decided that her poetry would constitute her own answer, that poetry would justify her existence. And she obviously didn’t believe that poetry or anything else would save her. Yet, yet . . .

    It sounds like you are playing what Robert S. de Ropp (1913-1987) called “the master game.” I haven’t seen that book in a thirty years, at least. But I remember how animated my friends and I were at de Ropp’s idea that we are all playing one life game or another. There’s the money game, the art game, the fame game, etc. It may seem simplistic now, but it’s a good way to get thinking about some very basic attitudes and approaches toward our lives.

    Fail. Fail better.

  17. Hello Craig
    I almost always wake up with the question you pose
    ‘Why should I get out of bed?’
    Sometimes its not even articulated -it manifests as a depressed nausea for engaging with anything whatsoever. On my better mornings I remind my self of the old Zen story about the monk who asks the master why in such a wide world we should bother to put on the robe and take up the bowl. and the master answers
    ‘If there’s any reason whatsoever you may cut off my head!’

    Over the years I have collected many methods for dealing with the sort of visceral distaste for life that makes you want to pull the covers over your head.

    One is from the Sufi tradition . Its called serving the task—-A practice where I concentrate on the ordinary things I have to do each day but with a heightened dedication—–I try to do everything I have to do with complete dedication but with no ulterior motive whatsoever. , Eventually I find it restores my optimism ——at that point I switch to something more ‘meaningful’ , or to something that is important in some way. ( even if its just planning something concrete in the future.)
    One can be very eclectic and ‘steal’ methods from anywhere, and apply them without being totalist about it or in any way dogmatic.
    Looking straight into the truth of things can be like being slowly skinned alive. ….for me there is nothing worse than the always present awareness that something absolutely appalling could befall either of my two children.
    I think it is really important in those periods when things are going well to use some of that energy to do some hard thinking——- I mean philosophical thinking ———to put some effort into pushing our minds in the direction of clarity, After all, If we are aware enough to have seen the yawning chasm over which we have to step in order to live at all, than we are fit to push ourselves in the direction of trying to make some sense of our situation instead of settling for the pathetic explanations offered by a consensus of the stupid–we can regard ourselves as apprentice philosophers and attach ourselves to the coat-tails of the great—–and think of how many of them the western tradition has produced. Philosophy can be our practice. and our refuge. And when we feel we are not up for it we can just wash the car.

  18. Glenn,

    Thanks for the responses. The game metaphor is one i am fond of. I tend to frame many of the things i teach my kids in that modality. I’m curious, Glenn, about how nihil (not arguing from absolute grounds) does not slip into relativism. Maybe we never have to land anywhere? That actually seems to be my experience. As soon as i decide something, it never fails that i run into a pretty good counter argument. nothing holds up, especially if you don’t flinch.


    i too find that focusing on one mundane task at a time is helpful and allows for more attention and energy to be focused on an aesthetic practice. Alas, this seems similar to the mindfulness practice Tom and Glenn have been critical of on this blog. It can still be useful, I guess. No absolutes, right? If it helps, do it, but going whole hog is dangerous, right?

    I’d say that philosophy has always been my practice. Thanks for helping me see that. Excellent point. Sometimes I’m into it, other times I’m too tired. My most doom laden moments come in the middle of the night or in the morning. Like you, I worry so much about my kids. Truth is, they are quite resilient and take life much less seriously than I do.

    I love that Zen quote. Don’t have to go whole hog, but Zen definitely gets to the point at times 🙂 I absolutely love your notion of serving the task. Stealing methods while refusing to be dogmatic. Now, pushing my mind into clarity…that’s something I’m curious about. How can this be? I feel as if I’ve taken things to their logical conclusion…the void, conscious of my demise and that of my children and no one to help me or anyone else. Meaninglessness with all meaning mythology. That’s where i end up. Most of the times is utterly sad, but for some reason tonight it’s quite light and liberating.

  19. Glenn (#13)

    Glenn, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to respond.

    Glenn Wallis: “Ligotti says somewhere that no intelligent person would ever think of himself as a nihilist. I don’t know why he says that.”

    For context the full Thomas Ligotti quote:

    ‘“Nihilist” is a name that other people call you. No intelligent person has ever described or thought of himself as a nihilist. It’s as if I were to say that I’m non-schizophrenic. It’s a negative term that doesn’t offer any positive information, only a wispy sense of negativity. I don’t think of myself as subscribing to any philosophy or set of principles. I do believe one thing: that pain is the essence of organic life. Needless to say, this is not an original perspective’ Interview, May 23, 2002).

    Given his oeuvre, it’s ironic Ligotti doesn’t like to call himself a nihilist because of its “wispy sense of negativity.” Yet in the same quote he says “I don’t think of myself as subscribing to any philosophy or set of principles,” which is the definition of the very nihilism he’s rejecting! Eight years later in the foreword of Ligotti’s book “Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror,” Ray Brassier called Ligotti position an “exacting nihilism.” On the FAQ page for the fan site “Thomas Ligotti Online” the question is asked: “Is Thomas Ligotti a nihilist?” and answered: “In an email correspondence which took place several years ago, Thomas Ligotti answered, Without overcomplicating the issue, I think it’s fair to say that the nihilistic worldview frequently expressed in my horror stories reflects my general attitude toward things” (no date).

    Whatever Ligotti’s stance, I agree antinatalism as an absolute position conflicts with nihilism. Suffering abounds and there is much to lament in the world, yet this is not caused by nihilism but its opposite – “delusion and ungrounded hope.”
    Ligotti, I understand, suffers terribly from depression — that is his lived experience — yet he writes which must yield him some joy despite his torment. Maybe despite his pessimism this is a life fully lived.

  20. I’ve been thinking about the discussion about “melancholia” here. I remember very well my years of really incapacitating depression, and that experience of quite literally not getting out of bed in the morning, sometimes for days on end. In retrospect (and I speak only for myself here) it seems to me that the problem was a kind of incomplete breaking through of the illusions and reifications of ideology. There was that stage at which I lost all belief in and attachment to ideological formations (all “cathexes” in Freudian terms, I guess), or thought I did, but hadn’t really completely seen through the ideology of the self or subject. For me, complete nihilism is much more liberating–there is enjoyment in doing the simple things exactly because there is no “reason” to do anything at all, in any ultimate sense. So I choose my ideology, and choose to act in ways that will work towards enabling everyone in the world to suffer less and enjoy more–to be able to think and act. Real thought and real action are, of course, the only things forbidden in our culture that only demands of us that we “enjoy” without thinking or taking any true action.

    Of course, I still get discouraged, mostly because I am never sure of the best way to wake people up to true thought and action. But there are always so many things to do, I don’t have time for depression anymore. Right now, I’m in a quandary over the Buddhist group I’ve been practicing with for years. As it moves more and more toward the fascination with Thich Nhat Hanh, Original Enlightenment, mindfullness, and accepting things as they are, I have to wonder if it is worth staying with it and trying to change the course, or if it is a loosing battle at this point. I was supposed to give the dharma talk on Sunday, and tried to speak about Shinran’s rejection of Original Enlightenment and his emphasis on this world (we are a Shin group), and was cut off by the founder and head of the group, who simply instructed the group that I was wrong, and we are all already enlightened and only have to realize it. I believe that one can’t really practice Buddhism alone, but how do you practice if every group in the area is devoted to mindfulness and accepting things “just as they are” and non-thought? Again, though, the point is not to get depressed, but to figure out what to do next. Do I keep trying, arguing, persuading, trying to change the opinion of the group, and acting as the annoying curmudgeon, or move on to something else? How does one find a real Buddhist? (Especially living in the “Tea Party Capital of New England”)

  21. #20


    I loved your response. I can totally relate to this ‘era’ of depression thinkers go through. Could it be called the dark night of the soul? 🙂 I like the word dysthymia…a mild to moderate depression that is ongoing. It’s the worst of both worlds because you aren’t depressed enough to shirk activities of daily living, but you’re utterly depressed. I’m glad to hear that you’ve come out the other side and contiue to deal with challenges. I think that coming to this site has been a final step in my movement through the void. I too, thanks you in part, am trying to choose my ideology and seeing through the self. Complete nihilism is so liberating.

    BTW, I wondering how or any other non-buddhist can sit through a dharma talk these days. I’ve thought about returning to my little home sangha i left a few years ago. My hunch is that it has gotten more conservative. I have to ask though, do you really think anything can change? I wonder how nihilists keep it up. For me, it is also about suffering. I can’t and never have been able to stand by. So i’ve kept thinking and thinking and thinking and learning. Saying Fuck It just seems to reify the suffering that got me here in the first place 🙂

  22. Re #21: I do think change is possible. It is difficult, certainly, because most people are very willing to “believe” stupid things, even things that they know, at some level, aren’t true. And most people believe what they hear most loudly and most often, no matter how stupid it is–the invention of television, the ownership of mass media by the very wealthy, is the most important strategy the 5% have to control the rest of the population. Unless they hear it on television, most people assume it just isn’t true, or isn’t important. The majority of Americans believe in horoscopes and psychics, and don’t believe in evolution. Change is hard, with such enormous ignorance to overcome.

    So, for now, I’ll keep practicing with the same sangha and watch it drift into extreme conservatism. (Years ago, the sangha actually had a “social action group,” but those people have all given up and left, outnumbered by the libertarians and tea partiers). Sitting through the dharma talks? It gets harder every week. And not because my politics are farther to the left than they used to be, but because the ultra-right message of quietism and mindfulness has become the dominant message, and Shinran has been pretty much forgotten. Still, maybe the few comments I can make that shake the sangha’s pretense at equanimity will make a difference in the long run, with someone. Dogen somewhere says that even the worst (I think he uses the term “tainted”) sangha is better than abandoning Buddhism completely.

    My goal is to never quit, but to figure out the best strategy for effecting some real change. I don’t know that I can stem the tide with this group, but until I can figure out a more effective strategy I’ll just stick with it, and remain that annoying voice that keeps pointing out the truth, the one everyone wishes would go away.

  23. 22:

    Yes, everything on TV is true! I’m reminded of that Frank Zappa song I Am The Slime. All about how horrible TV is. I don’t have access to television…intentionally. We do watch DVDs once in a while. But, being away from commercials and then seeing some while at relatives houses is so jarring and sick.

    Yes, the tide of DELUSION seems so overwhelming to me. I’m drowning man!

    So, here’s another issue with practice…veganism. To me it seems like a classic example of attempting to practice in response to delusion, but ultimately a futile effort as we’re all caught up in the processed food machine. And then you got the militant vegans. I guess as I re-evaluate my practice, I actually thinking about being vegan 100% of the time. The suffering of animals has just really gotten to me lately.

  24. Tom #20

    How can a non-atomistic self choose an ideology? Isn’t this choice the result of the vector-sum caused by the social structure surrounding oneself?

  25. Re #24: That’s an important question, but I’ll have to adopt Shinran’s strategy and reject your way of putting it. The non-atomistic self doesn’t “choose” an ideology, like someone browsing the selections on Netflix and deciding what will be most enjoyable, because to be such a self is to already be a subject, and so to already be IN an ideology. The goal, then, is to remember that the collective self is ideologically produced, and so can be changed, and the question would be should we, and how can we, transform our ideology? Where does it limit our interaction with the world? What are its contradictions and limitations? We can see this as a collective, but only if we are part of an ideology which knows it IS an ideology. If we are part of an ideology that assumes it is a universal truth (of human nature, for instance), then any change of ideology is going to be quite difficult, and will only come with some shock and discomfort.

    On the other hand, if the question is how does an individual, a bodily human being, get interpellated into a particular ideology, or more precisely become interpellated into a new ideology, well, that’s the big question, for me. How can the collective subject that sees its ideology as an ideology interpellate more individuals–that is, help them to distantiate their existing ideology and become part of a different subject? This has been done often in history–it was, for quite some time, the function of Literature to reinterpellate individuals into a different collective subject. It is the function of psychoanalysis (which is why “self-analysis” is of limited use) and is, I would argue, the function of Buddhism most of the time.

    Your “vector-sum” metaphor assumes an atomistic subject who must choose to become part of a collective subject–but any choice does not result from an atomistic consciousness being acted on by external forces. The choice is made by the collective subject, which includes within it the motivating forces that influence concrete bodily individuals to act.

  26. Tom #25

    The phrase “I choose my ideology, and choose to act in ways that will work towards enabling everyone in the world to suffer less and enjoy more…” was yours, not mine.

  27. RE 26: Yes, and I’m explaining to you what I mean by this. “I choose my ideology” means that the collective subject can be aware of its ideology, and transform it. It does not mean that there is some kind of subject outside of ideology which can then pick an ideology to put on, like a new suit. So the “vectors” influencing the decision of some individual is the wrong metaphor in which to think of this. The big question, though, still remains: exactly how can I, as part of one collective subject, cause individuals interpellated into other collective subjects to see their ideology as an ideology, not as truth? How, then, can we interpellate more individuals, who are already in an ideology, into a new ideology? For me, this is the meaning of “Other Power” in Shin–this act of re-interpellation. And my interest is in discovering what kinds of practice might make this re-interpellation possible.

  28. RE 25/27: Tom, how is the problem of free will and agency addressed in all this? Does shifting agency from an atomistic self to a collective subject obviate this problem?

  29. RE #28: It seems to me that even without accepting that the subject is collective, the problem of free will has been obviated. The idea of “will” alway assumed that there was some entity radically undetermined by this world and so able to “freely” choose what to do in it. Agency sometimes is just another word for “will,” and sometimes means something different–such as the capacity to act in the world to satisfy our needs and “desires.” In the latter sense, even a rotifer has “agency,” although a lot less of it than human beings. The question of acting in the world doesn’t need to have anything to do with the illusion of “will” even if the concept of the collective subject is rejected.

    In Shin Buddhism, the concept of “Other Power” completely eliminates the need for “will.” I don’t “choose” to accept the truth, except in a metaphorical sense–that is, in conventional language I may say “I choose truth” but there is neither an atomistic self nor a “free” choice. Instead, the collective subject of truth (shinjin, in Shin), increases its knowledge of the world and incorporates more individuals. It’s like the Borg: freedom is irrelevant, self-determination is irrelevant–we will add your technological and biological distinctiveness to our own. (I always rooted for the Borg on STTNG)

  30. The BORG were always so creepy. Thank for this explanation concerning free will. I’m still a bit confused about what other power is in Shin. Does it involve in some sort of surrender to the fact that there is no agency? I don’t see the universe as infinite compassion, as some of the Shin stuff i’ve read indicates. If anything, the universe is indifferent. I am beginning to see that ALL of my thoughts are caught up in this collective capitalist symbolic system. The example above about the attractive coworker makes a lot of sense.

  31. RE 29: Thank you, Tom, that’s very helpful and confirms some of what I’ve held and nicely ties in Shin. For several years now I’ve denied free will influenced by Daniel Wegner (great empirical work), Tom Clark (, Sam Harris, Derek Parfit, Susan Blackmore, Thomas Metzinger, et al., but until recently I placed too much emphasis on the brain (neural correlates of consciousness stuff — your idea that the brain is the radio, the mind is the song really upturned that nonsense). Not too long before discovering SNB I had discovery Bakhtin’s dialogism which was like a revelation, so I was elated when you referenced Bakhtin and then deepened my understanding with Althusser and Lacan.

    Rooting for the Borg! That’s awesome.

    Have you thought about writing a book (or article) on Shin from your perspective?

  32. Re 30: I really don’t see the universe as compassionate–I think that’s the Taoist influence on Buddhism combined with the demands of marketing Buddhism to nightstand Buddhists who want pleasant bedtime stories. The universe has not attitude towards human life. The ecosystem on Earth might be said to be “hostile” to us, perhaps, because we are rapidly destroying every living thing and the payback will be our death–but that’s only metaphorical. We aren’t important to the mind-independent world; at best, we are like a virus making things worse for all other living things.

    Of course all your thoughts are caught up in the collective (now Global, for your convenience!) capitalist system–but once you know that, you can be “caught up” with it in an oppositional way. If you know that global capitalism is oppressing the majority of the world population, you are already part of the collective symbolic/imaginary subject that is working to oppose capitalism.

    RE 31: Bakhtin’s theory of dialogia was one of those concepts that was so important it had to be systematically distorted and misrepresented in American academia. Bakhtin explains, and demonstrates, how language is never an attempt at “clear communication” but always a struggle for ideological control–the battle between the faithful and reactionary subject is waged in language, dialogically, as much as it is in other kinds of material practices. Of course, in the undergraduate Literary theory texts, Bakhtin becomes the founder of multicultural free democratic dialogue–and his texts are carefully edited to avoid revealing his real point.

    I’m working on an essay on “radical Shin” now–but it’s getting unwieldy. Maybe for a future issue of non+X. As for writing a book on this, well, I think all ten of the people who might buy such a book will likely find their way to an essay in non+X, and then maybe they’ll write some essays of their own in response?

  33. Radical Shin sounds very interesting.

    As far as awareness of thoughts being caught up in the capitalist system, it’s overwhelming and exhausting, but liberating to work in opposition. I don’t even have to try anymore. Everything is some sort of capitalist bullshit…even the arguments I have with my wife or kids. It is sick.

    Humanity = Virus. Excellent point.

  34. Tom and/or Glenn: If either of you care to answer, I’m wondering: do you two find yourselves in more or less complete agreement? This particular post makes me wonder about this, because it seems like Glenn’s take on practice is more or less “face the void unflinchingly and practice/do what you will” whereas Tom is compelled to act on behalf of all beings (because of nihil?)

    One more question for Tom:

    If you know that global capitalism is oppressing the majority of the world population, you are already part of the collective symbolic/imaginary subject that is working to oppose capitalism.

    Really? Just by “knowing” this? Are you claiming that the knowing, if it is genuine, will necessarily compel one to act or something along those lines?

    Tom, I’m finding it very difficult to see beyond the ideology of the atomistic self – please keep illuminating it.


  35. Re #34: I don’t think Glenn and I agree on everything. I think we agree that it is good to question and think about everything, but we don’t always arrive at the same conclusions. As a result, we have different kinds of practices, and write different kinds of things.

    As for the effect of knowledge: it is certainly possible to “know” completely that capitalism requires the oppression and exploitation, sometimes with violence, of the majority of the world population for the benefit of the few, and not feel compelled to do anything about it at all. One could simply say, sure, I’m rich because my country violently oppresses the rest of the world, but as long as I stay rich, I don’t care. Still, just knowing this, admitting the truth of it, is already moving in the direction of liberation. If everyone knew this truth, it would be very difficult to get the majority of people to cooperate with their own oppression. Those who know the truth, who are not deluded themselves, generally make very poor propagandists and politicians. In fact, they generally make very poor capitalists.

    Our thoughts are always collectively produced, in a discourse in which we interact with multiple other bodily individuals. In this way, the more individuals there are who grasp the truth, the more effective the opposition to capitalism can be. The “subject”, as the total collective of individuals participating in a discourse of truth, is larger and more powerful for every individual who grasps the truth, even if he or she doesn’t directly take any action immediately.

Comments are closed.