Buddhism as the Opiate of the (downwardly-mobile) Middle Class: The Case of Thanissaro Bhikkhu

By Tom Pepper

[NOTE: Comments are allowed on this post, but will be moderated by the author.]

Let me begin by noting that I rarely take issue with Thanissaro Bhikkhu.  This is not because I am awed by his superior learning—in just about every field outside of the Pali language I would venture to assert I am probably more learned than he is.  Rather, I find little to object to in his writings and talks because, unlike every other Western Buddhist teacher I have come across, he does not try to deceive or confuse his audience.  Thanissaro Bhikkhu never pretends to be presenting a secular truth, and is quite explicit about his faith in the existence of an eternal atman in which we will all live in eternal bliss when we escape this fallen world.  He makes it clear that what he means by anatta is merely that this samsaric world is not a part of our true eternal soul, and we must not be attached to it.  Unlike most x-buddhists teachers, who claim to be teaching that there is no soul, but then sneak a subtle atman back in with obfuscation and rhetorical sleight of hand, Thanissaro is up front about what he believes: for him, Buddhism is exactly the same as Vedanta or Jainism at its core; the only difference is in what we must do to get to that state of eternal bliss, how we must conduct ourselves in this life to reassure ourselves that we are moving closer to permanently rejoining the perfect eternal atman, escaping the trap of this world once and for all.

One other reason I don’t usually take issue with Thanissaro’s teaching is that he doesn’t seem to be working any kind of new-age grift.  He offers his many books and translations for free, and to my knowledge never charges for his public talks.  I’ve never been to his monastery, but he doesn’t seem to piling up cash for an escape to a palatial estate once the Buddhism fad has passed.  One can easily read his works, determine what he has to offer, and decide whether to follow his teachings without spending any money at all.

The reason I want to consider his teaching here is simply as an exercise in applying non-buddhist interpretive strategies.  I want to ask this simple question: What would we make of these teachings if they were offered by Geoffrey DeGraff from New York, if he dressed in chinos and an oxford shirt instead of saffron robes, if he offered his ideas as coming from some Western tradition instead of from translations of exotic ancient texts?  If we were to remove the charismatic power that derives from racist Western Orientalism, how seriously would we take these teachings?

Just as importantly, for those among us who do not accept a radical dualism and hope for an afterlife of eternal bliss in a state of infantile imaginary plenitude as compensation for our miserable lives here on earth, what is the ideological function of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s Thai Forest teaching in the period of late capitalism?  Is it an ideological function we should be tolerant of?

To begin with, I want to briefly illustrate, for those who will no doubt object, that Thanissaro Bhikkhu does, in fact, explicitly believe in the eternal, dualist, atta or atman.  Unlike so many other Buddhist teachers, who deny such belief but then assume the existence of a subtle atman, he is clear on this point.  In his essay “No-self or Not-self?” he makes it clear that his understanding of the teaching of anatta is that there is, in fact, an eternal soul, but that nothing that is part of our time-space continuum is part of that soul, and so we must learn not to be attached to anything in this samsaric world.  In his recent digital book With Each and Every Breath, he is explicit about his understanding that there is a core “mind” that is separate from the thoughts and mental formations of our conventional selves:

Although the mind often acts under the force of habit, it doesn’t have to. It has the option of making new choices with every moment. The more clearly you see what’s happening in the present, the more likely you are to make skillful choices: ones that will lead to genuine happiness—and, with practice, will bring you closer and closer to total freedom from suffering and stress—now and into the future. (10)

His position is that this core mind is the only place for true happiness, because it is the only thing that is eternal and permanent—there is an assumption that there can be no pleasure at all in anything impermanent, that we cannot enjoy something unless it is eternal and unchanging, and only the core mind is eternal, uninfluenced by any conditions:

There are many dimensions to the mind, dimensions often obscured by the squabbling of the committee members and their fixation with fleeting forms of happiness. One of those dimensions is totally unconditioned. In other words, it’s not dependent on conditions at all. (11)

What we must work for is to detach from everything that exists in time and space, because only achieving this full detachment will assure that we will escape the trap of this world and live in unconditioned bliss.

Certainly this is exactly the kind of Western Buddhism that Zizek has in mind in his well-known and controversial critique.  Western Buddhism assures us that we have some core “self,” unaffected by our daily activities; it offers us practices in which to produce this illusory “self,” so that we can achieve states of psychic and bodily comfort in private regardless of how horrid, degrading, immoral, or downright evil our actions in the daily world of global capitalism must be.  As Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it:

Even if you simply want help in managing pain or finding a little more peace and stability in your life, meditation has plenty to offer you. It can also strengthen the mind to deal with many of the problems of day-to-day life, because it develops qualities like mindfulness, alertness, concentration, and discernment that are useful in all activities, at home, at work, or wherever you are. These qualities are also helpful in dealing with some of the larger, more difficult issues of life. (7)

The goal of meditation is to prepare the core, unconditioned, mind to better manage the impermanent, worldly thoughts, which are causing it stress.

The translation of dhukka as “stress” is an essential part of this particular type of Buddhism, because the term “stress” itself is a recent invention, one that could only make sense in our post-romantic world in which we understand there to be a core “true” self which is “stressed” by the social system in which it lives.  The concept of “stress” is borrowed from its use in engineering, where it referred to the various pressures put on a particular structural element—weight, pull, twist, etc.—which might cause this integrity of this unified element to fail.  The idea that we are under “stress” assumes that we are a core, unified thing, and the conditions we find our “selves” in, far from producing us, are pushing, pulling, and impacting us.

There is a clearly Rousseauian undertone to this concept. Rousseau assumed a core, and essentially “good,” soul, which was forced to do bad things by the social formation it inhabited.  Rousseau’s idea was that he was essentially a “good person” no matter what terrible things he did in the world (e.g., abandoning his infant children) because those actions were the result of a corrupt social formation.  This is not far from our contemporary “spiritual but not religious” attitude, which assumes that no matter what I do (lie, steal, cheat on my spouse, exploit the poor, support military oppression of third world people, etc.) I will go to heaven because I am, at my core, a “good person.”

In our late-capitalist world, in which even the majority in first-world countries are facing a diminishing standard of living, a world in which our children are unlikely to do as well as us, and our grandchildren will mostly have little hope of things like jobs and homes and health care, this new x-buddhist twist on Rousseau’s good “soul” is surely comforting.  Unlike the Weberian version of the “spirit of capitalism,” in which we were assured of going to heaven, of being one of God’s chosen, exactly because of our worldly success, our ability to work and produce and improve, we are now assured of a state of eternal bliss exactly by our willingness to accept our downward economic mobility.  Lost your job?  Don’t be attached to work—work, or any activity in the world, is not part of our true self.  Lost your house?  Can’t afford dental care?  Can’t buy your kids new shoes?  Don’t worry, your possessions, and even your body, are  not part of your “true self.”  Our new guarantee that we are among the elect, going to the heaven of a state of eternal infantile imaginary plentitude, is that we can tolerate sitting idly, not working, not enjoying ourselves, not engaging with this fallen, samsaric world.  And those who can actually enjoy this decreasing ability to interact with the world (what Spinoza defined as the state of sadness) are the ones most likely to get to paradise at the end of this very life, with no next go-around in this miserable, impermanent world.

Clearly, this is an ideology tailor-made for the age of global capitalism, where the rich get richer and fewer, and the majority become one mass lumpen-proletariat.

For those of us who do not accept the dualistic belief in an eternal soul, this type of Buddhism is of little interest.  If we understand the “self” to be produced by the social formation and the biological body, instead of to be influenced by or trapped in them, the translation of dukkha as stress makes little sense.  The “self” is not “stressed” by the world, but produced as an ignorant, avaricious, belligerent entity by those social formations.  The goal is not acceptance, retreat, and detachment, but engagement and judgment and change.  We are not a “pure self” corrupted by social formations, but a self constructed as always-already corrupt and ignorant and suffering, and the only way to change that is to transform our social system.

For those of us who don’t believe in any eternal consciousness, there is not much appeal to suffering through this miserable life with the promise of an eternal bliss hereafter.  If this was once the opiate of the masses, it seems it has now become the opiate of the downwardly-mobile middle class.  This belief, then, becomes something we cannot simply “tolerate” or passively condone: the more people there are who passively consent to the status quo, the more difficult it is to effect real social change.  For this reason, it is incumbent upon us to argue against this kind of new-age quietism in whatever form it appears.

images-2     My question again: if we were being taught this by Geoff from New York, instead of a Monk with an exotic Thai name, if he were wearing khakis and a polo shirt, instead of saffron robes, if he explained the source of this ideology as early-capitalist Romanticism, instead of ancient-eastern texts in a lost language, well, how would we respond?

51 responses to “Buddhism as the Opiate of the (downwardly-mobile) Middle Class: The Case of Thanissaro Bhikkhu”

  1. Kirk McElhearn Avatar
    Kirk McElhearn

    Actually, stress dates back to around 1300: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=stress&allowed_in_frame=0. The meaning there is fairly close to the current meaning.

  2. Bart Avatar


  3. Idzik Avatar

    The goal is not acceptance, retreat, and detachment, but engagement and judgment and change.

    It should not be the goal for us (acceptance, retreat, and detachment) – I agree – but nonetheless I want to remind you Tom, that Thanissaro is actually keeping close to what he’s learned in his Pali texts, so I don’t agree that his “Buddhism is exactly the same as Vedanta or Jainism at its core”. His Buddhism is just Buddhism, plain and simple.

    How many times do we hear the following message in those texts?

    “Household life is crowded and dusty; life gone forth is wide open. It is not easy, while living in a home, to lead the holy life utterly perfect and pure as a polished shell. Suppose I shave off my hair and beard, put on the yellow robe, and go forth from the home life into homelessness. (…) he resorts to a secluded resting place: the forest, the root of a tree, a mountain, a ravine, a hillside cave, a charnel ground, a jungle thicket, an open space, a heap of straw. (…) abides in the first stage-of-meditation, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. (…) When his concentrated mind is thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs it to knowledge of the destruction of the taints. He understands as it actually is: ‘This is suffering’ (…) When he knows and sees thus, his mind is liberated from the taint of sensual desire, from the taint of being, and from the taint of ignorance. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: ‘it is liberated’. He understands: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, so that I will not return here.”

  4. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Kirk: You’re simply wrong about this. The word stress, as it appears in the 1300s to 1600s, does not have the same meaning. It is a shortened form of “distress,” and is an external hardship, not a psychological state. The meaning the word now has, and that Thanissaro Bhikkhu uses as a translation of dukkha, is an invention of 20th-century psychologists.

    Idzik: It is clearly the case that many Pali texts completely agree with Vendanta teachings–the core of which is that there is an eternal atman to which we strive to return when we escape this world. I’m not suggesting that Thanissaro is in any way misrepresenting or wrong about the Pali texts he interprets, or that his version of Buddhism is not a very common one. I’m simply suggesting that if someone offered us these teachings without the charismatic trappings (or under the label of Vedanta, for that matter) we would not be likely to take them seriously.

  5. Craig Avatar

    It’s becoming clearer for me. Sitting in meditation to cultivate some sort of attention or bliss assumes a self that does this cultivation. At the same time, just sitting absolutely perpetuates the causes that result in suffering in the first place. If there is no eternal self and ‘the self’ is created by systemic causes, then the body/self can’t magically escape such causes. Right? It’s the system that must be changed.

    Thanks for the article Tom.

  6. j.m. Avatar

    You say that “Thanissaro Bhikkhu does, in fact, explicitly believe in the eternal, dualist, atta or atman.” This is not true. He explicitly does NOT believe in these things. It’s just that your interpretation differs from his. Someone who has not read his work would be mislead by this article, and that is unfair and dishonest. It is perfectly fine to disagree with him or try to show that his interpretation is faulty. It’s not ok to misrepresent his work.

  7. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    I don’t intend to misrepresent Thanissaro’s position. I am simply restating exactly what he says. If you can show me where he says that there is no atta or atman, then that would be a different matter. Then I would have to argue that he is being dishonest or contradicting hinmself. My understanding is that he is not dishonest, and does not contradict himself, but is consistent in his position that there is a pure mind unconditioned by this world, and that our ultimate goal is to separate that eternal mind from the impermanent world. This is what the term “atman” refers to in Vedanta. As I said, I quote a few passages in which he makes this position quite clear. If he contradicits himself elsewhere, you can point out where if you’d like.

  8. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Just a brief note on comments:

    I would like to avoid needless noise, and limit the comments here to real discussion. I’ve rejected a number of comments which take the form of flat assertions that what I say is not true. If you want to say that I am wrong, that’s fine, but you will need to show it, not simply assert it. Unless you have some real evidence, I don’t care that you wish I were wrong.

    There have also been a number of pointless quibbles about terms. Several readers have insisted that Thanissaro Bhikkhu does not teach dualism, he teaches that there are two dimensions, one of which is unchanging and completely separate from the other. Please note that this is what dualism means in the philosophical sense.

    Others have complained that Thanissaro does not teach that the mind is eternal, but that consciousness is outside of all time, or that he does not teach that there a soul or an atman, but that there is an unchanging pure consciousness. This is just pointless quibbling over terms, and I’m not interested in it. The Advaita Vedanta definition of atman is that it is a consciousness that transcends time and space, and is unchanging and uncreated. Thanissaro Bhikkhu very clearly, and very often, explains that this is what he believes to exist.

    I am also not claiming that he is not a “real Buddhist.” (I’ve gotten a couple of angry emails about this one.) His position is certainly a common understanding of what Buddhism means. I do not share this belief, but believe that anatman should be understood to mean that there is no transcendent consciousness of any kind, not simply (as Thanissaro does) that it merely means that our experiential world is separate from and not part of the unconditioned transcendent consciousness. I do understand that the debate between these two positions is as old as Buddhism itself, and I am in no way trying to suggest that Thanissaro Bhikkhu is a “fake Buddhist” or some kind of new-age guru calling himself a Buddhist. He is simply not the same kind of Buddhist as I am.

    My question is, given what he teaches, and given the fact that, apparently, many of his students are very concerned to insist that he does not mean what he says, that he is teaching the opposite of what he repeatedly says in many different ways and many different places…given this clear evidence that many of his supporters are horribly upset by what he is actually teaching…well, how seriously would he be taken if he didn’t have the Thai name and the exotic clothing and the Pali canon? Since his own followers think it a horrible insult to simply point out what he is actually saying, and apparently can’t hear teaching for all the trappings, what would happen if we dropped the silly attachment to the exotic, and evaluated what is being said?

    Again, I will approve any comment that has an actual argument to make, but I will continue to reject comments that simply assert I must be wrong or that want to quibble over terms.

  9. Craig Avatar

    Good point about the robes etc. I never thought of my/our fascination with Eastern ‘stuff’ as racist. It makes sense though. Orientalism definitely ascribes arbitrary characteristics to these humans because of how they look and where they live.

    Also, it’s interesting to me that the only ‘realized’ practitioners are the ones who are teaching and making a living off it. Then there are the droves and droves of seeking, unrealized followers defending such teachers.

    As far as the eternal consciousness goes, I remember taking a teacher to task over the term ‘deathless’. He was trying to explain that deathless is that which is beyond thought and existence blah blah blah. I would always respond, ‘okay, but that’s nothing and obvious dualism.’ He could never see it.

  10. Danny Avatar

    Tom: Thanks for this essay.

    Like many of his students, as you say, apparently concerned to insist that he does not mean what he says, I wonder how Bhikku Geoff himself would respond to these assertions? Denial, a “quibbling over terms”, a blindness?– not at all aided by the fact that we live in an era which sees itself as post-ideological.

    I’m curious: when he left New York to join the Thai Forest monks, did everything in his world change, did he leave everything behind except for his Romantic capitalist ideology? I’m thinking of Lacan here when he says: “Truth has the structure of a fiction”.

    Could Thannisare Bhikku, donning his exotic robes, shaved head, Pali Canon and “obscurantist” version of x-Buddhism, be a fiction or mask that provides the ideological key to the “Real”…as in the early Romantic capitalist Geoffry DeGraff from New York?

  11. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Danny, I’m wondering if the reason that this kind of orientalist stuff works so well is perhaps because we do like to see ourselves as “post-ideological”? That is, it would only be appealing to those who can’t fully embrace more mainstream ideology, and want to avoid seeing their ideology as an ideology. If it is some ancient wisdom from a different culture, it surely must NOT be ideological, right? I can’t say why Geoffrey DeGraff became what he did (the Lacanian in me has some ideas on this, of course), but I can see what the ideological function of this kind of Buddhism is. It pretty much assures us we have an eternal soul, that the truth is mystical and ineffable, and all in the guise something that would appear NOT to be reproducing our global capitalist ideology, while exactly doing so (stress reduction, focus on productive work, self-discipline, avoiding critical thought, etc.).

    I’m still getting a emails from people insisting that “Ajaan Geoff” does not say what I quote him as saying, that those passages could not possibly actually come from one of his books. One writer suggested that I am too focused on “mere words,” and that to get the real truth of what Thanissaro teaches I should ignore what he says and experience his “aura.” His “presence” conveys a truth beyond his words. Another kind reader suggested I need to get beyond my superficial understanding of Buddhism, and suggested a popular book by an x-buddhist teacher that would explain the difficult concepts for me. I can’t imagine what Thanissaro makes of these students, or if he has any idea that they are sure he is saying the opposite of what he is.

    Personally, I know this happens all the time. When I tell my students that there is no transcendent, universal category of “the literary,” and that what counts as “good writing” is historically and ideologically constructed, I know that the majority of them hear the exact opposite. I know this because they write papers for me, in which they quote me as having said that there is a transcending and universal category of “Literature,” which tells us profound and timeless truths. They hear what they expect, and can’t hear what I am saying, because in my role as teacher they “know” what I must think. I suspect this is what happens when a teacher dons ochre robes and takes an Asian name and quotes sutras. Pure projection.

    There does seem to be a very real function to this kind of orientalism, for those stuck in the Hegelian “unhappy consciousness,” unable to believe in the old myths, but unwilling to take responsibility for choosing their own ideological commitments. In Lacanian terms, they get a comforting symbolic superego discourse while believing they are disobeying the father, and get a blissful imaginary union with the mother while believing they are experience the eternal ineffable. Perhaps the effects of reading Zizek’s Less Than Nothing are lingering with me this summer, but I’m beginning to see a kind of pretend “post-oedipal” compromise solution to the oedipal dilemma in all of modern culture lately (I’ve been watching the final season of “Dexter” and reading the “Hunger Games” books). We want to maintain our infantile bond with the mother, and we need a weak, mystical, feminized father to give us permission to do this–and an obscure, confused, vague grasp of the symbolic order to make it all possible.

  12. Chris Avatar

    Great Post, The difference with Tibetan lamaism of the Dalai Lama, is that they are directly tied into corporate capitalism, and the psychology/medical profession of social engineers, through the Mind Life Institute, and Stanford two institutions that have been involved historically in behavioral control .

    This Quietism is being promoted through all avenues of the ‘mindfulness market” and controlled media, but particularly through psychology and neurology programs both graduate and undergraduate programs ,The University of Wisconsin, and Emory University Stanford and M.I. T. where the Dalai Lama has his tentacles. It is primarily the neurological/medical profession and enoliberal politicians that are in either in collusion , as social engineers, or are unaware and ignoring this ‘folie a trois of buddhism and psychology/neurology, and neoliberal politicals , like Tim Ryan, in the U.S. and the ‘end of life/hospice groups and neoliberals politicians , like David Cameron and former prime Minister McCleese in Britain that are the biggest promoters of this phenomena , which I addressed in my previous posts.

    This is a social/psychological programming of the masses, using eastern religions, but primarily buddhism with the ‘better educated” so it is not just the lamas and .Bhikkis, it is the academics/psychologists/medical profession that are in collusion with this phenomemon.

    Until one looks at the broader picture of this ‘collaboration” between western academics and eastern bliss religions, and how dangerous it is to western critical reason and western thought, we are not seeing the ‘whole elephant in the room.”

    As I have said before Tom ,on this site, and I believe that you are also a psychologist, as I am, the social engineers of this socio-economic downward turn, that will and is creating two classes, the working poor and the rich, with no middle class left , after the austerity programming is accepted through buddhist produced Quietism, is truly disturbing, and needs social action as well as discussion. For those in the psychology profession, that are concerned with the ‘watering down’ and dumbing down of the psychology profession, through this trance induced , buddhist induced complacency about what is happening in the economic sphere, we should be speaking out about it, whereever we can.

    The collaboration of the academics and professional class, aided the fall of Paris to Vichy, The more things change the more they remain the same. Both of these Hindustani buddhist streams, Theravadin and Tibetan, ” turning inward” focusing on the carrot of an imaginary enlightenment at a future time , while ignoring the world around one immediately, as an ‘illusion” . It’s a neat trick of capitalist corporatism to be hooked up with the ‘mindfulness market” to ensure ‘cooperation’ of the masses to the world austerity program , which is couched by the Peace and Love fascists, as more global equality, what this means for the future is that the majority will be reduced to an equal poverty, while the wealthy few, get richer and richer and richer. Old Tibet is our future World, if we all don’t start connecting the dots as the article does, particularly as it pertains the psychology profession in the U.S.

    It is not just the cult devotees of these ‘sanghas that are infantilized before these lamas and Theravadin teachers, it is also the psychologists and academics that have bought into the pursuit of ‘consciousness” and bliss at the feet of these bhikkhus and Lamas.

  13. Craig Avatar

    Tom writes:
    There does seem to be a very real function to this kind of orientalism, for those stuck in the Hegelian “unhappy consciousness,” unable to believe in the old myths, but unwilling to take responsibility for choosing their own ideological commitments. In Lacanian terms, they get a comforting symbolic superego discourse while believing they are disobeying the father, and get a blissful imaginary union with the mother while believing they are experience the eternal ineffable. Perhaps the effects of reading Zizek’s Less Than Nothing are lingering with me this summer, but I’m beginning to see a kind of pretend “post-oedipal” compromise solution to the oedipal dilemma in all of modern culture lately (I’ve been watching the final season of “Dexter” and reading the “Hunger Games” books). We want to maintain our infantile bond with the mother, and we need a weak, mystical, feminized father to give us permission to do this–and an obscure, confused, vague grasp of the symbolic order to make it all possible

    Craig writes:
    I think I get what you’re saying here Tom. Personally, I’m unwilling to believe in the old myths and the comfort of new myths has never taken root. So, here I am taking responsibility for my ideologies, or at least trying. Correct me if I’m wrong, but would these be examples of claiming one’s ideology? First, I find that most of our ails in the world stem from capitalism and profit motive. If we’re gonna talk change, it’s got to involve critique of capitalism. That’s kind of where I’ve landed and I’m clear about that. Is this what you’re talking about. Another example would be radical Shin Buddhism, no?

    I find it interesting that you can actually sit through Dexter or read Hunger Games. That stuff gets me so upset. Dexter is easier to digest than Hunger Games, though. I guess if I ever want to read or watch anything it’s going to have to be a critical exercise and definitely not entertainment. Hell, I don’t even know what that would be anymore.

  14. Craig Avatar


    As a former helping professional, my sense was not collusion, but delusion. At least among the tons of PhDs and Masters lever folks the universities are pumping out. I never took much stock in the power to socially engineer that you propose. Maybe it is happening. The continuance of psychiatry as being the top dog in mental health probably speaks to your point. If there is collusion, it’s at the highest ranks. Most of the ‘helpers’ are busy doing paperwork and nothing remotely related to dynamic therapy.

    It is fascinating how Buddhism has become so insidious with the elite in medicine and academia. The fact that the ‘smartest’ among us are unable to reflect on their own spiritual beliefs and how they are being totally snowed is astounding. Many academics in my former Zen sangha were staunch atheists but would never question Enlightenment..whatever the fuck that is.


  15. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Chris: I’m not a psychologist, but a graduate student in psychology. At least, I was up until this past semester. I’m not sure I will continue, at this point. There is a powerfully active attempt to dumb down the profession, and I’ve been repeatedly warned that if I persist in thinking I won’t make a good psychologist. I’ve taken graduate classes were we were expected to believe that there are actually children who have been raised by wolves and apes, and that we can learn about human development from studying them! These are not, we were told, hoaxes, as most people believe–that is just a “conspiracy” to deny the truth! In one class, we were taught this “theory of perception”: people tend to notice what is most salient. I pointed out that “salient” means noticeable, and saying that “we tend to notice what is most noticeable” is not a theory, but a tautology. I was told that I don’t understand the concept of “theory,” and that I wouldn’t make a good psychologist. When I was applying to grad school, I was told, at one interview, that I wouldn’t be accepted because my IQ was too high, and smart people don’t make good psychologists; the interviewer, a PhD in Clinical Psychology, said he put me on the “interview” list only because he was curious–he’d never seen anyone with an IQ as high as mine apply to grad school in psychology before. When I did get into grad school, one professor, after getting my first paper, called me aside and said he was sure I wouldn’t last in the program–he said that every year the smartest two or three new students quit before their second year. All of this is not to boast of my superiority–in fact, it speaks, I would say, to my pathological idiocy, in persisting in trying to work in a profession that most people with any intelligence will avoid or abandon.

    So, I would say there is some degree of collusion, at the level of graduate programs. This is necessary to maintain psychology’s goal, as a discipline functioning to produce capitalist ideology in the guise of science. This is why William James invented the discipline–he saw that his own discipline, philosophy, was failing to produce effective capitalist ideology, and that students were being “corrupted” by scientific disciplines (particularly, Darwinism and marxism), and he wanted to produce a fake science to delude the new generation. For a brief period after WWII, with the influx of working class students into grad school, there was some danger of real critical thought in psychology, and so it became necessary to squash that tendency.

    In short, I think that for most people in the field, it is delusion, not collusion, that is at work. Once they break free of their delusions (as you point out Craig) it becomes difficult to continue in the field–a field which requires that we maintain delusion and be poor thinkers, to attempt to restore the “mentally ill” to proper interpellation into capitalist ideology.

    And Craig, about “Hunger Games,” yes, it is torture to read them. The fascist ideology they produce is sickening. But they are required reading at many middle-schools in CT (including my daughter’s), and are now being taught in dozens of college courses, even where I teach. So, I feel obliged to make the fool.s effort to demystify the ideology the novels are producing.

  16. Chris Avatar

    Yes, most are in ‘delusion.” But some are actively colluding at the political level.

    The Global Peace Initiative for Women for example, which is a U.N. NGO to bring more equality to women globally, is based on a Hindustani/ view of Woman as the Divine Goddess, a view which has kept women enslaved , and at the bottom of the caste system in these Hindustani/Buddhist countries. .

    What people don’t know is this “Global Peace Initiative for Women” organization, is actually an NGO of Ruder Finn, number one public relations firm, of the Fortune 500, Why, we ask, is a Public Relations firm of Corporatism, spinning out an NGO with it’s mission’s underpinnings being these ‘bliss and consciousness eastern ‘inward turning’ religions .

    When I started posting about this publically on various sites, the GPIW website was purged of all all references to “Shakti” and the Divine Goddess and Gaia talk. I saved the hard copy of the ‘previous website” until 3 months ago.

    So there is collusion, by corporations and their public relations firms.

  17. Chris Avatar

    And Tom Pepper, very very Interesting as well, your experience in graduate school for psychology, about being ‘too smart”.

    It is at it’s fruition phase now, i.e. the ‘dumbing down” as a virtue in the psychology profession.

    . Emotions over Reason, was already starting when I was in graduate school, in the late 70’s with the Human Potential Movement and Group Psychology, but now its Skinner and mind-control in the disguise of Maslow.

    Someone like Dan Goleman, who pushed the whole “Emotional Intelligence” on the psychology field a couple of decades ago, ( vs. ‘rational intelligence as being valued) is a movement alive and well and being institutionalized at the graduate level now, by what you are reporting. It has been in the public K-12 schools for decades, when ‘social therapy groups’ and ‘values groups” and ‘politically correct curriculum has substituted for learning to read, write and ‘think” , starting in the 70’s. This was not an accident, it is documented in the Reese Report under Ronald Reagan, when a ‘train to work” curriculum replaced previous curriculums.

    . Danny Goleman, besides being a very popular psychologists whose books make the NY Times book list (no surprise there ,journalism has equally been as ‘dumbed down’ by who the corporate media hires) is also a long-time cult member of Sogyal Rinpoche’s Lerab Ling Tibetan Lamaist group, and prostrates at the feet of his predatory Lama Sogyal, ( investigated by the French Police for abuses) when he isn’t at the Mind Life Institute of M.I.T. programs, extolling the ‘scientific” benefits of ‘mindfulness” for the masses.

    . Dan IS a poster child for the new psychologist of contemporary times. A medieval cult member of Lamaism, promoting ’emotional intelligence’ instead of critical thinking skills. All of these buddhist group members, whatever they say, are ‘anti-intellectual and anti-rational. They see reason and intelligence as an ‘obstacle” to ‘enlightenment”. but that they have brought this attitude into the psychology profession, to this absurd level? that you report? Awful. Dangerous. . .

    I can see why you would want to leave, but that simply takes one more potential psychologist that is sane, out of the professional field who is is not in a trance himself , and not inducing a trance level in others,

  18. Danny Avatar

    Over at one of the popular on-line magazines, Geoff from New York is leading a retreat on breathing—breathing as a method to provide us with tools to overcome the minds proclivity to create “stress and suffering”. Someone commented on having trouble with nasel congestion, and said s/he was “snorting and coughing a lot”–wondering if perhaps giving up on nose breathing and taking some hot tea might be helpful. (Yes, I was thinking—hot tea in a flower garden and maybe a prayer wheel.) Anyhow, Geoff from N.Y. reassured the participant that “even though the nose was clogged, that does not close the energy channels through which the breath energy enters and exits the body”. He was advised to hold in the mind the image that there are many openings throughout the head and the body, eg., around the nose, back of the neck (?), in your eyes, (I was thinking the mouth but never mentioned nor any other body holes) and not to try to force it open—I agreed with the “no forcing” advise.
    It just really came off as funny to me–all this enlightenment and it never dawned on anyone to suggest an antihistamine or a decongestant.

  19. Danny Avatar

    Tom: yes I had it exactly backwards regarding us seeing our era as post-ideological…this ineffable orientalist mysticism–disguised as as such–so it keeps us blind to how it’s reproducing our current global capitalist ideology. Like the breathing retreat I was criticizing in my previous comment. I didn’t aim to sound mean about Thannisaro Bhikku and what he’s trying to do there to help others, I know he’s being sincere…I just can’t believe any thinking person would fall for this silly energy channel and aura crap.

  20. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Danny: I don’t think you got it backwards–or maybe I don’t get what you mean? Many people today do consider this to be a “post-ideological” era. What “post-ideological” means, though (and I think Zizek has been saying this for decades) is that we are more deeply attached to, and more deeply ignorant of, our ideologies than any culture in the modern era. We simply don’t know that our ideologies are ideologies, and our ignorance is now declared knowledge. Just like 1984.

    I don’t think Thanissaro Bhikkhu is being cruel or deceptive, either. I agree that he is sincere. I think he seems to sincerely believe in a timeless state of bliss where we will all dwell if we just accept this world passively. This is what the Christians always promised the peasants, right? Many of them were probably also quite sincere about it. It’s a cruel trick, if it isn’t true. Or, maybe, it is just a way to make life a little less unbearable?

    Theravada Buddhists do tend to accept this transcendent bliss as a goal, and they mostly teach that we should be apathetic and detached from this world to get there. Just the other day, on the same magazine where Thanissaro is doing his online retreat, a fellow whose picture shows him with a shaved head wearing a burgundy robe, and who defends the Theravada position, posted this gem of a comment:

    Any words that can issue from our mouths are a product of thinking, and as such are a product of Samsara. If it can be thought, it is of Samsara.

    Death is a product of thinking. Life is a product of thinking. Becoming, or existing is a product of thinking. Clinging is a product of thinking. Craving is a product of thinking. Feelings are a product of thinking. Contact with forms is a product of thinking. The six base are a product of thinking. Name and form (mental and physical aggregates) are a product of thinking. Consciousness is a product of thinking. And Thinking is a product of ignorance. Plain and simple, the Twelve Limbs of Dependent Origination.

    There is no Annihilation or Extinction of LIFE, there is only the Annihilation or Extinction of ignorance. What follows is a total freedom from or removal of the chains that bind ignorance to death. When this state of annihilation is achieved, everything connected to what one is liberated from is no longer relevant. Words are no longer relevant and the meanings associated with them are also no longer relevant.

    Thinking is a product of ignorance. Wow.

    What more can we say? It is the perfect ideological practice for a populace attempting to convince itself it can do nothing about its oppression by the wealthy few.

    On a personal note, I have, finally, quite the graduate program in psychology. I just couldn’t continue to participate in a system that works to knowingly do harm to people to collect money from insurance companies, and is dedicated to preventing any attempts to investigate ways to actually help suffering people. Every time I wrote the lies they wanted to hear, just to get the “A” in the class, I felt sick to my stomach. The faculty is no doubt relieved. Despite my perfect “A” average in the program, the only thing they said to me was that it is a good thing I finally realized I didn’t have the intellectual capacity to do this kind of work.

    The increasing collaboration between the x-buddhist ideologues and the ideological machine of the psy-disciplines is frightening. It’s bad enough in a religion, but when an academic discipline insists that thinking is bad, even for PhDs, then we have really entered the world of 1984.

  21. hookknife Avatar

    Yes, 1984, I can imagine how hard this was, and how relieved you will feel. We now have Mind Life Institute Dalai Lama psychologists and neuropsychologists, , searching for the ‘essence of consciousness” in the brain, while , embracing a medieval cult of Lamaism,and a return
    to a non-scientific mysticism, joined by Naropa Institute “psychotherapist-lites” helping the masses ‘breathe deep” and turn away from this world.

    How about investigative journalism?, I wish I had done that instead, the world certainly needs them right now.

  22. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Investigative journalism? Was there ever such a thing, really? Think about who owns the media. It isn’t much different than it was in the days of Hearst. Investigative journalists investigate whatever the owners of the media want exposed. They may, probably do, think they are bucking the system, just like all the new psychologists probably believe that by discouraging thought and encouraging morbid wallowing in emotion they are really helping people. But really, journalists work for capitalists, and if they want to publish, they have to write capitalist propaganda.

    I’m debating writing an ideological critique of the discipline of clinical/counseling psychology, to demystify the pseudoscience and explain that it works as an ideological practice, producing good subjects of capitalism. But then, who would publish such a thing? Even the left-wing presses like Verso wouldn’t touch anything that was really radical; they want to sell books, and the reason they love Zizek is his books sell, and most of his fans think that just reading them is all the radical activity they ever need to participate in–ironically, most Zizek fans are unaware that they are exactly the ironic subject of capitalism he constantly critiques. And who would read such a book? I can’t imagine any psychologist capable of understanding what ideological critique even is–I know literally dozens of psychologists personally, and not a single one would be able to read and understand something as simple as Danziger’s “Naming the Mind.” And anyway, as an ideology, psychology only functions to shore up the margins, those about to drop out of the capitalist system. More Americans believe in astrology and witchcraft than believe in the effectiveness of psychology.

    So, maybe I’ll just go back to working construction, and try to write about Buddhism or Literature in my spare time. The money sucks, and I’d still be working for capitalists, but people really do need roofs that keep the rain out of their houses.

  23. hookknife Avatar

    I totally agree.

  24. hookknife Avatar

    Just too bad to lose one more young person, capable of critical thinking , in all these fields. All that will be left soon, will be people believing in astrology and witchcraft and incapable of forming a coherent thought, or any critical thinking at all. The total dumbing down of the west. Minds that have been made into mush, incapable of even noticing injustices anymore.

    It’s has been a critical mass of stupidity generated over the last 3 decades by all this mystical nonsense, gurus, lamas, new thought, new age, a ‘dumbing down’ at every level of society, but Instead of seeing it as a danger , it is being now touted by the controlled media, as the ‘panacea” to usher in peace. When have we heard that before?

    “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

  25. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Hookknife/Chris: I’m not young, and I already have, I suppose, too many university degrees. I just do foolish things, like teach my students that Literature produces ideology, that make me unemployable in academia. The first rule of teaching is, never tell the students the truth! The second rule is, memorization is learning. When my students go into somebody else’s class, and volunteer the correct meaning of “aesthetics” or suggest that “New Criticism” is an ideology of the petty-bourgeoisie, well, I don’t last long.

    And hey, I know there are readers of this blog here in CT. I can’t tell if you’re hostile lurkers or interested non-buddhists, but if anyone wants to get together and have a kind of non-buddhist discussion group, I’d be interested. It’s very lonely here in the Tea-Party capital of the northeast.

  26. Danny Avatar

    Tom, I absolutely agree that many (most?) think we live in a post-ideological era, more attached to and ignorant of our ideologies than any other time– what I inadvertently got it backwards was how it in fact DOES work to make it easy to believe this mystical non-sense as truth, for example your gem of a comment from that “Clown” (Glenn Wallis’ fun term), on the other site in shaved head and burgundy robe.
    This morning I listened to a very interesting youtube talk by Zizek on this topic of post-ideology, the link here if anyone reading is interested.

    Glad to here you dropped out of the psych masters program–sounds like the right choice. If you do have to take on any roofing work, hope it can wait until it cools down a bit first up there in Conn.


  27. sporkubus Avatar

    I don’t understand how the passages you quoted indicate that Than Geoff holds an eternalist view (although I don’t disagree with you that he might). He does talk about an unconditioned dimension *of experience*, but then, so does the Buddha. I really fail to understand how you get “The goal of meditation is to prepare the core, unconditioned, mind to better manage the impermanent, worldly thoughts, which are causing it stress” out of the passage you quoted. If the mind can be changed through training as Than Geoff is indicating, where do you see him holding up a distinction between a “core, unconditioned mind” and “impermanent, worldly thoughts”?

    The Buddha, as far as I know, never made any hard statements about the nature of reality. The Buddha is neither an eternalist nor a nihilist nor either nor not either – that’s the whole point of the Middle Way, and if you try to couch the Buddha’s teaching in these terms you’ve missed the whole point. The Buddha’s teaching is phenomenological, not concerned with the ultimate nature or reality of things, and doesn’t provide an answer to questions of that kind. It’s hard for us as Westerners to approach any philosophical system without looking for answers to these questions, but if you asked the Buddha, he’d probably tell you you were asking the wrong question – if you want to be free from suffering, that is.

    The early Buddhism of the Pali Canon isn’t concerned with these questions about economics or social justice, either. If that’s what you’re looking for, I don’t think you’re going to find it in the Pali Canon or in the writings of somebody who relies on the Pali Canon as a guide. Sure, there’s the occasional sutta about the Wheel-Turning Monarch or advice to householders about money, but the ultimate concern of these teachings is the eradication of suffering in the experience of the individual hearing (reading) them. The Buddha of the Pali Canon isn’t concerned with fixing the world – he clearly sees this as a hopeless effort – but he believes he has uprooted the causes of suffering in his individual experience, and that’s what his teaching aims to accomplish. Taking issue with Than Geoff or the Buddha for not addressing the issues you mentioned is like taking issue with a clothing store for not selling peaches.

  28. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Danny, I just listened to the Zizek talk you linked to. He’s very entertaining–sometimes it seems like he can’t even follow his own train of thought. He seems to want to marshall all the evidence against the “post-ideology” myth at once, and squeeze it all in in one hour!

    It is absurd to think we have no ideology, but so many people do. And the structuring fantasy of our ideology, it seems to me, is the fantasy of the “return to imaginary plenitude.” All our narratives are structured this way, seeking the ideal of a state that we imagine must have existed before our entry into the symbolic order, when we had “non-conceptual thought” and lived in the pure imaginary with a sense of fullness, pure bliss, and no effort. Of course this never existed, but its pursuit is the fantasy at the core of all our present ideologies, which we like to think are just “the way things are,” and not ideological at all.

    Clearly this is the appeal of this kind of Theravadan Buddhism, in which, as the fellow who made the comment I quoted in #20 says, we can return to a state of thought-free consciousness. Just the fact that this is so appealing is evidence of the power of our ideology–why are our fantasies never about gaining the ability to do something in the world? We admire celebrities who make millions and then DO NOTHING with their money but indulge their desires–even in early capitalism, the fantasy of the capitalist was to build libraries and parks, to sponsor public entertainments like theater and concerts–now, those things are left to “profit”, and so not done (they aren’t profitable). Would a rich celebrity Buddhist (there are lots of them, right?) ever even think of using his enormous fortune to build and endow a Buddhist temple? Of course not–Buddhism is a profit industry in the U.S.–but in the 19th century most universities and churches were built by wealthy capitalists. Our new ideology is more purely capitalist than ever–always only indulge your private personal desires! If it isn’t profitable, it shouldn’t be done!

    And this kind of Buddhism reassures us that our private bliss is the highest good. The fact that we need some mythical ancient asian wisdom/mysticism to convince us to embrace it is just one more sign of how very ideological it is.

    Zizek says some interesting things in this talk about the obsession with feeling and NOT thinking, the ideology that “sincerity” justifies anything, and we no longer need to think about the consequences of our actions–in fact, it becomes embarrassing or rude to do so, because to think is “insincere,” somehow inauthentic, and no reason or thought should ever count as much as deeply felt sincerity! I love the bit about Suzuki and the Zen of fascism–if we can just stop thinking and go ahead and be pure tools of the capitalist machine, then we become our true self and are enlightened!

  29. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    RE #27:
    Zachary–As for where I get the idea that “Than Geoff” believes in an unconditioned mind, it is when he says there is an unconditioned mind, in the passage I quoted. It take him to mean what he says, that there is one “dimension of the mind” that is “totally unconditioned.”

    As for what Buddha really thought or what the Pali canon says, I don’t care. The Pali canon contains many irreconcilable statements, and I don’t take it as revealed divine truth. I consider it just as I would any text of Western philosophy, some of which may be true, some of which is just wrong. If you believe in a sacred text that is unquestionable truth, then you are also accepting the subtle atman, assuming the existence of an eternal divine being or a fixed and unchanging essence (in the divine word), perhaps even while denying it exists.

    If you insist that early Buddhism is uninterested in questions of economics or social justice, you are just far too ignorant of the history of Buddhism to be attempting to engage here. Read Glenn’s “warning,” and come back in a few years, when you have learned at least a little bit about Buddhism.

    I “take issue” with Thanissaro Bhikkhu exactly because he DOES engage these issues–he is producing an ideology, in a capitalist society, which works to support injustice and oppression. If you want to stay deluded, to stay ignorant, to be naive, then you are on the wrong website. Best go back to your fundamentalist canon-reading and monk-worshipping, before you accidentally learn something!

  30. sporkubus Avatar

    Hi Tom,

    I am not a Buddhist, but I have read a fair bit of the Pali Canon and thus know enough to know that I have never seen the Buddha of the Pali Canon advocate social justice. You haven’t shown me any proof that he does. I haven’t made any broad statements about Buddhism as it might have been or has been outside of the Pali Canon as it’s been passed down to us. We are talking about Than Geoff, who bases his teachings on the Pali Canon. I still don’t buy that an unconditioned experience of reality is the same as an ontological unconditioned atman.

    I will stop engaging with you here since you haven’t risen above the need for ad-hominem attacks.

  31. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Okay, so, you know nothing at all about Buddhism, and won’t bother to read anything I’ve written, but you know that in the hundreds of pages of essays I’ve written on this subject I have never demonstrated anything at all. Great argument! I’ve explained extensively why an “unconditioned experience” (which is not really possible) would require the existence of an atman (which does not exist). Your ignorance on this subject (I am certainly not alone in making this argument) is not really evidence that I am wrong. And again, I am talking exactly about your “Than Geoff,” here–he is the one using the Pali canon to produce an ideology here and now in our time and culture. Because it is an oppressive ideology of capitalism, I will oppose it, no matter how “nice” or “compassionate” or “sincere” a man he is–he is deluded, and doing evil in the world. Simply suggesting that the Pali canon doesn’t deal with any social issues, implying that it is beyond such trivial worldly things as social justice, is exactly how this kind of oppressive ideology has always worked, and if you don’t understand this, you are a poor deluded fool. And you should look up what “ad-hominem” means; I have made no ad-hominem attacks at all. Everything you have written is ignorant, stupid, and immature–that is not an “ad-hominem” attack, but an attack on your arguments.

    And, on that happy note, I think I am going to close the comments on this Post. Sporkobus’s idiotic reaction was, actually, the most intelligent of the replies from “Than Geoff’s” supporters–I just trashed many which simply said “no, your wrong.” Apparently, this kind of Buddhism attracts mostly those who cannot think at all, and works effectively to keep them in that state.

  32. wtpepper Avatar

    A recent Tricycle “Daily Dharma” quote linked to an essay by Thanissaro Bikkhu which strongly supports the claims I’ve made above.

    “In trading the pleasures of an ordinary life for a meditative life, you’re trading candy for gold.”

    Exactly! The essay suggests seclusion from society and asceticism in order to cultivate the mind and achieve an “unconditioned happiness.” Clearly, this kind of Buddhism does not understand the “mind” as something that arises dependent on conditions, including social interactions. The mind that can best be cultivated by cutting of political engagement (cutting down on following current events is recommended), social interaction, and even eating, is clearly one that is not understood to be dependently arisen.

    Hence the metaphor of gold—the ultimate symbol of exchange value over use value! Clearly, what is at work here is the capitalist/romantic subject, and the fantasy of arriving at a state of pure imaginary plenitude, pure exchange value which can give effortless and eternal bliss without the concern for social negotiation, bodily effort, or acceptance of impermanence. The lesson here is that it is troubling that we are asked to take pleasure in what is not eternal, “to look for happiness in things that will change.” And this is exactly the capitalist lesson: only accumulated exchange value can bring real happiness! Taking enjoyment in mere use value will only lead to further need for bodily actions in the world and social interaction with other people—and nobody wants that!

    Thanissaro suggests that we reduce the food we consume because “those who provided the food didn’t provide it in fun.” Well, why not? Isn’t that what we ought to change?

    I don’t much want gold. After all, exchange value is only possible if others are forced, by threat of violence or just delusion, to do what they are paid to do. One person’s wealth depends on the forced labor of many.

    And asceticism is only enjoyable if we can imagine an all seeing Other who will someday reward us for our self-deprivation.

    What wrong with candy? Or just enjoying food and social interaction? For my particular kind of Buddhism, learning to enjoy such impermanent things is the goal—even learning to enjoy the kind of effortful action in the world and social interaction it takes to make them possible!

    Keep your gold. I’ll take the candy.

    And I’m left, once again, with the question: who would listen to this crap if it were offered by some guy from New York in chinos and an oxford shirt? Why do we listen to it when someone dons silly robes and an Asian-sounding name?

  33. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Tom, I’ll take the candy, too. I subscribed to Tricycle’s Daily Dharma last week. I lasted exactly five days before getting their cancellation response:

    We have removed your email address from our list. Was it something we said?

    Yes, it was something you said, namely, everything. I actually felt embarrassment for the Tricycle people when I read:

    As a simple experiment, the next time you have some wanting or desire in the mind, investigate what the wanting feels like and then notice how it feels when the wanting passes away. Given the great law of impermanence, it always will. —Joseph Goldstein, “The End of Suffering”

    The only thing you really ever have to offer another person is your own state of being. —Ram Dass, “Tuning”

    You really have to wonder what is wrong with people who unleash such trite asininity on a suffering world such as ours. Do these people have no compassion!? Have they never heard of wisdom!?

    In an interesting coincidence, two pieces on right speech recently appeared that may point to a significant shift in the x-buddhist World. If we’re fortunate, among other things this shift will augur the demise of the hippy callowness that has determined the course of Western Buddhism for the last fifty-some years. It will also finally end the older generations’ deference to the textual authority of “the Buddha.” If we’re not fortunate, that will be replaced by the centrist identity politics that help propelled Trump to power. While the younger generation of x-buddhists is showing an awareness of the many social injustices that have been absorbed by and replicated in x-buddhist ideological apparatuses, there are also troublesome signs of the “snowflake” mentality that fuels right-wing derision. These two trends, at least, are apparent respectively in the following two articles: “Right Speech Is Not Always Gentle: The Buddha’s Authorization of Sharp Criticism, its Rationale, Limits, and Possible Applications,” by Sallie King, at the Journal of Buddhist Ethics; and “Fuck Your Right Speech (Are You Listening?),” by Ed Ng, at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Here are the conclusions of each.

    Sallie King:

    In conclusion, let us return to a point with which we began: many American Buddhists may feel that their engaging in sharp, critical speech against the harmful speech, actions and presidency of Donald Trump could be a bit out of step with their Buddhist commitment and intention to love all beings. On the contrary, if the present analysis is correct, insofar as these things and this person entail both imminent and present harm to many persons, not to speak out sharply and critically against these things and the person who says and does them would be contrary to their Buddhist commitment and intention to love all beings. Even Donald Trump himself benefits from such actions, as such sharp, critical speech is no more than teachings and correctives for speech and behavior outside minimum standards of morality and decency.

    Ed Ng:

    I am taking response-ability with the label of “social justice warrior” by starting fights with these three tactics—1.) of setting boundaries and being clear about the source of the problem; 2.) of refusing to play the lose-lose game of white reason and respectability; and 3.) of exposing the harmful consequences of dehumanization by confronting oppressors or privileged people with difficult encounters they habitually avoid or difficult expressions they are afraid to listen to.

    If I am starting fights, I am doing so by exposing us to vulnerability, because exposure to vulnerability is a basic existential fact of life that is also socially produced in the service of power: vulnerability is something we share-in-difference. If I am starting fights, I can only trust you are listening to what I’m trying to say, when you hear “Fuck your Right Speech.”

  34. wtpepper Avatar

    I know what you mean about the Tricycle emails–and the same could be said for the magazine as a whole. I tried twice to discontinue them, but it didn’t work–and now I’d rather keep getting them, as a daily reminder that x-buddhists really are not worth engaging with.

    And perhaps to recall that really, this crap is so stupid any thinking person will surely get sick of of it eventually. Then, just maybe, they’ll try to think.

    Just like I imagine eventually, his followers get used to Geoff’s silly robe, and start to actually hear what he’s saying.

  35. Andrew Yancy Avatar
    Andrew Yancy

    Perhaps your interpretation is more sophisticated than mine, but with respect, I have no idea how you can interpret Thanissaro’s discussion in his “No-self or Not-self?” as unequivocal belief in an eternal soul or similar concept. In that essay, Thanissaro says in summation:

    “… the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness. At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside. Once there’s the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what’s experiencing it, or whether or not it’s a self?”

    What about that implies that the self is to be conceptualized as a soul, a collective eternal consciousness, or anything else in particular? It seems to me like any concept of self is useful only as a way of understanding one’s attachments, and like any concepts, one’s personal concept of self is itself an attachment that ultimately is discarded as you progress on the path.

  36. wtpepper Avatar

    Thanks for your interest. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can make it much clearer than I have already done above. If you’re interested, reading my essay “Taking Anatman Full Strength” might help clarify my position. Unfortunately, Non+X, where it originally appeared, no longer exists—it is still in the ebook “The Faithful Buddhist,” and copied as a PDF to a number of different websites.

    But perhaps my point just isn’t clear enough. If so, just ignore it and go on with what you were doing! The point of this post was really meant to be the difficulty we have “hearing” what someone says through the fog of performance. Probably my own “performance” has made it just as difficult for people to “hear” anything I say, for different reasons.

  37. Reed Avatar

    you are “smarter” than TB
    You don’t care about what the Pali Canon or what Buddha said?
    Never bothered to meet TB
    Great job! Keep it up. Awesome work

  38. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Reed. Thank you for your comment. It brings uncommon erudition to our discussion about Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s idealist stance. Your slow, careful, refutation of Pepper’s argument is nothing less than a display of analytic virtuosity. I particularly appreciate the deep compassion you show toward all of our readers; for it must have taken many hours of your precious mortal time to formulate such a intricate and elegant argument. Namaste!

  39. Friend Avatar

    Please correct the statement:

    “…he means by anatta is merely that this samsaric world is not a part of our true eternal soul, and we must not be attached to it…”

    and any similar occurrences. Ajaan Geoff does not make any claims about an eternal soul at all.
    One of many references: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/notself2.html for you.


  40. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Dominic. You seem to have completely missed the point of Pepper’s article. Did you read it? Carefully? The piece you link to has Geoff ventriloquizing a few simplistic points made by “the Buddha.” So, it’s not only beside the point, but not even a generally helpful contribution to this discussion. At this late moment in the game, I only allow comments like yours to add evidence to the many claims we make on this blog–about the violence done to human intelligence by ideological capture, for instance. Metta…and good luck!

  41. Bo Bolinski Avatar
    Bo Bolinski

    I appreciate the candid critique of DeGraffs work, ideas and performance. There are a few other ‘masters’ who could benefit from the same review process.

    However, the comments offered by some readers here seem to express the same sort of attitudes that we see all over the cyber realm: selfish greed, unrighteous anger and willful ignorance… the sort of things the Buddha himself identified as problematic and (spoiler alert) suggests we try to deal with.


  42. wtpepper Avatar

    Thanks for your comment. I would say that if you want to engage with this blog, the first thing you need to get over is the idea of “the Buddha himself” saying anything. Not just that we shouldn’t think what he says is divine revelation and so necessary to follow (although this is true), but also that there are no words attributed to the Buddha except those in texts written centuries after his death, by many different people, and which offer many different and radically incompatible suggestions and philosophical positions. If you’re attached to the idea that we have the revealed word of a divine being and only need to follow him, you won’t get much out of this blog.

    Also, you’ll need to get over being bothered by anger, greed, and even willful ignorance if you want to live in the world and deal with other humans. Instead of accusing other people of these things, maybe you need to focus on your own ability to look past such things. If you find nothing but willful ignorance on this blog, then surely you should stop reading it! But if you would refuse what someone has to offer because they have not yet perfected themselves to your standard of placidity, then…well, again, you probably shouldn’t bother reading this blog just yet.

    The idea that we must pretend to be free of all anger, ignorance and greed before we speak just creates speech shot through with subtle forms of hostility and poor thinking. That is far more oppressive, even horrifying, than an open insult.

    Certainly, willful ignorance exasperates me as well (much more than anger certainly, and even more than greed). But then, if humans were easily able to stop being willfully ignorant and accept obvious truths, we wouldn’t have so many problems to address–or much anger or greed, either, I guess.

  43. senseimu Avatar

    You say you “appreciate the candid critique of DeGraffs work, ideas and performance.” Can you tell us what you appreciate in the “candid critique”? Which other “‘masters” could benefit from the same review process”? I am endlessly intrigued by the psychology of a person, a grown adult I presume, who gives a flying fuck what “the Buddha,” or for that matter Chairman Mao or Mister Rogers, “identified as problematic.” Can you shed light on this psychological conundrum? Thank you!

    three bows
    Sensei Mu

  44. wtpepper Avatar

    I can’t imagine why this would seem a “psychological conundrum.” It is not at all uncommon to “give a flying fuck” about advice of thinkers considered to be particularly intelligent. I might, for instance, say that Wilfred Sellers explains that the idea of the “given’ is problematic. There’s no puzzling psychological mystery here. What exactly is confusing you, really?

    I would suggest that it is a mistake to think that there is a single, coherent position to be found in all the thoughts attributed to “The Buddha.” Perhaps the question might be, why exactly is it that Bo believes that angry or self-interested or ignorant remarks are a problem? What particular reason, supposedly derived from “The Buddha,” would one give for being bothered by them?

    Personally, I carry my little red book everywhere. I always “give a flying fuck” what Mao says: “To let things slide for the sake of peace and friendship when a person has clearly gone wrong, and refrain from principled argument because he is an old acquantance…this is one type of liberalism. The result is that both the organization and the individual are harmed.”

    Three bows,
    Bodhisattva Pepperspray

  45. James Sandoval Avatar
    James Sandoval

    Part II: Why not actually contact Ajahn Geoff to give him the opportunity to answer the questions about himself which have led you to draw your conclusions? It’s one thing to armchair diagnose someone who is unable to be contacted, but quite another to do so when that person is available for such interaction. Ajahn Geoff is very open and willing to share his story and is never offended by personal questions regarding his personal practice. Also, there may be aspects you are most probably missing, particularly regarding “atman.” It’s a heavy subject that must be understood in the full scope of the Teaching.

  46. wtpepper Avatar


    He can respond any time he wants. I’m sure he’s not interested.

    But really, this wasn’t an attempt to “diagnose” him at all. If anything it was an attempt to “diagnose” those who, like yourself, are infatuated with him but become disturbed when someone points out what he is actually saying. My interest is in those who project onto him, because of his dress and name and other trappings, something he never says at all, then become angry and upset when, those trappings removed, it is made clear what he actually teaches.

    If you want to hear Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s teaching without the “ancient Eastern wisdom” smoke clouding your vision…well, that would be Schopenhauer. Really, read Schopenhauer, and he is saying exactly the same thing: pure Romantic ideology masquerading as an ontology. But nobody likes Schopenhauer, because…well, it is too clear what he is saying.

    Why do we need the name of “Buddhism” to allow us to believe whatever nonsense we want to believe? I could do the same with Robert Wright, or Stephen Batchelor. If the “Buddhism” is removed, would anyone believe the absurdities they promote?

    In Thanissaro’s case, the issue is just a bit more complex–what exactly DO people believe he is saying? Why do they need it to be said by someone in a robe to believe it, whatever it is? Why can’t they just commit to their own ideology, without the warrant from an enrobed guru?

  47. Srinivasa Avatar

    I think if we dress Thannisaro in chinos and he starts saying things without proof, we would find his writings in the self help section. There are people that believe them and pay to read them. Thannisaro’s are at least free. And also not just the Oriental robes but he could as well wear the Vatican robes and set up mega churches and people would still pay to listen.

  48. David Farr Avatar
    David Farr

    Hi Tom,

    I’m a fan of your work and a FORMER Thanissaro-head (I’ve read pretty much all his books, articles and Pali Canon translations–except for the Monastic Code stuff).

    What exactly do you mean by “early capitalist Romanticism?” What distinguishes it from the type of Romanticism Thanissaro criticizes in his essay, “The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism” (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/rootsofbuddhistromanticism.html) and in an interview he gave to Insight Journal in 2012 titled, “Getting Out of the Romantic Gate” (https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/getting-out-of-the-romantic-gate/?)

    And how do you square your assertion that he believes in an eternal soul, with this passage–reflective of classic Thanissaro tropes on the anatta subject–from the Insight Journal interview (emphatic caps are mine)?

    “IJ: You cite Western Dharma authors talking about “expanding the self” to include the cosmos; how does that differ from seeing the lack of an essential self anywhere? Why isn’t “no self anywhere” and “great big self everywhere” essentially the same thing? How could this confusion manifest in Dharma practice, for example?

    “AT: THE BUDDHA NEVER REALLY SAID THAT THERE IS NO SELF. NOR DID HE SAY THAT THERE IS A SELF. For him, THE QUESTION OF WHETHER THE SELF DOES OR DOESN’T EXIST SHOULD BE PUT ASIDE (SN 44:10). Instead, he showed how each of our many ways of defining our sense of self is an action–that there are times when it can be skillfully used on the path, and times when any sense of self should be put aside. It’s true, though, that he subjected the idea of the identity of the self with the cosmos to particular ridicule (MN 22). If your self is identical with the cosmos, then the whole cosmos should belong to you, which it obviously doesn’t. Such a belief tends to hide the actual workings of the mind in creating a sense of self, which may be why the Buddha was particularly clear in rejecting it.”

    David Farr

  49. Joseph Nunez Avatar

    Where is Daniel Dennett when you really need him?

  50. Daniel Avatar

    This article demonstrates a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of Buddhism and Thanissaro’s teachings.
    There isn’t a soul that has to escape the world through non attachment to a “world” of perpetual bliss. Whether you percieve that you are in the world, out of it, or even “one with it,” you’re hallucinating a self that isn’t there which IS the samsara. Samsara is not a place a soul is trapped and must escape. The presupposition and perceptual hallucination of an existing, persistent, self is Samsara. Nibanna is not a blissful “location,” it is the cessation of mental activites that create this self illusion. He also clearly acknowledges that there is pleasure in the impermanent, just that it isn’t lasting. If there was no pleasure in the impermanent, there would be no obstacle to detachment and no reason for a teaching to begin with.

  51. Matt Avatar

    I’m late to this conversation. Here’s the thing about Thanissaro: he didn’t make this stuff up himself. He’s a faithful transmitter of the tradition of Thai Forest Buddhism that he was taught, in the lineage of Ajahn Mun. Ajahn Maha Boowa was the one that initially shouted the whole “consciousness outside of space-time” thing from the rooftops, who got it from Ajahn Mun. Thanissaro’s only contribution is pointing to MN 49 in the Pali canon and a couple other places to show that this Thai Forest doctrine may offer an account of these areas of the texts that the philosophical traditions of Buddhism were not able to account for. Further, it would probably be a doctrine closer to the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali or the Samkhya school than of Advaita, because of the realist approach of form vs. transcendence consciousness that Thanissaro affirms, while Advaita denies this dualism, insisting the phenomenal world is “illusion”. But you are basically correct, the Thai Forest doctrine (not all Thai Forest, but the certainly Mun and Boowa) is closer to general Hindu soteriology than most Buddhist traditions, historically. So, I don’t think he’s so much a late-stage capitalist as just a typical mind-matter mystical religious thinker, who is performing research into early Buddhist texts with a hypothesis given to him by his particular religious tradition. Would I take him less seriously if he wore Khakis? Maybe, but I would take a plumber less seriously if they showed up to work in a fancy suit too. The uniform doesn’t prove your doing the work, but it is an indication that you are at least claiming that’s your line of work. Guys in Khakis generally don’t meditate 12 hours a day. If you’re doing the work, I’m interested in hearing the results. I don’t take most monks in Bangkok seriously because they have the uniforms, but they generally don’t do the work. People like Ajahn Mun and Maha Boowa, by all accounts, did the work, and that’s what they reported at the end of it, in spite of their tradition telling them opposing philosophical ideas about what enlightenment consisted in. That’s interesting. It could either mean the tradition is wrong, or they were lying, or, as the Buddha taught, there are delusions about God that exist at very high levels of meditative attainment. That Thanissaro tries to show this in the canon is something I appreciate to keep me on my toes interpretatively.

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