This summer, I am making a commitment not to meditate. At least, not to meditate in any way that Western Buddhists would identify as Buddhist meditation. My meditation practice, I have decided, will be to do a slow and careful rereading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, attempting to think dialectically about every argument Hegel makes.
In part, this is motivated by having recently read Zizek’s Less Than Nothing, which offers a fascinating and compelling interpretation of Hegel’s thought. In part, it is motivated by the enormous increase of attention to Hegel in the English-speaking world, and the numerous stimulating recent books on Hegel, such as Jameson’s The Hegel Variations and Pinkard’s Hegel’s Naturalism: Mind, Nature, and the Final Ends of Life. In addition, I came across a pdf of Pinkards new translation of the Phenomenology, and realized, thumbing through my yellowed copy, that it has been close to twenty years since I’ve read it all the way through.
Although the summer is just beginning, and I am proceeding slowly through the book, I am already convinced that a bit of time spent with Hegel could be a useful corrective for the current state of Western Buddhism.
We are all familiar with the constant admonishment to “spend more time on the cushion” as a cure for whatever it might be that ails us. Buddhism in the U.S. has turned its focus to guaranteeing the pleasures of the body (witness the current issue of Buddhadharma), if we will only consent to abandon the life of the mind. Any thought is called “clinging to views,” and argument or critique violates the suffocating misunderstanding of the concept of “right speech”; we are told to feel, never think, to perceive with bare attention, to dwell in the ineffable and learn complete acceptance of whatever is. All of this will relieve our “stress,” break our “addictions,” and give us states of bliss of varying duration and intensity.
Years ago, when I was returning to an active interest in Buddhism after a couple of decades of being a bookstore Buddhist, I read a little collection of texts on meditation translated by Thomas Cleary. In his introduction to this little collection of Chan and Zen meditation manuals, Cleary describes the “fifth and highest type of meditation…called pure clear meditation arriving at being-as-is”: “This is considered the most penetrating insight and the nearest that an individual consciousness can come to true objective identity”(ix). Rereading Hegel’s Phenomenology recalled this definition of the goal of meditation–a goal I had at one point assumed to be the goal of most people who practiced Buddhism–because Hegel intended this book to do much the same thing as what Cleary describes the five types of meditation as attempting to do.
The Phenomenology is meant to take the reader from an initial stage of a delusion that he can have a pure, thought-free sense-certainty of what exists, to the awareness of “Absolute Knowing,” which is not omniscience in the ordinary sense of the word (knowing every bit of information on Wikipedia, for instance), but an awareness of the limits of objectivity, an awareness that our knowledge is always socially constructed, intentional, and so however “correct” it may be it is “objective” in only a limited sense.
As I said, at one point I assumed that achieving this “Absolute Knowing” was the goal of those who practiced Buddhism; I have since come to doubt this assumption. As Cleary also points out, for most of the history of Buddhism it was assumed, even in Chan and Zen, that years of study were necessary before any intensive meditation could be usefully practiced. Meditation was thought to be a thought-intensive, effortful practice, with a goal achievable in one’s lifetime. Cleary observes that although the “psychopathology of meditative malpractice is well known and thoroughly described in Buddhist Literature…certain cults regularly plunge people into intensive meditation without sufficient background knowledge” (xiv). This seems to be the common practice in Western Buddhism today, where study and thought are derogated as “intellectualizing.” I would suggest that, in Cleary’s words, “this is not done out of sheer ignorance but as a calculated recruitment tool, because people become extremely vulnerable to fixation and conditioning under these circumstances”(xiv). To put this in my own terms, the goal of intensive mediation without any intellectual preparation is the reification of an existing ideology, convincing people to become “conditioned” to and “fixated” on the ideological social formations they happen to inhabit, convinced that this ideological construal of the world is a pure awareness of the ineffable truth of reality.
As a result, we see Western Buddhists attempting to use meditation to become unthinking, contented drones, always smiling and always kind. My suggestion would be, if you find yourself untroubled by the problems of the world around you, with a complacent smile on your face, never using a harsh word or engaging in any argument, then it is time to get off the cushion, and do some studying. And one could do worse than to spend some time thinking through Hegel’s Phenomenology. Because the world needs changing. The only reason to retreat into mindless acceptance is if you believe that there is some reward awaiting in the afterlife; if you don’t buy into this particular delusion, then it might be worth thinking about how to begin enjoying working for change, thinking, making effort, instead of attempting to escape into some fantasy of infantile comfort.
Although at this point I’ve just begun the section on self-consciousness, I’ve found that this careful reading has already been far more beneficial than years of thought-free “following the breath” could possibly be. Let me just offer some reflections on the “preface” alone, as an invitation to consider this practice.
One essential question the “preface” raises is the particular kind of mental effort we need to make, depending on the specific social formation in which we are constructed. Hegel conceives of consciousness as an inherently aesthetic practice, a dialectic of abstract reason and concrete perception. At certain times, we may need a focused attention on the concrete of perception, in order to give some content to our speculation, and to see that the quotidian is interesting and significant, not mere “dross” to escape from. On the other hand, in Hegel’s age, at the height of empiricism, he sees a dearth of symbolic thought:
Now it seems that there is the need for the opposite, that our sense of things is so deeply rooted in the earthly that an equal power is required to elevate it above all that. Spirit has shown itself to be so impoverished that it seems to yearn for its refreshment merely in the meager feeling of divinity, very much like the wanderer in the desert who longs for a simple drink of water. That it now takes so little to satisfy spirit’s needs is the full measure of the magnitude of its loss. (¶ 8)
We can perhaps consider what phase we are in. Are we lost in abstractions, or so mired in the sensory that we can’t find any abstractions to usefully make sense of our experience? Is the collective mind so weak that it is satisfied with “meager feelings of divinity” in place of active interaction with the world? One thing seems clear to me: the practices of Western Buddhism seek to avoid the work of the dialectic, and to simply assert a final correspondence of the abstract and the concrete in the illusory “ineffable” mystical truth of pure experience. Working through the Phenomenology can perhaps restore the original purpose of sati, and show us that there is no “sense-certainty,” no “pure perception,” because every perception is already socially “mediated,” to use Hegel’s term for it. If we jump too quickly to intense meditation, shunning all thought, we are liable to merely delude ourselves that we have achieved some ineffable pure experience, and to reify our socially produced construal of the world, cutting off any hope of actual awakening.
The Western Buddhist practice of meditation is aptly described in Hegel’s description of religion in his own time: “The absolute is not supposed to be conceptually grasped but rather to be felt and intuited. It is not the concept but the feeling and intuition of the absolute which are supposed to govern what is said of it” (¶ 6). The problem with this is that it is an illusion, and requires us to abandon all that actually makes us uniquely human:
For the nature of humanity is to drive men to agreement with one another, and humanity’s existence lies only in the commonality of consciousness that has been brought about. The anti-human, the merely animalistic, consists in staying put in the sphere of feeling and in being able to communicate only by means of such feelings. (¶ 69)
We live as animals when we accept the mystical ineffability of “truth.” Worse, we turn a blind eye to the social system which produces our intuitions and feelings, ignoring the enormous human suffering that is necessary, in our present capitalist system, to produce our calm, happy, comfortable womb of meditation retreats and mindful tea parties in pleasant flower gardens.
Getting off the cushion, and reading Hegel, can perhaps do more to actually awaken us today than years spent in seclusion and retreat. Most importantly, to my way of thinking, is the capacity of Hegel’s concept of Geist to restore us to a proper understanding of what non-self really means. For Hegel, the mind is always a collective thing, produced in collective symbolic practices, and so is completely dependently arisen, with no eternal essence at all. We can only awaken by becoming fully interpellated into a collective subject, a collective mind or Giest:
at a time when the universality of spirit has grown so much stronger, and, as is fitting, when what is purely singular has correspondingly become even more a matter of indifference, and so too when the universality of spirit now both sticks to its entire breadth and claims all the cultural wealth it has built up, then the share in the total work of spirit which falls to the activity of any individual can only be very small. As the nature of science implies, the individual must thus all the more forget himself; and, that is to say, although he must become what he can and must do what he can, there is nonetheless even less which must be demanded of him, just as he in turn must both anticipate less for himself and may demand less for himself. (¶ 72)
If we become, through study, a part of this collective mind, we might actually achieve awakening, and there might be some beneficial function for meditation. If we sit and attend to some perceptual experience not to foster delusion and reification, but to see that there is no such thing as a “bare awareness” free of mediation by social symbolic systems, then meditation may start us on the path that Hegel outlines for us in Phenomenology of Spirit. We can progress toward self-consciousness and reason and finally achieve Absolute Knowing, and meditation can perhaps help us get there, but only if we know where we are trying to go. A period of intensive study is certainly the only way to begin. Nobody claims awakening or “enlightenment” today, and this is probably not mere modesty; certainly the aim of most forms of Buddhist meditation existing today is to prevent any such awakening, because while it is perfectly possible, it is surely dangerous to the stability of our present social formations.
Cleary, Thomas. Minding Mind: A Course in Basic Meditation. Boston: Shambhala, 2009.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. Terry Pinkard. http://terrypinkard.weebly.com/phenomenology-of-spirit-page.html
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