By Glenn Wallis

Explication is the annihilation of one mind by another…whoever teaches without emancipating stultifies.” –Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster

A good teacher imparts a satisfactory explanation. A great teacher disturbs, unsettles, invites argumentation. –Richard Sennett, The Craftsman

X-buddhists easily throw around phrases like innate intelligence, the dawning of insight, inborn clarity, natural wisdom, pure mind, fundamental buddha nature, and so on. Apart from revealing the (perverse) pervasiveness of atman in x-buddhism, such phrases would seem to entail a deeply-rooted conviction among x-buddhists concerning the capacity of people to know and understand. Yet, the opposite is true. Contemporary x-buddhist teachers harbor a profound cynicism regarding ordinary people’s ability to arrive at significant insight into exigent human matters. This intelligence-phobic cynicism is founded on a teacher-student model that has accompanied x-buddhism from its inception down to the present day, from Shakyamuni Buddha to Stephen Batchelor.

The x-buddhist model is, in short, that of the master explicator. The most basic assumption behind this model is that there are two types of people: ignorant and enlightened. The latter are the teachers, the former are the students. The protagonist of the Pali canon, the Buddha (a literary figure), certainly appears to be a master explicator par excellence. Yet, there are good source materials to suggest another model.

I am thinking, for instance, of the ancient initiation “ritual,” which, in apparent mockery of the labyrinthine Vedic rite, consisted merely in the Buddha’s uttering to the prospective newcomer “come and see!” (ehi passa). The Kalama Sutta offers lines of exploration for an alternative model, too. The Anapanasati Sutta, in my estimation, is very promising in this regard. Zen literature, too, has some unruly people throwing potent stink bombs under the Patriarchs’ thrones.

The problem with primary x-buddhist materials though–from the Pali canon to current Wisdom Publishing books–is that they are always self-censuring. No sooner does the Buddha say “come and see!” then he starts rambling on about what, precisely, you should be seeing. No sooner does the Buddha figure encourage the Kalamas to “know for yourselves” then he tediously explicates what it is they must, in fact, know. The same can be said for current teachers. Even those preaching the value of doubt and skepticism–of “not-knowing”–inevitably lapse into definitive explication.

If you have an example to the contrary, please send it along to me via the comments. But before you do, look closely at your example with an eye to the often subtle distinction between rhetoric and reality. As I’ve said, there is a thread of self-reliance running throughout x-buddhism. Many current x-buddhist figures weave this thread into their teachings. If you look more closely, however, I think you will discover that this thread eventually fades into x-buddhist positivism or, in a phrase, into dharmic explication. What I am describing, in other words, is an absolute x-buddhist rhetorical device, one that is so certain, so predictable and inevitable, as to constitute a sine qua non of x-buddhist communication. Nowhere in the textual history of x-buddhism are the seeds of “innate” intelligence permitted to sprout. Or, put the other way around, their sprouting invariably takes the form of the very explication. The reason is that this potential is always, without a single exception, determined by the logic of two intelligences: inferior vs. superior. In x-buddhist terms, that of the ignorant and that of the enlightened.

Readers may be asking themselves, “And what’s wrong with that? Some people are more intelligent than others. So, why shouldn’t they determine the shape of things?”

In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Jacques Rancière tells the story of Joseph Jacotot (1770-1840). In 1818, Jacotot had been invited by the  King of the Netherlands to lecture in French literature at Louvain. Thinking it would amount to a protracted vacation after the tumult surrounding the return of the Bourbons to power (Jacotot had been a minister under the Convention), he accepted. What he found instead of rest and relaxation, however, was an exhilarating “intellectual adventure” (1). For, Jacotot knew no Flemish and his students knew no French.

Determined to engage the students nonetheless, Jacotot gave careful thought to the matter. He concluded that, in the first instance, “the minimal link of a thing in common had to be established between himself and them” (2). It just so happened that a French-Flemish bilingual edition of Fénelon’s Télémaque was coming out in nearby Belgium. This would do. He had the book delivered to his students, and, through an interpreter, asked them to refer to the Flemish text only as a means to understand the French. He had them work hard at it. He provided the environment for learning, but they did all the work. Those students who had the self-motivation to persist to the end were then asked to write, in French, a detailed account of Télémaque. The results were nearly impossible to grasp, given the counter-intuitive nature of the experiment. Rancière quotes an early commentator:

He expected horrendous barbarisms, or maybe a complete inability to perform. How could these young people, deprived of explanation, understand and resolve the difficulties of a language entirely new to them? No matter! He had to find out where the route opened by chance had taken them, what had been the results of that desperate empiricism. And how surprised he was to discover that the students, left to themselves, managed this difficult step as well as many French could have done! Was wanting all that was necessary for doing? Were all men virtually capable of understanding what others had done and understood? (2)

Deprived of explanation. Left to themselves. These are the keys to understanding what Jacotot would come to call his method of “universal education.” Let’s leave aside the question of whether Jacotot’s method is an adequate pedagogical approach across disciplines. My contention is that his method has great value precisely in relation to the kind of knowledge in which x-buddhism ostensibly deals: acute insight into human subjective experience. But what stands in the way of the adoption of this method by x-buddhist communities is a pernicious hindrance, the same one that Jacotot had to circumvent before realizing his method of effective education. The prevalent model of x-buddhist teacher is that of the stultifying explicator. Read this account from The Ignorant Schoolmaster and see if you don’t find a clear image of the x-buddhist teacher.

The stultifier is not an aged obtuse master who crams his students’ skulls full of poorly digested knowledge, or a malignant character mouthing half-truths in order to shore up his power and the social order. On the contrary, he is all the more efficacious because he is knowledgeable, enlightened, and of good faith. The more he knows, the more evident to him is the distance between his knowledge and the ignorance of the ignorant ones. The more he is enlightened, the more evident he finds the difference between groping blindly and searching methodically, the more he will insist on substituting the spirit of the letter, the clarity of explications for the authority of the book. Above all, he will say, the student must understand, and for that we must explain better. Such is the concern of the enlightened pedagogue: does the little one understand? He doesn’t understand. I will find new ways to explain it to him, ways more rigorous in principle, more attractive in form – and I will verify that he has understood. (7)

The master explicator operates by deploying the countless examples derived from tradition, typically as recorded in authoritative books, books from which there is no escape. In any case, the explication, derived as it is from the master’s superior knowledge, wisdom, and experience, always prevails over the insights of the inferior intelligence, that of the student. For Rancière, this priority of one intelligence over another constitutes stultification–stupid-making. Yet, Jacotot’s experiment succeeded precisely because the teacher refused to instruct, relying instead on, indeed, insisting on, the intelligence of the students. This reversal of the received pedagogical image raises two crucial questions: “Were the schoolmaster’s explications therefore superfluous? Or, if they weren’t, to whom and for what were they useful?” (4) The quick answer to the first question is: yes, wholly. The answer to the second is: to the status quo and to those who benefit from its maintenance.

Can you imagine what would happen if x-buddhist teachers began to relinquish their roles as master explicators?  Put another way, can you imagine the changes that would occur if x-buddhist teachers began to value the intelligence of practitioners? It would, I imagine, lead to a complete re-ordering of every aspect of x-buddhist community. Virtually nothing would remain as it is. I would predict that all of these changes would result, in the first instance, from removing the mechanism through which x-buddhists are made stupid: master explication. First, though, we need more critical work that uncovers that mechanism. Toward that end, we can consider Rancière’s somewhat complex depiction of the all-too-subtle means through which stultification takes place. It should be easy to see the application of this depiction for x-buddhist modes of explication. (“Book” works well, but you might also read it as “proposition, idea, claim,” and so on.)

Consider, for example, a book in the hands of a student. The book is made up of a series of reasonings designed to make a student understand some material. But now the schoolmaster opens his mouth to explain the book. He makes a series of reasonings in order to explain the series of reasonings that constitute the book. But why should the book need such help? Instead of paying for an explicator, couldn’t a father simply give the book to his son and the child understand directly the reasonings of the book? And if he doesn’t understand them, why would he be any more likely to understand the reasonings that would explain to him what he hasn’t understood? Are those reasonings of a different nature? And if so, wouldn’t it be necessary to explain the way in which to understand them?

So the logic of explication calls for the principle of a regression ad infinitum: there is no reason for the redoubling of reasonings ever to stop. What brings an end to the regression and gives the system its foundation is simply that the explicator is the sole judge of the point when the explication is itself explicated. He is the sole judge of that, in itself, dizzying question: has the student understood the reasonings that teach him to understand the reasonings? This is what the master has over the father: how could the father be certain that the child has understood the book’s reasonings? What is missing for the father, what will always be missing in the trio he forms with the child and the book, is the singular art of the explicator: the art of distance. The master’s secret is to know how to recognize the distance between the taught material and the person being instructed, the distance also between learning and understanding. The explicator sets up and abolishes this distance—deploys it and reabsorbs it in the fullness of his speech. (4-5)

This account explains so much about how x-buddhism operates in our twenty-first century West. I’m sure you can see that for yourself. I’d just like to draw out one implication.

As the picture shows, what establishes the distance between explicator and student–between sensei and you–is that the former is authorized to think and you are not. (What sensei is doing, of course, does not really constitute thinking since his explications are a result of his institutionally authenticated mastery of the prescribed line of reasoning of Y, and not of his own labor of thought.) This fact reminds me of that scene in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Remember? Jamal is an impoverished and uneducated chai wallah. Yet, his observant wanderings around the slums of Mumbai result in his acquisition of vast knowledge. He eventually finds himself on the TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? His tremendous success on the show raises suspicious of fraud or of his cheating. For, as the police captain asks one of his subordinates: “What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?” To which Jamal, overhearing this, replies: “the answers.”


Rancière, Jacques, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991 [first published 1987]).

See also Mitra’s Hole-in-the-Wall experiments, which indirectly inspired the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

38 Comment on “Is Explication the Root of X-Buddhist Stupidity?

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