By Tom Pepper
As 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 Hegelian 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
Image: “The Old Workshop,” by Olivier Le Queinec.
What do you think?