Pause to Reflect
Posted by Glenn Wallis on May 6, 2013
I am always receiving advice on how to conduct this project of non-buddhist criticism. Nearly all of it misses the point. Nearly all of it is nonetheless worth considering. I would like to take a pause, and share some of that advice with you. I will also say what I will do about it.
Advice #1: Remain substantive
Advice #2: No naming
Advice #3: Stop trolling
Advice #4: Address alternatives
Advice #5: Moderate comments
Advice #6: Stop Tom Pepper!
Advice #7: Be more self-critical
Advice #8: Stop already! The blog has run its course
Matthew O’Connell’s recent comment is representative of the first four kinds of advice. He offers this:
I’m much more interested in that discussion [i.e., something more substantive] than bashing the likes of Lodro [Rinzler], which is kind of easy at the end of the day and gets tiresome. Aren’t you guys tired of it yet? Instead of trolling, I think it timely to invest energy and thought in considering alternatives and means for addressing what Buddhism had been considered as being able to do in the past and yet which obviously fails to do in the majority of cases today. I am extremely interested in that question. It seems to me that it’s time to move on. Expecting others to do it is a waste of time and cursing them for their inability to live up to your expectation, or desired mode of engagement is pointless…Disruption can be a powerful wake up call, but only if people are willing to engage and play the game. The opposite effect of course is the one Glenn has experienced: refusal and/or indifference. I feel like the force of your arguments, insights and understanding are more than sufficient without the trolling to eventually sway those who have taking a comfortable position within contemporary western Buddhism. If you bash them on the head with it though, the refusal is more likely to become permanent.
#4 is expressed in pithy terms by JRC:
And now moving on to the praxis of the “subject” … onward ho …
My response to # 1: Remain substantive. Agreed. I would like to hew closely to substantive analysis. Many of the posts here do that. So, maybe the advice is to do so exclusively. The implicit criticism seems to be that the substantive work is diminished by other kinds of posts (see #2 and #3). I am constantly inviting people to write up analyses of what I call x-buddhist rhetorics of display–some text, ritual, website, dharma talk, clothing style, and so on. I would like to make this site more of a workshop for that kind of work. So, agreed.
My response to #2: No naming. (Matthew doesn’t go so far as no naming, but it’s a good place to mention it.) It is impossible to analyze specific instances of x-buddhist rhetorics without naming people and organizations. But I agree that the naming should always be tied to a substantive case analysis. So, instead of just throwing it out there that Lodro Rinzler strikes me as an x-buddhist buffoon, I will, in the future, detail my reasons for saying so, and explain why I see such buffoonery as counter-productive or even harmful. I know that naming can be hurtful. I find doing so the most distasteful part of this work. I really hate it. I gives me a stomachache. But I also think it is important to be pointed and specific. Let’s also not forget that the people I mention are not innocent x-buddhist by-standers, seeking a little peace in the midst of a painful world: they are self-professed gurus of one variety or another. They are public figures who offer advice on the most serious life issues. Some of them are trying to make a living doing so.
This points to a more serious issue. When someone says that there are more important things to be doing “than bashing the likes of Lodro, which is kind of easy at the end of the day and gets tiresome,” we have before us several interesting data to be analyzed. For example, what is it about a Lodro that gives the impression that he is an easy target for criticism? Is it possible that whatever it is is itself deserving of criticism precisely because it comes across that way? What if we view “easiness” as a rhetorical ploy, and all its various features as the sum of a strategy, the strategy of “easy”? What would it look like? To me, to name just one example, it looks exactly what we should expect from the confluence of North American Buddhism and North American capitalism, where easily digestible comfort-food-buddhism is just what the market demands. In other words, that contemporary western x-buddhism looks “kind of easy” to “bash” is not a reason to leave it alone, it is a reason to go after it. The obviousness of the facile nature of our x-buddhism is a crucial datum for analysis. X-buddhism could take on many shapes and forms. So, why is it so enmeshed in the market of comforting panaceas? Why does it so easily graft onto the marketplace? Why does it produce figures like______? How many contemporary x-buddhist figures, whether a traditional rinpoche or roshi or a less traditional non-denominational one, can you name who would not be “kind of easy” to expose as either reactionary of obscurantist? The advent of Tutteji Wachtmeister should prove illuminating in this regard. So, in short: We must not take for granted that x-buddhism has to be the way that it currently is. We do not have to play with the loaded dice that our x-buddhist figures hand us. That is tiresome.
So, partially agreed: no more easy, unsubstantiated shots, and more thorough case studies. And my apologies to those who have been negatively named without an explanation. I won’t do it again.
My response to #3: Stop trolling. This one is related to #2. I looked up several definitions of “trolling.” I get that word thrown my way almost daily. Sometimes it’s directed at me, sometimes at commenters on this blog. The Wikipedia definition is the most useful one I found because it leaves open the possibility that trolling can be valuable.
 someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog,  with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise  disrupting normal on-topic discussion.The noun troll may also refer to the provocative message itself, as in:  “That was an excellent troll you posted.”
By this definition, trolling has several features, which I’ve numbered 1-4. The biggest question I have is: how do you determine whether 1-3 lead to a shut-down in communication, as Matthew says, and are thus counter-productive, or actually serve to advance things? The latter may be long-term. It’s long-term value may be wholly opaque in the short-term precisely because of the emotionalism and disruption involved. How can we know? The fact that people are disturbed can’t be an indication, can it? The point is to disturb. An unavoidable aspect of this work is disruption. In fact, it may be the very first task. I agree with Zizek’s comment from the previous post that the shift of perspective forced by truths such as non-self and perpetual dissolution “involves great pain; it is not merely a liberation […]; it is also the violent experience of losing the ground under one’s feet, of being deprived of the most familiar stage of one’s being.” Let this statement by Thomas Szasz sum up my feelings about this issue of “trolling:” “Men are afraid to rock the boat in which they hope to drift safely through life’s currents, when, actually, the boat is stuck on a sandbar. They would be better off to rock the boat and try to shake it loose, or, better still, jump in the water and swim for the shore.” Maybe a good troll can convince you to jump.
My response to #4: Address alternatives. Partially agreed. It is always great advice to make suggestions for how things might be different. Several of our discussions have generated many, many comments on practical matters, such as what a non-buddhism-inspired practice group might look like. Maybe the suggestions in these comments can be collected. Some of them are quite concrete. But I would want to be careful not to get prescriptive. I don’t want to create more x-buddhism. That danger is never far away. Having said that. maybe it would be useful to have a page sharing ideas about practice (or praxis or whatever it should be called). A couple of readers of this blog and I are going to sit down soon and try to re-configure our own practice. As I have mentioned in several comments, our practice went from more or less traditional (western) Soto Zen to non-denominational x-buddhist to unformed, dark, ideologically-hesitant sitting and dialogue. But then everyone stopped coming! So, yes, we can share ideas on “praxis.”
My response to #5: Moderate comments. I don’t want to go down the slippery slope of “right speech.” I really feel that “right speech” is just a convenient way to maintain control, and to prevent real change from occurring. Neither do I want to cut off dialogue, and make this a one-directional information site. But I do want to stream-line the discussions some. I want to keep the comments somewhat on topic. Even here, though, I am a bit hesitant. You never know what direction a discussion will take. Unlike my undergrad students, I don’t believe there are “tangents” in dialogue, just explorations. Or maybe there are tangents, and I just happen to value them. Some of the most insightful, creative ideas come from seemingly off-topic remarks. And, true, sometimes they just steer the thing into quicksand. So what can we do? A good solution might be to disallow certain comments, but email the person and explain why. Maybe I can even suggest some edits to make the comment more relevant, then post it. That may get tedious real fast. So, I don’t know. Suggestions?
My response to #6: Stop Tom Pepper! This advice comes in several varieties, spanning calls for an outright ban to asking him to be more polite. By way of explaining why I will just ignore this advice, a comment by Matthias Steingass is helpful.
Glenn recently said, without any apparent irony, as far as I see it (Glenn you might correct me), that Tom is some kind of Rinzai and that we should be thankful for Tom’s compassion for us. Craig also mentioned, without any irony, that we should be thankful for Tom’s compassionate teachings. Tom himself seems to find this title – the new Rinzai – right to the point for him.
My response: There was some irony, of course. But it was mixed with sincerity. What I am about to say does not, I imagine, apply to some readers. But the point is still not entirely moot. It applies generally, to x-buddhism across the board. One feature of x-buddhism is its ability to romanticize its potentially destructive elements. Think of all the tropes in x-buddhist literature that open up the possibility of a radical break with tradition: kill the Buddha; abandon the raft; leave the collapsed house in shambles; the finger pointing to the moon, and so forth. Yet, the radical break never occurs. Or perhaps it does occur, but the preservationist/conservative leaders of x-buddhism quickly and deftly deny the force of that break through various forms of reaction and obfuscation. So, even a Nagarjuna, who pushes rationality so far as to show the contradictions in the very ideas of the four noble truths and the tathagata, becomes yet another defanged, wise and kind x-buddhist bodhisattva. Same with destructive iconoclasts like Rinzai and Bodhidharma. I see “Tom Pepper” as a living, breathing demonstration of this crucial aspect of x-buddhism, the dialectic of radicality and its denial.
This explanation will not be helpful to some readers. Some of you wouldn’t accept a Rinzai as your companion, much less as your teacher. You want an exchange that assumes equality, and that exhibits all the proper decorum of mutual respect. That is understandable. But what will you do when your interlocutor refuses you that? In that case, can’t you just bypass the person? If you can’t, why not? That’s a real question. I should quickly add that I hope you’ll carefully consider engaging even the most difficult of interlocutors, at least until you’re certain there’s no room for growth. And, as we’ve already seen, growth can at times involve “the violent experience of losing the ground under one’s feet, of being deprived of the most familiar stage of one’s being.”
I think that it is valuable to have a full range of flavors, tones, and emotions in play in dialogue. One of my major criticisms of the contemporary right-speech ethos is that it drastically reduces the range of expression. This blog exhibits a broad range of expression, from warm-hearted gentleness and agreement to ferocity and adamant disagreement. I want to keep it that way.
What I will do from now on, though, is take to heart some advice that I received by email: “In short, maybe, as opposed to censoring anyone, stop encouraging and defending Tom.” So please don’t ask me explain Tom Pepper. Both Tom Pepper and “Tom Pepper” can speak for themselves.
My response to #7: Be more self-critical. Another of Matthias Steingass’s recent comments is a good representation of this advice/criticism:
What we have seen here since summer 2011 is a group process without any reflection about the process itself. Like in any other sangha. The process has been more or less with out any rules. What is typical of such processes, is that a social configuration emerges which reflects unconscious power structures. In this regard we are here now at a point many other internet forums come to sooner or later. This is not to say that this blog hasn’t its own qualities. It definitely has! What it lacks is a reflection about its power structure.
I agree, but I think it is the job of an observer to offer such reflections. I consider it a form of generosity to reflect on some group’s power structures. It’s hard work to do so. So, I would like to see someone else do the work. Seth Segall posted a critique on his blog “The Existential Buddhist” a while ago (link at bottom). It received 97 comments. Stephen Schettini write a post called “So What?” for the Secular Buddhist Association. If I remember correctly, there were hundreds of comments. (I can’t provide the link here because I am 403 Forbidden to enter that site.) Maybe you could use those as starting points. Having said that, I think that we have in fact produced a good deal of process-reflective text here. The pages themselves are really process-oriented. Tacit predictions about power dynamics permeate the pages. Most visitors to the site probably don’t read them, though. In any case, power structures are unavoidable, as far as I can tell. As soon as there are two people engaged with one another a power dynamic emerges. Is that not the case? I’ve never been in a situation without a power dynamic. How could this blog be an exception? If I were commenting on a philosophy site, I would be pretty low in the power rankings. I could improve my power relationship to other commenters through study, hard thought, better thinking and expression, perseverance, and so on. I don’t know of any other way. Do any of you?
My response to #8: Stop already! The blog has run its course. I’d say we are just getting started. Tom Pepper, Matthias Steingass, and I have a book coming out soon. That should inaugurate a new phase of the project. Hopefully, it will help us get back to the concerns of Advice #1. For this project to work, though, its ideas and tools have to be used by others, by you. Like I’ve suggested many times before, why not take one of the ideas given in virtually any of the posts here, and see how it functions in some dharma talk or Shambhala Sun article. If it does function, how, and to what end? The point of this project is to produce tools for you to use in performing your own analysis and producing your own insights. I’ll do my analysis and share my insights, and others will do and share theirs. You have to do yours yourself. And you are always welcome to share them with the rest of us. I hope you will.
The day will come when this blog does run its course. But it won’t be because all the critical work has been done. It will be because I personally am sick and tired of dealing with x-buddhism and x-buddhists. I often think about turning my attention exclusively to music, creative writing, and (non)philosophy. I will. It’s just a matter of time.
So, as with all things, time is running out here. Let’s get to work.
In the meantime–any advice?
Link: Seth Segall, “About ‘Speculative Non-Buddhism,‘” at The Existential Buddhist blog.
Image: Michael Endlicher. Contemporary German artist. Text reads: I remain silent/I speak. Next to the image, he writes: Unentschieden existieren? Entschieden leben! Entscheiden Sie selbst. Two possible translations: (1) Existing ambivalently? Live definitively? Decide for yourself. (2) Undecided how to exist? Decide how to live! Decide it for yourself.
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