Writing With Pencils and Eating Brownies: What Can Enlightened Brains Do?
Posted by wtpepper on September 30, 2016
Fifteen years ago there was a documentary series on HBO called Kindergarten. The show followed a group of kids in the course of their school year, filming their interactions until they became almost oblivious to the cameras. In one episode, a girl is showing her classmates something she wrote. One classmate, apparently amazed at her friend’s ability to write, asks “How do you write those words?” The girl replies simply “I used a pencil.”
Clearly this doesn’t answer the question intended, but it does in one sense answer the question asked.
Part of my argument here will be that the advocates of a biological account of the mind are using the same kind of response as this little girl. However, while she simply didn’t understand that her classmates couldn’t write as well as her yet and so misunderstood the question, they ignore the real problem, refuse to understand the question, and then claim they have provided an answer. What they offer is an explanation of something (the girl really did use a pencil to write the words), but not one that says anything about the real problem they have pretended to solve. Neurological accounts of things like enlightenment, or of thought in general, simply offer up an account of one of the efficient causes of the thing in question; this is not much different from explaining that I wrote this by tapping keys on a computer, and just asserting that accounts for things like how I arrived at the meaning I am attempting to convey.
Furthermore, I am going to suggest that in the case of what I will call the reductivist version of x-buddhism, this evasion serves to produce a pernicious kind of neoliberal ideology. Among these reductivists I would include the advocates of mindfulness as well as all of those who suggest that Buddha was in some way a neuroscientist, or that Buddhist teachings are borne out by neuroscience, or that enlightenment is in some way a brain state dependent on some kind of neuroplasticity. All of those who believe we can reduce enlightenment (or happiness, or contentment, or awakening) to the level of bodily processes (neurons firing or sensory perceptions or feelings of comfort) are asking their followers to believe something false about the world, because that false belief is integral to the neoliberal ideology they hope to produce, and to profit from.
In part, my response was motivated by the recent release of Shinzen Young’s Book The Science of Enlightenment. However, I will use this book only as an example of the pervasive mistaken assumptions common to the reductivist x-buddhists. The same critique applies to arguments like those made in Buddha’s Brain by Hanson and Mendius and in Mindfulness by Williams and Penman, or in Sam Harris’s Waking Up, as well as a host of other such works too numerous to list. Some readers may wonder (some have already asked) if this is not an example of setting up a straw man to avoid dealing with those other works. After all, I’ve been told, Young is evidently a bit dim and quite obviously wrong in just about everything he says. Nobody of average intelligence would ever take him seriously, so arguing against him is, well, like debating with the Long Island Medium: his game is the same kind of grift as hers, and even bothering to point this out to people is embarrassing. I can see this point, but consider this: if this is the case (and I suspect just about all readers of this site would agree it is) doesn’t it make it more troubling that the basic assumptions Young begins from and the conclusions he reaches are shared by so many people?
So don’t fear, I won’t waste your time pointing out factual inaccuracies and flawed reasoning in Young’s rather inane book. What I want to focus on are the assumptions he can take for granted, and that most people in our culture would probably share without hesitation. Because if we begin with them, and stick to them, we ought to all wind up where Young does.
And I hope that this is troubling enough to make us stop and rethink these assumptions.
Enlightenment is just a toke away!
Young’s paradigmatic example of what he means by enlightenment, which he repeatedly calls “classical enlightenment,” is the experience he had in his younger days of dropping acid, then smoking some pot and eating a brownie. Here’s part of his account:
I really got into that brownie. For a few minutes I entered a state of samadhi…I became so focused on the act of eating the brownie that everything else fell away…There were holes in the brownie caused by gas bubbles…As I bit into the brownie, I could clearly detect the diffuse texture of the cake, the dense envelope around the holes, and the nothingness inside the hole. I remember thinking, “The holes taste as good as the cake.” At that moment, the duality of existence versus nonexistence passed away, and for a moment I was thrust into a world of oneness. (9, emphasis in the original).
Now, most of us of a certain age can remember those experiences of getting high and having a euphoric enjoyment of junkfood. But most of us also later realized that this was a drug-induced highjacking of the reward system of the brain, and did not correspond to any profound insight into the nature of reality. Clearly enough, the hole in a brownie is not the same as emptiness—it isn’t even a good analogy or metaphor for emptiness in the Buddhist sense. Young however was, and remains, certain that this was exactly what the ancient Buddhist texts must have meant by enlightenment, and that he had a “micro-taste of enlightenment” that day. His goal became, then, to return to that state of mind-addled euphoric sensory experience.
His strategy for reaching enlightenment, therefore, is to reach a state in which we can experience the world only as a series of intensely pleasant sensory experiences. Happiness, he insists, must be “independent of conditions,” a point he repeats often. Young tells us that the “thinking mind and feeling body…become a prison within which most people spend their lives”(42), and the only solution, oddly enough, is to cut out the thinking part and limit ourselves to the sensory. Although he repeats the tired clichés about the Buddhist concept of impermanence meaning that all reality is mere illusion, the goal of meditation becomes to achieve a state of pure and direct perception of phenomenal reality, unmediated by thought:
When you let impermanence work on you, the energy in its waves an vibrations softens the substance of consciousness, works out knots in your soul…you can feel your senses being scoured by the Flow of impermanence. The cleansing of the doors of perception is not a poetic metaphor, it’s a palpable reality.(115)
Now, I promised not to get too involved in Young’s poor thinking, so I won’t bother unpacking the problems here or elsewhere. The larger point is that his project is one of absolute resignation to the world as it is, in which our only hope of happiness is to limit ourselves to pleasant sensations, which will happen once we can purely and fully perceive the world without any interference of thought. The similarity to mindfulness in general should be clear enough to readers here; we won’t bother to rehearse the arguments about the impossibility of such “pure perception,” never mind the questionable value of achieving pure and objective perception of an illusion. (It might also be worth noting that Harris’s model of enlightenment, in Waking Up, also begins with a drug experience, and also passes through convoluted discussion of consciousness and self before concluding that full acceptance of the sensory present is what is meant by awakening).
The goal, for Young as for all the reductivist x-buddhists, is to idealize a state of passive resignation to the current state of affairs. Any attempt to change our social system, for example, only leads to suffering and oppression, and worse it requires thought, which is the most horrifying thing of all. We must achieve some kind of resigned indifference to the world in order to be able to perceive even the most unpleasant phenomena as blissful sensory stimuli.
Consider Young’s example of how we might more mindfully interact with another person (I think it is fairly typical of accounts I have heard from dozens of mindfulness teachers):
For example, you can practice meditation while talking to someone…by intently focusing on the sight and sounds of that person…Another way would be to monitor, in a state of high concentration, your mental and emotional reactions to that person…Yet another way…would be to intentionally create loving-kindness emotion in our body, and then taste an expansive flavor of concentration by spreading that pleasant body sensation out into the room, enveloping your interlocutor with love. (35)
The key point here is that we at all costs avoid actually attending to any meaning the person might be trying to convey! Young repeatedly reminds us to think of words as just sounds, not different from any other sounds, and to think of our emotions as a kind of sensory experience. So, whether we fully experience the person talking to us by ignoring their meaning and carefully attending to our sensory experiences, or by ignoring them altogether and carefully attending to our internal sensory states, we are reaching enlightenment because we have successfully avoided any dangerous meaningful social exchange—we have skirted the problem of the social and of meaning. At the same time, we have learned to limit our action in the world to sending out good vibes.
This terror of social interaction sounds a lot like what we might call “autism spectrum,” or perhaps what used to be called schizoid personality disorder (I believe this diagnosis still exists, but those exhibiting the symptoms are now diagnosed as being on the more socially-acceptable autism spectrum). It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, when in his final chapter Young offers us hope for a surgical enlightenment. Such non-social solutions are the great hope of all of those unable to successfully interact in the human social world. My suggestion is that this inability is increasingly the case for most of us; for this reason, we want to be assured that our problems are biological, to be treated with surgery or drugs. If our problems are social, they might be curable, but that would require both thought and action on our part (including social interaction), something we are taught not only that we should not, but that we cannot really do.
Young’s dream of a sort of sophisticated lobotomy—one capable of removing all those “impurities” of the brain that lead us to do things like engage with others, speak, produce meaning in social interaction—sounds quite similar to the debates about the zombie problem in analytical philosophy. He offers an example of a kind of brain injury in which someone loses the capacity for self-directed action, and sits doing nothing all day (“No self, no problem!” Young proclaims). This particular kind of brain injury also tends to make the sufferer indifferent to their surroundings; they never complain of discomfort or boredom, and seem to be devoid of unpleasant sensations. Young says that this example might indicate that a surgical enlightenment procedure is possible…but there’s something missing. It doesn’t seem to be quite what we’re after. Just as in the debates about hypothetical zombies in analytical philosophy, the automaton that just responds to stimuli, even if in complex ways, seems to us to be somehow missing something important, even if we can’t quite figure out what it is. We have the sense that there is a gap between the automaton and a human mind, and we can’t pinpoint exactly where it would be.
This problem is exactly as old as empiricism. Once philosophy began to conceive of the world in mechanistic terms, as the interaction of physical objects, it became difficult to see how we could include things such as meaning and intention and the felt sense of the world—much less morality or aesthetic appreciation. The task of philosophy has been the attempt to fill in this gap. Young fills it in with dualism. This material world (which he tells us repeatedly is the whole story, the mind just is neurobiology), well, it turns out to be mere illusion after all. The only thing truly and eternally real is something he calls “the Source,” a kind of transcendent soul that has no properties of extension (i.e., no mass or spatial dimension or existence in time), but is what we really and eternally always are. For Young, and for his students, the contradiction in this position is invisible. He has transcended duality, he tells us, by accepting absolute radical dualism! If this seems contradictory or paradoxical, well then you just aren’t as deep as he is I guess.
But for the here and now, the answer is nothing so difficult as escaping the illusory phenomenal world. We just need that bit about “the Source” to assure us we need not change “conditions,” we can’t change “conditions,” because they are illusions, and we only need to become detached from and indifferent to them. Enlightenment is nothing but having pure and complete sensory experiences of this (illusory) phenomenal world. Once we stop adding meaning, or thinking we can make changes in things like social conditions, we can begin to experience all sensory information blissfully, and we just are “classically Enlightened.”
For some people the question “what is enlightenment” might mean something like “how can I meaningfully interact with others and the world” or “how can I transform the conditions of our world so as to reduce suffering.” Young’s solution is to change the question. Redefine “enlightenment” as “bodily comfort” and the answer becomes easy. In becomes inconceivable that seeking pleasure in these bodily experiences might just be what Buddhist thought was trying to argue was futile. Instead, we think that when we are happy we “feel” good, so bodily pleasure must be the whole point. This is a response, though, on the order of “just use a pencil.” If seems to provide an answer, but only by ignoring the intent of the question.
This “use a pencil” strategy is common to all the reductive x-buddhists. In Buddha’s Brain, Hanson and Mendius claim that Buddha looked into the “underlying activities of his brain”(12) to discover that we can control our attention in such a way as to produce “blissful concentration.” The brain both is the mind, and is a physical thing capable of being controlled by something additional to itself, a kind of deeper self that is capable of making the brain more “mindful” and insuring bodily comfort. This is possible because…well, there are “mysterious ways”(15) that the “ultimate underpinnings of reality” work. In Mindfulness by Williams and Penman, we are assured that “we don’t need language to stand as an intermediary…we can experience [the world] directly through our senses” (11), and when we do we can thoroughly focus on our own bodily comfort and stop thinking and acting in any way that isn’t pleasurable.
For centuries now, the problem of how this mechanistic mind-in-the-brain can work has plagued us. It is generally now just dismissed as the insoluble mind-body problem. Unless we add some magic somewhere, the account seems always to fail. Despite centuries of trying, every reductive materialist approach needs to resort to some kind of “ghost in the machine” to complete the explanation of actual human thought and behavior. The neuroscience approach is no different.
Yet we are very attached to it. As I said earlier, no doubt many readers here will think that I’ve set up a straw-man by debating with something as silly as Shinzen Young’s particular spiritual grift. Maybe…but I’m not so sure. I would suggest that if you showed most people one of Young’s many video talks, the response would take one of two forms. Some people would be enamored of his great poetic genius, and gush over how deep and profound he is; but most of the rest would just be bored by him, and see him as offering trite truisms without much substance, too obvious to need repeating.
Few, if any, would react with impatience or outrage at the ideology being reproduced here. And that is because it is an ideology so pervasive we cannot see it at all. The assumptions underlying Young’s book, and all other reductivist x-buddhisms, are so common we have lost our ability to question them.
But if we fail to question them, we are led inevitably to the same kinds of conclusions. Specifically, to the idea that the best we can hope for is to adjust ourselves in such a way as to maximize bodily comfort in any conditions. Because the conditions of our world are just beyond our ability to engage with, much less transform.
Lockean Empiricism and the Invention of Consciousness and Self.
Most of this particular set of assumptions can be traced back to Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Our fundamental way of thinking about ourselves and the world were first formulated at that time. Not by Locke alone of course, although his particular formulation of them was enormously influential. I’m not suggesting here that Locke was a manipulative mastermind who spread wicked delusion and enslaved us all. Rather, the point is simply that Locke found a way to successfully formulate the dominant ideology of his time, an ideology already existing in practice. His very popularity was the result of his producing a discourse in which to conceptualize what everyone (or at least everyone in the rising capitalist class) was already doing. If it is true, as Edward Feser has argued, that “Locke is one of the key architects, maybe the architect, of distinctly modern ways of thinking,” this is because we all accept his fundamental assumptions, so that even if we disagree with Lockean empiricism, we think we can only disagree with it for Lockean empiricist reasons!
I want to offer a short list of some of Locke’s key assumptions (most of them shared by his contemporaries, some given unique form in Locke’s work). My focus will be on those assumptions about the world that are of most importance to producing the kind of passive and quietist neoliberal ideology we find in the projects of the reductivist x-buddhists. Then, I will suggest that these assumptions, and so this kind of ideology, is not limited to x-buddhists, but is pervasive in the western world. Seeing where it comes from, it is hoped, might be a first step in abandoning the prison of hopeless bliss.
The Mechanistic World: For Lockean empiricism, the “real” world is one of matter, and all causality is of the “billiard ball” type. Anything that can have a cause in the world is physical, and causes are the physical chain of reaction. If we mistakenly believe there are other causes, that is because we have accidentally been caused (by stimuli) to have incorrect associations in our brains. These errors are on the order of seeing a crow fly overhead just before falling ill, and associating crows with illness. All non-mechanistic causation is belived to be of this type, and so erroneous.
Absolute Atomism of Mind: Since our brains are physical matter, there are only two sources of thoughts: those derived from sense experience, and those built into the structure of our brain itself (such as the idea that three is more than two). We derive all of our concepts through sense experience and “reflection,” before beginning to interact with other people (who are just other sensory phenomena to us). Locke takes as a starting point the belief that “individuals pre-exist society and that the individual is to be defined as, by nature, a property owner, albeit first of all the sole proprietor of his own person and capacities…with a natural propensity to unlimited accumulation” (Sanford, xli). This in large part results from the need to reject the idea that we are produced by the social formation into which we are born—we must be conceived as complete individuals freely choosing to join in the social system we produce through the process of reflection following empirical experience.
Metalanguage: Locke was very insistent that thought is not dependent on language. We have thoughts, and then put them into words. Thought continues outside of language, in a kind of mentalese or private language or metalanguage. This is crucial, because if our minds are atomistic, each one acquiring content by sensory interaction with the world, it is imperative that no ideas ever originate in social practices. Many analytical philosophers still hold this position, and most people assume this is true in their daily lives. Almost all students will say that they “know what they want to say,” but “can’t put it into words.” Most people, and not just x-buddhists, will insist that language is a “barrier” between them and the world, distorting their pure and correct experience. On the Lockean model, we all develop concepts, and languages, individually, then enter into a group by simply learning which word everyone else uses to refer to the concept we all derived from experience. Individually, we all would have correct empirical knowledge of the world, but the demands of a shared language causes confusion and distortion. The idea that our construal of the world comes from language, that when we learn language we learn how to see the world, is ruled out without consideration.
Fatalism about the social system: We all accept that we cannot make changes to the social formation in which we live. This follows from the point about atomism of minds. We must be thought of as individual minds-in-brains created inevitably by sensory experiences, which will then naturally interact in the way such physical entities naturally would. For Locke, this is crucial because if the goal is to remove the old social system produced by religion and feudalism, we wouldn’t want to suggest that we might rationally choose the best one for everyone. Instead, we need to be convinced that the old order is a matter of mistaken associations leading to confusion, and the removing those errors leads inevitably to a free and natural society of competitive and acquisitive possessive individuals. We can’t make a social system, we can only clarify our sensory information so as to adjust more successfully to the naturally occurring one. For Locke, “free will” becomes simply a matter of removing the impediments to a correct response to stimuli. Most Americans today are sure this is true: capitalism is a result of human nature, the economy is not a humanly created social practice but a force of nature we must adjust ourselves to.
There’s a lot more to Locke’s enormous Essay, but these are the key points for our discussion. Clearly, these assumptions underly all the reductive X-buddhisms. But just as clearly, these assumptions always lead to a kind of impossible contradiction. There seems no way to get from empiricism to the human world as it actually is without allowing in some magical leap. Often, this takes the form of the rhetorical sleight-of-hand sometimes referred to as the homunculus problem; Hume famously pointed this out in his postscript to his Treatise. Most people resort to “it’s just a grammatical necessity, not a contradiction,” but Hume had the intelligence and the nerve to admit it isn’t really—it’s a conceptual flaw. I won’t go through all the arguments against such materialist reductionists—there are many powerful examples dismantling this belief in addition to Hume’s. The response is usually of the “I use a pencil” variety: we can’t explain how the brain gives rise to such things as moral values or untrue beliefs, so we just say it has the power to do so, and leave it at that.
Locke was not quite happy to accept the “I use a pencil answer,” so he came up with a related but somewhat more complicated strategy. He produced some key ideological concepts, necessary to his system, and convinced us all these were real things in the world in need of further clarification to fill in the gaps. Sort of like explaining the world as the creation of God, then spending centuries trying to decide just what kind of thing God really is.
Locke did believe in God, and a soul, but his empiricist philosophy wouldn’t work if he pushed the explanation to that level. So he came up with the two related (and crucially, necessarily vague) concepts that have plagued us ever since: Consciousness and Self.
This might be startling at first. We all think these terms have been around forever, they simply must pick out something in the world (after all, we intuitively accept Locke’s theory of language, and can’t consider that a word might arise except by indicating a thing). But they haven’t been around forever. Both terms were neologisms in Locke’s work. Neologisms he was forced into because there was no such concept available, and he needed something more to complete his philosophical system. Before Locke, nobody ever thought they had a self, or that they were conscious—at least not in exactly the way we mean these things.
In Identity and Difference: John Locke & the Invention of Consciousness, Etienne Balibar details the invention of these concepts. He explains that these concepts were part of Locke’s “anti-linguistic ‘turn’”: “Locke attempts here to square the circle, by forging a generic expression for self-reference in the first person which the self may make use of in order to think itself (or objectify itself) without leaving itself”(116). The concept functions to resolve what is otherwise a fatal flaw in Locke’s system, and to enable the individual to remain atomistic, originating by interacting with a sensory (but never a social) world. This concept was at first troubling to Locke’s readers and translators (no such concept seems to have appeared in other European languages, so the need to invent terms to translate self and consciousness arose). But it didn’t take long before we all began using and thinking in these terms, without ever considering that we have no idea what we are saying when we use them.
In fact, it became the task of analytical philosophy to attempt to endlessly work at keeping these problematic terms, which we might call floating signifiers, from collapsing under the weight of their own meaninglessness. And so we still see endless books and articles trying to discuss the real nature of “self” or “consciousness,” never making much progress, because they continue to mistake an ideological term for a thing in the mind-independent world, something we already have before we even notice that we do, and that we just need to work to get clear about, like a kidney or a brainstem.
Before moving on to some conclusions about how non-reductivist Buddhist thought might just help with this problem, let me offer one clear example from the American analytical philosophy to demonstrate how widespread and invisible this problem is.
Searle’s Solution to the Mind-Body Problem
John Searle has argued in a series of books over the past decade or so that he has radically revised the “traditional categories” in which philosophy has debated the mind-body problem. In Mind: a brief introduction, he argues that if we eliminate talk of separate mental and physical domains, and realize that “consciousness is entirely causally explained by neural behavior but it is not thereby shown to be nothing but neuronal behavior”(119), then the entire problem is overcome. He thinks this has avoided the great error of dualism as well as the intractable problems of reductivism, because the key point is that the mind just is exactly the state of the brain, but cannot be reduced to the brain. And he manages this essentially by linguistic fiat: to reduce the mind to the brain is to talk about a something with first-person ontology in terms of third-person ontology, so it can’t be done.
Now, just as with Shinzen Young, I can already hear people proclaiming that I’m debating wth the weakest possible opponent, because this argument has flaws any philosopher worth listening to could point out instantly. Of course it does. What could it possibly mean to say that something is identical to something else, but not reducible to it? This is just sophistry. The only way it could fail to be reducible is if there is some additional thing we mean by mind besides the brain state. For example, a table is in one sense identical to the wood it is made of, but we can’t reduce it to the wood because the wood itself, absent the table-shape, wouldn’t be a place we can sit and have dinner. There must be an added social function that prevents this reduction—and the “first person ontology” is just that, something in addition to the brain itself that occurs only in a social context (there could be no first-person quality if there were no other persons). By discussing it in terms of “first-person ontology,” Searle is able to avoid this social dimension, and keep his concept of mind thoroughly reductivist, atomistic, and Lockean.
However, my point is that Searle’s arguments have an enormous following, and seem true and solid to most people. And this is because he has not really radically changed the terms of the debate at all. He has stuck quite closely to Locke’s terms throughout. And Locke’s terms remain the terms in which most of us think about the world most of the time; they are the concepts of common sense.
Searle says that consciousness and intentionality (which are very close to the same thing, he tells us) are unique in that they are the only kinds of things in existence with a first-person ontology (120). That alone might raise some flags. But he says, after two chapters and over 70 pages discussing “consciousness,” that
[o]f all the subjects discussed in this book, this is the one where I feel the greatest sense of inadequacy. Consciousness is such a stunning and mysterious phenomenon that one always feels that the very effort to describe it in ordinary words somehow is not only bound to fail, but the very effort reveals a failure of sensibility. (157)
Perhaps the trouble is the attempt to explain an ideological concept as if it were a material thing?
He discusses free will, and can only decide there is a gap between the causes of our actions and the actions, and so the “problem of free will is going to be with us for a long time”(234). He discusses “self” in thoroughly Lockean terms, even defining his concept in its difference from Descartes, and focusing on the problem of “personal identity,” and concludes that “in order to account for free rational actions, we have to suppose there is a single entity X”(295). The argument is that since free will, which we can’t explain, must exist, we must have some kind of a self, which we also can’t explain.
And in the end, we are left only with an answer on the order of “I use a pencil.” If there is this gap between material causation and our actions, the solution is that there must be “the capacity to initiate action, a capacity sometimes called ‘agency'”(296). If we just say it’s a “capacity” we have, that is supposed to explain everything, but in fact that is the very thing that is need of explaining! As always, when we try to explain the human world in reductive materialist terms, we have to eventually include some “and then a miracle happens” step at some point. Most often, this is done with rhetorical sleight-of-hand; at least Searle spells it out openly.
Searle, like Young, is enamored of neuroscience, and sure that advances in neuroscience will solve all these mysteries. Both adopt what seems to me an almost universal assumptions: neuroscience is a new science, and so we must wait for slow progress and the answer will come probably long after we are dead—it is just that complex. Science, most people think, proceeds by slow and methodical building up of facts. Of course, anyone with any knowledge of the history of science knows that’s never how it works. It is always the other way around: first we solve the big problem, then comes the slow and methodical work of filling in the details. First we grasp that the Sun is at the center of the solar system, then begins the difficult methodical work of exactly calculating the orbits of the planets. This kind of bottom-up work toward the big answer is just waving a promissory note to avoid dealing with a conceptual failure.
And Searle’s project is Lockean, and neoliberal, in the overall goals as well as in the details. He wants to explain that we can only “cope with the world”(192), and to rule out considerations of how we might change it. In his book Making the Social World his insists that the most “fundamental set of basic facts are the atomic theory of matter and the evolutionary theory of biology,” and no explanation of anything social will be accepted unless is begins with and is “derived from the mental phenomena of individuals.” As with Locke, we must always assume that individual subjects precede social systems, which occur because these atomistic individuals interact in a way analogous to atoms and molecules interacting in matter.
There seems, in American analytical philosophy at least, no possibility of questioning these key Lockean assumptions, no matter how troublesome they prove. The work of philosophy is to assume we must endlessly discuss consciousness and self, circling them again and again but never getting closer; this is a reactionary project, to keep these empty terms at work obscuring the ideological nature of our construal of the world. If we questioned them, we might move out of the kind of fatalist neoliberal ideology that has enslaved us all to a pursuit of blissful sensations. And we wouldn’t want that. Someone might start suggesting we can enjoy taking action in the world, that the capacity to act is more important that the capacity to passively perceive…and consume. And then where would capitalism be?
It seems that all of x-buddhism, like analytical philosophy, is not much more than one more version of Lockean capitalist ideology. What gets x-buddhists more worked up than the insistence that we can get outside of language? Or claims that pure perception untainted by social meaning is the source of profound truth? But for most of the history of Buddhism, the use of language in rigorous philosophical debate was considered the main route to enlightenment. The whole history of Buddhist thought and practice, it seems, is just incompatible with modern capitalist ideologies of the subject—so it needs to be ditched or rewritten. If we want the exotic flavor of ancient wisdom to give credence to a shaky ideology (and it seems we do) we need to be sure we don’t actually consider whether that ancient wisdom might not have been producing the capitalist ideological concepts we are so thoroughly indoctrinated in. Then we wind up as enlightened brains, enjoying out brownies, and answering all questions at the level of “I use a pencil.” The inability to think is the basic condition of “clarity” and “equanimity,” the brownie is a taste of enlightenment.
One way to ensure we stay firmly within (and blind to) our ideology is with translation. X-buddhists will argue passionately about whether anatman is best translated as not-self, no-self or non-self, but they would never consider that the term atman might not have meant “self” at all, that Buddha might not have been thinking in these thoroughly modern, thoroughly capitalist, Lockean concepts. The same goes for consciousness—a problematic term in translations of Buddhist texts, just as it is in Western philosophy. But maybe vinnana didn’t mean the same thing as we mean by consciousness at all; perhaps there was a concept the term indicated, and it wasn’t just an empty placeholder meant to fill in the gap in the capitalist ideology of the subject? When we translate these texts into terms central to our own ideology, we are doing nothing but reproducing our ideology and pretending its problems are the same ones all cultures have wrestled with. Maybe the alternative is to avoid such unquestioned translations into unclear and ideologically loaded terms, and instead to work to figure how thinkers in a radically different culture might have construed the world.
To offer just one example from much closer to our world than the Pali canon or Nagarjuna, consider Spearing’s translation of the fourteenth-century English text on meditation, “The Cloud of Unknowing.” Spearing translates from the original Middle English, and uses the term “consciousness.” But he points out in a note that no such term, or concept, existed in the fourteenth century. As he says, “no single modern term corresponds” to the original term, which was mynde. The concept indicated by this term is not what we mean by mind, nor what we mean by consciousness, but something along the lines of a collection of “faculties of the soul,” including memory. The use of the term consciousness, I would suggest, works to translate the entire contents of this texts into our contemporary ideological language. But what if we just learn to read it in the original, without a translation? Middle English isn’t all that alien, and we can even learn to think in its pre-capitalist concepts in a fairly short time. Perhaps we can, by doing this, learn to think in concepts different from our own, and get some space from our conceptual imprisonment in the Lockean ideology of the subject.
We might try a similar thing with Buddhism. Young devotes a great deal of discussion to the terms consciousness and self, but he just assumes that they are things that exist in the world and the task is to find out what they “really” are. The result is that he winds up in a morass of absurd new-age gibberish. Worse, his followers pretend to follow this nonsense, and are convinced they are having pure and language-free perceptions. And in the end, they become good neoliberal subject, so desperate to resign themselves to the inevitability of our social system that they are as eager as Young is for their enlightenment-lobotomies!
What if, instead, we made it our practice to question such obviously ideological concepts, and to explore concepts in Buddhist texts that don’t have any correspondence in our language? This would not free us from all ideology, but would produce a new ideological position from within which we might be able to question the dominant position. This is not an attempt to get outside of language into pure perception, but an attempt to work completely within language, recognizing that there is nothing human outside of, or prior to, the social. Typically, we try to take Buddhist texts and find some strategy to make them reproduce our preferred capitalist ideology—for instance, Stephen Batchelor’s “hermeneutic strategy” to translate the Pali canon into a replica of that great 20th-century capitalist ideologue, Richard Rorty. This serves to retread an unconvincing ideology by pleasantly coating it with the seductive allure of ancient Eastern profundity. What such acts of translation or interpretation always seem to miss is that they are pretending to be culturally neutral or free of ideology, while resting on completely culture-bound assumptions. These assumptions are so foundational it is difficult to imagine that they are culturally constructed at all. And the same thing happens in the field of analytical philosophy. Searle adopts Locke’s floating signifiers with absolutely no awareness of when or why these vague concepts were invented. He repeatedly insists he wants to set aside the limiting concepts of tradition and “just try to state the facts” objectively. But what he can see as a fact is constructed by the Lockean assumptions he cannot begin to question. In analytically philosophy, the goal is always to steer clear of real-world application, but I would suggest that if Searle’s philosophy of mind were ever put into any kind of practice, that practice would look an awful lot like what Shinzen Young is teaching. If we want to stop blindly reproducing these same empiricist problems, maybe we should stop translating, and start using the troubling impossibility of translation as a wedge to prize open our own ideological prison.
Now, I don’t consider myself an “enlightened” being, and I know that my concept of what it would mean to be enlightened is a particular and unusual one. I don’t want to argue that reductivist x-buddhists have no right to the word “enlightened” and can’t call the pursuit of thought-free pleasant bodily sensation enlightenment if they want. I don’t really even much care what various schools of Buddhism meant by the term in the past–at least, I don’t care to decide on which such definition is the “right” one. (It might be a useful exercise to try to grasp the function of terms for enlightenment in different schools of Buddhism, though).
What I do want to suggest is, regardless of whether the reductivist x-buddhists are correct about what “classical enlightenment” might have been, we should think carefully about whether it is the kind of thing we want today. It might work out fine to be a consuming atomistic self, so long as somebody’s supplying the brownies. But look around folks, we’re running out of brownies.
Personally, I’d prefer to become the kind of subject capable of engaging with the world so as to transform it, able to see that meaning is socially constructed in language and social practices, and that we can collectively transform them. So, how do we do this?
Well, to begin with, it would take someone a lot better than I am at making these kinds of problems clear to more people. If any agency is necessarily collective, real work on changing the world can’t begin until enough people have come to see their way out of the constraints of these Lockean concepts of the world.
Of course, after such a clearing of the ground, we’d need to produce some ideological practice in which to begin to act. Right now, we seem to have only ideological practices in which we adapt resignedly to ever increasing misery. We can only decide between pencils and pens, but never write a different story.
Balibar, Etienne. Identity and Difference: John Locke & the Invention of Consciousness. Verso, 2013.
Feser, Edward. Locke. Oneworld Publications, 2007.
Hanson, Rick and Richard Mendius, M.D. Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom. New Harbinger Publications, 2009.
Harris, Sam. Waking Up: A Guide to Spiritualty Without Religion. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Sandford, Stella. “The Incomplete Locke: Balibar, Locke and the Philosophy of the Subject.” In Identity and Difference by Etienne Balibar. Verso, 2013. pp. xl-xlvi.
Searle, John R. Mind: a brief introduction. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Spearing, A.C. Editor and Translator. The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works. Penguin, 2001.
Williams, Mark and Danny Penman. Mindfulness: And Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Rodale, 2012.
Young, Shinzen. The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works. Sounds True, 2016.