Traditionalism and Totalitarianism: B. Alan Wallace, for instance

Below is a reposting of Tom Pepper‘s essay “Atman, Aporia, and Atomism: A Review of B. Alan Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic.” But first, an explanation.

Last night I was reading Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic for a section of my book, Critique of Western Buddhism (see my previous post, “Slogging Through Buddhist Writing.”)

Then, this morning I read an article in the New York Times on how Trump’s “ideological guru,” Steve Bannon, has an affinity for the ideas of the Italian figure Julius Evola (1898-1974). Evola was a proponent of what is known as Traditionalism.  (Links at bottom.) Very briefly, Traditionalism is closely aligned with Perennial Philosophy’s belief that  all humanity shares a transcendental unity via the “brightly shining… unconditioned… pristine awareness” (115) that is our “primordial consciousness,” which “transcends all conceptual frameworks” (24). So, given that this glorious “ground of becoming” (102) is our birthright, why isn’t humanity basking in “an eternal, timeless bliss, or nirvana” (47)? Goddamn modernism and materialism, that’s why. The Traditionalist’s task thus becomes one of “breaking the ideological chains of materialism that shackle the minds of scientists and the modern world at large” (239). It is not difficult to see why Traditionalism had a love affair with the far right wing parties of Europe, old, neo(-Nazi), and Nouvelle(-Droite).

Anyway, as I was reading the piece on Evola, my thoughts kept turning to Pepper’s piece on B. Alan Wallace.

Maybe it had something to do with passages about how Evola, in his book The Revolt Against the Modern World, “cast materialism as an eroding influence on ancient values,” as the Times article says. Maybe it had to do with Evola, Bannon, and Wallace’s shared, seemingly insatiable yearning for the reestablishment of a transcendent moral order that would, among other cataclysmic ends, “restore meaning to the universe” (72). Maybe it has to do with the fact that every single one of these quotes (with page numbers) is a quote not from a right-wing Traditionalist, but from Wallace’s book. Yes, Wallace’s views seem to graft a bit too seamlessly onto totalitarian Traditionalist thought.

Before allowing myself such a drastic conclusion, I did some research. I visited Mark Sedgwick’s blog. He’s quoted in the Times piece, and rightly so; he seems to be the leading scholarly authority on Traditionalism. Much to my pleasure, Sedgwick refers to Richard K. Payne’s article, “Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism.” So, I read that article. It is a tour de force. Every practicing Buddhist should read it. Payne’s article was no doubt timely and relevant when it was published in 2008. But it is even more so today. The article is rich in lines of thought and conclusions to be drawn for the identity of Western Buddhism and of Western Buddhist subjectivity. The one that I want to mention here is this: much of contemporary Western Buddhism (as well as its Religious Studies and Buddhist Studies scholarship) is deeply implicated in the anti-rationalist “experience fundamentalism” that it shares with the Romantic strains of Traditionalism. Given that such “experience,” as a Buddhist-Traditionalist rhetorical trope, is invariably presented as “inherently veridical, and to be epistemologically privileged” (Payne, 180, 182), the path to a kind of totalitarianism of thought, to a hierarchical institutionalized authoritarianism, is cleared.

Wallace looms yet again. This time as a Buddhist St. Paul, an uncompromising evangelist, declaring the good news of the all-seeing Buddha’s epoch-making “contemplative revolution” (147).

Given the advent of Trump, Le Pen, Brexit, the AfD (Alternative for Germany), and so on, the term “fascism” is no longer a mere pejorative: it has reverted back to its role as a legitimate cultural-political descriptor. My point here is not, of course, that Wallace is fascist in the way that a violent brown-shirted thug is. I don’t know Wallace or his politics personally. My point is that his text (via his “Buddhism,” Dzogchen,” and this and that mostly Tibetan teacher) belies a totalitarian Traditionalism that has resonances in contemporary in fascist thought. I am suggesting that we may find in Wallace the same kind of unconscious (?) collusion with a cultural-political-spiritual ideology that we find with, say, Jon Kabat-Zinn in relation to capitalist neoliberalism.

At the very least, Wallace’s Buddhism may be akin to something called Christofascism, which is to say, it is comprised of a veneer of spiritualized, cosmic meaning-making lain over a functionally totalitarian and apocalyptic traditionalist ideology. Spiritualized apocalyptic thought, whether of the New Age or Traditionalist variety, involves beliefs about the end times of the old world and the coming of a new world. This new world is augured not by collective social action but by some sort of “contemplative revolution,” by, in Wallace’s terms, “liberating people from a state of unknowing (agnostics) to becoming knowers (gnostics) of ultimate reality” (147).

Anyway, here’s Tom Pepper’s essay. He uses different language from what I just did. His argument is cool and reasoned. Still, a careful reader will not fail to notice that regarding totalitarian Traditionalism, it’s all in there.

The age of Western Buddhist innocence has passed. What comes next?

[NOTE: Pepper’s essay first appeared under the post title “Feast, Interrupted.” Have a look at the 94 comments to get the full force of the original discussion.]

—Glenn Wallis

Atman, Aporia, and Atomism: A Review of B. Alan Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic

By Tom Pepper

By any measure, we would have to acknowledge that B. Alan Wallace is a major player in Western Buddhism. In the last eight years he started the Santa Barbara Institute of Consciousness Studies, published nine books, and is engaged in the International Shamatha Project. He has impressive credentials, with a Ph.D. from Stanford and a stint as a Tibetan monk ordained by the Dalai Lama. He has created himself as the leading authority on the relationship between Western science and Buddhism. His latest book, Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic (a title that would seem to have been chosen to invite comparison with Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist) is subtitled “A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice.” The book sets out to argue that Buddhist contemplative practices can contribute to the scientific study of the mind, which is currently running hard down a dead-end in its attempts to map the mind onto neural activity. Along the way, Wallace argues against a reductive, materialist philosophy of science, and for a particular version of Tibetan Buddhism, as the correct way to finally understand human consciousness.

I first came across Wallace’s work many years ago, with a book called Choosing Reality: A Contemplative View of Physics and the Mind (the word “contemplative” was changed to “Buddhist” in later editions, apparently for marketing purposes). I picked up the book because as a Buddhist who is also interested in philosophy of science, I thought perhaps Wallace was going to get beyond the popular misrepresentation of quantum theory that says that we “create” a particle by observing it. I was hoping he might be trying to demonstrate that both Buddhism and quantum physics could be understood from a realist perspective. That is, I thought he was going to choose reality; instead, his book made a case for idealism, and argued that we choose reality. In the process, he misrepresented contemporary physics and showed a startling lack of knowledge of recent developments in the philosophy of science. I didn’t pay him much attention after that, but given his flurry of recent books, I thought it might be worth reconsidering exactly what his project really is.

In responding to this book, then, I have no intention of debating his take on Buddhism. I intend to take a thoroughly exterior, non-buddhist approach in responding to Wallace’s presentation of Buddhism. I do, in fact, disagree with some of his statements about Buddhism generally, but I am not interested in seeking the “true” Buddhism here. I know very little about Tibetan Buddhism, and I am confident that Wallace knows quite a bit about it. I will assume that his representation of Tibetan Buddhism is accurate. What I am interested in here is simply considering, from a non-buddhist perspective, the social and ideological implications of Wallace’s version of Buddhism. If we all accepted this version of Buddhism as true, and all began practicing it, what would that mean for us?

I will not give Wallace the same benefit of the doubt when it comes to his discussions of Western science and philosophy. In this realm, I will point out the errors and misrepresentations, the sophistries and false dilemmas, and the false conclusions resulting from his limited knowledge of contemporary epistemology and philosophy of science. My aim here, however, is the same: my interest is again in considering the social and ideological project he has marshaled this wealth of pseudo-science and sophistry to promote.

I also want to begin with a few points on which I absolutely agree with Wallace. I point these out to make it clear that I think his goals are often (not always) goals that I share; it is my argument, however, that his ideas on how to reach these goals are terribly problematic, and that his philosophical assumptions can only hinder his project.

For one thing, it would be wonderful if more people understood, as Wallace points out quite clearly (pp. 177-179), that mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition is not at all the same thing as mindfulness in the Western mental-health industry. Despite the frequent claims that it is a concept adopted from Buddhism, mindfulness in the various “mindfulness-based” therapies has little to do with the concept of sati. Wallace also makes clear that absolute acceptance of whatever comes into our minds is not the typical Buddhist approach; instead, Buddhist have traditionally been very keen on controlling what goes on in the mind, to eliminate the afflictions of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. Vipashyana (vipassana) does not mean, Wallace reminds us (pp. 204-206), accepting the mind as it is, but learning to shape it into something better.

Finally, and most importantly, I absolutely agree with Wallace that the reductive materialist attempts to map the mind onto the neurological activity of the brain is a mistake, a dead end, that will prevent any real progress both in philosophical considerations of consciousness and in psychology. The mind, I will argue, is neither concomitant with the brain, nor is it an epiphenomenon. However, I will completely disagree with how he seeks to avoid reductive materialism. To adumbrate my conclusions here, I will briefly discuss the problem of free will, and Wallace’s solution to this seemingly endless debate.

At first it seemed puzzling to me that Wallace would end the first part of his book with a chapter on “achieving free will,” as the Western concept of “will” has always seemed to be irrelevant to Buddhist thought. However, this chapter reveals the reason for Wallace’s appeal to the radical empiricism of William James, for his overly simplistic version of modern philosophy of science, and shows us what the goal of his version of Buddhism ultimately will turn out to be.  Wallace presents us with a version of Buddhism that seeks to uncover, through spiritual practice, a “brightly shining mind” that is unborn, eternal, and exists “in every being,” although “veiled by adventitious defilements” (115). The “conceptual mind,” which is conventional and impermanent, cannot access this “realm of consciousness,” but the “brightly shining mind” can “influence the minds of ordinary sentient beings” (115) in ways that are “beyond the realm of philosophy” (116). Our greater freedom, it seems, is achieved by removing the defilements, conventional accretions inhibiting the ability of the pure consciousness to subtly and imperceptibly influence the conventional mind. He presents us, then, with the very definition of an atman: an abiding deep self, uncreated by causes and conditions, permanently existing, unchangeable, and alone capable of true and complete bliss.  (Of course, Wallace says this is not an atman at all, but simply asserting that it is not an atman does not make it any less of one.)  My argument will be that Wallace’s attempt to resuscitate James’s radical empiricism, his misrepresentation of quantum theory, and his implication that reductive materialism is the only existent, and only possible, philosophy of science, all serve to produce his subtle atman as the one remaining conceivable explanation for the existence of consciousness; furthermore, the social and political implications of this version of Buddhism are horrendously elitist and oppressive. I will then suggest one other possible explanation for the existence of consciousness, which I believe is more in agreement with the basic concept of Buddhism, and could possibly make Wallace’s ostensible project more likely to succeed—and without the negative social and political implications.

The Quantum Myth and a Scientific Straw Man

Wallace has gotten quite a bit of mileage over the years out of the popular mythos of quantum theory, and he hits that note several times in this book. It enables him to give a “scientific” argument against what he repeatedly calls “materialistic” science; on Wallace’s version, quantum physics demonstrates that the universe “requires for its existence the participation of an observer” (84). I’m sure we’re all familiar with the version of quantum theory that tells us that the particle doesn’t exist until we measure it, so consciousness ultimately produces reality. When physicists insist that this is an exaggerated claim, that quantum theory “does not imply that reality is no more than a pure subjective human construct,” Wallace simply insists that they are unwilling to accept the implications of their own theory. He quotes Brukner and Zeilinger who argue that from multiple observations it is possible to “build up objects with a set of properties that do not change under variations of modes of observation or description” (84); essentially, what they suggest is that once we become aware of the influence of measurement, we can determine the level of consistent reality existing independent from our conscious observation. On one reading of Vasubandhu’s writing, this is the point of Yogacara Buddhism: that we can study the mind not because it is the only reality, but because then we can become aware of how it distorts reality, essentially learning to correct for error. Wallace is very attached to what we might call a consciousness-only school of physics because it enables him to “open the door to the possibility of nonphysical influences on the material world” (99), producing a radical duality of atman and conventional samsara, with only a one-way possibility of influence. There are, of course, many ways to understand the quantum theory, and Wallace’s consciousness-only physics is not the only option. As Christopher Norris has pointed out in a very interesting book on the subject, “it is preposterous in the strict sense of that term—an inversion of the rational order of priorities—when thinkers claim to draw far-reaching ontological or epistemological lessons from a field of thought so rife with paradox and lacking (as yet) any adequate grasp of its own operative concepts” (5).  Norris demonstrates that Bohm, who literally wrote the book on quantum theory, always held that there were alternative, realist models capable of explaining all of the quantum “facts.” This alternative was ignored largely for ideological, extra-scientific reasons (See Norris, especially p. 144).  In the case of Wallace’s argument, it seems the “orthodox” quantum interpretation has continued to serve its ideological purpose.

Wallace’s main scientific target is the biological reductionism that would assert that the mind is nothing more than neural activity.  He also wants to reject what he calls “metaphysical realism” (28). By this, he means the “scientific worldview” that insists that the only things that are real and can produce effects are physical things, and that physical is equivalent to matter. Of course, not even the most reductive of empiricists would actually deny the existence of energy in the universe, so Wallace’s argument involves a bit of sleight of hand, as he elides everything but material “entities,” and then denies their reality. This sophistry is fascinating:

According to metaphysical realism, the entire objective universe consists of physical entities that produce the effects measured by human beings; however, we can never perceive these entities, as they exist independently of all measurement.  Therefore, we can never infer the contents of the absolutely objective world on the basis of observations, which always arise relative to systems of measurement. (28)

This passage is worth close attention, because it is essentially this peculiar logic on which Wallace’s entire argument depends. For Wallace, something is only real in the objective sense if it is a discrete entity; then, that entity is completely invisible since it must be “measured” instead of “perceived;” therefore, we can never know what is actually in the objective world at all; from here, it is a short step to the assumption that no objective world even exists: “all observations of the physical world are illusory”(29). This argument depends on many philosophical errors, but the three most important here are: (1) the belief that “physically real” can only mean a discrete material entity whose only properties are mass and location; (2) the assumption that perception is not itself a form of “measurement;” and (3) the assumption that because any specific measurements of the objective world are limited to certain attributes, we cannot infer anything from them. Of course, as Brukner and Zeilinger indicate in the passage quoted above, it is exactly because we can be aware or our systems of measurement, including perceptual ones, that we can make reasonably correct inferences about the objective world.

Wallace’s reductive, straw-man version of the “scientific worldview” is essential, however, in supporting his central claim about the radical duality of reality. He spells this out for us right in the first chapter. “[T]he illusion of knowledge that the mind is physical has delayed the revolutionary development of the mind sciences” he tells us, and this has occurred largely because “the scientific establishment exerts . . . pressure on its members to reject all forms of mind-body dualism in favor of an antiquated monism”(14). Wallace says he wants to “think outside the box—outside the familiar dualities of dualism and monism” (14), but he rejects the “familiar” Cartesian dualism only to replace it with a more radical dualism, in which an absolute atman, which he refers to at times as “substrate consciousness,” is the deepest and most permanent level of reality, influencing but unaffected by the physical realm. The existence of philosophies of science other than reductive materialist monism has apparently conveniently escaped Wallace’s notice.  Roy Bhaskar’s realist theory of science, for instance, completely avoids the problems Wallace finds with the “scientific worldview” without requiring some non-natural, other-worldly power to fill in the gaps. Bhaskar’s philosophy of science includes distinctions between intransitive and transitive objects of science; that is, between the objective reality and the object of thought produced by a science. It includes the possibility that reality is stratified, with different levels of causal mechanisms, and therefore accepts the possibility of emergence. Emergent powers cannot be reduced to more “basic” strata on which they depend; so we cannot explain the mind by studying the brain any more than we could expect to derive the laws of baseball from the laws of physics, despite the fact that it would be impossible to play the game if those laws ceased to operate.

The false philosophical dilemma Wallace sets up requires absolute ignorance of serious philosophical thought about science, and so a misunderstanding of how science operates. Wallace assumes that there must be final, complete answers, or there are no answers at all—and therefore science fails. This assumption depends upon an ontology that is both materially monist and non-stratified; these are not assumptions that are required for a realist ontology. In the words of Andrew Collier, from a critical realist perspective “we never reach rock-bottom—so the prejudice that only rock-bottom explanations are real ones would leave us forever without real explanations” (110). Wallace demands of science that it jump immediately to the rock-bottom answer, rejecting the possibility of stratification, and the transitive nature of explanatory mechanisms. This enables him to make the claim that from a scientific perspective “matter—as it exists in and of itself, independent of measurement—is as unknowable to the human intellect as God” (234).  And, when he comes across a poll which suggests that the majority of physicists are undecided about the best interpretation of quantum mechanics, he can only conclude that the “real implications of quantum physics seem to be hidden in a cloud of uncertainty” (236), and the only solution is to conclude that consciousness creates the world. He is incapable of seeing that physicists may be less likely than he is to reify their transitive objects of knowledge; for the best physicists, the interpretations we produce in concepts are what we argue about, because they are always constructs designed to move us toward better descriptions and explanations of the intransitive object. We may never reach rock-bottom, probably won’t, but that doesn’t require us to abandon science and resign the field to the supernatural. Wallace claims that modern science “is incompatible with the Middle Way school of Buddhist philosophy” (29). I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether Wallace’s atman or Bhaskar’s version of realism is closer to Nagarjuna’s epistemology and ontology.

William James, Shangri-La, and Reactionary Ideology

One of the reasons I was initially prompted to read this book was my surprise at Wallace’s call to return to James’s radical empiricism. The stupid insistence of psychology and “mind sciences” on a naïve and reductive empiricism that has never really been the underlying philosophy of any real scientific progress is certainly frustrating. But there are so many alternative scientific epistemologies, I could not imagine why Wallace would pick up on this glaringly reactionary, elitist, and theistic form of capitalist ideology and mistake it for a philosophy of science.

Even if he were reluctant to engage the more radically realist philosophies of science, there have certainly been more philosophically sophisticated versions of radical empiricism advanced in the past century. Quine, Kitcher, and Kornblith come immediately to mind; and I’m sure a philosopher could easily add to the list. What, I wondered, is the ideological value of James’s particular version of radical empiricism?

James’s psychology was begun as an ideological project, intended to defend the existence of the soul against the rampant materialism gaining popularity in academic circles (see Leary). In The Principles of Psychology, James makes no bones about it: “I confess, therefore, that to posit a soul influenced in some mysterious way by the brain-states and responding to them by conscious affections of its own, seems to me the line of least logical resistance, so far as we yet have attained” (181). His argument is that the conceptual puzzles and paradoxes of psychology can only, finally, be resolved by either admitting a soul, or resigning some problems to “nature in her unfathomable designs” which “no mortal may ever know” (182). It should be clear why James appeals to Wallace: a reductive version of science leading to aporia which can only be resolved by appeal to a transcendent soul.

James’s positivism is also quite explicit, and nowhere more so than in a passage Wallace cites in an earlier book, The Taboo of Subjectivity: “the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system” (James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, p. 26). This may seem obvious, but the problem is that for radical empiricism the only things that count as “real” (in a physical, objective sense) are those that can be experienced, and all experiences are real in exactly the same way. There is no room for theoretical causal mechanisms, and no way to distinguish between the kinds of reality that obtain in a thought and in a bomb. Just as importantly, there is no way to think about what Bhaskar calls the “metacritical dimension,” which “aims to identify the presence of causally significant absences in thought, seeking to elicit . . . what cannot be said or done . . . in a particular language or conceptual system” (Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation, p. 25). The rejection of such dimensions of thought in positivist philosophies is always in the service of conservatism. Pragmatism is, as James insists, only interested in “practical” results, and particularly interested in insisting that these results can only be produced from within the current, existing, system—of thought, language, politics, economics.

The political conservatism of this can perhaps be made clear by mentioning Wallace’s dismissal of his own ridiculously incorrect understanding of Freud. From his positivist perspective, Wallace can only misunderstand Freud, and can only think of the unconscious as “the subtlest discursive thoughts, mental dialogues, images, memories, desire, and emotions,” which “Freud discovered centuries after Buddhist contemplatives” (188). That this is not what Freud meant by the unconscious should be clear to anybody who is familiar with serious psychoanalytic thought. Suffice it to say that the dynamic unconscious, for Freud, is not subtle and unnoticed but positively existing mental activity; rather, the unconscious is precisely what is unthinkable or unspeakable within a specific conceptual system. The reason for this persistent misreading of Freud is perhaps clearest when Wallace trots out once again the most often quoted and least often understood passage in all of Freud’s writings. I’ll quote it here at some length:

When I promised my patients help and relief through the cathartic method, I was often obliged to hear the following objections, “You say, yourself, that my suffering has probably much to do with my own relation and destinies. You cannot change any of that. In what manner, then, can you help me?” To this I could always answer: “I do not doubt at all that it would be easier for fate than for me to remove your sufferings, but you will be convinced that much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into everyday unhappiness, against which you will be better able to defend yourself with a restored nervous system.” (Studies in Hysteria, p. 232)

This is the source of the most common quip about psychoanalysis: that it can only convert misery into ordinary unhappiness. The point Freud is making, however, is much different. For Freud, it is imperative to accept that much of our human unhappiness is because of our social environment, and that is beyond the reach of psychoanalysis; the really useful benefit of uncovering what is unconscious, what is invisible within our construal of the world, is that it might leave us “better able to defend” ourselves—to make real changes in those “relations and destinies” causing our “everyday unhappiness.”  Pragmatism would prefer we remain resigned to the positivity of its conceptual construal of the world, to eliminate the threat of any demand for social change. James’s radical empiricism was always meant to cut off any consideration of the social production of our mental experience. In fact, Wallace quotes Kurt Danziger in support of his claim that abandonment of the introspective method occurred for “ideological rather than pragmatic” reasons (173). In fact, that is Danziger’s point, but the ideological reason is not what Wallace implies; instead, the reason for the abandonment of introspection was that it “demonstrated that the nature of the object of psychological investigation was linked to the social structure of the investigative situation” (Danziger, p. 48). The problem wasn’t materialist ideology, but the possibility that the contents of the psyche were produced by social structures; and so it would require social change to improve or cure the mind. Interdependence, it seems, was more troubling than the possibility of a soul.

And now I come to what will undoubtedly be the most controversial claim I will make in this essay: that the extreme conservatism of Wallace’s philosophical approach is directly connected to the particular kind of Buddhism he is proposing. That is, I will dare to say what is unspeakable in Western Buddhist circles: that Tibetan Buddhism functioned as the ideological support of one of the most undemocratic, oppressive, and elitist social systems to endure into the twentieth century. What could be a better justification for inherited aristocracy than the belief that they have earned their wealth and power by meritorious actions in past lives? A couple hundred aristocratic families lived in opulence, while Buddhist monastics sought meditative bliss in idle luxury, all supported by the labor of an uneducated and economically oppressed hereditary peasant cast, who apparently had some bad karma to work off. This is the Shangri-La whose loss brings tears to the eyes of Hollywood celebrities. Somehow it has come to seem a horrible injustice that an oppressive oligarchy was deposed. It may, of course, be argued that it is a terrible injustice that this deposition did not lead to terribly much improvement in the lives of the peasants, but Wallace’s frequent cold-war anti-communist rhetoric just rings hollow for me.

An elite class, however, turns out to be essential to the kind of Buddhism Wallace is presenting. He repeatedly emphasizes the rarity of achieving the first dhyana, citing a Sri Lankan monk who says there are fewer than five people in Sri Lanka who have achieved it, and assuring us that even in Tibet, where the higher form of Buddhism is supposedly practiced, it is rare (p. 148). Besides the rarity of qualified teachers, there is the need for “a quiet, healthy, pleasant environment where one’s material needs are easily met,” so that one can practice continuously (although the truly dedicated might need as little as “six hours each day” and “even engage with others between sessions” (155-156). Still, he quotes Atisha: “If you lack the prerequisites of shamatha, you will not achieve samadhi even in thousands of years, regardless of how diligently you practice” (155).  Such long stretches of idle time (Wallace reminds us that it took even Buddha six years), and the provision of all material comforts, is clearly the privilege of only an elite class of people with good karma. The vast majority of people would simply remain karmically incapable of such spiritual progress in this lifetime.

The rarity of achieving these advanced meditative states also calls attention to Wallace’s odd definition of “skeptic.” Apparently, for him it means absolute unquestioning blind faith in something we can never see any evidence of or hope to even approach in our lifetimes. Not a definition of skeptic I have ever heard before. Wallace’s skepticism is apparently limited to skepticism about a naïve philosophy of science that few people ever accepted; when it comes to Buddhism, his appeals to authority abound. He repeatedly cites “authoritative accounts” (182) or truth “revealed” to an “eminent master” (214), to support claims about the achievement of a stable “pristine awareness” or state of “bliss” that cannot be verified by our own “radical empirical” endeavors, since it is achievable only rarely, by those with the right karma.

Although Wallace does assert that “no autonomous, controlling self can be found,” and that this is what is meant by the Buddhist term anatman (110), it is hard to see in what sense the “timeless, ‘nonmanifesting’ consciousness that experiences” nirvana (209) is anything but an atman. He claims that the “mind when it has settled in its natural state, beyond the disturbing influences of conscious and unconscious mental activity” (69) can experience the “quality of bliss” that “does not arise in response to any sensory stimulus”(68). I have no idea whether this is standard Tibetan Buddhism or not—I can only assume Wallace knows of what he speaks. If it is, I can only say I would have no interest in it. It isn’t hard to see, however, why this kind of Buddhism might appeal to an economic elite in the west; there is no need to worry about the suffering of others, just seek your own bliss in idle luxury. And we can rest assured that our eternal atman-that-is-not-one will dwell in bliss, without having to make any change whatsoever in our current ideology: Wallace assures us that “both religious and non-religious people can embrace this ideal of genuine happiness, with specific attributes defined by each one in terms of his or her own worldview”(172). As long as you have the right karma to be born rich, you’re all set. To the privileged elite, Wallace’s comfort-Buddhism says “we are home at last” (85). Enjoy your bliss!

Escaping Atomism

In conclusion, I would like to suggest one possible alternative to Wallace’s response to reductive materialism. The problems that James saw as “unfathomable” unless we accepted the existence of a soul, and that Wallace sees as insoluble in “mind sciences” unless we accept an atman, might turn out not to be problems at all if we could simply abandon philosophical atomism.  Wallace uses the term “mind” in two ways, usually without clarifying which use he intends: the mind is both the “conceptual thought” that exists at the conventional level, and the eternal “substrate consciousness.” In both cases, however, it is clear that for Wallace each mind is individual, either eternally separated from all others in the case of the substrate consciousness, or individually arising from the interactions of a brain and its environment in the case of the conventionally existent mind.  Introspection, for Wallace, is compared to an “inwardly focused telescope,” that examines an “individual mind stream” (24). For both James and Wallace, and indeed for much of Western thought, the insistence on discrete, individual consciousnesses has lead to endless paradoxes, aporia, and irresolvable problems—from free will to solipsism, from the status of knowledge to the existence of a mind, there are a host of problems that cannot be solved unless we abandon the notion of consciousness or mind existing individually, the depths of a mind.

Eighty years ago, V. N. Volosinov proposed that we drop this line of pursuit. “Consciousness,” he suggested, “becomes consciousness only once it has been filled with ideological (semiotic) content, consequently, only in the process of social interaction” (11). Psychoanalysis, beginning with Freud and most thoroughly with Lacan, presented a radically empty subject, arising not from deep within but from without, in a socially produced symbolic network. Alain Badiou has suggested a theory of the subject that accepts all of the most radical implications of Lacan’s thought: as individual organisms, we are nothing but automatons; it is only as socially engaged subjects to a truth that we gain any agency. To become subjects with true agency, we must participate in a truth procedure, a practice which functions to extend our capacity to interact with reality beyond what is possible within a given system of knowledge—the subject is not an individual, but a social entity. As such, it may very well transcend the limits of an individual organism’s life, and experience the future effects of our present day actions. We will never find consciousness in the firing of neurons, because it exists only in the symbolic social interaction of multiple individuals.

I would suggest that this line of thought is much more compatible with the Buddhist concepts of pratityasamutpada, sunyata, and anatman than any other form of Western philosophical thought. Further, I would suggest that this line of thought could learn a great deal from Buddhist thinkers of the past couple thousand years—not all of them, but certainly Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, and Candrakirti at the very least could help teach us to think the radical implications of a non-atomist subject.

If Wallace’s ultimate goal is a political or economic one, propping up a privileged elite or garnering financial support from wealthy Westerners, then I would suppose he would have little interest in the criticism I have offered here. If, on the other hand, his interest is truly in exploring the nature of human consciousness, he might want to do a little reading, and catch up on the advances made in the philosophy of science by Roy Bhaskar’s critical realism, and explore the theory of the subject advanced by Lacan and Badiou.  I’m not so optimistic as to hope that will happen, but I am just optimistic enough to hope that a few of those interested in the possibilities of Buddhist thought and practice might realize that we do not have to choose between Wallace’s Tibetan atman and the kind of reductive “naturalizing” of Buddhism advanced by Owen Flanagan, who want to “tame” Buddhism by jettisoning anything that doesn’t fit with a reductive, empiricist philosophy of science, keeping only its useful tendency to teach people to be nice. As Alain Badiou has put it, the enemy of thought today is “a sort of scientism stipulating the mind must be naturalized and studied according to the experimental protocols of neurology, reinforced, as always, by an inane moralism with a religious tinge—in substance: one has to be nice” (118). Wallace’s version of Buddhism would simply abandon the field to this enemy, and retreat to the solitary pursuit of bliss.

From a non-buddhist perspective, the decisional structure of Wallace’s brand of Buddhism is quite clear. As I understand Laruelle’s concept, the decisional structure is the fundamental construal of the world which enables a particular project in thought, but which remains invisible from within that thought. That Wallace cannot see his decisional structure is evident from his ostensible rejection of it: he claims he wants to reject Cartesian dualism and accept the Buddhist concept of anatman, and he cannot see that he is producing both an absolute dualism and the ultimate atman. His reductive understanding of science and epistemology and absolute faith in the authority of the Buddhist tradition would leave us no choice but to accept the existence of an atman that he simply insists is not one. From within his decisional structure, no argument could defeat Buddhist authority; since none of us can achieve the transcendent meditative states of the masters, we can neither debate their existence and value nor even hope to comprehend what such states actually are. No alternative version of science is possible, since for Wallace only rock-bottom (positivist) answers can count as scientific. This combination produces a self-replicating hermetic system designed to perpetuate inequality with the promise of future bliss.


Badiou, A. Second Manifesto for Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity, 2009.

Bhaskar, R. Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Collier, A. Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy. London: Verso, 1994.

Danziger, K. Constructing the Subject: Historical Origins of Psychological Research.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Freud, S. & Breur, J. Studies in Hysteria. Trans. A.A. Brill.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1937.

James, W. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover Publications, 1950.

James, W. Essays in Radical Empiricism. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1902

Norris, C. Quantum Theory and the Flight from Realism: Philosophical Responses to Quantum Mechanics. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Volosinov, V.N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Trans. L. Matejka  I.R. Titunuk.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Wallace, A.B. Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Wallace, A.B. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.


New York Times, Steve Bannon Cited Italian Thinker Who Inspired Fascists,” February 10, 2017.

Mark Sedgwick’s Traditionalist Blog.

Richard K. Payne, “Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism,” Pacific World, Third Series, no. 10 (Fall 2008), pp. 177-223.

I was just saying to a friend: “I bet we’ll start hearing the terms ‘Buddhism’ and ‘fascism’ in juxtaposition,” when, snap! ping! Richard Payne’s spanking new essay “Fascists Religiosities” appeared. Visit his blog, and answer his koan for the latter days: “If all religions are ultimately the same, why be a Buddhist?”

On Christofascism, see, Paul F. Knitter, “Theocentric Christology,” Theology Today, 40 (2), July 1983.

33 responses to “Traditionalism and Totalitarianism: B. Alan Wallace, for instance”

  1. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    Good stuff. And I was just about to read Chris Hedges’ ‘The Death of the Liberal Class’ to try to figure out why contemporary Buddhism (east or west) is such a moral failure. Hedges’ book focuses on liberal-progressive Christianity (of which he is one) and intelligentsia, but I’m thinking much could be applied to a critique of Buddhism as well.

  2. wtpepper Avatar

    It’s strange to revisit something I wrote just a few years ago, and to think “I wouldn’t say that now” or “I wouldn’t put it that way.” But I suppose that’s a good thing—when I was in college and had professors who would point to an article they’d published decades before and say they wouldn’t change a word, I used to think it a sign that academic thought was pointless.

    I’m always wary of using the term “fascist,” myself. I tend to think of fascism as a particular phenomenon, functioning to help complete the haute-bourgeoisie’s work of wresting power away from the ancien regime while containing the dangers of unionism and socialism. We don’t really have an ancien regime anymore, and there’s not much threat of socialism or unionism around. The danger seems to be mostly of global capitalism threatening to collapse under its own internal contradictions—along with the difficulty of convincing 98% of the population to accept a rapidly declining standard of living so that the top 2% can amass wealth never imagined before in human history while destroying all life on the planet.

    Still, there are some of the same ideological strategies at work in the two projects. Not the least of which is this obsession with an imagined original and natural state. Everywhere, religion is called upon to produce this idea of a true original state, prior to the great fall into humanly created society and technology. On the Catholic right, Edward Feser argues that the natural state intended by God is the private-property-owning independent small farmer, and derives all the usual right-wing ideological projects from this fantasy. And Buddhism is everywhere called upon to advocate for a primal, animal-like, pre-linguistic state to which we can return, and live in bliss once again (Bill Porter longs for such a state, and writes a paean to it in his book Zen Baggage.)

    I wonder if the best move is to abandon religious thought completely? Or is it possible to shift from Feser’s Aquinas to Duns Scotus, for whom God’s gift to man is our freedom from the natural state? To conceive of language not as a fall into corruption, as so many Western Buddhists do, but as what enables us to escape the bondage of animal necessity? As long as we are as wealthy as most Western Buddhists, with food and shelter, iPhones and SUVs readily available, it may be hard to remember how much human suffering has been alleviated by our ability to think in language.

    This attempt to convince most human beings to actually dream of being reduced to the state of animals is horrifying—but what is more terrible is how easily and eagerly most Americans have bought into this goal. Ah, if we could all only be reduced to the state of mindless “living tools” of the God capital, how happy we would be!

  3. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    I read Richard K. Payne’s article on Traditionalism, and it seems to me that B. Alan Wallace’s work cannot be characterized as Traditionalist, and certainly not the Fascist form. First, Traditionalism, esp. the Fascist form, rejects science completely, while Wallace’s work embraces science, physics and neuroscience, as “proof” and justification for his teaching. Traditionalism totally rejects modernism, but Wallace’s work embraces modernism in the form of scientific rationalism. Traditionalism, esp. the Fascist form, is authoritarian, hierarchical and explicitly racist, and I haven’t seen any of these themes in Wallace’s work.

    If anything, Wallace’s work, like many X-Buddhists, is a contradictory blend of Romanticism and Secular Modernism. It is Romanticism in that it seeks to re-enchant the world desacralized by modernity, but yet also embraces science with as “proof” of the truth-claims of Buddhism and meditation. It is Romanticism as it focuses exclusively on the interior experience of the individual. However, Wallace’s work seems to contain some of the themes of Perennial Religion of both Romanticism and Traditionalism. Where Wallace’s X-Buddhism differs from Romanticism is that it never explicitly rejects capitalism, industrialism and urbanism. Like most X-Buddhisms, it simply ignores the material and structural realities of modern capitalism, and thus implicitly accepts them.

  4. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Shaun (#3). Good observations. Thanks. As Tom (#2) notes, we should be wary of using the term “fascist.” I agree. I do, however, find it interesting that the term is currently re-entering cultural and political discourse. I see a parallel with “communism.” See, for instance, Bruno Bosteels’s The Actuality of Communism. He is asking: “To what extent can we say that communism today is an actuality and not just a spectre; a real movement and not just a ghostly spirit from the dead past, or one whose only forward-looking move is to postulate the need for a speculative-philosophical Idea, whether Kantian or Platonic?” (220-1). A similar question can be put to fascism. Because the historical conditions are different, the current manifestations will be different. But the terms might still be the best names we have for the kinds of phenomena they index.

    I actually think that Wallace’s use of “science” may lead in a different direction from the one you mention (toward a modernistic scientific rationalism, etc.). “Science” and fascism have always gotten along quite well. (See, for instance, Michele Benzi’s, “Science and Fascism: Scientific Research Under a Totalitarian Regime.”) But, as my use of scare quotes indicates, whether it is really a question of science is questionable in both cases.

    Peter Woit, a mathematics professor at Columbia University writes on his blog that he was “shocked and dismayed” and “embarrassed” that Columbia University Press would be “promoting Wallace’s ideas.” He also reminds us that “Wallace’s background in physics consists of an undergraduate joint major in physics and philosophy of science at Amherst.” Here’s what Woit says about Wallace’s work:

    As far as I can tell it’s pretty generic material of this kind, full of crackpottery invoking quantum mechanics, extra dimensions, etc. etc. It’s more or less in the same vein as What the Bleep, but with more of a Buddhist and less of a self-help angle.

    Of course, Wallace would simply dismiss Woit as being blind to his materialist (i.e., truly scientific) biases. So, it just might be that Wallace’s “science” actually bends him back toward anti-modernism.

  5. wtpepper Avatar

    Yes, as I mention in the review, Wallace is explicit in his rejection of modern science–he simply asserts that it must be rejected because it is “incompatible” with the teachings of Buddhism–only authority counts as a indication of truth.

    But it is good to know that someone at Columbia was embarrassed by the publication of Wallace’s books. His odd blend of mysticism and the worst kind of popular pseudo-science is unfortunately too easily accepted by many people who should know better. I know of two college professors who show their classes the movie “What the Bleep” and claim it is science. I’ve personally been told by three different college professors, folks with PhDs and tenured positions, that quantum theory teaches us that even a brick wall would cease to exist if we stopped creating it with our minds (to be fair, all three were psychology professors, not in the real sciences). So, sadly, many people think Wallace actually knows something about real science. It does seem to me that this kind of abject ignorance is essential to the kind of right-wing ideologies witnessed in the 1930s and again today. Ignorance is power…for someone, anyway.

  6. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    I think there’s an argument for a Fascist penchant for technology, esp. military technology, but not science as an explanation of the world. A Fascist is someone who refuses to accept evolution, yet thrills to the power of high-tech bombs and surveillance technology.

  7. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Shaun (#6). Right, and therein lies Wallace’s coziness with fascism (lower case). Old school Fascism, like B. Alan Wallace (and present-day Republicans, for that matter) refused to let science be science. They defanged it by revoking its materialist basis. Rather than argue about the Wallace-fascism axis, I think it is more productive to review Pepper’s contentions about Wallace’s relationship to “science.” The term science must come up fifty times in his essay. Like I said in my preface, it’s all there, in the essay; although not everyone will draw the same drastic conclusion that I do from it. Thanks!

  8. wtpepper Avatar

    I would guess most people familiar with Wallace, and with most other popular x-buddhist teachers, would remain untroubled by the suggestion that their favorite writer/teacher is producing elitist, conservative, capitalist ideology. After all, that’s exaclty what they’re looking for! It’s sort of like pointing out to Luther or Calvin that they were remaking Christianity as a capitalist, rather than a feudal, ideological practice. Buddhism, like Christianity, like Literature, like sports or television or the organization of family systems, is always and only an ideological practice, meant to produce a way of experiencing, and acting in, the world. So what could Buddhism be, in global capitalism, but a capitalist ideology? All the debates demonizing “Buddhist Modernism” are just a smokescreen, it seems to me. To stick with the rituals and concepts of Buddhisms from centuries ago would be to foolishly try to live in a capitalist social formation with a feudal ideology–like taking up jousting or alchemy. The only problem is when the traditionalist AND the modernists both fail to recognize that producing ideology is in fact all the are doing. Ideology that won’t admit it is ideology always causes great human suffering.

    Buddhists in American just are, by and large, affluent and elitist and conservative and anti-intellectual. All the usual demographics of the neoliberal “democrat.” So it should surprise that they embrace irrationalist nonsense coupled to a technological concept of science, and quietist escapism instead of political activist. They love watching new parodies on cable channels and feeling smug and superior to the unwashed masses who elected Trump, and they go to protest marches to prove how morally superior they are, but heaven forbid they engage in creating a political party that might change things–that, they know, is foolishly childish. Whining and mocking is a much more sophisticated response!

    In the review essay above, I was still trying to use critique as an opportunity to also offer an alternative. Over the years, I consistently found that most readers, even those who consider themselves somewhat “leftist”, would ignore that part of anything I wrote, and then conventently dismiss everything I said because, they claimed, I didn’t offer any alternatives. I suspect this is not just a feature of the Buddhist-oriented audience, but a general American response. Still, it does seem more extreme among Buddhists. As I’ve said before, by the time someone has turned to Buddhism it is usually too late to try to reason with them–they’ve seen the danger of understanding reality, and are looking for delusions to escape into.

  9. David Watson Avatar
    David Watson

    “If the study of the ontological turn in contemporary political philosophy taught us anything, it is that flux, difference, and becoming – far from being subversive answers to a dominant ideology of stability, identity, and being – are rather the spontaneous forms of appearance of the underlying sameness of late capitalism.” (Bosteels, The Actuality of Communism, 198.)

    An interesting quote from a book Glenn mentioned in #4 (a PDF is available). Perhaps a disturbing thought if one hoped – I did – that a more rigorous adherence to anatta, or perhaps just a more careful exploration of the more rigorous investigations into anatta to be found in the Eastern Buddhist tradition, might, even if it didn’t transform Western Buddhism into a force for progressive social change, at least undermine its capacity to foster the comforting illusion that such change is impossible for a social layer badly in need of that illusion because its education and experience leaves it unable to convince itself that such change is not needed.

  10. Paul Avatar

    This post didn’t even make it past the first word of the title before succumbing to Godwin’s Law.

    (Of course the administrators will probably act as if it’s necessary to prattle on for pages for a comment to qualify to be published, and may use this as an excuse to delete this comment/criticism: authoritarian suppression of criticism or dissent is what fascists do)

  11. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Paul (#10). No; you didn’t read carefully enough. Pepper’s essay doesn’t go anywhere near the analogy. My preface doesn’t either. It argues for an unintentional correspondence between a certain x-buddhist rhetoric and a certain political-cultural rhetoric. For instance, Jon Kabat-Zinn never makes an explicit link between Mindfulness and neo-liberalism. Yet, Mindfulness is run through with the language, values, assumptions, ends, and so on, that make the link real whether Kabat-Zinn likes it or not. That should not be surprising since Kabat-Zinn is fashioning his Mindfulness within the social-economic-cultural cauldron that is American neo-liberalism. The toxins of the latter easily drip into the rhetoric of the former. And so this correspondence should be interesting to anyone studying Mindfulness. In fact, it’s very non-articulation from within Mindfulness should make the student all the more curious, even suspicious. It’s the same with B. Alan Wallace’s x-buddhism.

  12. wtpepper Avatar

    I appreciate the irony of comment #10–I needed a laugh today. Even in a post about the uses of fascist tropes in contemporary discourse, where it would seem so likely, nobody came even close to fulfilling the prediction of Godwin’s Law until this commentor himself, in claiming it had been fulfilled, did so: If you evil administrators don’t allow me to make obviously false claims on your blog, you are fascists! Of course, we all know that’s what Hitler was all about–preventing people from posting false statements to his blog. That evil bastard.

  13. wtpepper Avatar

    No matter what situation we find ourselves in, we can always set our compass to our highest intentions in the present moment. Perhaps it is nothing more than being in a heated conversation with another person and stopping to take a breath and ask yourself, “What is my highest intention in this moment?”

    —Jack Kornfield, “Set the Compass of Your Heart”

    Just a comment sent out by Tricycle magazine today, once again reminding me of the horrifying incapacity for thought necessary to be an x-buddhist today. Anyone for whom this makes sense at all would likely have no trouble accepting the absurd claims made by B. Alan Wallace. The poverty of thought exhibited in this excerpt from Kornfield’s book is sad, but it is what is dooming most humans to lives of misery, poverty and oppression. Once combined with the popular craze for “escaping language” and avoiding the horrors of conceptual thought, we can all be reduced to the situation of farm animals, baffled by our condition and eager for the abattoir.

    I just wish people like Peter Woit would push harder to stop the presses associated with their universities from publishing idiotic crap because it happens to sell! If they don’t, who will?

    I recently read in Nature that a reviewer at an APA journal was asked to resign because he wanted psychologists to actually provide data to support their claims. Apparently, that suggestion is an outrage in the discipline, where making crap up and claiming “studies show” it is the norm! There seems a clear link between the outrage over being asked to have evidence for your “scientific” claims, and the kind of idiotic nonsense that folks like Wallace and Kornfield are selling. I can’t imagine how Kornfield or Epstein, or Young, or any of them can live with themselves–unless they really are just so incapable of thought themselves they can’t see the harm they are doing. I kind of hope this is the case–but it’s hard to believe.

  14. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Tom (#13). What a coincidence. In my class last night, we were discussing Jacques-Alain Miller’s paper “On Perversion,” and Kornfield came up. Miller says that “the worst perversion is righteousness,” and that the worst pervert is the person who tries to control the jouissance of others: “The worst pervert is he who speaks in the name of morality.” Perversion in this Lacanian sense would make a very interesting lens through which to view contemporary x-buddhist teachers like Kornfield and Wallace.

  15. wtpepper Avatar

    Interesting point. I come to something like this statement by Kornfield, and I tend to think it is gibberish–who could really think in such idiotic terms. But sure, I guess the pervert does. This is something I tend to miss–I often can’t make sense of the perverse personality structure. Probably leaning more to the psychotic personality structure myself, the attempt to bring the Big Other into existence, to contain jouissance (and punish the jouissance of others), seems absurd and pointless. To invoke the “higher law” in order to contain your desires, to allow yourself an enjoyment of your detached superiority over others, is the perverse. Kornfield goes on in this excerpt to say that we should respond to things like poverty by “being present and willing to love,” hence avoiding any action forbidden by the Other–we can take perverse enjoyment in suffering and deprivation itself, sure that our inaction proves we are doing what the Other wants. So maybe x-buddhists have a strong tendency toward perversion? That would explain the terror of critical thought and political action.

  16. MrPallazzoo Avatar

    Mr Pepper, your comments although eloquently formulated reflect some important misunderstandings regarding Buddhist history and thought.

    Your political framing of Tibetan society as feudal (although perhaps true) has little to do with Buddhism. The aristocratic system you refer to, the tulku system was introduced in Tibet retrospectively with the second Karmapa Karma Pakshi (1204–1283), as a way to ensure the continuation of the Kagyu lineage. As you may know that is more than 1500 years after the presumed time of the Buddha. Therefore it is wrong to mix up feudalism with Buddhism. On the contrary the historical Buddha is famed for being one of the early proponents of equality and the rights of the untouchables in India.

    You also wrote that Buddhism is “always and only an ideological practice, meant to produce a way of experiencing, and acting in, the world”. The main aim with Buddhism is not to become a vegetarian, organic living leftist who frowns at Trump-supporters. The main aim is not even to become a decent human being (although it is more than often framed in this way nowadays).
    Ideology has actually very little to do with Buddhism, rather the opposite. Dharma is mainly concerned with deconstructing ideas and ideologies, and does not in itself posit any truly existent ideologies that must be followed as a religious doctrine. There are of course ‘precepts’ and guidelines for moral conduct. The aim of these are however not any goal in themselves, but to provide the conducive circumstances for ones wisdom to develop.

    From the outside, it is hard to believe that the ascetic tradition of Thai Forest tradition, the strict Japanese Zen tradition, the colorful Tibetan tradition and western Buddhism have anything common. Traditionally Buddhism did not impose any ideology when it spread. Rather, it mixed with the existing culture and transforming the existing practices to foster what Buddhists refer to as ‘transcendent insight’. The aim of such is not political, it is not to experience bliss or some other exalted state, but to eradicate suffering in oneself so that one’s inner qualities may develop for the benefit of others. That type of insight may of course be hard to fathom, and one might have serious doubts. Especially in these ages where so many charlatans talk about ‘getting enlightened’. A reasonable approach here may be to investigate both intellectually and experientially if such an insight is possible or exists before one discards it.

    Buddhism in India was in its golden age about 300 BC to 800 AD. At that time sophisticated ways to scrutinize reality was developed, which likely also affected both Greek and Chinese thought. There is therefore a lot of material within subjects such as epistemology, logic, debate and meditation that still needs to be explored. It would be a shame if euro/american academics disregard this work only because of reasons such as being prejudiced or disliking one or two modern day ‘Buddhist teachers’ writings.

  17. wtpepper Avatar

    You don’t understand what I mean by the term “ideology,” and I don’t share your assumption of some original and “true” buddhism, so unfortunately your comments have nothing at all to do with anything I’ve said–although you’ve done an excellent critique of a thorough misreading of what I’ve written.

  18. Paul Avatar

    This is the most idiotic drivel. Why?

    The reasoning is embarrassingly bad. Step out the reaoning in the article above and try to piece together something remotely convincing- impossible. Thankfully, the hyperbole and hysterical readiness to cry ‘fascist’ alert one to the quality of the ‘project’ ofnejoch this article is part. One of the most ironic aspects revealed by this readiness to cry ‘fascist’ is it’s reminiscence of the imperialist liberal-progressive politically-correct left.

    Nothing in this article or broader project indicates any serious attempt to deal with thhe actual causes of oppression, injustice and suffering in the world today – neo-colonialism, global warming and neoliberal economics. It falls clearly into the category of the facile fake-left politically correct progressives feigning radical and revolutionary postures by crying out things like ‘fascist’ at anything with no more than a cursory glance of appraisal.

    Of course the authors of this blog have refused to publish my comments – how embarrassing it would be for them to have to face a comment from the left which situates their project as the liberal PC progressive they seek to criticise.

  19. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Paul, can you be more specific? Your comment is too vague to address. I think you misunderstand the scope and purpose of the blog. Why not read around on it a bit more to get a better sense of what we’re up to before commenting? Thanks.

  20. Martin French Avatar

    It is sad that this person has such a limited reading on Wallace‘s work but decided to comment on it anyway. Claiming that Wallace’s conception of the substrate consciousness is an Atman is absolutely ludicrous and goes against the nature of what is explained as substrate consciousness (which Alan makes clear is not some type of an ultimate final state). The next time you feel like reading part of a book and writing a review on it and then labeling someone (who I personally observed eating frozen peas for lunch with his wife while they lived in a great, world renowned teacher’s land and exuded great compassion—- beyond conception really; someone who denounces totalitarian, Trumpist politics at every turn of the conversation; who despises the type of big money “science” that this dilettante author expounds on; and who makes it clear at every turn that the basic Buddhist View contends that accepting or rejecting the words of Buddha himself or any progenator thereof makes not one inkling of difference to the universe itself—-melt the words down, see if it’s gold for you, but taking bits and pieces and misrepresenting basic proposals is just sad imho.

    The atman this ignoramus proposes Wallace to believe in is really this neophyte’s own subtle projection when he sees a humble monks’s success at stirring up the big money, big fame scientific community that he vehemently wishes to elbow his way into by taking on a Stanford PhD. Like the Buddha on that famous morning before he broke through, a little loving kindness can go a long way in diffusing mara’s poison arrows. And if your in over your head, put the book down and grab something you can digest like Jack Cornfield.

  21. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Martin. Thank you for commenting. Wallace does argue for an atman. I am sorry. He does so over and over and over again. A pithy summation is offered by Steven Novella at the Neurologica blog. Let me give you Novella’s conclusion first:

    “I find Wallace’s position similar to the famous ‘kettle defense’ – he seems to be marshaling whatever arguments he thinks he can use to defend his beliefs, but he is not articulating a coherent position. The reason is clear enough – he is making the classic mistake of starting with a desired conclusion (merging Buddhist mysticism with modern science) and then working backwards. To achieve these ends he tries but fails to make scientific arguments for dualism and he simultaneously tries to fudge the rules of science to sneak in mysticism as evidence to support his side.

    Also he utterly mangles quantum mechanics theory in an attempt to argue that – science says the world is weird, and my beliefs are weird, therefore science supports my views. The logic of this argument fails, but it doesn’t matter because the premise if wrong – quantum weirdness disappears at the macroscopic level.

    In the end Wallace does no better than anyone who tries to subvert science to support any ideology.”

    Now for the pity view of Wallace’s totalitarian Buddhist dualism (From an interview with Steve Paulson):

    “The psyche is not emerging from the brain, conditioned by the environment. The human psyche is in fact emerging from an individual continuum of consciousness that is conjoined with the brain during the development of the fetus. It can be very hampered if the brain malfunctions or becomes damaged.

    All I’m presenting here is the Buddhist hypothesis. There’s another dimension of consciousness, which is called the substrate consciousness. This is not mystical. It’s not transcendent in the sense of being divine. The human psyche is emerging from an ongoing continuum of consciousness—the substrate consciousness—which kind of looks like a soul. But in the Buddhist view, it is more like an ongoing vacuum state of consciousness. Or here’s a good metaphor: Just as we speak of a stem cell, which is not differentiated until it comes into the liver and becomes a liver cell, or into bone marrow and becomes a bone marrow cell, the substrate consciousness is stem consciousness. And at death, the human psyche dissolves back into this continuum.”

    Bruv, that’s atman. Thanks again. And good luck!

  22. Jo Avatar

    I know absolutely nothing about Buddhism. But as an amateur scientist who picked up Alan Wallace’s book,thought it was an interesting hypothesis. If there is another reality called by any name Atman, substrate consciousness, rigpa, pristine awareness etc I wondered if it really could be discovered. I set forth as an athiest on practising. That’s right practices are where experiences can inform. There’s no other way. Like any scientific research you have to observe the effects fromdoing the practices.

    Well guess what? As a complete skeptic with no expectations it was anything but hokus pokus I stumbled across a reality so far away from thinking that it remains indescribable and yet can be experienced. Alan Wallace is trying to help the world become more balanced. He is often ranting…about scientific materialism…about a world on the brink of environmental disaster…he gets way too excited about things sometimes. When I first listened to him I thought he was a prophetalizer…is that even a word? But what was most compelling was testing the hypothesis he stood by. What if it’s true?

    I now believe there is a undeniable truth beyond anything imaginable. It’s a truth beyond Alan’s conceptual frameworks. There really is…its astounding and completely compelling. Alan once asked if anyone wanted to take a rocket ship to Mars…on the inside. It’s beyond the understanding of the intellect. Not many in science would even stop to consider never mind believe it’s possible. But when you break through…you can never return. And you will never know unless you go beyond thinking and critiquing. Alan Wallace is an embodiment of humility. He claims no knowledge about higher states. He does however write down the teachings that can totally transform. May you explore the deep richness underlying his work through practising. Don’t waste your time as Mars and beyond awaits..where you’ll head has no destination so more like Buzz Lightyear…to infinity and beyond.
    Why am I writing this…I’m a simpleton…no intellectual rigor…no penchant for philosophy…no great IQ…sloppy meditator, not religious, a person of dull faculties, but after a few years of really dedicated practice it became possible. And you dont ever need to believe Alan. Just do it and see for yourself. It’s the greatest gift you could ever imagine receiving…but most importantly it is for the benefit of others.

  23. wtpepper Avatar

    When I read comments by dimwits like Jo and Martin, above, I have to wonder: what was I thinking when I wasted my time writing reviews like this? I’m no longer sure I remember. I think perhaps I expected that there were some people who would read Wallace (or Epstein, or Thannisaro, or etc) and be temporarily confused by the sophistry and equivocation. Sort of like folks initially taken in by Rorty, but who can be disabused with clear explanation and argument. If that is what I was thinking, I now believe I was wrong about it.

    It seems to me that only the seriously mentally limited (like Jo and Martin above) or the seriously emotionally/psychological disturbed, could possibly be successfully exploited by drivel like Wallace writes (or Epstein, or Metzinger, or whomever). None of them are as gifted sophists as Rorty, so nobody is ever likely to take them very seriously, who is capable of intelligent thought. And those not capable of intelligent thought would definitely never understand my critiques of such nonsense—certainly they would be beyond the capacity of poor thinkers like Wallace or Epstein, or Metzinger or Thanissaro, all of whom I’m increasingly inclined to believe are not evil Machiavellian mainipuators, but just morons fortuitously benefiitng from their capacity to inflict further delusion and suffering on the already confused and suffering.

    In my more optimistic moments, I try to convince myself that I was trying to clear away all the rubbish to make it possible to think seriously about Buddhism—but surely most people interested in thinking seriously would already have dismissed Buddhism and so never consider my critiques, and those who in fact ARE capable of thought, and want to think about Buddhism seriously, certainly already saw the obvious, even glaringly stupid, errors I’ve pointed out in such essays, and so have no real need for them.

    So perhaps it was just a self-indulgent waste of time? I tend to consider such critiques as the goal of meditation practice, and as necessary to avoid falling into conceptual error and confused thinking. So, mabye I was just inflicting my own little mental exercise on others—pointlessly distressing the sad and suffering devotees of these gurus of delusion, to no good end.

    Maybe it’s time I get on with some real work…

  24. Jo Avatar

    Wow you are certainly not backwards in coming forwards. Alad the dim witted abound in bucket loadd. Most of the intelligent folk you seek to connect with are likely just a tiny sliver of the populace. Sorry for wasting your energy. Just so you know I realise you are highly intelligent. My own father was a philosopher and physics buff who worked for NASA. Unfortunately his dim witted daughter took her science beyond thinking. I was looling up something completely unrelated to Alan Wallace but somehow saw your article and clicked on it. Your opinion seemed so deluded I felt deep compassion. I remain a simpleton and waste of your intellect. But it might be nice not to put people down when you critique. Just be your clever self. May this stage of needing to be right be transformed into truth. Please don’t assume to know anything. Continue to stay open. There’s a truth behind the writing of Alan Wallace. You’ll never get to know by just dismissing through a conceptual framework. That’s the truth. But it’s completely verifiable. You sould grumpy…why not dedicate youself to really finding out. My Dad read all the books too. But his life ended in a statebof despair because his internal universe had not been transformed. It’s an inside out job. Then you’ll write something worth reading, imaginative, original and more likely to inspire. Sorry to have stumbled across your website. It is great you are critiquing Alan”s books. May you find someone who matches your intellectual rigor.

  25. Jo Avatar

    ‘Ignorance does not mean the absence of worldly information, nut not knowing the intrinsic nature of the soul. Even a highly informed petson in the worldly sense can be ignorant in the philosophical sense’
    (Samkhya-Yoga philosophy)
    p 111 – Chapter on The Workings of the Mind
    Author Mira Mehta – Book – Yoga Explained

    Many ways to explore consciousness as a philosophy exist other than Alan Wallace. Let the practice reveal the philosophy. It’s possible.

  26. Danny Avatar

    As if we need another example of Buddhism positing, arguing for, a not-so-subtle atman, an unconditioned substrate consciousness, check out todays Tricycle Daily Dharma, Thinking Big:

    “A thought raised from your foundation is like a middleman: it connects your flesh with your inherent nature. In an instant it can reach anywhere in the universe and the dharma realm. In an instant it can reach the future and the past, and even the realms beyond life. It moves faster than light, so distances of “near” and “far” are meaningless.”

    Pointing this out may get a bit tedious, but it seems to me that immanent critique will always be a necessary part of a Non-Buddhist practice.

  27. wtpepper Avatar

    I saw that Daily Dharma—I only get is sporadically now, but when I do it makes me sad that there are so many people who can’t see that this is nonsense.

    But again, that’s my trouble here. For those who turn to someone like Wallace, it just seems it’s too late for them to think clearly or undertand a logical explanation, or was never possible for them in the first place. Anyone who is capable of understanding these errors doesn’t seem to need them pointed out—at least, not when they are as extremely stupid as in the case of Wallace. Looking back, I don’t think I’ve ever succeeded in persuading anyone to think critically about x-buddhisms of any sort. Either they already did this and just saw what I wrote as a confirmation of what they figured out on thier own, or they were incapable of understanding intelligent thought and so could not be helped. I doubt I’m clever enough to have ever detected some profound and subtle error not already obvious to those capable of thought.

    Maybe the move is to produce a kind of Buddhist discourse and practice that is NOT stupid. It would outrage the x-buddhist community, and be attacked by the current group of Buddho-grifters as “fake,” but perhaps it could attract a whole new following of thinking people—those who currently steer clear of the idiotic nonsense one might find being promoted in Tricylce or on Shambhala. The mind that could think Epstein or Hason is anything but idiotic drivel is far beyond saving with mere arguments and evidence.

    I’m hoping this will be a possible function of Glenn’s new project—a sort of buddhoficiton that doesn’t bother addressing the hopelessly lost x-buddhist community, but tries to address those who are capable of real thought. Maybe the kind of people who would pick up a book by Kabat-Zinn and gag on the idiocy, but who might enjoy reading intelligent writing and engaging in intelligent debates. I’ve been reading a book by Raymond Geuss, for instance, and wondering: where are the other people who find this helpful, who want to engage in this kind of thought about the world? There must be some—somebody besides me bought Guess’s book, I’m sure—so maybe it would be possible to just directly address them with a book or an essay that makes use of serious Buddhist philosophical concepts.

    Of course, once again, I do think that there is certainly a warrant in the Buddhist tradition for the belief in a dualistic and transcendent mind or consciousness that is eternal and unconditioned by phenomena. The Lotus Sutra, parts of the Pali canon, and the Tathagatagarbha Sutra. Many x-buddhist teachers try to be explicit that they are teaching that there is an eternal consciousness/mind/“soul” etc., (Bikkhu Bodhi, for instanc), but their followers can’t hear what they say over the noise of the colorful robes and odd names. The problem, for me, is that many of them claim to both be teaching that there is an eternal consciousness and that there is not any such thing—as Alan Wallace does—and only those already hopelessly incapable of thought would be unable to see the errors and contradictions in such teachings. So there’s no helping them, but perhaps it is because such teachers beging from a position of utter stupidity so that they won’t be troubled by followers capable of critical thought.

  28. Javier Avatar

    Tom, thanks for this analysis. The Buddhist tradition has flirted with creeping Brahmanism from the start, but some of the Tibetan and East Asian traditions are the ones that have made the most of this and basically adopted atman.

    How this happened has been studied and debated for some time now. Recently, Johannes Bronkhorst’s “Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism” (2011) did a good of job of explaining how Brahmanism beat Buddhism in medieval India, becoming the dominant religion of the feudal Indian states. Some Buddhists responded by making themselves more and more brahmanical over time, adopting Sanskrit, brahmanical practices, rituals and doctrines. They went so far as to copy paste Shaiva scriptures into Buddhist tantras, as has been pointed out by Alexis Sanderson’s “The Saiva Age”. So it is not surprising that the Tibetan Buddhism of Wallace has the resources to allow for an atman. That doesn’t mean that all Tibetan Buddhists would accept this of course. While some do so wholeheartedly (the Jonang school), others, especially in the Gelug, would attack this view from a Madhyamaka perspective. But it seems that Wallace has let himself be completely seduced by the supercessionism of Dzgochen thought which holds that all Buddhist doctrines are surpassed and absorbed into Dzogchen ideology. Actually, I would like to see someone tackle Dzogchen ideology. The more I read about it the more it sounds like a kind of atman (of course this is strongly denied by the texts which themselves are aware of how close they are to atmavada). And it seems to be a Buddhist ideology that has not really been criticized in the modern era (I can’t find any solid critiques). It is quite surprising, because it seems like it creates a kind of ethical high ground which allows all sorts of abuses (Sogyal et al).

    Regarding East Asian Buddhism, certain Japanese Soto Zen scholars made a rucus about this back in 1985. Matsumoto Shiro and Hakamaya Noriaki of Komazawa University criticized what they called dhatuvada in East Asian Buddhism, which is basically the same idea that there is an ultimate metaphysical substratum that generates all phenomena. They make a similar claim to yours actually, they claim that this ideology “we are all one enlightened Buddha” actually made social change more difficult. There have been different responses to this view, but scholars of East Asian Buddhism like Dan Lusthaus acknowledge that there was a radical change in Chinese Buddhism during the 8th century which led to a basic idealistic monism becoming the dominant view of Chinese Buddhism. One can see this in the influential Chan master Zongmi’s work, which posits a “One Mind that alone is the ground of reality”.

    Similar atman like views have strangely surfaced in Thailand under the auspices of the Dhammakaya movement.

    So yea, this kind of stuff is everywhere in both modern and medieval Buddhism.

  29. amorinoblog Avatar
    Tibetan society pre-1949 was inegalitarian. But it was hardly “one of the most undemocratic” etc as you characterize it. These stereotypes about superstitious and subservient Tibetans ARE the Orientalism- they predate knowledge of Tibetan culture and history, perpetuate Chinese government propaganda about Tibet, and feed into a political narrative that is dangerous to one of the most vulnerable populations on the face of the earth. Stereotypes about Tibetan history and society pre-1949 sans citations are unhelpful. Any discussion of Tibetan society without mentioning the fact that these stereotypes were used to justify brutal Chinese rule is irresponsible.

    You can dismiss all of this as “Cold War anti-communist rhetoric”, but that doesn’t dismiss the massacres and oppression of Tibetan society after the Communist takeover, the burning of most monasteries, the public torture and humiliation of monks. Am I saying you support this? No- but I think you perpetuating stereotypes of traditional Tibetan culture without any historical citations is deeply problematic. As the historian’s article on Tibet I cited states:

    “China’s categorization of Tibetan society as feudal (technically, a problematic characterization) obscures the fact that this socially backwards society, lacking the population pressures found elsewhere, simply didn’t break down as it ought to have and continued functioning smoothly into the 20th century. Inegalitarian? Yes. Sometimes harsh? Yes. But Hell-on-Earth for the vast majority of Tibetans? No.”

  30. Lt. Orr Avatar
    Lt. Orr

    Well, I for one found this post extremely interesting and informative, despite conflicting opinions in the comments, as someone who stumbled across an Alan Wallace / Sean Carroll YouTube ‘discussion’ on reality/consciousness, and having read a handful of Buddhist essays but still being largely oblivious to the basics. I was mostly curious as to whether Wallace’s expressed desire to study the pursuit of the underlying ‘non-human’ consciousness (the atman!), as he put it, had gotten anywhere, but a critical analysis of his general arguments was very welcome. I’ll have to give myself a little credit for suspecting that a newly buddhist-themed research project in California was probably as new-age and mystical as it sounds, but clearly that credit is dwarfed by my non-awareness of… waves hand vaguely most of the rest of your review. Thanks for the intro and know that (both) your time and comments were appreciated, not wasted.

  31. cgnmin Avatar

    I did send you some feedback before on your webpage taking uch time and care, and I received no reply as I refuted you first three foundational premises on which a whole ream of commenters were mislead. Are you aware of the feedback? If so please send a copy again so we can discuss this, as I reported the extreme discrepancies to the Thai authorities and Thanyapura on grounds of deformation. I recall it is you who is a school teacher in Thailand.


  32. Dave Avatar

    I had never heard of B. Alan Wallace until recently when I stumbled across a loosely moderated (more like mc’d) discussion (it was sort of a sloppy hybrid of a debate and a discussion) between Wallace and physicist Sean Carroll.

    It’s interesting that the article describes Wallace as an Orientalist because that’s exactly how he came across to me.

    In a remarkable bit of projection, in an effort to prompt up Eastern philosophy (which he conflates with ‘radical empiricism’ and ‘hard science’) he broadly accused the West of arrogantly of possessing a ‘colonialist’ mentality whiles weirdly suggesting Asians have a deep understanding and explanation of consciousness.

    The guy is incredibly confused. He said something to the effect of “Sure, if you’re brain is damaged you’re probably not going to think too good, but the mind has nothing to do with the brain”. Huh?

    He also asserts at one point that there are hundreds of billions of inhabited worlds.

    Not impressed.

  33. Drew Avatar

    There’s a lot of mud-slinging going on here, and it seems to all be directed at straw-men. I appreciate both authors comments – your writing and philosophical skills are impressive.

    I think you’re getting at the fundamental disconnect between Buddhism and materialist modernity: Buddhism, fundamentally, posits that the mind can be explored and studied from a first-person perspective. Materialist modernity often tends to assume that the mind can only be studied, modified, or explored, in any depth, via physical/external methods (i.e., behavioral observation/research, neuroscience, interpersonal clinical psychology, etc.)

    In Buddhism, the notion of an alaya vijnana (substrate consciousness) differs from the notion of an Atman in subtle but important ways. I’m not sure that unpacking these would be appropriate in the context of a comments section, but again, I think the conflation of the two highlights a divide: in order to understand the difference between subtle theories and/or descriptions of consciousness, one has to take consciousness seriously as a phenomenon that can be studied from a first-person perspective. If you do not take that notion seriously, then your hypothesis will prevent you from comprehending the subtlety of the literature here.

    Wallace’s work, since his book Taboo of Subjectivity, has emphasized this point. He makes a wide range of scientific faux-pas in the process. He may also exhibit flawed understanding in some areas of science – he is constantly working to improve. Part of his project is to understand science in such a way that he can articulate the Buddhist first-person exploration and study of the mind, in modern terms. This is an extremely difficult project, but one that I do believe is worthwhile.

    Wallace’s career, despite his openness to dialogue and good intentions, has often been met by fierce backlash. I think this is inevitable – he is challenging the bedrock of most modern scientific assumptions about the mind, and those assumptions would appear to be validated by basically all of modern science. However, one of Wallace’s enduring points is that science has yet to develop a rigorous way of studying mental phenomena directly (which is true.) The fields of science focused on studying the mind (psychology, parts of sociology and neuroscience) study mental phenomena indirectly, via neuronal activity, behavior, and other measures. In that sense, those parts of neuroscience could, in a way, be said to resemble astrology (astrology studies the correlates of celestial movement, neuroscience studies the correlates of first-person experience.) This is not a devastating critique: the value of neuroscience is clear, and it’s success and applications will continue indefinitely. However, the value and success of neuroscience is not a valid refutation of the value and success of Buddhist first-person inquiry. Wallace is not trying to destroy science.

    I think that, in order to see the value of Wallace’s work, any academic would need to first be willing to set aside the project of critiquing him via the lens of an essentially materialist modern academia (which is the academia we’ve all grown up in.) They would also need to be willing to completely set aside the assumption that the mind is, on an individual level, a product of the brain (or, in essence, that the individual mind “is what the brain does.”) My own experience is that these tasks are extremely, extremely difficult.

    Pepper is working with ideas outside of materialism, and challenging assumptions about the Hard Problem. I admire that. For example: Pepper suggests, via his sources, the idea of a non-individuated mind/subject as a social entity. However, this idea appears to be built on the notion that individuality, per se, is a product of the brain – and therefore an automaton. He posits that the individual retains this automaton status, until it engages in a social “truth procedure.” This appears to be a contortion, based on potentially unnecessary assumptions about the relationship between individuality and the brain. It’s very difficult to set aside these kinds of fundamental assumptions: most modern scholars are trying to contort Buddhism to fit into them. It leads to problems. For example, Pepper’s idea (via his sources) presents the unsolvable problem of an individual as automaton, without agency, who must use agency to somehow participate in a social truth procedure.

    Once materialist academic assumptions, and assumptions about the mind/brain, are set aside, we can (if we wish) begin to consider whether the mind can be investigated directly, through first-person experience, with rigor and success. We could consider whether the mind might be trained on an elite-level, in order to do this.

    I’m not sure how we can do that effectively, without directly meeting professional-level Buddhist meditators. Given the state of affairs, it is difficult to tell who qualifies – but identifying such people has always been a process of careful inspection, and reflection. If we don’t take the time to find and meet such people, and consider what they have to say in genial conversation – or, ideally, train with them – we run the risk of making an intellectual critique of a experiential field. For example, were it not for media, record-keeping, the internet, and modernity in general, it would be intellectually difficult for me to believe that human beings are able to dive 200-300 feet (even 600+ feet) underwater, unassisted by oxygen or other means. Furthermore, I have difficulty understanding why they would try to do so. If I were more intelligent, and educated, I would likely be able to write a convincing philosophical, physiological, and otherwise logical critique of why this is not possible – and, furthermore, why no human being had ever done it. And yet, free-diving is a sport executed and enjoyed by many. It involves – neigh requires – the development of advanced techniques and skills I would have never thought of on my on. And yet, all I would have needed to do, was attend a professional free-diving event, in order to know the sport was possible. Even then, though, I would not be able to see directly just how deep the free-divers had gone – as a non-participant, my understanding of that depth would rely upon the measurement equipment in play, my faith in it and it’s execution, and my faith in the integrity of those responsible for measurement verification. I also would have been thoroughly unable to prove the possibility of free-diving via my own current experience – with or without attending a pro event – given my total lack of interest and, therefore, training.

    Meditation is more or less like swimming. Advanced meditation is more like free-diving. These activities take place in a medium that, unfortunately, cannot be directly viewed or studied physically. Individual, first-person experiences are also not necessarily social. We are not seeing others’ first-person experience – socially influenced or not – when we look at them, or otherwise experience them. It is also not possible to feel another person’s love via their neurons (this is a private, individual experience.) It is not possible to taste pasta in neurons (another one of many non-social, private, individual experiences.) Neuronal activity is correlated with our experiences in some way, we know that – but we will never find first-person experience in neuronal activity. First-person experience is what Pepper is missing – and it’s what Wallace’s work is all about. These points together may seem pedantic, and insignificant – they did to me, honestly, when I first came upon them. But the implications are rather impressive, if the point clicks. The totality of our first-person experience, which occurs in the mind, cannot be studied outside of first-person experience. First-person experience is the medium in which meditation takes place. Generally speaking, we’re drowning in that medium, not swimming – by which I mean, we exist in it, but do not know how to intentionally manipulate its qualities and our relationship to them (at least not outside of alcohol, narcotics, seeking certain forms of social interaction, or other external stimuli.)

    Meditative free-diving requires elite skill-development, but is it inherently elitist? I think not. There have always been Tulkus in Tibet, sure. Tibet is/was a hierarchical society, with problems, yes. But the majority of free-divers in Tibet were peasant lay-people, or monastics with no assets, who left whatever comforts they had in order to find the circumstances for doing this kind of work. It is usually done in poverty. The work is intensely difficult, and arduous. Bliss is neither assumed, nor is it the point. Pepper is wrong, across the board.

    History demonstrates that very, very few people will engage in this work professionally – just as very few will ever engage in Physics research on an advanced level. And yet, we rely upon such physicists to disseminate the highest-quality information about physics. Is our faith in physicists elitist?

    Socioeconomic status is not the determining factor for who can/will become a pro-level free-diver of this sort, any more than SES is the determining factor for who becomes a pro-basketball player (which tends to require around 6 hours a day of practice, or more, to achieve.) SES is far less of a factor in who will become an advanced free-diver of this sort than, say, who will become a physics professional with a PhD, able to engage in advanced research – or a philosophical, anthropological, sociological, or religious studies professional able to produce high-quality peer-reviewed work.

    In order to see the merit in a writer like Wallace, I think we need to start with more consideration of these points – or at least consider the possibility of veracity in these points. Doing so would likely require meeting some elite meditative free-divers, and speaking with them personally (or again, ideally, training with some.) You could try Wallace’s teachers: The Dalai Lama, Gyatrul Rinpoche, Garchen Rinpoche and many, many others. They agree with his position on all of these points. I also believe Wallace qualifies: he’s put in well over 40,000 hours of meditation, under the direct guidance of his teachers. He’s worked out his doubts with them, and discussed his ideas with them – including those in Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic. His teachers and friends also include accomplished physicists like Zeilinger – whom Pepper tries to quote against him. There are massive misunderstandings in play here, when people like Pepper offer a cursory read of Wallace’s work, and assume the alaya vijnana – a perfectly well-worked out classic Buddhist principle, often juxtaposed with an Atman – is equivalent to an Atman.

    James appeals to Wallace, because James calls for direct training – and via that training, investigation – of the mind, it’s potential, and it’s connection to lived experience (i.e., reality.) This is the opposite of aporia, and it’s not necessarily a form of atomism, or dualism. It is also not yet a science, per se – but Wallace would like to see it turn into one, in addition to other existing forms of science.

    When you account for all of the above, Pepper’s entire paper crumbles into meaninglessness. It’s the same for Novella’s critique. These are unfortunate misunderstandings.

    Wallace is an incredibly genial, open-minded, and enjoyable conversation partner. He brings limitations to the table, but he’s happy to discuss them, if you point them out in a civil fashion. He’s also excited, yes. But he’s got something he’s trying desperately to communicate. He’s worked his whole life to try to find ways to communicate it to brilliant academics, like those on display in this page. I hope he succeeds.

    But there has to be a genial conversation. So much of contemporary Buddhism has become the equivalent of a shouting match between well-intentioned swimmers, and academic free-dive-deniers who may or may not swim. Some swimmers believe free-diving is possible, but they’re usually taking it on faith. The low and mid-skill level free-divers with no scientific background, and unimpressive ability to express themselves, will always become straw-men for academics, no matter how good their intentions – as demonstrated in this comments section. The really great free-divers are not often at the table – especially not for comments sections like this.

    They’ve come to the table for scientific work like that of Richard Davidson at Wisconsin Madison – or of Jonathan Cohen at Princeton, and Brent Field, formerly at Princeton. They’ve come to the table for the Mind and Life Dialogues. But I think that, on the whole, they don’t feel much incentive to have a discussion with people who deny that free-diving is possible – they’re doing it, and they have been for 2,500 years. And I’m not sure they feel their time spent at the table has been valued.

    I hope everyone still at this one-sided table can find more incentive to relax out of the sense that they’re right, and that they’ve said everything that needs to be said. There’s a meaningful conversation to be had here, and I worry that it’s not going to take place. If both of these sides are to understand each other thoroughly, and functionally speak each others’ dialects, it’s going to take more than a good-college-try, and a passing sense of academic good-will. The free-divers are offering much more than that – in the case of Wallace, he’s invested an entire career in trying to understand how he might be able to explain free-diving to the deniers. He’s done it in good cheer, and with the best of motivations. He’s still sitting at the table, with spit in his face.

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