Speculative Non-Buddhism

ruins of the buddhist real

Witch’s Flight

Posted by Glenn Wallis on May 24, 2013

tree10That which founds is the ordeal.

To think is always to follow the witch’s flight.

—Gilles Deleuze (respectively: What is Grounding? and What is Philosophy?)

I find the prevailing x-buddhist “image of thought” disturbingly conservative. Wherever it manifests, that image mimics society’s established values of conformity and order. The x-buddhist image of thought refracts a practitioner who is “well-adjusted,” regardless of the repressive (e.g., Thailand) or hedonist (e.g., the U.S.) climate of his or her state and society. Examining the American x-buddhist product, I find this judgment unavoidable: x-buddhist thought serves the prevailing political-cultural status quo, and, to that end, functions to bolster the mind of its subject against challenges to the comforts of convention.

An animating contention of this speculative non-buddhism project is that x-buddhism suffers from a pathological inability to unleash the force of its own thought. Whether oblique (going against the stream, home-leaving, not taking the bait of the world, abandoning the raft) or direct (no-self, causal contingency, emptiness, dissolution), x-buddhist ideas suggest lines of thought that are primed to subvert, or otherwise profoundly disrupt, contemporary modes of life. And yet, American x-buddhism, whether in religious or secular guise, panders to contemporary culture like a kowtowing sycophant.

Why is that? We can attempt to answer that question in several ways. Many currents of influence are involved. Historically, for instance, a pattern of symbiotic relationship between x-buddhist communities and the political status quo has been the norm. Economically, Buddhism has always depended on the patronage of the business class. Institutionally, forms of thought and types of individuals incline toward stability and conservation, and thus tend to reproduce themselves. Psychologically, people avoid the conditions of fundamental change, and seek those of ease and belonging. (Think Auden: We would rather be ruined than changed, etc.)

But I’ll leave that sort of sociological analysis to others. Here, I would like to consider the question based on what I referred to above as the prevailing American x-buddhist “image of thought.”

The Image of Thought

Briefly, “image of thought” is Deleuze’s term for the structure provided by a discipline or community to determine the contours that thinking is permitted to take therein. In the preface to the English edition of Difference and Repetition, Deleuze says:

By this I mean not only that we think according to a given method, but also that there is a more or less implicit, tacit or presupposed image of thought which determines our goals when we try to think. (xiv)

An image of thought has the basic form of “Everybody knows…” (DR, 129). In an x-buddhist community, for example, everybody knows that “suffering” is the primary human problematic, and everybody knows that craving is its cause. Everybody knows, furthermore, that there is an end to suffering, and everybody knows that The Dharma prescribes the way to that end. Such explicit propositions determine the basic lines of what, within an x-buddhist community, may legitimately be thought about and discussed.

Deleuze, however, says that images of thought contain elements that, unlike these x-buddhist postulates, are not explicitly stated. Such elements remain socially and doctrinally functional, yet personally unconscious. For example, the very assumption that “the four noble truths” are coherent, even practicable, is simply given in the x-buddhist image of thought. The assumption is thus operative within the community, but in a way that functions “all the more effectively in silence” (DR, 167). No committed “sangha member” questions the assumptions underlying the basic premises of x-buddhist thought. No x-buddhist has ever applied sustained thought to the prospect that, for example, eliminating craving is impossible or even undesirable, and, given our biology, an outright ludicrous notion—indeed, yet another desperate human attempt to overcome the irrevocably human. In other words, as Joshua Ramey says in The Hermetic Deleuze, “Under the auspices of the image of thought, what remains unasked are the truly critical questions…[U]nder this aegis, thought can never truly break with opinion (doxa)” (114).

Deleuze holds that the re-invigoration of thinking in western philosophy can “be reached only by putting into question the traditional image of thought” (DR, xiv). That image of thought, received, paradigmatically, from Plato and Descartes, naively takes for granted that the person doing the thinking (and by extension, legitimate thought itself) is possessed of such qualities as “good sense,” “common sense” (DR, 168), a “talent for the true and an affinity for the true” (DR, 166). What is thus required for thinking to be something other than the mere mimicry of received opinion (doxa, doctrine) is “to overturn Platonism” (DR, 71). Duly turned over—thinking untethered from the constraints and pre-determined goals of tradition-opinion—critical and creative force is restored to thought.

The conditions of a true critique and a true creation are one and the same: the destruction of the image of thought which presupposes itself and the genesis of the act of thinking in thought itself. (DR, 139)

In my experience, the x-buddhist image of thought is one that suffers a debilitation far, far graver than that diagnosed by Deleuze for western philosophy. X-buddhism does not even assume the good will and natural talent of its thinker. Unlike Plato, the x-buddhist teacher thus does not naively take for granted that thinking will result in clarity and truth. S/he assumes, rather, that it will result in confusion, in trouble of some sort. He or she assumes that the thinking practitioner possesses, in fact, a profound mental deficiency: the very capacity for individuated thinking. The generative myth of x-buddhism, after all, involves a cognitive cataclysm: Siddhartha Gautama awakened to—saw, understood, realized—the proper categories of salvific human wisdom. The task of the x-buddhist subject is to realize the same. This myth explains in part the fact that x-buddhism offers, at best, pseudo-thought, and, at worst, anti-thought. (Here are the first few examples that came up when I searched “Buddhism and non-thinking.” They cover the spectrum from Asian traditional to western quasi-traditional. I present them as being representative of the x-buddhist image of thought):

Stop talking and thinking and there is nothing you will not be able to know. (Hsin Hsin Ming)

No thinking, no mind. No mind, no problem.  (Seung Sahn)

Names and forms are made by your thinking. If you are not thinking and have no attachment to name and form, then all substance is one. Your don’t know mind cuts off all thinking. This is your substance. The substance of this Zen stick and your own substance are the same. You are this stick; this stick is you.  (Seung Sahn)

Zen has nothing to teach us in the way of intellectual analysis. [Sutras are] mere waste paper whose utility consist in wiping off the dirt of the intellect and nothing more. (D.T. Suzuki)

Mindfulness is not thinking. This is one of the reasons it is so powerful. (Trevor Leggett)

It’s like this. If you start really paying attention to your own thought process, you’ll notice that the thoughts themselves don’t go on continuously. . . . Most of us habitually fill these spaces with more thoughts as fast as we can. . . . Try to look at the natural spaces between your thoughts. Learn what it feels like to stop generating more and more stuff for your brain to chew on. Now see if you can do that for longer and longer periods. A couple of seconds is fine. Voilà! (Brad Warner)

Meditation is like a game of Simon Says with the most devious, misleading, and clever Simon ever — your mind. In absolute silence, with no distractions, and you focusing on only one thing, your mind can send you careening off of stillness in less than a single breath. (“The Secular Buddhist,” Ted Meissner)

As such commonplace statements demonstrate, a particularly noxious aspect of the x-buddhist image of thought is a paralyzing paranoia regarding thought’s labor. This is an aspect that makes it unlikely that x-buddhism, as it is currently conceived and organized, can ever break free of its orbit of faith.

The Banner of Faith’s Sufficiency

One of the most deeply hidden assumptions in any image of thought is that people are necessarily capable of thinking. Deleuze calls this assumption into question:

“Everybody” knows very well that in fact men think rarely, and more often under the impulse of a shock than in the excitement of a taste for thinking. (DR, 132)

Deleuze has a quite specific mode of thinking in mind here. (I’ll come back to that in a moment.) What he says, however, applies to the contemporary American x-buddhist scene generally.

Once again, I will invoke my own experience and offer the observation that x-buddhist communities are incapable of providing the conditions that satisfy the demands of both thinking and the thinking practitioner. And again I will offer that this failure is evidence of x-buddhism’s current status as what Laruelle calls “a faith, with the sufficiency of faith” (Dictionary of Non-Philosophy, 57). I have repeatedly witnessed a cycle whereby intelligent people are attracted to x-buddhism, only to become dissatisfied and abandon it. Why are they attracted in the first place? Like pseudoscience,* x-buddhism replicates the forms of genuine thought. It contains elements that look like philosophy (epistemology, ontology, ethics, etc.), depth psychology, cognitive science, literature, and other intellectual practices. On closer examination, however, the x-buddhist versions never rise to the level of genuine intellectual practice. Like the Buddha’s discussions with his interlocutors in the Pali suttas, the encounter is never really meant to be robust. It is unvarying: in every x-buddhist community, book, dharma talk, and interview, the banner of faith’s sufficiency is ultimately raised, and thought comes to an end.

One explanation for the paucity of thought among x-buddhists is that this cycle is perpetuated via self-selection. As Nietzsche puts it: “Not suitable as a party member: Whoever thinks much is not suitable as a party member: he soon thinks himself right out of the party.” What does this logic say about those who not only persist as suitable x-buddhist party members, but who become conspicuous figures within the party—teachers, leaders, apologetic authors, internet gurus, and so on? Whatever else it may suggest about such figures, it says that under their aegis thinking beyond the constraints of pre-established x-buddhist opinion is not going to happen. Thinking is simply too dangerous.

Another explanation, of course, is that not everyone can think.

“That which founds is the ordeal”

I want to suggest two lines of thought here that can lead us out of the current x-buddhist no-thought morass. I will sketch these lines briefly for now, and will develop them more fully in another post.

Despite x-buddhism’s anxiety toward thinking, despite its substitution of vacuous platitudes for sustained thought, despite its moralism and pathological do-goodism, despite all of this: a “subversive and profound notion of thought lies in wait” in the x-buddhist corpus (THD, 115).

We can recover this notion of thought by revisiting the locus of the founding x-buddhist myth, the seat of awakening. This myth is one of overwhelming elemental power: Trees, water, sky, fire, earth, bodies beautiful and decaying, lust, passion, storms, death, cosmos, occult powers, animals, sprites, spirits, gods. Sitting against the trunk of a massive ficus, the Buddha, as Deleuze says of writers, uses all the resources of his athleticism (THD, 23) to “dip into a chaos, into a movement that goes to the infinite” (What is Philosophy?, 172). Having rejected the lighted paths of his day, the myth’s protagonist has no recourse but to abandon himself to dark experimentation. At several junctures he nearly dies. At the culmination, under the tree, he risks death again. He is taking this risk in order to see once and for all, and completely for himself, reality, things as they are. Let’s take that for now as a reference to something like Laruelle’s real or Deleuze’s plane of immanence, as, that is, a form of immanent thought. For Deleuze “immanent thought is involved with an exploration of extremes, and with abyssal adventures of great risk and tremendous ordeal” (THD, 23). By engaging in such extreme experimentation, the protagonist has entered into a “Dionysian space of undoing” within which he enacts “not a system of demonstration, but an ordeal in which the mind is given new eyes” (THD, 23, 22).

If x-buddhists can re-imagine their mythical progenitor’s awakening as a cognitive event, an event in which the mind as social-symbolic-personal nexus and not some other faculty is given new eyes, they may be able to transform their attitude to the very nature of thought itself. But that transformation will come at great cost. Unlike the current x-buddhist project, this is not a practice that serves ease and control. It points, rather, toward “unexpected relations, uncanny mediations, and unforeseen creations” (THD, 214). It is, in other words, to follow the witch’s flight.

“To think is always to follow the witch’s flight”

I can see no way to break the obstinate hypnotic spell of x-buddhism’s sufficiency of faith with anything less than what Deleuze calls the “trespass and violence” of thought (DR, 139). And by “thought” here, I remind you that we have long put away the obsequiously civil, pseudo, and quasi forms of thinking that count as such in the universal x-buddhist sangha. The form of thought that the mythic protagonist engages in, and thus endorses, is abnormal. It is rooted as deeply in nightmare as it is in reason.

In the spirit of reverie and uncharted thought, I will leave you with this very real possibility:

Precisely because the [human truth sought by x-buddhism is pre-buddhist] and does not immediately take effect with [x-buddhist] concepts, it implies a sort of groping experimentation and its layout resorts to measures that are not very respectable, rational, or reasonable. These measures belong to the order of dreams, of pathological processes, esoteric experiences, drunkenness, and excess…To think is always to follow the witch’s flight. (WP?, p. 41)



Gilles Deleuze. Difference and Repetition (1968). Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Colombia University Press, 1994. (DR)

__. What is Philosophy (1991). Trans. Hugh Tomlinson Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. (WP?)

Joshua Ramey. The Hermetic Deleuze. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012. (THD)

* See Maarten Boudry on pseudoscience.

Image: “A Hallucination of Salty Trees.”


One Response to “Witch’s Flight”

  1. […] ‘ a pathological inability to unleash the force of its own thought. Whether oblique (going against the stream, home-leaving, not taking the bait of the world, abandoning the raft) or direct (no-self, causal contingency, emptiness, dissolution), x-buddhist ideas suggest lines of thought that are primed to subvert, or otherwise profoundly disrupt, contemporary modes of life’ ( Glenn Wallace) […]

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