The Epistemic Meditator
Posted by Glenn Wallis on May 14, 2013
Can meditation produce knowledge? Or is it a vessel for dogma?
The latter is without question the case. How else should we understand the perfect confluence of some x-community’s practice with its doctrine? It never fails. It appears to be as inevitable as it is complete. Whether Trappist, Quaker, Zen, TM, Shamanic, Wiccan, Vipassana, MBSR or any other form, what happens in meditation never fails to validate the claims of doctrine. Let me converse for five minutes with any meditator, and I can tell you to what system of thought he or she subscribes. Meditation, it seems, is a potent tool for inculcating ideology. And the meditator, as good subject of that ideology, cannot hide the fact. S/he cannot but expressively ventriloquize the terms and beliefs that populate the practice.
If it is demonstrably the case that meditation can be employed as a tool for indoctrination, is it necessarily so? Can the term “meditation” be used to designate a human practice that produces knowledge? If so, what conditions might be required?
On the back cover of her new book, In-Cite: Epistemologies of Creative Writing, Camelia Elias, writes:
The epistemic creative writer is not merely an expressive writer, a writer who writes for creative writing programs at diverse university colleges. Rather, the epistemic creative writer is the writer who understands that in order to say something useful you must step out of the space that engages your ego. Awareness of what really matters comes from the contemplation of the futility of words. Before the word there is silence. After the word there is silence. But during the word there is knowledge that can be made crystal clear. [Links at bottom.]
Similarly, the “epistemic meditator” is not a ventriloquized subject, one who practices obediently within a particular tradition and dutifully absorbs the views of that tradition. Rather, the epistemic meditator is one who understands that in order to think or learn something important he must step out of the very space within which the community’s subjugating practice does its work. That space is demarcated by the words of the community’s doctrine. Words are the furniture and infrastructure of the x-buddhist fortress. By accident or by design, those words are compelling and coercive. “What really matters,” for example, is already given in x-buddhist postulates. It is, in fact, provided at the very inception of “Buddhism.” X-buddhism’s origination myth has the Buddha-figure attaining to saving knowledge. And so the first tracks of borrowed thought are lain. “Awareness of what really matters” is not awareness at all: it is rather acquiescence to tradition’s formulation. The x-buddhist who “sees” that “all is suffering” (or whatever) is merely seeing what he, by his affective acquiescence, has decided to see. What he has “seen” is the ostensible value of a particular formulation. If contemplation reveals “the futility of words,” the first words to fail are those that say what contemplation is.
Before the word there is silence. After the word there is silence. X-buddhism, like all systems of thought, is nowhere to be found in this empty silence. Yet, x-buddhism, the paladin of emptiness, is nothing if not a loquacious filler of the silence.
But during the word there is knowledge that can be made crystal clear. This brings us back to the original question: Can meditation produce knowledge? Can it, for instance, engender thinking about the basic qualities of the mind-independent world that we all inhabit, as well as the meditator’s own cognitive-affective relationship to that world? Can it produce knowledge about the social-symbolically-formed mind of the meditator? Or is meditation never more than an instance in a recursive self-referential loop? If it is a way of knowing, about, for instance, that loop, how can it be expressed? Stripped of the script that is x-buddhist doctrine, what words will the meditator use to express what knowledge gained?
[Elias on In-Cite:] This book is about extracting what writing means to a few writers who formulate ideas about creative writing without, however, making claims to instruction. Can creative writing that produces knowledge be taught without a method?
Imagine a book in which meditators formulate ideas about meditation without making claims to instruction? To do so, we must first conceive of a meditation practice that silences the shrill vibrato of “The Dharma.” We have to permit meditation to cancel all previous x-buddhist (and other “spiritual”) warrants on knowledge and truth. Given our current models, this is inconceivable. X-buddhist teachers, from the most orthodox to the most innovative all read from the same oppressive, over-determining script, which they invariably refer to as “The Dharma.” An x-buddhist subject, from the Dalai Lama on down, is by definition one who is affectively and cognitively beholden to this pre-fabbed knowledge.
How unfortunate for a tradition that has the coruscating lightening rod of “to know” (buddh) driven into its very heart.
[Materials for Practice 1. To be continued.]
Camelia Elias, In-Cite: Epistemologies of Creative Writing (Roskilde: EyeCorner Press, 2013). EyeCorner Press website.
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