Still devoid of wit, subtlety and danger, now with bongos

The title of this post is taken from a review of Arcade Fire’s new album, Reflektor. I think it serves as the perfect summation of what I’d like to say about x-buddhism on this blog. I am involved in projects that will require my full attention. So, I will keep this blog up but, for now at least, post infrequently. Or maybe I’ll change the format. I’m still not sure.

I see myself as a Johnny Appleseed: throw seeds, and keep walking. Maybe a better image is a John Bunyan tree-hugger: grasp a big trunk, shake with all the strength I can muster, and watch the dead leaves fall gloriously to the ground. Autumn is my favorite season. Nature’s first green is gold.

I said at the outset that my goals were (i) to create materials toward a genuine critique of x-buddhism and (ii) to catalyze six or so other people to engage the critique in a serious manner. A sub-goal of the latter is to impact contemporary x-buddhist discourse.The first has culminated in the book Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice. That book contains concrete resources for doing work on x-buddhist materials far into the future. The second goal is in evidence in the work of Tom Pepper, Matthias Steingass, Tomek Idzik, Tutteji Wachtmeister, Patrick Jennings, and Adam Miller (each in his own, inimitable way). I am seeing non-buddhist heuristics at work in the writings of others as well, even if somewhat begrudgingly. Most encouragingly, I am seeing and hearing about non-buddhist ideas in the work of certain artists and writers. So, the sub-goal is being met as well.

In Lectures and Conversations, Wittgenstein is quoted as having said “To learn from Freud you have to be critical, and psychoanalysis generally prevents this” (41). I believe the same can be said of Buddhism: to learn from Buddhist teachings you have to be critical, and x-buddhism generally prevents this. What prevents real learning–real thinking and real insight–is a major topic of the work that I and the others mentioned above are doing. Look at what we are saying about the role played by cognitive/affective decision, blind ideology, ignorance of historical contingency, and consumerist-capitalist or status quo complicity in the teachings of virtually (literally?) every x-buddhist teacher past and present. Invoking “teacher” makes explicit the fact that x-buddhism is continually being shaped by real people, people in our midst, people who are making real decisions to fashion x-buddhism as they do. And how is that? From a non-buddhist perspective, it is as an x-buddhism that is still devoid of wit, subtlety and danger, now with the intellectual equivalent of bongos.

Chris Richards, the author of the Arcade Fire review, is appalled that rock n’ roll–a cultural dynamo for heaving up rebels, iconoclasts, and outcasts–could serve as the medium for “an album with a song called ‘Porno’ that you could play for your parents.” His conclusion: “It’s fraud.”

Similarly, we have in Buddhism an image of thought born, ostensibly, in a harrowing, perhaps unequaled, existential ordeal. That ordeal produced insight that poured into our shared cauldron of human thought bold, potentially life- and world-altering ideas such as the following: disenchantment, ancestral anamnesis, vanishing, social-symbolic identity, nihility, thinking, absolute contingency, universe, perspicuity, extinction, flesh and blood humanity (my translations of, respectively: nibbida, sati, anicca, anattā, suññtā, papañca, paticcasamuppāda, sabba, paññā, nibbāna/nirvāṇa, bodhi). Anyone who possesses the desire to think, and the courage to follow the flight of such postulates of human existence to wherever they may lead, should be appalled at the risk-averse, platitudinous, facile do-good use/abuse of these postulates in the hands of current x-buddhist figures.

Mostly because this is rock music that lazily presumes life on the digital plane has made us so numb, so unable to feel for ourselves, that the only way to reach our hearts is by applying a pneumatic hammer to our classic rock pleasure centers. Bowie! Springsteen! Talking Heads! Blam-blam-blam! Bludgeoning and vacant, “Reflektor” is an album that both condescends and sells itself short, over and over again, for 76 insufferable minutes.

Let’s rewrite this criticism for our purposes.

Mostly because this is teaching that lazily presumes life in the late-capitalist West has made us so numb, so unable to feel and think for ourselves, that the only way to reach our hearts is by applying a hypnotic hum to our classic intelligence centers. Mindful! Compassionate! Enlightened! Right-speaking Heads! Huuummmmm-huummmm… Lulling and vacant, contemporary “x-buddhism” is an image of thought that both condescends and sells itself short, over and over again, insufferably. For how much longer?

As our rock critic says of Reflektor, the non-buddhist critic can say of x-buddhism: “it’s something conservative pretending to be something bold. It’s Sandra Bullock’s hack dialogue in ‘Gravity.’ It’s square, sexless, deeply unstylish, painfully obvious” capitalist comfort food.

And yet, the teachings stand there, like a lonely 100 watt Marshall amp stack, waiting for some fuck-up Lemmy to plug in, crank up, and kick out the jams, finally.

Arcade Fire review

Matthias Steingass

Tom Pepper

Tomek Idzik

Tutteji Wachtmeister

Patrick Jennings

Adam Miller

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (ed. Cyril Barrett), Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1966).

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