Speculative Non-Buddhism

ruins of the buddhist real

Doing Something with Non-Buddhism

Posted by Tom Pepper on April 12, 2013

toolsAs an attempt at “doing something with non-buddhism,” I want to consider an email I received the other day from The Buddhist Peace Fellowship—a post in Turning Wheel Media entitled “Changing Positions: An Exchange on Buddhist Practice and Psychological Decolonization” (links at bottom). Since the Buddhist Peace Fellowship is dedicated to “engaged Buddhism,” and particularly, recently, to a consideration of what is wrong with the system of capitalism (“However we define ‘The System,’ we are it and it is us — there is no separation”), I was momentarily hopeful about this post. Of course, one participant in the exchange is Josh Korda, a publicity hound who spouts popular catch-phrases from discourses he doesn’t understand, and resorts to childish tantrums and name-calling immediately when questioned; but the other participant is Joshua Stephens, an anarchist anti-capitalist who, although he can’t list as many celebrity teachers he’s “studied with” as Korda can, is much better read and a more critical thinker. Applying non-buddhism to this “discussion,” what do we find?

Unfortunately, exactly the same x-buddhist decisional structure we might find in Alan Wallace or Pema Chodron or any other of the reactionary x-buddhist celebrities. Stephens tries to introduce the concept of decolonization, and the thought of Jacques Ranciere and Audre Lorde, and what is Korda’s response? The principle of sufficient Buddhism: although he admits he knows nothing of Ranciere, Korda is confident that it is the same as “The Buddha’s instructions for ‘Metta/Goodwill’ practice;” and Lorde’s “concept of the ‘erotic’ is very similar to the Buddha’s teaching on the bliss and joy experienced in spiritual practice.”

Although he is quick to offer some absurd pseudo-scientific claims about the amygdala and the evolutionary determination of greed and competition, combined with some silly postmodern nonsense about absolute relativism and the impossibility of ever having correct knowledge, these reactionary discourses are immediately overwhelmed by the most reactionary discourse of all: the x-buddhist decision I call the atman-that-is-not-one. We have no self, so we don’t need to do anything in the world, but we have a “true” and undetermined consciousness, and Buddhist practice is designed to free it from the stains of the fallen world: Buddhism is absolute Cartesian dualism, and the privileging of inaction over action: inactivity, passivity, comfort is the positive pole in this binary, and action in the world, effort, living, is the negative pole.

The “decisional structure” at work here is sadly predictable. To borrow Zizek’s favorite Hegelain phrase, what are the presuppositions which are being posited here? That there is an atman (which remains presupposed, but unnoticed), that passivity and comfort are the ideal, and that the goal of human life is, well, to stop engaging in human life, to transcend it. So The Buddhist Peace Fellowship hopes to promote “engaged Buddhism” by means of absolute quietism. The one thing that must never be considered is the possibility that we are effects of social structures—we might be effects of biological structures, or of eternal metaphysics of chaos, but never of social formations. Here is the concluding paragraph of this failed attempt to introduce contemporary thought into Buddhism and inspire real political engagement:

So developing a form of kinesthetic, somatic satisfaction would definitely form a secure foundation for one’s external struggles. Indeed, the mindfulness of the body we maintain allows us to establish equanimity, the balancing factor that lets us know when we’ve become too attached to our external endeavors and have sacrificed inner peace.

This is what non-buddhism can do: prevent us from being duped by claims to radical engagement that always turn out to be only attempts to encourage the production of a subtle atman that can endure the inexorable juggernaut of capitalism. Engage by disengaging, Korda tells us—because capitalism is a biological imperative and the best we can hope for is Buddhism as therapy (he mentions MBSR, MBCT, DBT) to help us realize that we are not “our socialization,” but are capable of absolute “self-determination,” and the best we can hope for is to “regulate” the “evolutionary residue” of the “amygdala and hypothalamus.” Our atman (that is not an atman) can provide “proper regulation” of our bodily selves, and social formations drop out of the picture completely.

Now, it may seem unfair to pick on Korda, who is clearly not the sharpest tack in the bulletin board, and on his best day sounds like an internet-surfing sophomore trying to impress his classmates with sophisticated-sounding catch phrases he doesn’t really understand. But isn’t this a paradigmatic example of the x-buddhist decisional structure? If we apply non-buddhist heuristics, can’t it help prevent this attempt to redefine reactionary retreat into bodily comfort as the ultimate form of political engagement? Maybe—but only, I would suggest, if dozens of participants joined together to tirelessly barrage sites like Buddhist Peace Fellowship with such criticism, getting banned one by one no doubt, until they start to think.

_______________

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship
Josh Korda
Joshua Stephens
Image: “The Old Workshop,” by Olivier Le Queinec.

13 Responses to “Doing Something with Non-Buddhism”

  1. JRC said

    Clearly capitalism, which emphasizes material gain as a motivation for human engagement, deserves condemnation, for it is little better than the caste system. Our present social organization rewards the endless competition for dwindling resources at the expense of core spiritual principles that provide us with a sense of well being: kindness (metta), compassion (karuna) and appreciation of the happiness of others (mudita). … Alas, peace of mind and competition—the foundation of our social organization—are largely antithetical.

    Korda, Changing Positions: An Exchange on Buddhist Practice and Psychological Decolonization

    The only “critical” lesson to be drawn from Buddhism’s perspective on virtual capitalism is that one should be aware that we are dealing with a mere theater of shadows, with no substantial existence. Thus we need not fully engage ourselves in the capitalist game, but play it with an inner distance. Virtual capitalism could thus act as a first step toward “liberation.” It confronts us with the fact that the cause of our suffering is not objective reality–there is no such thing–but rather our Desire, our craving for material things. All one has to do then, after ridding oneself of the false notion of a substantial reality, is simply renounce desire itself and adopt an attitude of inner peace and distance. No wonder Buddhism can function as the perfect ideological supplement to virtual capitalism: It allows us to participate in it with an inner distance, keeping our fingers crossed, and our hands clean, as it were.

    Žižek, Revenge of Global Finance

  2. Tom

    Now, it may seem unfair to pick on Korda, who is clearly not the sharpest tack in the bulletin board, and on his best day sounds like an internet-surfing sophomore trying to impress his classmates with sophisticated-sounding catch phrases he doesn’t really understand. But isn’t this a paradigmatic example of the x-buddhist decisional structure? If we apply non-buddhist heuristics, can’t it help prevent this attempt to redefine reactionary retreat into bodily comfort as the ultimate form of political engagement? Maybe—but only, I would suggest, if dozens of participants joined together to tirelessly barrage sites like Buddhist Peace Fellowship with such criticism, getting banned one by one no doubt, until they start to think.

    The problem is that Korda and his poor thinking habits is emblematic of x-buddhist leadership. As you point out, Joshua Stephens offers an occasional fresh pathway of thought which, for Korda, always “brings to mind” some ancient x-buddhist teaching. Korda may be intelligent and capable of innovative, forceful thought, but his x-buddhist commitment disables him, so it’s impossible to know. The same can be said for the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn, David Loy, Stephen Batchelor, and all the rest of them. As prominent x-buddhist figures, those who show up on the internet and in book stores, do we have any choice but to “pick on” precisely such people? I, too, often feel like I’m fishing in a bathtub when I criticize them. But that’s the point, I think, of your ending statement. The reactionary nature of contemporary x-buddhism has to be fully exposed to the larger community of people interested in exploring Buddhist thought. Once it is, such people will no longer be able to hawk their shoddy goods in the marketplace of serious, life-changing thought and practice.

    I would really hope that people start demanding more from their x-buddhist teachers. Posting questions and comments online is a great way to communicate, to actually have your words reach the eyes and minds of previously less accessible authorities. I am afraid that I have been banned from nearly every x-buddhist site I have ever commented on. Since I refuse to post anonymously, I am stuck in the Limbo of the Shunned. Hey, that gives me an idea: Maybe we should ask Anonymous for advice.

  3. JRC said

    Glenn: Or even Unnameable …

  4. JRC (#3). I transplanted your juxtaposed statements (#1) over there. I asked Korda and Stephens to engage us in a conversation about Tom’s post, and got this message back from Stephens:

    You’re absolutely welcome to chat either of us up, in person. I’m only negligibly interested in internet debates.

    To which I replied:

    It’s a discussion, not a debate. Even if it were a debate, why not view the internet as a worthy public forum?

    Onward ho. . .

  5. Craig said

    I posted over there. Given that I’m still getting a handle of x-buddhism, it may be gibberish. However, all these assholes who write and talk as if they have some sort of corner on the ‘wisdom of the dharma’ have to torn to shreds. I’m still reading the piece over there, but damn if i can’t even get past Korda’s picture.

    The recent discussion of immanent critique has helped me see that all readings of these teachers must begin with critique.

  6. Tom Pepper said

    RE #4: Well, that’s the most disingenuous response I’ve ever heard, given that what I wrote was a response to something they posted ON THE INTERNET!!. I suppose it’s okay to use the internet to spread delusion and capitalist propaganda, but it’s not a good place to have the truth pointed out to you?

    I do have some discomfort about picking on Korda, because he really does seem incapable of real thought, and more than a little, for lack of a better way to put it, immature–he seems to desperately need attention and approval, and to have no interest at all in thinking about or studying Buddhism or actually learning anything. It’s a bit pathetic. Others, like Wallace or Loy, I have no trouble with picking on–they claim to be educated intellectuals, and make a great point of reminding everyone of their PhDs, so they should have the chops to handle serious questions, and they should be embarrassed to hide behind their claims of right speech and authority. While it’s sad when someone like Korda has followers, it is just an outrage that Loy does exactly the same thing as Korda, refusing to engage with serious questions and dismissing any attempt at conversation with patronizing buddhemes.

    As for the juxtaposition of passages in #1: unfortunately, it’s spot on. I’d like to be able to defend Buddhism against Zizek (he has a lengthy critique of Western Buddhism in Less Than Nothing as well), but dolts like Korda keep proving that he is exactly right.

    Let’s have some more non-buddhist critiques!

  7. Craig (#5).

    but damn if i can’t even get past Korda’s picture.

    I hear you. And I moved in punk circles for a good part of my teens and twenties. A good theme to explore would be the particular varieties, like a typology, of x-buddhistic ego-display. You know, like what forms of facial-bodily expressions are permitted; what they intend to communicate; how they supposedly reveal inner qualities like friendliness and equanimity; how they reinforce those qualities in viewers. It would be a sort of phenomenology of the x-buddhist face.So, rather than try to “get past” that really annoying picture–as was my first impulse–I’d rather we analyze it for information about that performance we call x-buddhism, or here, Dharma Punx Buddhism.

  8. Craig said

    Glenn: #7

    Thanks for the reply. Great suggestion. I was never a punk, I went the Deadhead route 🙂 I do enjoy some hard core now and then. Minutemen anyone?

    Yes, teasing out my reaction to that picture is challenging, but is not something I can just blow off. Now that you mention all of this, I’ve had this reaction time and time again with real life practitioners and teachers. I remember the first time going to a zen center. The smell, the silence, the sitting. All very stoic and disapproving of any moving or talking…basic things that human beings do!

    Korda’s pic (just as an example) is interesting. He’s got all the tats, his little bag of dharma stuff, sitting and looking off into the distance as if reflecting on something very wise and secret knowledge. That’s what I see. That kind of pose and picture used to ‘pluck at my heart strings’ and still does to some extent. Like a good capitalist, I want what he seems to have! He also gives the impression that he’s been able to integrate his two loves seamlessly, punk and dharma…both with their special look, language, music. This is really interesting for me to look at. Thanks again for the encouragement.

    I’m still digesting what is actually said in the article. Korda sounds smart, but his he? Lots of the stuff he says can be boiled down to common sense and is not some special wisdom.

  9. Craig said

    “It seems to me that any real serious discussion of ending human suffering absolutely must look at the problems inherent in individualism and capitalism. Engaged buddhism seems to be just about ‘engaging’ with the world as is rather than changing the world.”

    This is one of my comments over at the BPF site. I know it’s general, but am I on the right track in terms of a non-buddhist critique of engaged buddhism. Talking and acting in prescribed nice ways doesn’t get at the fact that people are suffering. It might help with personal suffering, but if we’re a collective, then if one is suffering, all are suffering…right? I’m still doing a meditation type practice to chill and refresh in order to think about this stuff clearly.

  10. saturnite said

    Reblogged this on spreadtheinfestation and commented:
    “the most reactionary discourse of all: the x-buddhist decision I call the atman-that-is-not-one. We have no self, so we don’t need to do anything in the world”

  11. JRC said

    As I would sit for long periods of meditation during silent retreats, I could sense the [molding] effects of capitalist discipline on my body. Of course, this molding would happen in life regardless of capitalism. But with mindfulness we might begin to see that our economic system’s demand on time, muscle, energy, and creativity—for the sole purpose of profit—can impose lower quality of life as well as disabilities on us. I can imagine a … retreat where we practice mindfulness … but with a wider awareness of how … that [which] arise[s] might be situated in these larger social forces. Not with the intent to investigate their content, which might divert us from mindfulness, but with full recognition that the internal and external phenomena we experience as human beings are intimately tied to how society relates to us [and] include these in our awareness and begin to undo their effects …

    Kenji Liu, BPF post entitled Towards a Fifth Foundation of Mindfulness: Dhamma and Decolonization

    Buddhism … is already “coopted” [because we] make the mistake of seeing Buddhist practice as a training technique to give us strength to go into the “real, material world” and help people individually, in person, instead of making changes at the level of thought. [This mistake] reinforces the capitalist ideology that the “virtual” or the “idea” is unimportant and not real, that it has no causal power at all—so that we can continue to be thoroughly controlled by exactly those ideas (which are real, and exist in real concrete practices) that function to reproduce capitalism. … Capitalism produces “desire” as something we think we want to be freed of—and then markets to us ways to free ourselves of it which really only serve to reproduce it.

    Tom Pepper, BPF comment from Changing Positions: An Exchange on Buddhist Practice and Psychological Decolonization

  12. JRC said

    “the most reactionary discourse of all: the x-buddhist decision I call the atman-that-is-not-one. We have no self, so we don’t need to do anything in the world”

    Comment #10 from the above post

    I definitely believe in turning off the continual flow of linguistic diarrhea. Just feel.

    Comment #13 from the “A Sickness unto Death” post

  13. Chris said

    I read the exchange on the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, difficult as it was to not have my own visceral body reactions .

    The essential question you asked ,Tom and Glen, embedded in this dialogue with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship was:

    “Finally, I have to ask,could it be possible that buddhism is causing harm? As a person who takes ‘buddhism’ quite seriously, this question must be asked…especially of teachers”.

    And that question is never , ever, even considered because the self-identities of these ‘engaged buddhists” ( as with all buddhists) is completely wrapped up now in” how compassionate they are”, how meaningful their work is, how ‘socially engaged” ” how important” , so that contemplating that buddhists are actually causing harm in the world, cannot even enter the discourse..

    It is very painful to even read these exchanges of these ‘engaged buddhists” , because it brings me back to my encounters since the 90’s , when engaged buddhism was just springing forth. I flash back to my first encounter with it , when we were involved in caring for CTR’s violent , autistic son, ( our own ‘engaged buddhist work,’ before it had a reified label) , and we . were bombarded with ‘deep listening” techniques, and later ‘non violent communication techniques” in meeting after meeting, attempting to get medical attention for him that was being neglected for almost two years, within this ‘oh, so compassionate” sangha; It took us almost ten more months to get this organization to address it, and we had to finally threaten the extended family with filing a care and protection petition to get them to respond and get the medical blood work done for him. They ‘hopped to it” though, once we threaten them with court, in a very non, non violent communication way.

    All I can hear , embedded in these ‘dialogues’ Glenn and Tom attempted with the ‘compassionate” engaged buddhists ,( or any buddhists now), is an ‘institutionalized Non-Violent Communication ” paradigm, that has creeped in and now is solidified within these sanghas, such that ‘intimate communications, ” i.e. raw, and real communications, are never possible, while a double bind is created for the person trying to communicate . They blather on about ‘erotic communications” while that moralizing, yellow,, smiley faced balloon over their heads , self- evaluating and censoring in nano-seconds every actual word out of their mouths, (you can almost hear the subconscious chatter ‘am I kind enough”, am I contributing to world peace enough” “am I enough of a good buddhist self” i.e. that mahayana straight jacket that is making the buddhist world insane now and I believe is yes, causing untoward harm.

    But that’s just me, after 30 years of this groupthink buddhism, it is almost unbearable in its violence to any authenticity between people being possible. It leaves me with a Munch scream visualization in my head.

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