Speculative Non-Buddhism

ruins of the buddhist real

Slogging Through Buddhist Writing

Posted by Glenn Wallis on January 24, 2017

spiritual-bypassingI have a favor to ask readers of this blog. First, let me procrastinate.

When Freud published his Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, casual readers must have been sorely disappointed. The book appeared during “one of the most significant moments in the history of ideas on dreams” (Lusty and Groth, 10). Books on dreams and dream interpretation had been proliferating at an extraordinary rate for decades already. The ideas emanating from these books, moreover, were finding their way into fields ranging from the fine arts to the hard sciences. The period from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twentieth century, in short, witnessed “the unprecedented interest in dream writing and interpretation in the psychological sciences and the migration of these ideas into a wide range of cultural disciplines and practices” (Lusty and Groth, 10). The bulk of these books, often first serialized in popular magazines, however, offered the same kind of simplistic revelatory, predictive pseudo-knowledge and facile moral guidance as today’s popular dream guides. Indeed, as he complained to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, Freud detested having to read through even the much more limited literature on dreams by serious writers such as Aristotle and contemporary scientists: “If one only didn’t have to read, too! The little literature there is already disgusts me so much.” Slogging through dream studies, he griped, was “a horrible punishment” (Gay, 106).

We might wonder, then, why Freud chose such a personally unappealing topic, one that attracted a decidedly undiscerning audience. We might find an answer in his opening salvo, where he immediately obliterates all pretense to easy consolation and even easier solutions to life’s vicissitudes—the very stuff that the average reader would have expected from a book with the title Interpretation of Dreams.

In this volume I have attempted to expound the methods and results of dream-interpretation; and in so doing I do not think I have overstepped the boundary of neuro-pathological science. For the dream proves on psychological investigation to be the first of a series of abnormal psychic formations, a series whose succeeding members—the hysterical phobias, the obsessions, the delusions—must, for practical reasons, claim the attention of the physician.

What forbidding and nasty-sounding words: pathological, abnormal, hysterical, obsession, delusion! And what dark omen of the real this physician portends!

Working on A Critique of Western Buddhism,  I feel an affinity to the Freud of Interpretation of Dreams. I, too, find it unbearable yet necessary to read Western Buddhist writing. (I know that sounds uncharitable. But it is true.) I also see an astonishing parallel. Like Freud with his dream material, I still hold out that there is something there that just may advance productive thought, thought that enables us to progress toward what Marx calls our real and sensuous interests. But I might be dreaming.

This leads me to the purpose of this post, namely to get your recommendations on which authors, living or dead, constitute a representative selection of contemporary Western Buddhism?  More specifically, which authors do you see as the most consequential thinkers on what I am calling x-buddhist first names for the real: impermanence (anicca); no-self (anatman); suffering (dukkha); emptiness (śūnyatā); dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda); wisdom (prajñā); things as they are (yathābhuta); and liberation (nirvāṇa)?

I have my own ideas. But I am curious to hear what others think.

It will be impossible to disable the common Western Buddhist strategy for deflecting criticism, namely, the appeal to exception. The appeal to exception, come to think of it, fits in well at the dawn of the Trump era:”your example is irrelevant because my teacher/text/sangha/mind offers an alternative meaning.”

So, please, suggest away!

____________

Sources

Natalya Lusty and Helen Groth, Dreams and Modernity: A Cultural History  (London: Routledge, 2013).

Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1998).

52 Responses to “Slogging Through Buddhist Writing”

  1. Steve Lee said

    Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory, By Joanna Macy

  2. Dhammarato said

    There is a two step process going on here. The first step is that Buddhism is two not one. There are two Buddhism (not T and M) The original teachings of the Buddha and 2) the religions that grew up around the original as a protective shell.
    the Second step into delusion is that the western mind does not understand that there are two. Being confused, Western writers mix the two with unpredictable results. Its is best to stay away from western authors. Go back to the original, or read a modern Asian Author like Bikkhu Buddhadasa.

  3. Steve (#1). Thanks. I read some of her ecology stuff in the ’90s, but nothing since. I’ll have a look.

    Dhammarato (#2). At first I thought you wrote Buddhaghosa, and was going to say: but my problem is that I am writing on Western Buddhism. Bhikkhu Buddhadasa is Asian, it is true, but he is a Western Buddhist writer. That is, he has thoroughly absorbed the values of his, and his predecessors’, Christian and western colonial interlocutors. So, I assume that even though he represents #2 in your account you would still recommend him, right? Thanks!

  4. Mal said

    The Unexpected Way by Paul Williams

  5. wtpepper said

    I’m surprised, and interested, by the responses so far. In my experience, Macy, Williams and certainly Buddhadasa are names that would be unfamiliar to the kind of American Buddhists I’ve encountered. Hopefully, my experience is, well, not really representative? Connecticut is hardly a hotbed of spiritual exploration, so maybe.

    I would say that a few figures that had a great influence on the direction Buddhism has taken in the west would be Walpole Rahula, Alan Watts, Nyanaponika Thera, and to a lesser but still troubling extent Chogyam Trungpa. This group is largely responsible for making Buddhism seem like a kind of non-threatening and secular version of spirituality, focused on personal contentment and without all those troubling moral injunctions. But the sense I get is that you’re not so much looking to trace the rise of the movement as to address its current form?

    For at least three years now, I have avoided mentioning to anyone I meet in person anything about Buddhism. I found that when someone hears I am a Buddhist, their voice goes up an octave, their head tilts slightly, and they speak to me in words of one syllable, like they are addressing a skittish animal or an Alzheimer’s patient having a bad day.

    So, when someone does mention to me that they are Buddhist, I will often ask them what they mean by that: what they practice or believe, if they belong to some group, etc. In my experience, the majority of those who self-identify as Buddhists report that they are followers either of Deepak Chopra or Elkhart Tolle, or that they have a psychic or astrologist advisor. This is about half of those I encounter who call themselves Buddhist. I assume this is not what you’re looking for, Glenn–that is, misunderstanding new age spiritualism as Buddhist is not what you want to address.

    The next largest group is those who have attended some mindfulness meditation classes at one of the many yoga centers in the New Haven area. They generally have the idea that Taoism and Buddhism and Zen all mean the same thing, don’t know what a sutra would be, but they light incense and experience the present moment once a day for a month or two–usually, the most common thing I hear from these self-identified “Buddhists” is that they haven’t really practiced this in a few months, but are going to get back to it, or that they practice this only when they get angry or upset.

    Beyond that, the most common, almost the only, Buddhist teachers I ever hear mentioned are Thich Nhat Hanh (usually Miracle of Mindfulness or You Are Here), Pema Chodron (When Things Fall Apart), and Jack Kornfield (most often A Path With Heart). Also, among the many therapists and academics I know, Hanson and Mendius Buddha’s Brain is big.

    In my experience, among those I encounter who call themselves Buddhists, this is the extent of their knowledge of Buddhism. Someone like Paul Williams would be rejected as too “intellectual” and not “really Buddhist” because his understanding doesn’t present thought as the cause of all suffering (at least, not in those works of his I’ve read). Bhikkhu Bodhi, who advocates social action, is also “not really Buddhist.” All the Buddhist groups (that is, groups that have regular meetings, not individuals who say they are Buddhist) in the area where I live are devoted to Thich Nhat Hanh style mindfulness, with two exceptions (one a Tibetan group, and another that blends Hanh and Scientology). This is what I think of, then, when I hear “Western Buddhism.” I’m curious to hear if other people from other areas of “the West” have witnessed a greater range of ideas and practices.

  6. Zack Walsh said

    If you still have my unabridged qualifying exam reading list, there are about fifty books on x-buddhism and ethics you could pick from.

  7. I think my question may be deceptively difficult. My reason for saying so is this. Most (all?) of the leading Western Buddhist figures (that includes Asians writing in English as well as mindfulness stuff) display a lack of sophistication while most (all?) of the more sophisticated writers (such as academics) are irrelevant when it comes to the larger world of Western Buddhist discourse.

    As Tom discerns, I don’t want to pick the rotten low-lying fruit–the facile writing that Zizek calls New Age apocalyptic. And neither do I want to evaluate the minute exemplifications of scholars. Doing the former is pointless because the discerning readers I am trying to address will just think, “duh.” Doing the latter is pointless because Western Buddhist practitioners will just think, “who cares.”

    So, a substantive critique of, say, contemporary western writing on ethics, would have to deal with Derek Parfit. A critique of current communist writing, Bruno Bosteels. Someone writing a critique of Western Buddhism would have to include…which figures for that critique to be considered substantive?

  8. Steve Lee said

    Where do David Loy, Stephen Batchelor, and Andrew Olendzki fit in here? Fairly sophisticated, perhaps… Relation to the larger world of Western Buddhist discourse? I see them as faithful subjects that know something is not quite right but just can’t figure how to get out of the box. That’s a quick take, anyway.

  9. Donna Brown said

    I have been doing some work on the “lineage” of one or two modern western Buddhist ideas. I would say from my own work that key figures in the development of modern western Buddhism are Ram Dass (not because he was a Buddhist but because he influenced the early western vipassana teachers); the 4 early vipassana teachers: Kornfield, Goldstein, Salzberg, and Levine, and also then Kabat-Zinn following them; and, as time passed, Charlotte Joko Beck and especially! Thich Nhat Hanh, whose version of Buddhism is quite influential. Thanissaro Bhikkhu has been perhaps a scholarly help to this group as well as sometimes its critic. I think Trungpa RInpoche’s influence on western Buddhism outside of Shambhala is debatable: I don’t see it much, except via Pema Chodron and also perhaps the stress on mindfulness / shamatha. I would say that Tibetan Buddhism teachers have in some ways pushed against these teachers with their own slightly different version of modern Buddhism, presented by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron, among others. That’s what I see anyway, in the particular areas I am exploring.

  10. Steve Lee said

    And Robert Thurman. I’d read that critique for sure! The account of his early 70s dust up with Batchelor is pretty fascinating AND revealing.

  11. Donna Brown said

    Steve, what book is that in?

  12. Steve Lee said

    “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist,” by Stephen Batchelor

  13. Steve Lee said

    Or maybe it was here; I can’t quite remember: :The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit, and What I Learned.” By the self-labelled Naked Monk, I believe.

  14. Donna Brown said

    Thanks!!

  15. Jonathan E. said

    From the Zen world, perhaps Shunryu Suzuki, Maezumi, Seung Sahn?

  16. PS said

    If I understand your question correctly, I’d start by assigning the full run of Glenn Wallis’ various blogs, which I think have been extremely influential despite their self-avowed position outside of the mainstream. 🙂

    Then, I’d suggest Ed Ng’s book “Buddhism and Cultural Studies: A Profession of Faith,” the “Imperfect Buddha” podcast and affiliated “Post-Traditional” website, the “Buddhist Geeks” podcast, and David Chapman’s various online outlets. These are in themselves influential, intelligent, sometimes quite well-read and well-thought out critiques of Buddhism. Unlike Wallis — who at the end of the day may or may not care about a thing called “Buddhism” per se — these others all seemingly have the goal of reforming or improving the tradition in order to ensure its continued success in the modern West.

  17. David Watson said

    The monk whose weekly classes I attended in Los Angeles some years ago, Kusala Bhikshu, took an approach to Buddhism that I think is typical and yet avoids many common pitfalls. His web site is UrbanDharma.org. When I first encountered him he was teaching from a book by Katsuki Sekida called Zen Training. I don’t know if Sekida’s book is well known, but along with the exchanges between Thomas Merton and D.T. Suzuki it came to stand, for me, for the path that Buddhism took in adapting itself to European and especially American culture. Sekida somewhere says, “The blind pushing on of existence, which wanted to recognize itself without being aware of this desire, proved successful when it created human consciousness and thereby obtained its own eye with which to examine itself.” This sort of formulation looks back to the canonical texts of India, China and Japan but decodes them by deploying an algorithm cognizant of Kafka, Freud, and Marx and perhaps even suggests some of the moves advocated by Laruelle and other recent voices. To critique this tradition is, of course, not to debunk it but rather to recognize its value as, precisely, an object of critique. In being subject to debasement it differs not at all from any other tradition of thought, so as Tom points out, avoiding engagement with its most debased aspects is essential. If Watts, Rahula and Nyanaponika were, with varying degrees of rigor, the popularizers, it was people like Sekida, Merton and Suzuki who struggled to identify congruencies between trajectories of interpretation that had developed in, but also often in reaction against, strikingly incongruent intellectual environments.

  18. Donna Brown said

    I think it’s important, if I understand Glenn’s question, to dig out not just teachers who have sold a lot of books or been famous, the actual roots of specific ideas, like Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s Buddhist Romanticism does, to find out who brought what ideas into Buddhism and where those ideas came from. Thurman, for example, is famous, but I’m not sure he had any hand in developing modern western Buddhism: unless its in spreading the idea of Tibet as Shangri-la! Whereas the 4 early vipassana teachers were quite influential in shaping modern Buddhism… So it’s a matter of tracking who influenced who and where particular ideas came from…

  19. wtpepper said

    I’ve been puzzling over #7, and I wonder if this might not point to the problem with the very concept of Western Buddhism. Surely it’s true that those Buddhist writer who are “relevant to the larger world of Western Buddhism” are always the ones who “lack sophisication.” But this seems to be one of the fundamental problems of Western (capitalist) culture: the inability to connect rigorous intellectual thought with daily practice/ideology. I wonder if much of the goal of Western Buddhism is exaclty to perpetuate this gap. When the capitalist ideology of the subject threatens to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, we need to add a little “ancient wisdom front he mystical east” to cloud our thinking?

    When I think of where I “learned about” Buddhism, I think of writers like Garfield, Gethin, Waldron, Lusthuas, Hirota, Arnold, etc.. When I think of who has influenced what the Buddhists and Buddhist practice groups I’ve encountered actaully do, I think of Thich Nhat Hanh, Joseph Goldstein, or Hanson & Mendius.

    I wonder if addressing the gulf between the two groups, the inability to translate rigorous thought in something recognizable by Americans (maybe Europeans?) as “Buddhist”, is what needs to be considered. When Dan Arnold explains, for instance, that Buddhist conceptions of thought are incompatible with neuro-reductionist models, most people would say “but that’s not real Buddhism, real Buddhism teaches us that…” and repeat something they read in Hanson & Mendius about the goal of Buddhism being to maximize personal pleasure or something. Western Buddhism seems often to serve to maintain the Romantic form of capitalist ideology, even against the “intellectual” Buddhist recognition of this very thing as culturally constructed and false about reality.

    Your mention of Parfit raised this question for me–because surely Parfit is someone who we would have to engage in an “academic” study of ethics, but who would have almost no real impact on what most people in everyday practice would think about when (or if?) they make moral decisions today.

  20. Pritpal said

    Are you treating western Buddhism as a special branch/subset of Buddhism , like Zen or Mahayana etc, having a distinctive philosophy or attitude?
    Or is it just writers who are from west?

  21. Danny said

    In my area of southern, rural U.S., finding a group or sangha of practicing Buddhists is going to be rare as hens teeth…that said, the few individuals I have encountered who claim to be on “the path” are enlightened by a curious amalgam of pop-star status Buddhist figures like Hanh and The Dali Lama, and the new-age spiritualists and “Buddhist” wannabees from the happiness industry like, Chopra, Tolle, Hansen, Ram Dass and even Sam Harris.

  22. Donna Brown said

    What you say there really summarizes the challenge,doesn’t it? The Dalai Lama may have pop star status, but he’s legit on Buddhism, even tho he can be classed as a modernizer. But his modernism is Buddhism modernism, not New Age spirituality like some other figures you mention. Thich Nhat Hanh is presenting a different version of Buddhism, very Zen influenced; my own view is that it varies from traditional canons in certain ways, but then Zen does, I guess. (I’m no expert on that!) You can still call it Buddhism, but, yes, its very modernized. But in modern western Buddhism you then get ideas mixed in from these other folks and then those ideas do not have a Buddhist lineage. And what is “Buddhism” in the popular mind becomes, as you say, an amalgam, with people not able to easily find the information about what comes from Buddhism and what comes from other sources…

  23. Thanks for all of the responses. Each one is worthy of a response in itself. But here are some general remarks.

    Pritpal (#20). A “Western Buddhist” writer is anyone who meets certain criteria. It’s too much to get into here. I provide a fairly full analysis and historical genealogy in my book. Just to give you a sense of it, a Western Buddhist writer is anyone whose descriptions of Buddhism are marked by Enlightenment values (eg., reason and rationality, progress, equality, empiricism, and the primacy of science), Romantic values (personal emotions, creative imagination, intuition, nature, the exemplar of the heroic figure), and Protestant values (laicization, individual effort and personal achievement, psychologized internalization, ritual simplification or outright elimination, return to scriptural sources). The historical background has to do with how eastern Buddhists absorbed these values from their colonial interlocutors, and then recapitulated them as essential values of Buddhism. So, D.T. Suzuki and Bhikkhu Buddhadasa are as much Western Buddhists as are Sharon Salzberg and Stephen Batchelor.

    Donna (#9). Your project sounds very interesting. Do I understand it correctly? You want to chart the various lineages of Western Buddhist teachers and the particular ideas and teachings that they have introduced into society. That would be helpful in getting a quick identification on a teaching. I remember seeing something like that on Zen lineages in America. When and where will your study appear?

    A couple of people made comments that I’d like to see developed further. For example, PS (#16) mentions more critically-minded people who “have the goal of reforming or improving the tradition in order to ensure its continued success in the modern West.” I have read and listened to a lot of what you mention in your comment. In fact, in my seminar we just read and discussed Edwin Ng’s piece in the new Handbook of Mindfulnessvolume. We were struck by two features of that piece. First, Ng uses Foucault in a doctrinally and historically responsible manner. He understands Foucault, and applies him to his topic in rigorous and convincing ways. That is something new in Western Buddhist writing. Scholars like Jay Garfield aside, whenever some Western Buddhist author mentions, say Heidegger, it is invariably in a shallow, self-serving way. Stephen Batchelor is the master of this form. Going back to what I said to Pritpal, there is a long history of Buddhists’ invoking western thinkers and scientists to verify their Buddhist views. And it is invariably done in an unconvincing, self-serving manner. With someone like Ng, we can hope to have turned a corner. Second, Ng’s piece loses its force when it turns from a “critique of mindfulness” to a mindfulness re-configured as a “mindfulness of critique.” In short, what Ng proposes–eg., a clear-eyed assessment of our social situation–seems to leave no room whatsoever for “mindfulness,” understood as practice of making us clear-eyed. The critical assessment does that work. So, the project that I would like to see developed would assess the proposed form of practice and thought in the emerging critical work that you mention (and beyond). So far, it seems that Buddhism, meditation, mindfulness and so on just may be dispensable. So far.

    Tom (#19). You mention what could be two interesting research projects. The first one concerns “the inability to connect rigorous intellectual thought with daily practice/ideology.” (And by “interesting” I mean that which can disrupt the complacent status of some x.) Why does Western Buddhist discourse continually unfold at such a low level of intelligence and sophistication? Many intelligent people are attracted to Buddhism. But then what happens? Maybe Donna’s lineage research will throw some light on the dispersion or self-grouping that comes after the initial attraction. Maybe the more creative and independent thinkers, the ones who could introduce fresh and relevant (i.e., materialist) thinking into Western Buddhism, either go into academia (where their independence and creativity is eventually captured and crushed) or say fuck it, Buddhist experiment over, I’ll read Marx instead. Who is the good subject of contemporary Western Buddhism? The second project involves a certain real of the situation that you mention: “I wonder if addressing the gulf between the two groups, the inability to translate rigorous thought in something recognizable by Americans (maybe Europeans?) as ‘Buddhist’, is what needs to be considered.” In Structural Anthropology, Levi-Strauss mentions the gulf between the Winnebago Indians. Concerning their position in the village, there are “those from above” and “those from below.” Where one is situated in the village determines his or her perceptions regarding crucial aspects of Winnebago life, beginning with the arrangement of houses in the village. It’s too much to detail here. The point is that this gulf, this split, this gap, is precisely constitutive of the antagonism that ails the community. The Winnebago’s are, however, incapable of giving voice in their symbolic system to the “trauma” operating as this gulf. The gulf then is an invisible yet profoundly productive force, hence, a real. I wonder if you might want to give more thought to the gulf you mention?

    A general comment is that the strategy of critiquing Western via its particular instances is probably doomed to failure. Every committed WB reader will find an easy out. That fact is itself a clue to a more productive strategy.

  24. Donna Brown said

    Good question! Still wrapping up the study, not really near publishing… we could talk off line if you like.

  25. wtpepper said

    Doomed to failure seems a bit too pessimistic. Surely, it won’t be of use to the “true believer,” anymore than The Amazing Randi debunking psychics could persuade the believers in psychic phenomena. Those who believe will both reject the debunking as lies, and at the same time insist that while the debunking is in fact true it applies only to that one case–all other psychics are “real.” Still, it is worth doing, and functions, for those who are not “true believers,” to explain how such trick are performed, and even why they are so psychologically appealing.

    If you criitique Western Buddhism using specific examples, it offers the opportunity to explore how and why we are producing the ideologies we are, what makes them convincing, what funciton they serve. Because ultimately, Buddhism always is an ideology–a set of values and beliefs produced and enacted in concrete practices. Romantic/Enlightenment/Protestant values are, after all, values, existing in social practices, to reproduce certain socal formations. Those who want to keep reproducing them will fail to comprehend the critique, those who want to produce different kinds of social formations (and so different kinds of human experience and existence) will understand and benefit from the critique. You aren’t doomed to failure because you can’t convert the high priests.

    Yes, the gulf as the essential structure is how thought works ever since the Enlightenment, which is to say in all capitalist ideologies so far. The absract theorizing must be removed from any practical application in order to be permitted, and applications must remain untheorized to avoid the danger of putting them to use for human ends instead of keeping them in service to capital. The seventies Zen cliches that when you think you cannot act and when you act you cannot think are very Western and exactly as old as capitalism. Philosophers can only interpret the world, not change it; true change must come from pure intuitive action, you know the routine…

  26. David Watson said

    There are, I think, those who believe Thomas Merton was killed in Bangkok in 1968 because someone in power in Catholicism or capitalism saw him as a threat. That seems unlikely, nor am I confident that either Merton or D.T. Suzuki ranks among “the most consequential thinkers on… x-buddhist first names for the real….” I would, however, hope that a critique of Western Buddhism would be mounted from an historical perspective, seeking to identify what it was in this amalgam of Eastern and Western thought that capitalism at one point — before and after, but certainly in, 1968 — saw as a threat to its ideological hegemony. The mechanisms by which the perceived threat was disarmed are familiar enough. An idea with revolutionary potential arises, and its enthusiasts are diverted through the development of politically benign business opportunities. It would be of interest, however, to discern which particular features of this improbable admixture provoked the defensive response. Capitalism’s invisible hand is nowhere more evident than in what it finds it necessary to suppress, and the fact it makes these choices by means of an automatic reaction, without the bother of deliberation and votes, effectively guarantees the rationality of its selections. Capitalism suppressed, or rather perhaps diverted, Buddhism as it was adapted into Western culture exactly because, as you put it, there was “something there.” The process of diversion and disarmament had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each phase has something to teach us, but I wish to suggest that the period in which the pressures of the invasion of alien matter and the capitalist body’s defensive response were most intense is likely to be the most illuminating. The voices of that period — my sense that 1968 serves as a marker doubtless shows my age and perhaps other biases as well — were subject the most extreme contradictory pressures and sought accommodation most desperately, and it is such transitional moments that most reward historically oriented critical scrutiny.

  27. wtpepper said

    David,
    Your suggestion is really interesting. I don’t know if Glenn’s project is focused on this kind of historical question, or on the current ideological function of Western Buddhism. It seems to me that both are important questions as both projects would help break through current ideological blindspots. Maybe if Glenn isn’t doing this historical inquiry, you could do it? What indicates that “capitalism” saw this “amalgam of Eastern and Western thought” as a threat? I mean, I would guess this was the case, but where are the indications of this? Just making this more explicit might help people see why Buddhism came to be understood the way it is today (and why most x-buddhists furiously insist that almost every Buddhist thinker or Buddhist practice prior to the 1960s is not “real Buddhism”).

  28. David, (#26). I agree with Tom on three counts here. (1) Your suggestion is indeed interesting. You say it would be valuable “to discern which particular features of this improbable admixture provoked the defensive response.” According to Morton’s piece in the book Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism it was the very idea of “emptiness” that provoked a “buddhaphobic” response in bourgeois American society, a response that came to define Buddhism in the U.S as the facile self-help form of thought that it is. I see the opposite. It was the buddhaphilic hippie movement, coupled with quasi-maverick traditionalists like Trungpa and Shunryu Suzuki that really injected Buddhism into the 1960s cultural bloodstream. So, unless one invokes some invisible hand conspiracy theory, I would see American Buddhism as being manufactured in the same hothouse that nurtured so many hippie productions, one permeated by the hippie ethos–a soft, one-with-nature escapism; utopian communal life, the desire for mind-altering experiences, and so on. (2) I could be completely wrong about this historical trajectory because, as Tom says, I am not focused on the historical features of contemporary Western Buddhism. The reason I use the term x-buddhism is precisely to eliminate the historical, particularly regarding doctrinal details, and tease out the ideological. (3) But that doesn’t mean the historical project isn’t interesting. Why not explore it further yourself?

  29. Donna Brown said

    I agree with Glenn’s rough summary of the entry of Buddhism into hippie culture in the 1960s and 1970s, but it’s hard for me to see how it created a perceived threat for capitalism beyond the already-existing threat that hippies generally posed to the social order, the Viet Nam war, etc. I think Buddhism and Ram Dass style Buddhism/HInduism was pretty ideologically marginal during that period even at its strongest, and it’s hard to see capitalism “feeling” threatened by it as a force separate from the rest of “hippiedom”. And my own read is that Buddhism simply didn’t affect the wider culture until MBSR got launched. And from that point on, Buddhism was no threat at all; it was about adjustment, not revolution 🙂 . I would guess (from my own research) that Buddhism remained marginal culturally (ie a subculture of little impact) until MBSR.

  30. wtpepper said

    RE 28: Of course, those “hippie productions” were never a threat to capitalism at all–they were exactly the solution to the crisis American capitalism was facing at the time. The failure to produce any adequate ideology during the long cold-war boom, the falling rate of profit, the dangers of the explosion of higher education, etc. Many of these threats were contained by offering the “counterculture” as the only alternative to corporate conformity. Drug addled hedonism as the only way to opt out of wearing the gray flannel suit. It would seem that all that “ancient Eastern wisdom” stuff was part of that phenomenon. But still, there was some real danger that had to be contained. And of course nothing threatening has ever been allowed to impact the wider culture–anything that moves from the margin to the mainstream in American culture is always only producing capitalist ideology–as Donna’s example of MBSR illustrates. It’s only when it fails to impact mainstream culture that there’s even a chance it might be more radical/dangerous–but even there we can’t jump to conclusions. Being “edgy” and “marginal” is, after all, a how the avant-garde produces right-wing ideology as well.

  31. Donna Brown said

    One thing I might add is that by the mid 1970s, the counterculture had shifted away from a focus on social justice/peace etc toward “inner transformation”… this isn’t my observation but one documented by others. And that shift to inner transformation really reduced the societal impact of the counterculture. And that Buddhism was very “inner” helped Buddhism thrive in this atmosphere, and Buddhism gave at least some of the “inner transformation” people a path…

  32. Danny said

    Donna, (#31) Good points. That’s interesting what you say about the counterculture shift toward “inner transformation” in the mid 70’s…I was thinking that period was the height of the hugely popular TM (Transcendental Meditation) movement.

  33. Donna Brown said

    That makes sense too. And Ram Dass who was huge then. Interestingly, the countercultural RIGHT also turned to inner transformation at the same time… by which I mean evangelical Christianity. All part of what Charles Taylor called “the subjective turn”.

  34. David Watson said

    While the features Western Buddhism shares with the hippie movement speak to some degree of core commonality, the difference is that Western Buddhism necessarily drew on – or at least pointed in the direction of – a rigorous established intellectual tradition. Both the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the development of intellectual socialism and revolutionary political advocacy as challenges to capitalism were marked by contention over the place of religion both in the hegemonic ideology and in the discourses which the conflict between classes produced. The bourgeoisie’s conquest of Christianity was bitterly polemicized, and while these polemics were at some level displaced discourses in which religious terminology must be understood as metonymic of class interest, much of the available intellectual framework was deeply imbued with the tradition of Christian religious disputation and that tradition’s standards of truth-finding frequently informed debates. The bourgeoisie developed and employed Christianity to seize Christianity from the landlords repurpose it, no mean feat since the Christian god is nothing if not king. The construction of an intellectual framework aimed at challenging capitalism took place in a much changed environment, but it too is deeply reflective of its Christian context. So, too, is Western Buddhism, of course. But the truth-finding standards of the Buddhist intellectual tradition differ importantly from the Christian tradition. Consequently the tools capitalism used to repurpose Christianity – rusty in any case – did not always work as intended. This presented a challenge to capitalism, of some indeterminate magnitude, with which capitalism coped. The notion that this particular challenge might have been significantly present in 1968 is a personal bias. But if it was, that would be interesting because a number of significant challenges to capitalism cohered around 1968 probably making that the period of the most serious challenge to capitalism mounted since WWII (a sad thing to say). The contribution of Westernized Buddhism, if it made one, to that challenge deserves attention. But also, if the potential for revolutionary change existed in or around 1968, analysis of how capitalism suppressed that potential will be important in responding to the next capitalist crisis. I suggest it is rational to assume that Westernized Buddhism did significantly contribute to the challenge of the late 1960s, because that is the assumption upon which experience with and expertise about Westernized Buddhism can be usefully employed in the present situation, so people who have such experience and expertise should assume its relevance and contribute accordingly. I think I grasp to some extent why Glenn’s methodology is anti-historic. But I think it could be informed by historicity, that is, it could consider the significance of a period in which the contribution of Westernized Buddhism to social change, if it ever made one, might well have occurred.

  35. wtpepper said

    David,
    I think you’re correct that figuring out how potentials for real change are contained by capitalism is an enormously important thing to do. It isn’t the only thing worth doing (it’s also important to anaylze the current ideological and economic situation, for instance) but it is crucial if we want to avoid having future attempts at change contained and commodified. How did Che wind up a picture on middle-class prep-school kids’ T-shirts?

    Personally, though, I don’t know of any way in which Buddhism ever was part of the threat facing American capitalism in the 60s and 70s. I do see how it was used to contain the threat, though, so it must have been around, in some sense, before then. Sure, idealizing Buddhism became popular as a tool of anti-communist propaganda after the events of 1959, and even more with the advent of the Vietnam war. But there must have been something of Buddhism around before that…I just don’t really know about it beyond the fairly tame academic study of Buddhism that was part of British imperialism for so long. My point is, if you do, if you have some ideas on this, then why not write something about it? I for one would love to hear more about it. Expand on it beyond the constraints of comments on a discussion board!

  36. Zach said

    There’s something to be said for writing on Buddhism today that uses it to deal with other issues, or focuses on other issues and brings in Buddhist thought as a specific contemplative mode. A lot of contemporary Buddhist writing seems dry, seems like repetitive survey or pedantic philosophical concept-dropping, and I think that’s the insufferability you refer to. Branching to texts that deal with other situations is my answer.

    Nothing: Three Inquiries on Buddhism, already reviewed on this site, has a lot to say about the interplay between Freudian and Buddhist thought, as well as how it relates to the capitalist/communist divide.

    The other work of one of the writers in there, Timothy Morton, has been incredibly useful. His field, Object Oriented Ontology, lines up with Buddhist thinking in pretty novel ways. His books Hyperobjects and Realist Magic spring up first in this regard, as does the work of his colleague Graham Harman.

  37. Artashata said

    While I think that academic discussions of Buddhism and other “dharmic religions” were important in bringing it to the US and Europe, I haven’t seen any discussion of fiction. What about Hesse’s Siddhartha? While I know that the novel is not about Buddhism per se, it draws heavily from it. And the title, c’mon. And it was translated into English in the early 50s and widely read by counterculturalistas of all stripes. There was a movie made in I think the early 70s. Hesse’s romantic mystical vision of the world and the search for truth, of course present in his books, is part and parcel of capitalism. The book I’m sure awakened some interest in the study of Buddhism.
    Because of the historical turn of this post, I consulted my copy of Christmas Humphreys book “Buddhism” originally published in 1951. For those who are interested, it was more or less continuously in print via Penguin’s imprint Pelican from its initial publication to 1976 when my copy was printed. The bibliography lists many texts in English, some more or less scholarly, others fanciful and religious like Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia. Perhaps writers associated with the Perennialist school and Theosophy would be another fruitful avenue.

  38. Donna Brown said

    Good points. I don’t there’s any question that theosophy and the perennial philosophy fed into modern Buddhism, partly via Aldous Huxley who was an influence on Ram Dass and others. Thanissaro Bhikkhu is good on this whole kind of question in his book Buddhist Romanticism. My own guess of how fiction like Hesse’s had an influence is in both romanticizing Eastern religions and also helping spread the idea of “subjectivity” – the idea that we each have our own inner truth we can (and must) find (ref Charles Taylor), and that Eastern religions can be a the path to that… this idea (the subjective turn) is modern and western. It is not found in canonical Buddhism but it certainly is in modern “romanticized” Buddhism. I think there were quite a few books, fiction or fictionalized, that probably opened people to Buddhism and Tibet, like Alexandra David-Neel and “Lobsang Rampa” and even Sherlock Holmes, and some were influenced by theosophy and the occult… I don’t know of any specific studies of the role of such books but it would be fascinating to look at it.

  39. binocular said

    Glenn (#23) — “Why does Western Buddhist discourse continually unfold at such a low level of intelligence and sophistication?”
    From my experience, I gather that this could be for at least three reasons:
    1. Because Westerners generally have a low regard for humans. I have been told by Western Buddhists, verbatim, that they don’t care about me and my practice and my concerns with Buddhism. (So much for all that metta.)
    2. Because Westerners come to Buddhism as a matter of their own choice, they aren’t born and raised into it,so there’s an air of tentativeness to their practice and a sense that humans are expendable (consider the low retention rates — people come and go, few stay for a long time). I think there is very little social trust among Western Buddhist practitioners, so there can’t be much heart-to-heart communication, nor much intellectual effort put into it.
    3. Because there is no authoritative Buddhist institution in the West. In traditionally Buddhist countries, it’s the abbott of the local Buddhist monastery who functions, for all intents and purposes, as the authority in all matters Buddhism. In the West, there’s no such thing. In a modern Western city, one has, within a walking distance, several Buddhist groups from different Buddhist traditions. Which one should one join, which one is the right one? Who knows.

  40. David Watson said

    Thanks, Tom and Glenn, for your guidance. I am as ever chastened in my ambition but also thrilled with hope for new ways of understanding all this. I took Glenn’s #28 in particular as a suggestion that Nothing might be worth reading, and on first experience (two-thirds of the introduction which Amazon generously provided in advance of the arrival of hard copy) I have to comment that it is at least directly on point and seems like it must be almost an essential acquisition for anyone who feels an intellectual commitment to the SNB project and what it has tried to accomplish. It seems to promise a comprehensive consideration of work to date, though I am sure I am expecting too much.(Architecture as a metaphor for revolution? Spare me!)

  41. I don’t think anyone has mentioned the very prolific Urgyen Sangharakshita, founder of the, originally British, FWBO.

  42. wtpepper said

    Cesar: This has always interested me. I’ve heard of Sangharakshita since the eighties, and even have a couple of his books. He seems to have been popular at one point, but I almost never hear anyone even mention him at all. Some who do know of him say it is because of his having sex with his “students,” but that doesn’t seem to be an impediment to having a following for many other x-buddhist celebrities we could name. He also does seem to be mostly conflating Buddhist and Romanticism, but that, also, is pretty standard in Western Buddhism.

    Any ideas why he is so assiduously ignored? American Buddhists are quite violently homophobic (I can’t count the times I’ve been called gay as an insult by angry Buddhists). Might that have something to do with it? Is he just too intellectual and difficult? In America, at least, he seems to have almost no influence at all. Does he in the UK?

  43. Donna Brown said

    I don’t think in America it’s because he’s gay. Most American sanghas are OK with homosexuality. I think it’s just that he has very few followers in America. Does his group have even one center in the US? So he is kind of below the radar in the US. This is also impacted by the fact that he does not represent one known lineage. He had teachers in various lineages but he himself does not have a lineage that he passes on except his own. So he is not “owned” as “one of us” by any group… So because of that, no one was inviting him to the US to teach, for example…He really comes from another generation, the time before the Tibetans came to India/Nepal/the West, the time before modernist Buddhism got launched in the early 1970s… There have been so many other sources of Buddhism that, outside the UK, he seems to have fallen by the wayside.

  44. Hi Donna and Wtpepper, the Triratna Buddhist Community (formerly FWBO) has at least six centres in the US, including Boston, San Francisco and Seattle. So, I assume you guys are based there and better positioned to judge how the movement’s dimensions compare to other American groups. What I can say is that in Britain they very often are the only Buddhist port of call in many cities, excluding London and two or three of the other major cities.

    It’s true that Sangharakshita’s style can be a bit dry and somehow old fashioned, he was born in the 20s, but nevertheless struck a chord with English baby boomers in the ‘Swinging Sixties’. They had three decades of very rapid expansion in terms of number of centres, international reach (including India), membership numbers, etc., which I think has now reached a point of stability, some may say slight stagnation.

  45. David Watson said

    I am not sure Glenn’s use of Morton’s essay in #28 was fair. At any rate, upon reading the essay I did not find Morton defending the position Glenn countered (that the ”response in bourgeois American society” to the encounter with Buddhism in the 1960s and 1970s was “buddhaphobic”), a position which I thought from Glenn’s comment I might find congenial.

    I struggled to decide whether Morton was, in Tom’s terms, defending emptiness or nothingness as a kind of atman. He was clearly aware of the risks of doing so, but in the end it seemed to me he succumbed to the temptation. He also seemed clearly aware of his obligation to chart a political path forward, but he avoided acknowledging that specifically and thus also avoided any clear suggestion that his approach might be promising with regard to that obligation. In the end, the essay seemed to me a thought-provoking and somewhat spectacular failure. Though it left me still interested in the potential of object oriented ontology, and perhaps that counts as success.

    In terms of relevance to the SNB project, his direct commentary seemed to me not to go beyond his general point that Western “theory” could use a stiff dose of Buddhism. It is true SNB has been skeptical about that, challenging Buddhism establish its relevance in terms of the context of Western thought. If theory simply means critique, which is sort of what I thought, Morton failed to establish that Buddhism is promising as an object of critique, because he did not critique Buddhism. His argument appeared to be that Buddhism was useful as a tool in the critique of Western thought. His exemplification of that was provocative and at points spectacular. Perhaps I failed to appreciate its cogency because I was looking for a critique of Buddhism.

    A peculiar, to me, move that Morton makes on page 229 of his essay intrigued me. In his effort to describe or delineate the nothingness that either is or is not an atman, Morton cites the Buddha’s tentative conclusion after his enlightenment that teaching would be fruitless. The dharma (in the following paragraph it becomes the “shimmering agency” that “underlies substantiality”) “could not be known by another.” The quoted sutra section concludes: “Certainly, I must remain silent in the forest.”

    The Buddha, though of course doctrinally his insight at that point was perfect, did not remain silent in the forest (thus my use of the term “tentative”). So the movement from the quoted passage to what narratively follows is exactly where one would expect to find how Buddhism encompasses an imperative for action and social change. This is an issue I have found productively explored in the SNB project. Morton raises the issue but neglects to pursue it.

    The Buddha went out into the world and taught a doctrine of anatta, one implication of which is that the ideologies that perpetuate our enslavement by capital are contingent. That is a relevant weapon today, and while it is available elsewhere than in Buddhism in terms of religious discourse Buddhism provides it in an exemplary manner (better, perhaps, than other religious traditions, though I think a discourse of ideological contingency can be supported within Christianity and probably within any major religious tradition). The thought that was suggested to me by Morton’s use of scripture was that perhaps this was exactly the realization (since even a Buddha who is perfectly enlightened must still be capable of thought, and thus of realization) by means of which the Buddha concluded that while the enlightenment he had reached was “perfectly pure,” “luminous,” and “uncompounded,” it was still an atman, a perfect unchanging entity to be passively contemplated (enjoyed? consumed?), and his abandonment of this notion of an atman is what propelled him out to teach. (This seems to me consistent with points Tom has long been making – atman yields passivity, anatta yields agency – but I will be not at all surprised if he tells me I am full of shit).

  46. David (#45). Thanks for your comment. I’ll try to get back to it when I get more time tomorrow, but a real quick question. Morton’s big thread running throughout his essay is “buddhaphobia.” It’s even the title. From the intro, for instance: “Morton’s essay is an exploration of a phenomenon he calls Buddhaphobia, a “fear of Buddhism that he equates with anxieties generated within modernity as such. These anxieties pertain to nothingness“, etc. The rest of what I say can, I believe, be fairly deduced from his essay. So, what are we disagreeing about exactly?

  47. David Watson said

    Thanks Glenn (#46). Perhaps my fault, not yours, if I formulated erroneous expectations about the Morton essay based on your #28. You were responding to my #26, in which I raised the context of a specific period, and you referenced that cultural moment as well. Morton showed no interest in that moment, nor as far as I could see much interest in the political valence of Buddhism generally, Eastern or Western. (Boon and Cazdyn seemed far more attuned to that issue.) Your suggestion about how Morton might address the growing cultural popularity of Buddhism in the US and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s could well be correct, but it isn’t something he discusses (leading me to begin with “I am not sure”). So I am not sure (pardon the redundancy) we are disagreeing about anything.

    Morton’s main Buddhaphobe seems to be Hegel, which is consistent with his project of addressing “anxieties generated within modernity as such.” If I understood his argument better (and he did have some provocative things to say about these anxieties), perhaps I would see more clearly how they might have conditioned the response to Buddhism “in bourgeois American society” in a period of particularly acute crisis for postwar capitalism.

    One of the things I think I have learned from having followed, or sporadically tried to follow, the SNB project has been the importance of being alert to writers on Buddhism who address anatta and sunyata in ways that amount to smuggling an atman in through a back door. I thought Morton’s focus on a particular moment in the Buddha narrative (though I understand its relevance in a discussion of “fear of passivity”) was suggestive of this approach, and that this might have implications for whether Buddhism as he construed it would have a potential for helping people understand the contingent nature of the currently hegemonic ideologies.

  48. Josh Lamson said

    Really, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind set the template, Cutting Through followed, and really defined a specific genre. I actually still enjoy that book, but you’ve got the transcribed talk genre that everyone who says boo in front of a crowd gets to publish eventually. Very little context, no attempt to explain unclear assertions- incomprehensibility gets the b of the d as profundity. No indication that the audience might have something better to do.

    The real legacy though is the title, and ‘no gaining idea’ idea that I think is more sacred than any other idea in Western Buddhism on the popular level: whatever you do, don’t actually do anything, say anything, think anything, feel anything (off script), any effort is ego.

    And then the rags. Tricycle under Tworkov was actually pretty creative and curious; but the sheer volume of mediocrity to come out of the big three is staggering. I think you’d get your canon of Western Buddhism just by flipping randomly through a stack of old Shambhala Suns. All the words are kind of free-floating, divorced, totally derivative, and you can see the attempts to smuggle in nourishment from outside the fold: systems theory/ NVC, whatever, that then becomes canon because everyone is repeating everyone else. I’ve read a lot of this shit.

    Tassajara bread book, and Greens Restaurant. California cuisine, probably the biggest reach for WB before mbsr.

    And if it were possible to do a genealogy of the photo of stacked river cobbles trope… that would be kind of interesting, at least to me.

    The cuisine angle is important, and the ‘zen alarm clock’ and all that, because most of WB is a fairly well defined set of aesthetic tropes that translate to commercial options- signifiers obtained, whatever I do is ‘the practice.’

  49. Mal said

    I find Paul Williams interesting because in the Unexpected Way he describes his falling out of Buddhism into Roman Catholicism, and the book is a critique of his former Buddhist views from his new found faith as a Roman Catholic. Of course, he has also written the standard post-graduate text on Mahayana Buddhism, quoted by many leading figures as such, including the Dalai Lama. It’s as if Darwin’s bulldog, T.H. Huxley has suddenly said “nope I don’t believe in evolution any more, I’ll become a roman catholic instead.” (it’s common for Brits lapsing from various ideologies to go back to the Pope…) Of course Huxley didn’t lapse ’cause he had something substantial to believe in, backed by a lot of evidence. In Williams case he was lapsing from unsubstantiated faith to another.

  50. Donna Brown said

    Yes, its an odd book in some ways. He suggests he was never a real Buddhist because of some problem with his refuge ceremony, which is interesting. (Parallel to Sangharakshita suggesting he was never really ordained because one of the monks at his ordination had not kept his vows purely). And actually, despite his excellent history text, many of his comments in Unexpected Way show misunderstandings about buddhism. So in a sense, yes: he never was a buddhist. But by that standard many western buddhists are not really buddhists – they neither get what Buddhism really is – its complicated! – nor, deep down, have they let go of certain Judeo-Christian beliefs, which permeate our culture and are taken for granted, living below the level of consciousness and remaining unquestioned… I am surprised actually that more western buddhists don’t return to their “own” religions, Christian or Jewish, because western Buddhism is so mixed with secular, post-modern assumptions, and Asian Buddhism is largely inaccessible… Perhaps they do and I just haven’t heard about it 🙂 There is also the book Growing in Love and Wisdom by Susan Stabile, about returning to Catholicism after being a Tibetan Buddhist nun…

  51. Thanks for the suggestion, Mal (#49). I know Williams’s Buddhist studies scholarship, of course. I didn’t know about his turn to Catholicism. Paul Griffiths is a similar case. I don’t think he ever identified as Buddhist. But he was a superb Buddhist studies scholar. He worked in the rigorous tradition of the old British and German philologists, which is my own training background. I was surprised when he become the Warren Professor of Catholic Theology at Duke, and stopped his Buddhist studies scholarship altogether.

  52. Patrick jennings said

    I am banned for life it seems from commenting on Toms posts (all to the good probably , there’s no room for two ass-holes here anyway) so I will comment here.

    Re Shaun’s post and what engagement would mean: Can’t do better then quote the man himself:

    “My own liberation sangha is the neighbourhood I live in, the north end of Halifax around Gottingen Street. It’s one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the city. On my way to a morning cup of coffee, I encounter people of every colour, ethnicity, ability, sexuality and gender expression, most of whom are service workers and artists. And I’m nothing special, I’m just “one of the crowd.” It’s an equal exchange: what I have to share with them is on the same level as what they have to share with me. We work together on neighbourhood and urban issues. We work on issues of poverty, racial justice and urban sustainability. We create cultures together at local cafés, bars, theatres and galleries. We shape and colour these streets and spaces with a collective vision for a just, sustainable and creative urban life. This is the natural, tantric community that I practice in”.

    For me this is right where it’s at, because it puts the “sangha” right where you happen to be. The oppressed are already resisting, whether theyare non-believers, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, heterosexual, trans-gender or gay ….whatever… the point is there are already many fighting organizations, forms of struggle etc and many struggles already in full swing. As these evolve they will naturally coalesce into a fighting organization, maybe sooner than you think. When I use the word natural I mean to include the aware contribution of those who advocate particular forms of organization, including the leaderless, networked and anti-hierarchical one I prefer. Either way, have we got a choice? Its struggle or go under, again, sooner that you might think, if the asshole in the “whitehouse” and the asshole in Seoul’s “central luxury residence” have anything to say on the matter.

    As for engaging, in my experience you can just begin where you are, with the resources you have and in the situation you are in. As I suggested once to an old goat I had the pleasure of knowing, if that means talking to your mail-man go right ahead. It’s as good a place to start as any! If you can’t muster the energy to do that, read a book on philosophy, or one chapter, or one paragraph and, the most important bit, talk to someone about it… even your partner! Who knows where it might lead?

    I agree with Mal on one level… some sort of mindfulness seems essential, especially in politics. I am old enough to have been on the wrong end of “democratic centralism” of the Leninist sort and the vicious polemic it encouraged. The Irish version had an even nastier twist, although I personally never raised more than my voice (a matter of luck rather than saintliness now that I look back on it). Anyway, although I think an aware cultivation of mindfulness and compassion is essential for anyone wanting to get involved with revolutionary politics, I no longer think it need have anything to do with Buddhism. The words “sitting, cushions, sanghas, enlightenment and wisdom” now make me want to reach for a gun and forget about both mindfulness and compassion. I guess Glenn’s NSNB did its work mighty well.

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