I want to present a comment that Tom Pepper made in response to questions posed by Matthias Steingass. I think that both the questions and the response constitute a brilliant crystallization of recurring, and quite stubborn, issues in contemporary x-buddhism. The issues hover around the interplay of self, no-self, person-formation, ideology, and meditation. But first, some background.

Perhaps the gravest criticism of contemporary x-buddhism we make on this blog is that its proponents refuse to adequately think through the very postulates that comprise their x-buddhism. Sometimes this refusal manifests as blatant hypocrisy. Patricia Ivan’s previous post on the shunning practices of x-buddhist figures is a good example of this. The people she mentions there are typical x-buddhist examples in that they preach values such as compassionate engagement, the wisdom of doubting, and having the courage to be proven wrong, yet routinely shut down dialogue that genuinely and robustly tests their commitment to those values.

While such hypocrisy is unconscionable, it is at least correctable. Even darker consequences follow from the x-buddhists’ refusal to think through their premises. I am speaking of the x-buddhist penchant for reacting against and obscuring the very teachings they aim to disseminate.

One such teaching is the sine qua non Buddhist principle of anatman. This principle holds that there exist no self-entity over and above the socially-linguistically-constructed networks of discourse within which we are embedded. This principle has extraordinary and far-reaching implications for the ways “Buddhism” might contribute to a clear-eyed assessment of what it is to be human. And yet, as many essays on this blog and at non + x have shown, x-buddhists refuse to dispense with atman, positing at every turn some version of a transcendent self.* These essays have typically been met with (i) confused, convoluted, and desperate “arguments” to the contrary, (ii) hostility, or (iii) silence (see above).

You can see for yourself that the beating heart of atman is being well-preserved by x-buddhist figures. It’s all over the place–as mindfulness, non-judgemental awareness, the silent observer, the witnessing mind, pure awareness, Buddha mind, not to mention the traditional formulations of rig pa, tathagathagarba, mahamudra, and so on ad nauseum. It’s one of the places where the conservative-traditional forms of x-buddhism join at the hip of the liberal-secular varieties. Consider this statement, for instance, from the Buddhist Geeks website:

Somewhere in the absolute, unfathomable, timeless, un-originated quintessence of eternally divine consciousness, is Samantabhadra, the primordial empty form of Buddha. Blue-black as the night sky, Samantrabhadra and his pure white Wisdom consort Samantrabhadri effortlessly project the Dharmakaya, the truth body, of all the Buddhas.

The Ati-Buddha Samantabhadra is in reality a metaphor for our own original pure state that always has been and always will remain pure, with diamond-like indestructibility never conditioned by dualism.**

Given the pervasiveness of such ideas, can you avoid the conclusion that belief in a transcendent self is a dogma of contemporary x-buddhism?

So, now to Matthias’s questions and Tom’s response. To see them in the original context visit here (Matthias’s comment was itself in response to David Chapman’s #57.)

Matthias Steingass: It is my experience that one can literally watch how a thought establishes itself out of nothing (from a phenomenal point of view not from an ideological) in consciousness and that one can literally watch the vanishing of a thought (the latter is the the quality [that] capitalist exploitation begins to use to pacify its slaves). Do we still have here a subject object-dichotomy?

That is one question. The next is: What is the ineffable and possibly non-propositional watcher? In other words, what is the referent of the first “I” in the the sentence “I know that I think” with the second being the actual thought? Is the first “I” of the same quality as the second? I think there are clearly different qualities here. For example when I am day dreaming I am thinking without knowing it. Only if I pay attention I become conscious of the content of my day dream. What is paying attention?

A further point. There is a famous point in mahamudra literature about the breaking down of the differentiation between movement and stillness, which is possibly referring to the experience that paying attention and that what one attends to becomes integrated. That is, the at first forced differentiation of watcher and watched becomes seamless.

Now, what in all this is a self or the absence of it?

Another question: Is the very act of paying attention an intentional act? I mean does it has an object? Paying attention is obviously something which is done, but could it be done without an object?

It is easy to deconstruct a self from the third person perspective. Is it really possible to do it from within, in first person perspective? We still have [an unnameable’s] question #12 looming…

Tom Pepper. Matthias: I’ll offer my thoughts on this problem. When you say “I know that I think,” you are reproducing the error that produces belief in the atman. If you think you are attending to the content of your thoughts, you are, of course, attending to some of them, but not to the thoughts about that content. These thoughts–the belief that I can passively “watch” my thoughts arise and dissolve–is just another set of thoughts produced in a discourse, socially produced, but which we are taught to mistake for an unproduced “true self.” In the “mindfulness” practice of watching your thoughts with detachment, you are actually participating in a socially produced discourse of “mindfulness” and not realizing it. The mind always and only thinks, and consciousness is always and only in socially produced symbolic systems produced between multiple individuals. Can the body act without thought? Sure it can–have you ever seen a chicken with its head cut off? Sometimes they can walk about and respond to stimuli for hours. But there is no mind there. Even a brain-dead body can be stimulated to orgasm, but there is not mind that “has” the orgasm, except in a symbolic system which gives the bodily response meaning.

There are multiple discourses, and we can examine one discourse with another; we can do this because there is no “first person” at all, the mind is always collective. The fact that you can’t deconstruct the subtle atman from a “first person” perspective isn’t important, because you never really have such a perspective anyway–if you think you do, you are in delusion.

My original understanding of Vipassana meditation, years ago, was that it was an attempt to recognize exactly this–the real causes and conditions of all the thoughts we believe “we” are having. We then realize, like Hume when he “looks within,” that there is no self, only another discourse (not the term Hume would use, but..) which is always produced socially. Even the “looking within” is just a socially produced discourse. Then we lose the need to find the directing “will” deep within. Instead, we see that the “self” is socially constructed, and we can begin, also in “sati” meditation, to examine the causes and the effects of this particular construction of conventional self, and determine (again, in a collectively produced discourse) what actions might produce a better “self.”

Of course, Vipassana as I’ve encountered it over the last couple of years has become the opposite of this–it is now an attempt to produce a discourse in which we are fooled into believing we DO have a core transcendent mind that is undetermined by discourse and social formations, and this is what they now call “anatman”: the mistaken belief that this “witnessing mind” is NOT created by the discourse/practice of retreat buddhism.


  • Enter “atman” in the search field in the upper right corner of this blog. See also “Taking Anatman Full Strength and Śāntideva’s Ethics of Truth,” by Tom Pepper, at non + x.

** At Buddhist Geeks, “Maha Ati: Natural Liberation Through Primordial Awareness,” John Eberly.

Image: Michael Endlicher (contemporary German artist). Translates as: “I decide/I do not decide.”

197 Comment on “The Myth of the Witnessing Mind, or: It’s Thinking all the Way Down

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