Only Don’t Know! Reflections on a Thoughtless Life

By Jonathan Earle*

My conversion to Buddhism happened in a church bathroom.

I remember flushing the toilet and watching the water disappear to who-knows-where. I scrubbed my hands and examined my face in the mirror, thinking, “I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life.”1 Becoming a Buddha would take my whole life, surely. I imagined a path spiraling out endlessly before me. It was a terrifying and exciting thought. I guess I would call that my, “conversion experience.”

I must have been thirteen years old. I was in the bathroom of the local Unitarian Church at a Friday evening meeting of the Springwind Zen Center.2  I had gone to several meetings by this time. They usually consisted of sitting meditation for twenty minutes, walking meditation for ten, sitting another twenty, and then a discussion with the group’s leaders Troy and Carlo. I didn’t quite get the point of meditation and I didn’t quite get the point of the strange, circular kind of language Zen people use to talk about what they do, but there was something that they possessed and I lacked. They: Those wild, old Zen men from the kōans.3  I was fascinated by stories of these masters performing miracles and giving laconic answers to enigmatic questions. I was captured by the mystique,4 believing it to be profound. Even my American Zen teachers seemed to be completely at home in a radically different way of seeing and being in the world. What had they figured out that I hadn’t? I supposed it could be summed up with the one word, “enlightenment.” In the bathroom that evening, I was prepared to spend my whole life getting there.

I have re-told this memory enough times that it has become a myth: I’m certain that whatever content it once had has been thoroughly re-inscribed by new meanings. In the past I’ve said of this story, “It was a gut feeling. I just knew that there was something about this stuff (i.e., Zen) that was real.” I no longer think of my “conversion experience” as a pre-conceptual recognition of timeless wisdom. Maybe Zen does indeed intimate to something true, but the mystical experience of a believer cannot verify that truth. I write this today as an incorrigible icchantika: a slanderer of the Three Jewels.5

I used to imagine my life as a path—a thoroughly Buddhist image. Before I came to Buddhism, I was lost. An innumerable number of causes and conditions had fortunately brought me onto the right path and I had no choice but to follow until the end. I don’t think of my life so teleologically anymore. I try to think of it in a more aleatory way: An innumerable number of contingent conditions coalesced and that juncture, that temporary node, is “me.” And one of the big knots of sub-nodes that makes up the “me” is Buddhism, and on one of the deepest roots in one of those sub-nodes is my bathroom mirror revelation. It’s just a useful literary device, a trace. The conversion experience is a symbolic beginning.

The purpose of this essay is to confess—to give an account of how I became and un-became a Buddhist. This is an impossible task, but I hope to draw out some of the innumerable forces at work in my becoming and unbecoming.

Hopefully this essay can also shine some light back onto the reader—What ideologies do you hold dear? Where do they come from? How do they compel you to act in the world?


Nowadays I have a different interpretation of my “conversion experience.” Now, I interpret that moment of recognition, of gut-level “knowing,” as significant in an entirely different way: it was the moment of interpellation into an x-buddhism. Glenn Wallis has coined the term “x-buddhism” to combat the illusion of a monolithic Buddhism that claims “grand authority concerning human knowledge.”6 The “x” signifies the numerous possible modifiers (e.g, secular, Thai Forest, Soto Zen, Pure Land, etc.) of the single theme of “buddhism.” Each of the limitless possible x-buddhisms has its own “version of the means and end of the One’s grand authority.”7 In other words, every x-buddhism conceives of “Buddhism” (“the One”), and even the world, from its own “Right View.”

Interpellation is the term Louis Althusser uses to describe the “entering into” or “being hailed” by an ideology. An ideology is a belief-in-practice8 which functions to reproduce class relations.9 Althusser illustrates his theory of interpellation with the famous policeman example: You are walking down the street when suddenly you hear the voice of a policeman behind you, “Hey! You!” You stop and turn around. In that moment,10 you are interpellated. By turning around you affirm the authority of the other/the policeman. The policeman is a representative of, what Althusser calls, the Absolute Subject. This Subject (in this case, The Law) is the center of the ideology (ideology of the police) for which all subjects of an ideology work.11 Simultaneously, you recognize yourself as a subject: the policeman is really calling to you. There is also the unstated understanding of how you ought to behave with the police officer; as long as you are a law-abiding citizen (a good subject), “everything will be alright.”12 In successful interpellation, the subject believes that their ideology “really is so,” that they “freely” submit to “the commandments of the [Absolute] Subject.” Particular ideologies produce subjects for particular class positions who “work by themselves” to perpetuate their ideology and their class position. In the mirror, I recognized myself as a suffering sentient being in need of the Dharma. I knew that if I followed the “path” of the Dharma I would end up at enlightenment. I became a subject of the Dharma.


I grew up in a stable, middle-class household with a loving family. Our comfortable existence [predicated on the invisible suffering of untold masses] allowed for the luxury of dabbling in diverse pastimes (such as Buddhist meditation). My siblings and I grew up in the void of our parents’ non-practicing-Protestantism. We went to church maybe once a year. (I think in 2001 we went on Easter, a few days after 9/11, and Christmas.) My parents were the “spiritual but not religious” sort of agnostics. They encouraged my siblings and me to explore “spiritual” interests but not to become “too dogmatic.”13

Many of my childhood obsessions were scientifically-oriented, and became progressively more grandiose as I got older: in first grade, I wanted to build a bomb; in third grade, a robot; in fifth grade, I wanted to understand how life began… At some point I decided that the most interesting questions weren’t scientific ones but questions of meaning. I decided that I couldn’t find ultimate meaning, truth, or happiness in science, so I turned to religion for answers. By the time I was thirteen, I was engaged in a full-blown quest for existential meaning and truth. This was to become a lasting interest. Initially I tried praying, but nothing ever happened, so I gave up on God. My religious quest led me to read the Bhagavad-Gita, the Dao De Jing, and finally an anthology called Essential Zen.14 This last one captured my imagination and set me looking for someplace where I could learn more about Zen Buddhism.

In a paper on Western Buddhism, Žižek makes an interesting argument that gets at a possible motivation for my precocious crisis of meaning. He argues that Western Buddhism is an ideological “fetish,” which is “the embodiment of the Lie which enables us to sustain the unbearable truth.”15 As fetish, Western Buddhism allows you to believe it is what “really matters,” while functioning to enable “you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self.”16  The “unbearable truth” Žižek speaks of is, of course, the fact that the Western Buddhist is really “in it” (i.e., capitalism), she cannot escape “the spectacle,” and the “inner Self” is, in fact, a gaping hole to be filled by ideology. From Žižek’s perspective, put simply, the unbearable truth is the exploitative economic system to which we are all subjected.

Tom Pepper makes a similar argument in a review of The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein. While specifically referring to Epstein’s brand of petite-bourgeois Buddhism, the argument can be applied to most Western Buddhists (I think). Pepper argues that Epstein’s ideology is one tailored to reproduce, what he calls, the “professional” subject. This subject occupies a class position in the “lower stratum of the ruling class,” believes what she does to be “natural, necessary,” and that she “works hard.”17 She lives off the labor of the working class while functioning to “administer the transfer of capitalist wealth from those who produce it to those who appropriate it.”18 However, this subject must “remain ignorant, in fact, of what role they play in the social formation.”19 Pepper compares this subject to the master in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. The master is an idle being, cut off from the slave who labors to turn raw Being (matter) into commodities for the consumption of the master, and must enjoy “fleeting, passive” pleasures.20 Like the master, thinking too hard would make the “professional” subjects unhappy,21 so they search for a spiritual fetish like Buddhism. Thought-free bliss is a goal for the professional subject, and certainly one of the great appeals of Zen for me. It was a revelation when I learned that thinking was the cause of all my unhappiness!

There are numerous forces at work here, but to keep the narrative flowing, I’ll just say that Google led me to the Springwind Zen Center…


What kind of ideology, specifically, was I engaged in at the Springwind Zen Center? The Center is a part of the international Kwan Um School of Zen. Kwan Um began with the founding of the Providence Zen Center in 1972 by Zen Master Seung Sahn.22 He is the most well-known Korean Buddhist leader in the West and worked tirelessly to found over a hundred Zen Centers across North America, Europe, Asia, and even South Africa and Australia.23 Seung Sahn was well known for forcefully asking his students the question, “What are you?” In fact, this became one of his signature teachings: “Zen is very simple…What are you?24 In my years with the Kwan Um school, I have often heard students describe being “hooked” by this question, saying something to the effect of: “I had always wanted to ask that question but never had,” or “I was absolutely stumped.” Seung Sahn’s method is interesting because it points to something true: the hole at the center of subjectivity, the utter emptiness of ideology. Those who felt struck by this question were probably already imperfectly interpellated into other ideologies, and perhaps understood the emptiness of their ideology on some level. Asking that question, point-blank, is in a sense a reversal of Althusser’s classic example of the policeman shouting, “Hey! You!” It is pulling the rug out from under—pushing someone briefly outside of their ego identifications, and into new ones. As Althusser says, we are always-already within ideology.

While Seung Sahn may have gestured at the utter contingency of human being, he could not but fill that void: “In this whole world everyone searches for happiness outside, but nobody understands their true self inside.” Seung Sahn raises the terrifying possibility that there is no self, but quickly fills in the void with a “true self” which is the source of true happiness. Seung Sahn says that if you pursue the question, “‘what am I?’ sooner or later you will run into a wall where all thinking is cut off. We call this ‘don’t know.’” “Don’t know” is something like a spirit—a “clear” consciousness, which is prior to (thus unaffected by) thought, and which can directly perceive things just as they are: “Finally, your don’t-know mind will become clear. Then you can see the sky, only blue. You can see the tree, only green. Your mind is like a clear mirror.”25 Simply by no longer thinking and “looking within,” you can “return to your true nature” and see that everything is perfect just the way it is. The apparent simplicity (just don’t think!) of this solution to “the great matter of life and death” appealed to me.

When I entered high school I took the Five Precepts26 which, in the Kwan Um School, mark one’s commitment to “the Dharma.” My belief only intensified as I swallowed the teachings whole with the zealousness of the newly converted. By the time I got to college I had done my first silent, weeklong retreat, consisting of over ten hours of meditation per day. In my first two years of college I adamantly refused to take any philosophy or Buddhist studies courses for fear that they would “interfere with my practice.” Finally, in my first semester of junior year, I took a class with William Edelglass called, “Buddhism, Representation, and Language,” which at the time was my first experience thinking critically about Buddhism in any capacity. I remember reading and discussing an article by Dale S. Wright called “Rethinking Transcendence and the Role of Language in Zen Experience.” Wright critiques the notion advanced in many modernist presentations of Zen (e.g., D. T. Suzuki and Thomas Kasulis) that “Zen enlightenment is an undistorted, ‘pure experience’ of ‘things as they are’ beyond the shaping power of language.”27 In my mind, of course, this was enlightenment. Whereas before this course I had always avoided scholarship (critical scholarship in particular), disregarding it as “intellectualization” for people who thought too much and didn’t understand the heart of Zen, for once I had to come to terms with criticism of my own tradition. Contradictions opened up in the tension between my naive Zen beliefs and criticisms like Wright’s. The discomfort that this course brought me was the first spasms of what Glenn Wallis calls aporetic dissonance: “An affective condition. The believer‘s discovery within himself or herself of a dissonant ring of perplexity, puzzlement, confusion, and loss concerning the integrity of Buddhism‘s self-presentation”28

I interpreted the aporetic dissonance as a result of thinking too much. This course signified what I felt to be a growing disconnect between my coursework (mostly natural sciences) and my Buddhist practice. With the additional stress of a failing romantic relationship, I decided to temporarily leave school in my second semester of junior year. I imagined myself as a monk, renouncing the material world and pursuing my true nature on a mountaintop in Korea. Turns out that’s not so feasible. Instead, I planned on attending the full three month winter retreat at the Providence Zen Center, so that I could finally do what I was meant to do: sit. To my disappointment, my grandmother died at an inopportune time: I couldn’t attend the first month of the retreat.29 This time in retreat was a breakthrough for me. I felt that I had finally attained “don’t know.” All of the tricky academic questions were in abeyance.

When I got back to school in the fall, I committed to Buddhist studies as a major. I was immediately confronted again with difficult questions. In “Buddhist Modernism in Theory and Practice” I began to develop a more critical attitude towards Buddhism (without ever getting too close to my own tradition, thankfully). Early in the course, as we were discussing David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, William asked me nonchalantly, “So, do you think of yourself as more of a Buddhist modernist, or traditionalist?” I tried, but couldn’t really answer the question. Neither option seemed great. As I understood it then, the traditionalists were bound up with ritual and superstition about “hungry ghosts,” reincarnation, the Four Great Elements, and other fictions of a medieval cosmology. The modernists, like the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and McMindfulness people were clearly throwing the baby out with the bath water! They were missing some crucial feature of a “correct Buddhism” that I could never quite articulate.30 I more or less side-stepped questions that might have engendered aporetic dissonance, but at least I began getting comfortable with critical thought.

I resolved to learn more about Korean Sŏn Buddhism, the parent of the Americanized Kwan Um School. In the spring of 2016, I finally decided what my Plan of Concentration would focus on: Pojo Chinul’s (1158-1210) conception of “true mind.” Chinul is an extremely influential figure in the Korean Buddhist tradition (yet little-known in the West), responsible for uniting the (erstwhile) rival doctrinal and meditative schools. His work is still studied at Korean Buddhist seminaries.31 I chose to study Chinul because I wanted to study my own “spiritual heritage.” I chose Chinul because he was a thinker relevant to my life, i.e., he was a thinker officially sanctioned by teachers of the Kwan Um School. However, as I waded through Robert Buswell’s Collected Works of Chinul, a troubling question began to gnaw at me: Why was there so much discussion of the mind as the basis for reality? It was beginning to sound like Chinul was an idealist…

Ultimately, what is that thing which during the twelve periods of the day knows hunger and thirst, cold and heat, anger and joy? This physical body is a synthesis of four conditions: earth, water, fire, and wind. Since matter is passive and insentient, how can it see, hear, sense, and know? That which is able to see, hear, sense, and know is perforce your Buddha-nature.32

I could forgive the antiquated pseudo-chemistry of the four elements; chemistry hadn’t been invented yet. But the last two sentences were making me anxious…how could the Buddha-nature be separate from matter? How was the belief in a separate category of being apart from matter any different from the belief in a soul? I had long since disavowed the non-practicing Protestantism of my childhood and considered myself to be thoroughly “materialist.”33 The notion that Chinul expresses here, that there is a strict duality in matter and mind and that the latter is the important one, made no sense to me.

In contrast, Seung Sahn taught that “mind and matter are not two,” and that this duality is just an empty name, as the Absolute is “before thinking.”34 I interpreted this in a sort of vague, crypto-vitalist way. In other words, if you don’t think about it, the relationship between mind and matter ceases to be a problem. It may have been obscurantist, but at least Seung Sahn’s view accorded with the hegemonic discourse of reductive empiricism.  

What’s the problem? Why does it matter that a twelfth century Korean Zen master and a 20th century Korean master don’t agree? Isn’t an evolution in thought predictable and desirable? At this point in my life I was still enraptured by Ch’an/Zen/Sŏn’s perennial ideal of the unbroken transmission. I didn’t believe that there was literally a single, unbroken chain of ancestors, but I certainly believed there must be some continuity in thought. Sure, the outer features of the teaching (unimportant things like karma) could change, but the core itself couldn’t change because there is one, universal experience transcending all of the particularities of culture and history: access to the true mind. The minor differences in Buddhist thought could be attributed to culture.

However, the differences between Seung Sahn and Chinul about the nature of true mind (was it a spiritual essence, or the non-duality of mind and matter?) were significant enough to cause me a lot of stress. I had difficulty writing a paper on Chinul that semester because I didn’t feel confident in my interpretation of his ideas. Either I was missing some key part of his thought that would temper his radical dualism, or Chinul was simply too profound for me to comprehend. The alternatives—either he was wrong about true mind, or I was—were too awful to consider.

I was consistently frustrated by this problem throughout the semester, and I began to think that my lack of understanding was indicative of a general lack of spiritual maturity. The old ideas of escapism that I had felt a year prior resurfaced. Again, I began entertaining fantasies of moving to Korea and becoming a monk. The world has so many problems, how could I waste my time doing anything else?

In spring of 2016, Marlboro College awarded me a summer grant to study Korean Buddhism as part of my Plan of Concentration (senior thesis). I planned to travel around South Korea, visiting historic sites, temples, spending time in monasteries with monastics, and taking Korean language classes. On some level, I hoped that this trip would help me resolve the deepening inner contradiction I felt over Chinul.


The afternoon sun limned the pine boughs and rocky contours of the mountain stream separating Baekdamsa temple from the mundane world. It was day four. We had just heard Venerable Subul’s second mandatory Dharma speech of the day, and about half of the retreatants had left the sŏnbang (meditation hall) to walk or sleep or else do something prohibited. Subul had urged us as always, through the voice of our illustrious (Twitter-famous) translator Venerable Haemin, to break through the hwadu (topic of meditative inquiry).

This was the hwadu Subul had given us on the first day of the retreat…

Subul held up his hand and then slowly curled and uncurled his finger. The room was silent as 60 eyes trained on the inscrutable movement of a finger. He asked us to do the same. Then he had said, “What is moving this finger? It is neither finger, I, nor mind. However, you cannot also say that the finger, I, or mind does not move the finger either. Then, what is causing me to move this finger?”35 That was our question to meditate with/on/through for the next 6 days.  I should amend this; for Subul, the hwadu is not the question “What is making me do this?”, but the bodily sensation of doubt—the desperately-wanting-to-understand (Subul called this feeling doubt) that the question was intended to evoke. We36 were instructed to focus single-mindedly not on the doubt sensation; every other sensory/cognitive phenomenon was to be ignored. Twice a day Subul instructed us to practice ferociously and constantly—as if we were mosquitos vainly trying to penetrate an iron ball; or like the hwadu was a burr caught in our throat: impossible to either swallow or spit up. We were to practice until we reached the place of “silver mountains and iron walls,” and then, “when the time is ripe, sudden enlightenment is revealed at the moment the practitioner ‘breaks open’ the hwadu.”37 Subul claimed that he had designed this particular method with very little instruction in order to frustrate us and make us look harder for the answer to our question. Almost all of these talks ended in questions from the audience regarding what the hell we were supposed to be doing.

On the fourth day, after his virtually identical morning speech urging us to push through with the hwadu until the very end, he called up a young Korean man from the group to talk about his experience. This was the camera guy. He had beautiful, long hair done up in a ponytail, a messy goatee and mustache, and fashionably large glasses. He had stayed at the periphery except when he was taking group pictures—he would enthusiastically yell, hanna!…dŭl!…set! (“one, two, three”) and take the picture one-handed. I didn’t even realize he was taking part in the meditation until two days before when he had gotten up from his seat in the sŏnbang, stormed over to the rice paper doors, and slammed them in the faces of two retreatants who were loudly talking outside. Subul informed us that this man had solved the hwadu. Through the voice of our translator, the man told us how he at first he couldn’t concentrate on the hwadu at all. He felt as though he alone didn’t understand while everyone else was beginning to grasp it and make progress. He was determined to solve the hwadu or die trying (hence the door-slamming). The night before, he told us, he had stayed up all night meditating, trying to break open the hwadu. At one point he was in so much pain and felt so much anger that he thought he would die. The intensity continued to build until suddenly it felt like the sky had broken open: the feelings completely evaporated and the hwadu lifted from his shoulders. He immediately jumped up and began laughing. He felt so much power that he could knock down the sŏnbang with a single blow. The blissful feeling had lasted through till the following morning when he related his experience to Subul and had received the seal of approval: sudden awakening!

I couldn’t help but feel that this “awakening experience” was very contrived—an emotional anomaly that was taken to be some lasting cognitive shift. But I was still intrigued. I had a tiny belief that I could get some grand experience out of this ordeal after all. I stuck it out.

That afternoon, the ten or so of us who were inspired by the bravado of Subul’s speech held our rectangular, grey mats and pressed on fearlessly with the hwadu. In rows, meditators were slouching and scowling, a few nodding off.  In the back of the room was a constantly replenished supply of coffee, Oreo cookies, Choco Pies, and juice boxes. I sat—enervated by stillness, silence, and heat. Mercifully, there was no rustling of wrappers at the moment. After struggling for what was probably all of 10 minutes, I stood up on stiff legs and headed outside for a walk. Just as I reached the door, a sobbing erupted from one of the middle-aged Korean women in the room. It was the kind of primal expression of pain that comes from young children but rarely adults. I looked on, unsure of what to do. The sŏnbang monitor, a silent yet imposing young monk, had taught us through glares not to attempt to comfort a crying person during meditation: this was a natural part of the process and we weren’t to interfere.

But this woman was really breaking down, half-crumpling into herself. Subul was alerted. I watched as he stepped into the sŏnbang with a look of (could it be?) glee, quietly positioned himself behind the woman, and let out a shout as he pounded her back once with the heel of his hand. As this near-farcical scene unfolded, I passed through the paper doors. I was completely fed-up with the sadomasochism of the retreat and (in my mind) Subul’s imperious attitude. What was I doing in this place? Subul’s hit only confirmed for me what I had suspected all along—this brand of Buddhism was baloney. I decided then and there to give up the crazy hwadu practice Subul had given us at the beginning of the retreat and return to the comfortable mantra practice that I had learned in American Zen centers.

I stewed in the Korean summer sun. Subul left the building. The crying continued.


Subul was not acting in a random, violent way, but perhaps even had an altruistic motivation in mind: to “liberate” this woman from her ignorance.  To use Bernard Faure’s phrase, Subul was simply performing the rhetoric of immediacy. In Wallis’ terminology, Subul was ventriloquizing tradition. Wallis defines ventriloquism as “the Buddhist (person) manifesting buddhistic representation via speech and writing… Evidence of ventriloquism is the predictable iteration of buddhemes.”38 Clearly the hits and shouts are buddhemes, which Wallis defines as “the iterative vocabulary, phrases, and sentences that comprise virtually one hundred percent of buddhistic discourse… In reflexively speaking and writing in buddhemes, Buddhists effectively reduce reality to the descriptive terms provided by Buddhist discourse.”39 OK, so hits and shouts aren’t “vocabulary, phrases, and sentences,” per se, but they are symbols recognized by a group—a language game. Dale S. Wright terms this non-verbal discourse employed in Ch’an “encounter dialogues” right up until the present-day,  “the rhetoric of direct pointing.”40  Wright claims that it was because of the “‘depth’ and invisibility of its referent” that this rhetoric developed to be “as unconventional as its referent,”41the referent being, of course, open parentheses. By virtue of their very “directness,” these signs (hitting, shouting, etc.) can be ascribed any meaning endorsed by the orthodoxy of a particular group. I thought I understood the meaning of Subul’s action, but the obvious performativity of it, and the apparent pleasure he took in exercising his power, made the whole incident an odious one.

Marilyn Ivy proposes that, in modernity, Buddhism is imagined in two distinct modes: “Buddhism as object of modern fantasy and longing, bearing nostalgic freight of the premodern and non-Western; 2) Buddhism as a transhistorical religion comprising technologies of liberation, thus intrinsically empty of historical signification or cultural baggage.”42 One of my desires on this trip was to confirm this second perception of Buddhism: Chinul was saying exactly the same thing as Seung Sahn. “True mind” was always understood as somewhere-in-between a vitalist force animating matter and a Lockean “ghost in the machine.” There could be no contradiction because both men had had the universal, incontrovertible experience of awakening. At the same time, I was anxious that perhaps I was getting something wrong. Perhaps in returning to the “motherland” of Kwan Um Zen, I would have a profound experience or meet a wise spiritual guide to set me straight. My desire to become a monk was certainly based partly on this romanticized (orientalist) view of Korea, as well. However, the retreat with Subul dealt a serious blow to the first illusion. It went a long way to confirming my suspicion that there were no “true monks”43 left in Korea after Seung Sahn, or if there were, they were hidden deep in mountain monasteries. In effect, I retreated further into the Kwan Um camp, believing my x-buddhism to be the correct one after all.

After the retreat with Subul, I spent nearly six weeks at Musangsa, the only Kwan Um monastery in South Korea. During this time, my desire to ordain only grew. Living the holy life was all I could think about: all day, every day. I talked about my ambitions with the Zen Master and other senior monks; they encouraged me to wait until I was certain. Surely the idea of a sexless life was off-putting, but it was a small price to pay for a lifetime of service. Throughout the three month trip, the feeling of desire became one of certainty, fate.44 I distinctly remember chanting Kwan Seum Bosal (the Korean name for Avalokiteśvara, bodhisattva of compassion) in the Sanshingak (shrine to the mountain spirit) one afternoon, and having an overwhelming sense of the suffering of the world. I knew that only by ordaining could I be of use in the universe’s Grand Design. I fell on my knees and wept, completely certain, resigned to the inevitability of a life spent in grey robes.

I carried this certainty with me back to Vermont in September. I was excited to finish my college education, get a job, pay off my student loans, and then save up enough for a plane ticket to Seoul. However, once back in the academic trenches, my certainty began eroding again.


Strangely, I have the most difficulty making sense of this last part of my story. By trawling through the last seven months of my email correspondence, I’ve been able to reconstruct a rough timeline.

On October 15th, I had a conversation with a Zen Master at Providence Zen Center about monkhood. She told me that many of the monks she had met in Korea had girlfriends. She said that she had no problem with this, except that monks ought to be more transparent. She also informed my that one of the monks that I admired most had had several relationships while ordained. I came away from this conversation profoundly disappointed. Perhaps it was “unnatural” for people to constrain their sexual drives for their entire adult lives? By late October or early November, I had discovered the Speculative Non-Buddhism site.  I remember my first reaction to the site (after utter incomprehension) was rage. I couldn’t believe how disrespectful the authors and commentators were. The rage began mutating to horror as I read on. Reading the blog was like watching a meticulous, gory surgery, but I couldn’t turn away. On November 6th, unsure of what to do with it, I recommended the SNB blog to my Zen teacher, Jean, telling her that “the object seems to be pretty scathing (accurate, I think) critiques of Buddhism, especially the sloppy thinking of modern, Western Buddhists. I’ve found that it is a good mirror to reflect my own prejudices and deeply cherished beliefs about what Buddhism(s) is/are, have been, could be.” She said that, reading the blog, she wanted to “stand up and cheer.” I don’t think she read very far…

By Thanksgiving, I was utterly fed up with Chinul and his confusing Huayan metaphysics. Hoping to get away from it, I began reading about Insight Meditation avidly. I was particularly taken with Gil Fronsdal and his vision of a metaphysics-free, “Naturalistic Buddhism.” I bought one of his books, and even signed up for two retreats at the Insight Meditation Society (which I subsequently cancelled). At this point, I was still entertaining the thought of (at least) temporary ordination. This Insight obsession was to last from late November to mid-January.

I estimate that I began reading the SNB material in earnest on January 22nd, when I subscribed to the blog. Pretty soon after that, I entered into what Wallis calls, aporetic inquiry. This is a radical questioning of Buddhism’s epistemic authority which “alerts the practitioner to (i) fissures, gaps, aporia, in the Buddhist dispensation” as well as the possibility that Buddhism simply plasters over these fundamental gaps with rhetorical assurance.45 For me, this inquiry into all-that-did-not-make-sense happened rapidly and intensely: there was a weeklong period where I did nothing but read the SNB material all day, barely eating or leaving my room. I felt like someone had died. On February 2nd, I called one of my Zen teachers to tell him that I didn’t want to be part of the Kwan Um School any longer, and that I couldn’t trust the Kwan Um teachings any more. It was a heated exchange, but I delayed leaving Kwan Um, deciding to “sit on it” a little more. On February 11th, after reading Glenn Wallis’ appeal to use the “instruments of non-buddhism” to “do something,”46 I decided to give it a try (see the first two emails of the appendix).

Finally, there is ancoric loss. This is Wallis’ term for the final loss of hope that Buddhism does what it says it does.47 Ancoric loss is the irreversible acceptance that x-buddhism cannot offer a refuge, ultimate wisdom, or an end to suffering. In a sense, ancoric loss is the completion of the job Seung Sahn started, but refused to finish. He may have yanked the rug out from under a few students with the question, “What are you?” but he always slipped a Zen rug under their feet. The SNB project refuses rugs, and it questions the entire edifice that the rug conceals. Any place a Buddhist might seek refuge has been immanently critiqued by Non-buddhism in order to show that x-buddhism is not sufficient knowledge in and of itself. The relentless critique of x-buddhism that brings the practitioner to ancoric loss is only half the battle, however. If, as Tom Pepper insists, we “take anātman at full strength,”48 then it is only possible to change society by consciously creating better ideologies. Non-buddhist practice therefore necessarily includes the theoretical and the political.

I titled this essay, “Reflections on a Thoughtless Life” because I have spent nearly half of it avoiding thought, practicing “don’t know.” Thinking was impossible because I was committed to the idea that it is the cause of suffering. Ancoric loss is the best thing that has ever happened to me: I am now relearning how to think, and how powerful and enjoyable it can be when done well. I’m no longer interested in practicing Buddhism, but I am interested in practicing non-buddhism. As I said, non-buddhist practice involves both a continuous critique in theory, as well as political action in practice. I can’t think of a better way to address what is to be done, or a better embodiment of the twin Buddhist ideals of Wisdom and Compassion.


I would like to end this paper in the same manner that we end every practice session at the Springwind Zen Center—with the Four Great Vows:

  1. Sentient beings are numberless. We vow to save them all.
  2. Delusions are endless. We vow to cut through them all.
  3. The teachings are infinite. We vow to learn them all.
  4. The Buddha Way is inconceivable. We vow to attain it.49

I sometimes recite these vows to remind myself of the manner in which I want to live my life. Saving a sentient being, cutting through a delusion, learning a teaching, and attaining the Buddha Way, looks a bit different now. “Saving” looks like true political and economic equality attained through struggle; “cutting through” looks like ideological and theoretical critique; “learning” involves careful thought and its application in practice; and “attaining the Buddha Way” looks like expanding human knowledge of empty reality in order to benefit all people and the planet. These vows don’t look much like the originals. They are, as Glenn Wallis is fond of saying, “buddhistically uninterpretable”—the Four Great Non-buddhist Vows.


  1. I don’t mean peeing or hand-washing, although I expect to do those things for the rest of my life too.
  2. I have changed all of personal (and place) names in this paper.
  3. An anthologized “case” in the Ch’an/Zen/Sǒn tradition; an anecdote usually consisting of a highly stylized “encounter” between Zen teachers or students. Often, Zen teachers will ask their students questions about a particular kōan (Chi. kung’an; Kor. kong’an), or ask them to comment on it to show their understanding. Kōans are usually the original sources of hwadus.  Here’s a well-known example:

“Deshan’s Thirty Blows”
Zen Master Xuanjian of Deshan [Jianxing] said to the assembly during an informal talk, “I am not going to give an answer tonight. Anyone who asks a question will get thirty blows.”
A monastic came up and bowed. Deshan hit him.
The monastic said, “I haven’t asked a question. Why did you hit me?”
Deshan said, “Where are you from?”
The monastic said, “I came from Silla [in Korea].”
Deshan said, “Before you even got on board the ship, you deserved thirty blows.”
I’ve spent way too much time over the years meditating on and giving answers to kōans like this, learning through trial-and-error the formulas to this language game.

From John Daido Loori, The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dōgen’s Three Hundred Kōans, trans. Kazuaki Tanahashi and John Daido Loori, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2005), 44.

  1. Glenn Wallis refers to this (quasi-Orientalist?) mystique as rhetorics of self-display: “The aesthetic affectation of thaumaturgy—clothing, naming, hair styles, painting, sculpture, architecture…Roaring roshis, shamanic lamas, wizardly tulkus, and wonder-working arahants,” all of which constitute rhetorics of self-display. To put it simply, the “outer form” of Buddhism does “work” on the practitioner. The outer form metaphorically says, I know something that you don’t. See, Glenn Wallis, “Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism,” (2011), 19.
  2.  Icchantikas are a class of sentient beings “lacking in Buddha-nature”; they can never become awakened (Wonhyo: Selected Works, ed. A. Charles Muller [Seoul: Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, 2012], 89). “The Three Jewels” are the three basic components of Buddhism: The Buddha, the Dharma (teachings), and the Sangha (community of monastic and lay practitioners). “I vow not to slander the Three Jewels” was the tenth precept that I took in the Kwan Um School of Zen (of which the Springwind Zen Center is a part).
  3. Glenn Wallis, “Why X-Buddhism?,” Speculative Non-Buddhism, 2010. 
  4.  Wallis, “What is X-Buddhism?”
  5.  Tom Pepper’s expression. See, “Saṃsāra as the Realm of Ideology,” in The Faithful Buddhist, (Amazon Digital Services, 2011).
  6.  Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster, (Monthly Review Press: 1971). 
  7. Actually, we are all “always-already” interpellated into ideology (although not all ideologies). If you weren’t already interpellated into the police ideology, you wouldn’t have turned around.
  8.  Althusser, “Ideology,” 178.
  9.  Althusser, “Ideology,” 181.
  10.  A criticism that my mother has been leveling at me for years in regards to my involvement with Buddhism.
  11.   A big influence on my interest in East Asian culture arose, I imagine, from a two week trip to China that my parents, brother, and I took to adopt my little sister. Initially, I was much more enamored with Chairman Mao than Buddhism.
  12.  Slavoj Žižek, “From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism,” Cabinet, no. 2 (2001). 
  13. Ibid.
  14.  Tom Pepper, “Traumatized by Toast,” in The Faithful Buddhist, (Amazon Digital Services: 2011).
  15.  Pepper, “Traumatized by Toast.”
  16. Ibid.
  17.  Apologies to G. W. F. Hegel, who I’m probably misrepresenting. My interpretation is entirely second-hand, based on Pepper’s essay and Muhammad Kamal, “Master-Slave Relationship in Hegel’s Dialectic,” Hegel Summer School 2004. 
  18.  Interestingly, David Graeber supports this position indirectly by drawing a comparison between the conditions of slavery and the conditions of capitalism wherein societies with “extreme forms of chattel slavery” often originate ideologies of “freedom,” “essentially as a point of contrast”; in an analogous way, he argues, neoliberal societies have notions of “freedom of contract,” and “personal liberty outside the workplace” (emphasis original). Graeber concludes that capitalism is a transformation of slavery (a part-time slavery), and vice versa. The “unhappily affluent” are still alienated as, in the words of Kamal, “slaves of capital.” Isn’t Buddhism precisely such an ideology of freedom? See, David Graeber, “Turning Modes of Production Inside Out: Or, Why Capitalism is a Transformation of Slavery,” Critique of Anthropology, vol. 26 no.1 (2006): 79-80.
  19.  Kwan Um School of Zen, “About the School.” 
  20. Ibid.
  21.  Seung Sahn, “About Zen,” Cambridge Zen Center, accessed April 20, 2017.  “About the School,” Kwan Um School of Zen, accessed April 20, 2017. 
  22.   In Kwan Um the five precepts are:

I vow to abstain from taking life.
I vow to abstain from taking things not given.
I vow to abstain from misconduct done in lust.
I vow to abstain from lying.
I vow to abstain from intoxicants, taken to induce heedlessness.

Jacob Perl, “The Five Precepts,” Kwan Um School of Zen.

  1.  Dale S. Wright, “Rethinking Transcendence: The Role of Language in Zen Experience,” in Philosophy East and West, vol. 42 no. 1, (1992): 113.
  2.  Wallis, “Non-Buddhism,” 12.
  3.  Such a compassionate Bodhisattva! I was actually more concerned about “my practice” than my grandmother.
  4.  Perhaps sila (ethics) and prajña (wisdom)? For a great discussion on the evolution of mindfulness in the United States, see Jeff Wilson’s Mindful America.
  5.  For more information, see Robert E. Buswell Jr.,The Zen Monastic Experience, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
  6.  The Korean Approach to Zen: The Collected Works of Chinul, trans. Robert E. Buswell Jr., (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983), 141.
  7.  Which, in practice, meant reductionism with the gaps filled in by the protean notion of “don’t know mind.”
  8.  Seung Sahn, “Sim Gum Do: Mind-Sword Path,” Kwan Um School of Zen, 10/1/1974. 
  9.  These are actually the instructions given in a paper written by Subul, “Making Ganhwa Sŏn Accessible to the General Public,” trans. Robert E. Buswell, Jr., (8/13/2010), 5. I can only remember Subul wiggling his finger at us and asking, “What is making me do this?”
  10.  “We” were a group of about thirty: Four foreign scholars; my religious studies grad student roommate from Jersey; a beautiful German exchange student; some staff, faculty, and students from Dongguk University; two Chinese men who were evidently only there to promote their temple-building business (who knew that industry existed?); and several Korean monks: the talkative one, the shy one, the handsy one, and the one who liked potatoes. In short, an odd bunch.
  11.  Subul, “Making Ganhwa Seon Accessible,” 5.
  12.  Wallis, “Speculative Non-Buddhism”, 20.
  13. Ibid., 12.
  14.  Dale S. Wright, “The Discourse of Awakening: Rhetorical Practice in Classical Ch’an Buddhism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 61, No. 1 (Spring, 1993): 29.
  15. Ibid., 29.
  16.  Marilyn Ivy, “Modernity,” in Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 313.
  17.  Or true Scotsmen.
  18.  This was due, in no small part, to every Korean I met in a Buddhist context telling me that I should become a monk.
  19.  Wallis, “Speculative Non-Buddhism,” 12.
  20.  Glenn Wallis, “How to Do Things with Non-Buddhism,” Speculative Non-Buddhism, posted April 6, 2013.
  21.  Wallis, “Speculative Non-Buddhism,” 12.
  22.  Anātman, while interpreted quite differently in different Buddhisms, is a fundamental Buddhist concept (one of the Three Marks of Existence), often translated as “no-self,” “non-self,” or “not-self.” Pepper takes it literally—there actually is no self beyond a conventional, socially constructed one. Applying the lens of contemporary social theory, Pepper concludes that mind only arises socially, among individuals practicing shared symbolic systems, not within individual brains. The individual mind is simply the effect of the discourses in which that individual takes part. Tom Pepper, “Taking Anātman at Full Strength,” in The Faithful Buddhist, (Amazon Digital Services: 2011).
  23.  “The Four Great Vows,” Kwan Um School of Zen. Posted February 16, 2011. 


Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. Monthly Review Press: 1971. 

Buswell Jr., Robert E., trans. The Korean Approach to Zen: The Collected Works of Chinul. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.

Faure, Bernard. The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Graeber, David. “Turning Modes of Production Inside Out: Or, Why Capitalism is a Transformation of Slavery.” In Critique of Anthropology 26, no.1 (2006).

Ivy, Marilyn. “Modernity.” In Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism. Ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Kamal, Muhammad. “Master-Slave Relationship in Hegel’s Dialectic.” Hegel Summer School, (2004). 

Kwan Um School of Zen. “About the School.” Accessed April 20, 2017. 

—. “The Four Great Vows.” Posted February 16, 2011.

Loori, John Daido. The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dōgen’s Three Hundred Kōans. Trans. Kazuaki Tanahashi and John Daido Loori. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2005.

Muller, A. Charles, ed. Wonhyo: Selected Works. Seoul: Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, 2012.

Pepper, Tom. “Taking Anātman at Full Strength and Śāntideva’s Ethics of Truth.” Also in The Faithful Buddhist. Amazon Digital Services: 2011.

—. “Saṃsāra as the Realm of Ideology.

—. “Traumatized by Toast.”

Sahn, Seung. “About Zen,” Cambridge Zen Center. Accessed April 20, 2017. 

—. “Sim Gum Do: Mind-Sword Path.” Kwan Um School of Zen. Talk recorded October 1, 1974. 

Subul, “Making Ganhwa Sŏn Accessible to the General Public.” Trans. Robert E. Buswell, Jr. Talk recorded August 13, 2010.

Wallis, Glenn. “Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism.” 2011. 

—. “How to Do Things with Non-Buddhism.” Speculative Non-Buddhism. Posted April 6, 2013. 

—. “Why X-Buddhism?Speculative Non-Buddhism.  2010.

Wright, Dale S. “The Discourse of Awakening: Rhetorical Practice in Classical Ch’an Buddhism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 61, No. 1 (Spring, 1993).

—. “Rethinking Transcendence: The Role of Language in Zen Experience.” In Philosophy East and West 42, no. 1 (1992).

Žižek, Slavoj. “From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism.” Cabinet, no. 2 (2001). 


* The author, Jonathan Earle, is a recent graduate of Marlboro College in Vermont, and a non-novice. You can reach him at:

39 responses to “Only Don’t Know! Reflections on a Thoughtless Life”

  1. Donna Brown Avatar
    Donna Brown

    Jonathan, I admire your post – I think it’s terrific that you have documented so well your process, both intellectual and emotional. I do wonder, though, if class struggle is not just another all-encompassing ideology you are seizing and putting in place of Buddhism… It seems for most of your post that you are coming to the point of seeing that there is no one all-encompassing ideology that IS the way – but then you seem to grab onto Marxism? Might it not let you down just as Buddhism did? That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in political action: but surely Marxism is just an fallible ideology too …

  2. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    That’s a great point, Donna. I read Jonathan’s essay as a a kind of Bildungsroman. I find the— dare I utter this word—universality of his journey to be a particularly potent and revealing feature of Jonathan’s essay. I believe that what he documents can be applied to any and all forms of ideological seduction/harassment, capture, and liberation. So, I will be interested to hear his thoughts on your question.

  3. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    I would like to offer one point: perhaps part of what you experienced with non-buddhism was that you left and freed yourself from Institutional Buddhism. You de-institutionalized yourself. It’s not just an ideology, it’s a set of rigid institutional practices, top-down power dynamics, and brainwashing techniques, constantly telling you that “everything you thought you knew is wrong” or “don’t think.” Getting out of institutional Buddhism is key to being able to “step outside” of Buddhism and deconstruct its ideology. When you study and practice on your own, you’re free to think what you want, study and practice what you want. You can construct a system of practice and analysis that works for you, and it can include both Buddhist and non-Buddhist elements. On the collective level, you step outside of the Buddhist “bubble” and return to society at large, with all its messy problems and politics—in other words, collective reality. It’s only by confronting the real world, that collective realty, that you can do something about it.

  4. Felix M. Avatar
    Felix M.

    I think the quintessence from all this, the right way if you will, would be a kind of pluralist philosophical/psychological/political practice. Its kind of weird but this is what I take from this trope of emptyness. What needs to happen is in a way so broad and allencompassing that it is impossible to even find a name for it. After reading Terence Blakes blog for the last few years as a kind of crude information source what this Laruelle guy was really on about, what Terence says is that “philosophical pluralism” what marks Laruelles shtick could be seen as just this permeating theme through the largest part of french 20th century philosophy. But as I see it what might be for those high-brow academics the hardest challenge because of the inherent weirdness is on the lower level perhaps remarkably easy.

    The terms are interchangeable, what might be in buddhist terms the “collective awakening”, but what one might just as well call “the philosophical revolution” is as I understand it a socalled most “generic” term. The funny thing is that when one lets go of this seeming difficulty that the frenchman wants to put on you the idea is totally intuitive. Capitalism infects people with toxic psychology and to get out of this state must be thus an equally philosophical/psychological project. All the nuance and difficulty and intrigance of what this philosophical project would look like is not denied but secondary. The first step is a most simple “that”.

    And one could take away a lot from this simple “that”, in the sense that it opens up the question of why a “something” is even needed, Its a kind of denial of the functionality of all the currently existing projects towards simply “something new”, The idea that one is intent on building something new implies that the currently existing projects must be somehow lacking.

    Another similarly generic term would be that of “heresy”, and the most direct implication I draw from this is that such a philosophical project would be most directly an uprising against the socalled intelligentsia in all its forms. It is to me not perceivable how it could even slightly imagined in any other way. I think this is the most intrigant of all this, and my own writings that I am always failing to tie together coheretnly all center around this. Its about the direct application of all this continental theory into practice, and in that very step opens up the harsh question of how those high-brow continental guys are not a complete farce at this point with their self-righteous circlejerk. And I say this as someone as I guess most here who is totally intoxicated with that stuff. It also makes all this theory very personal, it grabs all kinds of people directly by their identity, not only academics but also therapists, artists, etc… At first I was very anxious of sharing my thoughts here on this topic but now I am beginning to think that I really might be amongst slightly conscious people here, even if the project might had some growing pains. (as had I in this phase) I see vast potential there, in that I think that this focus on professional identity and all those emotions tied to it, be it pride or self-loathing would serve as perhaps a most precise marker of righteousness or conscience. As I have been digesting this it really seems that way to me. There is indeed the full blown narcisstic professor or psychologist who seems totally taken aback, surprised even that one could somehow throw a fundamental criticism against his profession and there are others who get it immediately for whom their own conscience makes their own identity a kind of burden, and who would perceive a breaking down or targeting of those class divisions as maybe intrigant, but ultimately welcomable. So much for that, as said this is my personal white wale, also for very personal reasons obviously.

    But yeah, the ultimate trope is emptyness/genericness and the idea that the great movement defines itself exactly by its primary undefinability. There is a kind of deep trust in socalled “human nature” there, but as I see it you just have to assume this anyway. Either humans are ultimately capable of self-governing and a better togetherness or its all meaningless anyway and the only thing left is the bottle. But I sincerely do believe in us. Maybe its all just growing pains here. Its only been 3000, 4000 years with this whole civilisation thing as one should always remind oneself. Who the fuck knows. And emptyness of course does not mean that one can not fill it in the very next step with very good, precise philosophy on how to avoid recuperation/corruption. It just means there just cant be any kind of ultimate axiomatic. Which is already a kind of axiomatic on its own, seperating oneself from all those other well-defined and thus thought-limiting projects. As said in the very first step I think it might be very much about heresy, to simply look reality in the eye and see how all those projects (including contphil/ct) are just so obviously corrupted, narcissists in every chief-position, everywhere. And then just take it from there. The breakthrough might really just be an armlength away, just as always.

  5. Mal Avatar

    Even if you “study and practice on your own” you are still at risk of being seduced by an ideology. Whatever particular Buddhist book you are reading is, almost certainly, seducing you with an ideology, and imposing its particular practice on you. Can you construct a system of practice and analysis that works for you out of disparate elements that you cobble together? What if you think Marxism “works”, and then you find yourself supporting Stalin? What if you become too senile to put any intellectual practice into effect? Don’t the great tragedians (Shakespeare, Beckett,…) suggest that all our projects are likely to end in failure? Whatever ideology we might pursue (Buddhist enlightenment, Marxist revolution,…), it may end with us giving up in frustration, or dying without any success.

  6. Felix M. Avatar
    Felix M.

    @Mal: Yeah, that is the kind of problem that pluralism tackles, or in theory even has some pretty good guidelines for. You face the outlook that your project has to aim at integrating and harmonizing all those agitated, seperated polarities and that kind of means that you have to keep your own ideology flexible. You thus dont have to be all hyperanxious, self-conscious about it as the corrections enforce themselves on you naturally as your movement manages to absorb more diverse identities. Somehow like that. In practice its hugely intrigant but as a general guideline it works very well I think.

  7. Brian Mitchell Avatar
    Brian Mitchell

    The role of the intellect in self(reflexive)-knowing is quite problematic, particularly if one is intellectually adept, as the writer of this essay clearly is. The question is whether the intellect can ever be truly negating. Even when apparently critical, it seems to be its nature –perhaps always the nature of thought– to construct, to be a house-builder in one form or another, because it can only critique from some (albeit temporarily) established standpoint.

  8. Felix M. Avatar
    Felix M.

    @Brian Mitchell

    Yeah, its super intricate, but also encouraging in that way. Encouraging in that its exactly where the classical humanist-enlightenment project might have its giant glaring blindspot. As said its kind of hard to write ‘about’ because in the inherent weirdness, but in practice it might be very approachable. You could also say its all about breaking down this master-slave dialectic. Meaning the practice shows its usefulness in how it manages to induce true creativity, self-worth in people, how well it manages to elevate people into the ranks of ‘philosophers proper’, light that authentic fire in them to the detriment of their ‘betters’.

  9. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    “Even if you “study and practice on your own” you are still at risk of being seduced by an ideology. Whatever particular Buddhist book you are reading is, almost certainly, seducing you with an ideology, and imposing its particular practice on you. Can you construct a system of practice and analysis that works for you out of disparate elements that you cobble together? What if you think Marxism “works”, and then you find yourself supporting Stalin? What if you become too senile to put any intellectual practice into effect? Don’t the great tragedians (Shakespeare, Beckett,…) suggest that all our projects are likely to end in failure? Whatever ideology we might pursue (Buddhist enlightenment, Marxist revolution,…), it may end with us giving up in frustration, or dying without any success.”

    Successful at what? What are you trying to achieve? In terms of “awakening” there’s nothing to achieve. You’re free to explore what you want. Make up your own problems and solve them, that’s what an artist does. Sure you can be seduced by a book—look at all the Ayn Rand readers who get sucked into that ideology (college freshman, usually). But you’re also free to critique it, reject it, burn it if you like. There’s no one to tell you how to think, what to practice, what ideology or practice ranks over something else. Thus ends the Master-slave dialectic–you’re in charge.

    What we need are way more ‘outside the box’ practitioners who are not afraid to invent all kinds of hybrid, crazy, futuristic, pluralist, anachronistic, avant garde versions of Buddhism. People seem to either go the traditionalist/institutionalized route, or they give up and walk away.

  10. Jonathan Earle Avatar
    Jonathan Earle

    Donna, I agree that Marxism is an ideology like Buddhism and could “let me down.” I do think that there are critical aspects of Marxist theory that are non-ideological. For example, Althusser’s theory of ideology is, arguably, a scientific description of the social world and has applications in realms beyond Marxist theory. Class struggle is a reality that Marxism draws attention to, explains, and provides solutions for, although other explanations are possible. Also, as we know, ideology isn’t inherently bad. I think my experience with Buddhism has made more concerned about choosing better ways of being in the world, and I think a lot of Marxist thought could offer that if we engage with it critically.

  11. Mal Avatar

    @Shaun “Successful at what? What are you trying to achieve? In terms of “awakening” there’s nothing to achieve.”

    It you believe that then you cannot be a Marxist. Probably the most famous quote from Marx is: “Hitherto, philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” So you must be engaging with the world to change it in some way. In Marxism, “awakening” is not enough, you must achieve. Of course, if you suffer a significant failure in your Marxist pursuits, or considerable doubts about Marxism, you may decide to walk away.

    “The adepts often like to suggest that the jury is still out, but they have, sorrowfully, to acknowledge that the case is not looking good; the critics gleefully point to the millions of Stalin’s victims and to the unparalleled prosperity brought (to some) by capitalism, and then consider the case closed.”

    “With the fall of the Soviet Union, “capitalism had lost its memento mori”. But at the same time, “those who still held to the original socialist hope of a society built in the name of cooperation instead of competition had to retreat again into speculation and theory”.”

    @Shaun “What we need are way more ‘outside the box’ practitioners who are not afraid to invent all kinds of hybrid, crazy, futuristic, pluralist, anachronistic, avant garde versions of Buddhism”

    Really? This sounds as attractive as attending the average student avant-garde “art stunt” . (Having attended a few, that’s not very attractive to me…)

    To me, with both Buddhism and Marxism, I’m inclined to give up and walk away.

  12. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    @Shaun “What we need are way more ‘outside the box’ practitioners who are not afraid to invent all kinds of hybrid, crazy, futuristic, pluralist, anachronistic, avant garde versions of Buddhism”

    Really? This sounds as attractive as attending the average student avant-garde “art stunt” . (Having attended a few, that’s not very attractive to me…)

    Well as a matter of fact my queer dharma friends own a cooperative farm in rural Massahcusetts and we are in the process of ceating a group practice that is a combination of Theravada Buddhism and Radical Faerie culture. Queer hippie Buddhists—think of it as Allen Ginsberg in drag. Don’t like it? Don’t come. We’re creating this for our own amusement and we don’t care what other people think of it.

  13. Donna Brown Avatar
    Donna Brown

    @Shaun “What we need are way more ‘outside the box’ practitioners who are not afraid to invent all kinds of hybrid, crazy, futuristic, pluralist, anachronistic, avant garde versions of Buddhism”. That may be true if all Buddhism is for is to encourage our creativity or find our “authentic self” but that’s not really Buddhism’s program: it’s about liberation or enlightenment or at least purification and growth. I can’t see “all kinds of hybrid, crazy, futuristic, pluralist, anachronistic, avant garde versions of Buddhism” leading along any particular path to these things. The old ways have problems: they are oppressive, sexist, and so on. But they also lead somewhere… That’s the challenge.

  14. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    “That may be true if all Buddhism is for is to encourage our creativity or find our “authentic self” but that’s not really Buddhism’s program: it’s about liberation or enlightenment or at least purification and growth. I can’t see “all kinds of hybrid, crazy, futuristic, pluralist, anachronistic, avant garde versions of Buddhism” leading along any particular path to these things. The old ways have problems: they are oppressive, sexist, and so on. But they also lead somewhere… That’s the challenge.”

    This is a great quote for the Nons to take on. “Liberation or enlightenment”? How? What exactly is that? How do you recognize whether someone is ‘enlightened’ in yourself or someone else? What’s the standard? Is it observable? Can it be tested or verified empirically? How do we know if someone has been enlightened?

    “But they also lead somewhere…”? Where exactly? By the sound of this statement, you’re not even sure of this “somewhere” that the ‘old path’ leads you to. Somewhere. . . over the rainbow.?

  15. Donna Brown Avatar
    Donna Brown

    Shaun, that materialist perspective that you are reflecting I suppose cannot believe that enlightenment or liberation or even “getting better” exist… Perhaps you have to observe it in people you meet who are truly admirable? But all the major religions teach that people can become “better”, attain higher levels, attain a “where” as you put it, even if they have different “wheres”. Do you really think that humans cannot improve through practicing ethics, acts like the 6 perfections, or various meditations and practices? If so, why would you have any interest in discussing Buddhism at all? If you want a more technical answer, in Buddhism the “Grounds and Paths” literature goes into these matters in great detail. But a sceptic can dismiss all such writing, all teachings, all experiences with very impressive people, even his or her own mental experience or personal growth. And then what? If you insist on any kind of improvement meeting the standard of being measurable by machines, you end up throwing out all the valid aspects of not just Buddhism, but every wisdom tradition; the baby as well as the bathwater. And then what have you accomplished? Surely it is more productive to root out the bad (as I see the original post here honestly trying to do) and practice the good, and see for yourself the benefits…

  16. Jonathan Earle Avatar
    Jonathan Earle

    @Shaun, it sounds like you are doing really interesting things with Buddhism. I’m wondering if you could say more about the difference you see in Buddhism as an ideology, and Buddhism as an institution? It seems to me that one would entail the other. How are you approaching this problem in your own Buddhist/non-buddhist work? Is it a continual process of negating (that Brian brought up) the “artificial forms and static norms” that Western Buddhism always seems to construct?

  17. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    @Jonathan Earle: Ideology and Institution of course go hand-in-glove. Althusser’s theory of ideology explains how concepts are operationalized, concretized in rituals, patterns of speech and behaviour, patterns of interaction and relations between actants in a system. even the Ayn Rand book you read is the product of complex institutional forces, particularly those that went into creating the consciousness of Ayn Rand. Those patterns are taught and enforced by still other patterns of reward and punishment for particular thoughts and behaviours.That system of reward and punishment is meted out through a power structure, a system of authority, which says that certain people ‘rank’ and have the authority to teach what’s correct, and punish those who err; that’s an institution.

    What I see that happens often in Buddhism (as with other religions) is that first people have all kinds of doubts and questions, what Glenn calls ‘aporias.’ Then they start to demand explanations for those aporias, but find none in the institutions. So then they start to leave the institution. Leaving is a process of both decreasing contact with the organization and ‘leaving’ the institution in your head; deconstructing it, critiquing it, distancing yourself from it. And then people start to create other solutions for themselves. They start to find their own answers. But leaving the institution is a critical step, because most peole have to get out of that system of reward and punishment, get out of that power structure, so that they can continue the process of deconstruction without threat of retribution from the institution.

    Once de-institituionalized, one is free to do all sorts of creative things with the “stuff” one finds lying around in Buddhism. This invites innovation and new connections. For instance, I’ve discovered that a sangha is a network, and can include all sorts of Buddhist and non-Buddhist people and ideas that inspire me. I have put this network together with a combination of online and face-to-face contacts. Some of the most vital and interesting ideas in Buddhism, that I find personally inspiring, are sites like this one, SNB, and Post-Traditional, and my own site,

    The web is now the single greatest source of Buddhist teaching and sangha connection, and there’s no way to put the genie back in that bottle. The virtualization of religion is happening for all the major world religions. What’s interesting is that because of the web, Buddhism is no longer contained in “silos” of single tradition sanghas. It breaks down the false market of scarcity such that those in authority can charge lots of money for their teachings. Rather, networked Buddhism is cheap and ubiquitous. Furthermore, Buddhism appears online within a vast universe of ideas. People are free to mix their Buddhist beliefs and practices with anything else that “inspires” them, leading to all kinds of interesting new forms and practices.

    So for me it’s not so much a continuous process of negation, although it certainly involves critique. Rather its a process of continuous expansion and exploration.

  18. Felix M. Avatar
    Felix M.

    I think a crucial and perhaps painful dichotomy is between that between communisation, psychology, buddhism as personal or communal healing/support and the outlook of becoming a politically capable subject eg a party. The nebulous, organic way might be the ideal process for the former, the local, personal. but regarding the latter, the party it is a sad fact that we are faced with a unified, hegemonic structure, the state, and overcoming that might necessate or prefer a similarly unified effort. This might change when it really goes over towards guerrila warfare, but as of right now in a very pragmatic sense one could still imagine that the most direct and peaceful way towards greater change would be to get e.g. some kind of party elected. This then brings a huge philosophical challenge with it as it totally runs counter to the anarchic-organic philosophy one actually subscribes to. I think there is a vision that somehow solves this, a kind of “unity amongst difference” program, but as said, I think thats a pretty hard challenge to bring up into a good format/program that all those splinter-groups could actually get behind, even if on the individual level people have a good intuitive sense of the idea already.

    I think the most important thing is to just have clarity what of the 2 aspects individuals in such discussions are actually aiming at. Some people might actually be well set-up in their personal lives, even be engaged in well-functioning local communities that they see not much problem with so their interest in such discussions lies more in the discussion and building of those weird potential meta- or generic political/philosophical frameworks. Others might be just interested in guidance of how to connect and structure something on the local level, (which should be in no way seen as the “lower” effort, a good meta-philosopher could also be totally lacking on the individual/psychological level) Its just that those are very different things. The local level can be seen as much more intuitive, and the texts that could offer guidance there might be much more akin to poetry, while the larger political/meta effort might be much more technical, closer to the efforts of conventional lawyers or politicians, although of course still with the proper weirdness and philosophical depth.

  19. wtpepper Avatar

    Jonathan: Great essay. It raises a number of crucial questions that still puzzle me. Most importantly, how exactly does someone wind up breaking out of the conceptual and behavioral limits of their culture of origin? For those of us in the U.S., it’s global capitalism, with all that entails: the illusions of exchange value, the terror of critical thought, the pursuit of some mythical ideal state of blissful inaction. When our mass culture, our educational system, and our daily practices of working and buying are all thoroughly informed by these structuring beliefs and values, how does anyone ever learn to think critically at all?

    Your account sounds like you were probably never properly interpellated to begin with—from childhood, you were thinking and looking for answers. In my own case, I know I was never properly interpellated, never a good subject of American capitalism. I have some ideas what might produce such bad subjects, where interpellation might fail, but I’m left wondering if it’s ever possible to “enlighten” someone who is thoroughly interpellated. The kind of reactionary response you get in the comments here is fairly typical, with all the familiar rhetorical maneuvers at work. The ubiquity of this reaction suggests that such enlightenment might not be possible.

    The common problem seems to be the one we see in these comments: we are most thoroughly dogmatic when we think we are being completely “natural” and non-dogmatic. What feels natural and effortless is the participation, blindly and dogmatically, in the capitalist ideology we are so thoroughly immersed in from birth. From this position, anything that questions our ideology, especially if it is true, just feels constraining, and a bit oppressive. And any ideological practice we consciously choose to develop will seem, well, too effortful to persist in compared to the natural and effortless practices that capitalist culture offers us.

    You mention somewhere that your mother encouraged you to question and explore, but not become “dogmatic.” And that’s always what we hear: question everything, so long as you don’t go so far as to call capitalism into question. I’m sure that’s not what your mother thought she meant, but it is always the effect of such warnings.

    So, what actual practice can you imagine engaging in? How will you get others to join in a practice that will feel unnatural, effortful, and won’t produce rewards in the form of accumulated exchange value? For me, that’s the struggle that begins after the breakthrough of awakening. I’m always working to get some collective material practice started, but can’t find a single other person willing to do anything at all that doesn’t promise some ultimate financial compensation. (Unlike Shaun, I think the internet is of limited use—obviously I’m not opposed to it, but I think it does very little to really change things for the better.) Have you had any luck with getting some real material practice going? Do you have any ideas what you would like it to look like? What you would like it to accomplish?

  20. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    (Unlike Shaun, I think the internet is of limited use—obviously I’m not opposed to it, but I think it does very little to really change things for the better.)

    Just to clarify, I’m involved with three face-to-face practice groups in my immediate area (of which one is explicitly anti-capitalist), in addition to the web resources. And I offer a possible source for critiquing capitalism from a Buddhist standpoint: Buddhadasa:

  21. wtpepper Avatar

    Sounds great Shaun. That’s the kind of thing I’m always looking for–but it’s been years since I’ve met some one “face-to-face” who was willing to (or capable of) thinking critically about capitalism. Maybe I need to move to Canada!

  22. red Avatar

    thanks for sharing your story, gives a window into another life. I know how hard it is to get deluded into some beliefs, and it becomes almost impossible to come out of it as you are blinded by the delusion. Self-affirming, reinforcing, cognitive bias, confirmation bias, etc.etc. I like the way you ended the article, one of which

    “Delusions are endless. We vow to cut through them all.”

    I feel this non(x)buddhism is also one such delusion. In fact, in a way, it is a proxy of buddhism, where you are encouraged to test/experience/think for yourself. The way we think is tied to the way we be. Your being(self-nature) creates your thinking/experience…just like how one’s thinking is clouded when they “be angry”. Given this, if you condition(karma/sila) yourself, you will change your future thinking/experience. In other words, all that we think is a result of our prior actions(which form one’s nature, aka karma). You can observe this phenomenon easily in emotional people (which in itself is neither good, or bad)…their logic/thinking is heavily biased. Buddha basically says , just take care of your actions, with wisdom, and everything will fall into place (future births, future states, all the same…the concept of death , time goes out the window, as you reduced everything, including life, to your “self”/actions )

  23. Patrick jennings Avatar
    Patrick jennings

    Hi Red,

    “Buddha basically says , just take care of your actions, with wisdom, and everything will fall into place (future births, future states, all the same…the concept of death , time goes out the window, as you reduced everything, including life, to your “self”/actions )”

    Ha! Great! You have it all there Red!

    But I wonder about this little phrase “take care”. When I use it I worry…. take care….take care of what?

    What would the two little words “take care” entail if we were to go about it systematically?
    Thinking? …yes. Mindfully feeling?…. definitely. Taking compassionate action?…. Sure thing.

    Analysing particular situations, communicating , creating techniques, methodologies, ethics, economies, cultures, schools, hospitals, philosophies, spiritualities, structures of mutual trust and co-operation. Yes, all of that seems to be involved in the term “take care”.

    Hold on a minute. We seem to have co-created a world. Gone full circle. Shit. Lets start again and do it better this time.

    Laruelle called that philosophical circularity or decision. The Buddha had another name for it, I think.

    How to step out of a circle of my-your-our-his-her-its making when that circle is the horizon of a world, necessarily excluding an outside?

    Now there’s a conundrum for ya! Go ahead, if you have the nerve…take care!

  24. Patrick jennings Avatar
    Patrick jennings

    Hi Felix,

    “You thus dont have to be all hyperanxious, self-conscious about it as the corrections enforce themselves on you naturally as your movement manages to absorb more diverse identities. Somehow like that. In practice its hugely intrigant but as a general guideline it works very well I think.”

    Just my experience too… except that over the last winter, what with being on my own here most of the time while her nibs was away trying to generate some cash for the summer, that process of correcting became a sort of war between an army of conceptual characters who took up residence in my head– at one point a sort of psychological/ psychedelic conceptual frenzy that left me thinking that Wallis’s three A’s – Ancoric loss, Aporetic dissonance, Aporetic inquiry– were not temporary states as much as an ongoing process of dis-engagement/re-engagement with the “real” whatever that could be. Anyway, I seem to have recovered my equilibrium, for now at least.

    Jedenfalls, wenn du noch in Leipzig sind und gerne Abendessen und ein Bier oder zwei, fühlen frei, uns für ein paar Tage zu besuchen.

  25. Jonathan Earle Avatar
    Jonathan Earle

    @Tom, in the course of writing the paper I spent a lot of time thinking about why I was able to “break out,” but I still don’t really have an explanation. I think of Althusser’s idea of “aleatory encounters” between conflicting elements that create historical events—in this case, ideologies that produce subjects. The process is entirely undetermined and cannot be predicted. However, we can look at past conjunctures to determine patterns so that we can identify and take advantage of present conditions. I am interested in learning about the history of revolutions to see how they began/spread in the popular consciousness. How were radical ideas able to spread so readily in Latin America in the 60’s, for example? What can we do here to make people WANT to “break out” of their capitalist ideology?

    Lately I have been thinking that religion is a good way to organize and direct peoples’ desires towards that goal. Althusser (and many others I assume) argues that the essential divide in philosophy is between materialism and idealism (but I think we could also say immanence vs. transcendence) which represent the class struggle in thought. From what little I know, this is broadly true in religion, too. More immanent, this-world-affirming religious thought often shakes up the existing state apparatuses and is suppressed or re-institutionalized (I am thinking of Cheondogyo movement in Korea, Giordana Bruno, Nagarjuna, some Sufis perhaps?). I think Glenn’s work is important because it reveals the “underground current of materialism” (per Althusser) present in Buddhism which runs towards an immanent Real, rather than a transcendent God, Good, goal, etc. So a non-buddhist practice would turn practitioner’s desires towards the Real (and social action) rather than retreat. We have to create and offer such a practice in order for it to “catch.” But maybe circumstances in the US call for non-christianity, non-judaism, etc… While, arguably, notions of the Real have existed as long as religion, LaRuelle has done the best job so far of bringing thought in consonance with the implications of radical immanence.

    I appreciate @Felix M.’s point that there is some difference between a “personal” practice like Buddhism and a political party. I think Althusser would say that the existence of “public” and “private” is, at best, relative and that both religious and political institutions can be sites of struggle.

    In terms of specific practices, I don’t want to reinvent the wheel just yet. I agree that education is key to making change, so I am interested in joining/spreading an anarchic network of anti-capitalist reading groups that can host seminars, speakers, etc. and can become loci of direct action organizing. That would be a great environment to test out a non-buddhist practice, which could start in a similar manner to this blog: by reading some LaRuelle, Glenn’s work, and then applying the ideas through discussion to Buddhist passages that the other participants bring in. Eventually we would bring in other critical thinkers. After that, I like your idea, Tom, of a psychoanalytically-inflected group practice where there is a prompt and participants just begin making associations. The other participants attempt to identify the ideologies at play and the aporias. That’s all I have at the moment.

    (I’m curious to see how far off-base people think the second paragraph is…)

  26. Felix M. Avatar
    Felix M.

    @Patrick: Haha, yes I think I know what you mean. And yeah, for sure, I will email you!!

    @Jonathan: Yeah, totally. I personally just think its always good to at first make those clear distinctions and then in the second step see how they are both already entangled, polarized, etc…, or in the other direction how it makes sense to either disentangle or entangle, etc.. them in your own movement. It all seems utterly horrible in theory but it loses a lot of that horror when you just think about what that might mean in a very pragmatic sense in a local group, e.g. how people might be more drawn to either therapeutic or political roles and how to harmonize that. There is a very empowering outlook already I think just in the vision that this is what you aim to do, that you are just freely handing out those kind of identities that are now monopolized by corrupt professionals, And maybe even an equally empowering vision in emphasizing the deep philosophy that comes with that, but that you are facing this with confidence, without fear. To really aim for a philosophy of practice or a practice of philosophy.

  27. red Avatar

    @Patrick JennIngs

    “How to step out of a circle of my-your-our-his-her-its making when that circle is the horizon of a world, necessarily excluding an outside?”

    There is no outside/inside, if you get down to it. Lets go back to the beginning…our birth (even our death to an extent, if you consider accidents). No one has a clue how they got there. Every present moment is just like that, except now that you have a mind you can determine how your present moment came to be, the context, our prior bias-buildups (karma), on and on. This cycle can start/end anywhere/anytime (the “outside” is part of the cycle too in a way), just like our birth/death. Except, when we have the mind(or cultivate it) to see this all, and become/merge/go-beyond the cycle. Does a bad(or sad) person know how he came to be ? If they are in the middle of delusion, they will probably wont even accept it is in “their control” (mind). If they “see it”, they will tell you they have themselves to blame (though outside may have caused, but still its 100% in one’s control).

    After a while, one realizes everything (birth/death, present moment, stage-in-life, etc,etc), including how one thinks/makes-stuff-up, is all part of the cycle, and the mind is the key.

  28. red Avatar

    @Patrick JennIngs

    one more thing, the outside/inside are irrelevant because they all operate the same…the cycle (just like one’s physical birth/death). So you treat the outside just like your inside, you dont distinguish. Sadness is sadness, evil is evil. Your mind has the power to always birth into the right state. We take care of our actions/thinking/mind, that is the only thing to do. One also need to see(wisdom) all this…and stop making stuff up (aka “birth”, albeit mental).

  29. wtpepper Avatar

    RE 25: I don’t know that I would agree that breaking out of ideology, or anything really, is random or undetermined. I’ve just never seen an instance where the causes couldn’t be explained, at least afterwards. Sometimes one part of the “cause” is a matter of an increase in real knowledge of how the world is…

    I do know that I can’t see the personal/political distinction as anything but the worst kind of ideological error. I think Graebner, if I remember correctly, discusses this in the essay you site, Jonathan. The idea that there even are personal aspects of life that are not political is a part of a particular social and political system (what Graebner would call a mode of production, I think). If we cling to that distinction, we’ve abandoned all possibility of critical thought from the start.

    The kind of practice you describe sounds great. An educational project, to open up the possibility of critical thought, would seem to be necessary before anything else. And, of course, education is an ideological practice. For me, the problem remains how to get properly interpellated capitalist subjects to join in some real educational practice. They’re sure, like all reactionaries, that they have all the answers already. I think that in the past, the example of revolution we have most evidence for is the long capitalist revolution–and there it really was a long hard struggle, with lots of death and countless people fighting to the end to cling to the older social system that was oppressing them. The advantages of capitalism over feudalism had to become so extreme for so many people that it became worth the effort to change. I’d like to hope we don’t have to let things get that bad before we decide to end capitalism…but it’s looking like we just might. So maybe the best we can do is continue educating the bad subjects until there are just too many of them to contain?

  30. Patrick jennings Avatar
    Patrick jennings

    Hi Red,

    I feel I have engaged with you on a question we can’t do justice to here on a discussion tread. My apologies for that. Anything I say will be inadequate.

    Certainly, a mindful focus on one’s thinking and feeling has its place. Contemporary Buddhism would leave it at that. Still, there are alternative Buddhisms emerging that are not so narrow in their approach. For me the need for a just distribution of wealth, resources and power is a foregone conclusion, something I am not very interested in contesting with those who hold another view.

    “Except, when we have the mind (or cultivate it) to see this all, and become/merge/go-beyond the cycle.”

    I agree we are not trapped in the circle. In fact even the most systematically structured thought worlds are porous. Worlds merge, coalesce, and conflict because they are made by individuals and groups in real time and a shared social space, in embodied or material interaction, which enables thinking, language, ideologies, knowledge and culture in general. One could say that all of these elements are mutually interactive.

    To understand the non-buddhist/non-philosophical stance you would need to engage the thought of Laruelle, Kant and Husserl, Henry and, to a lesser extent, Marx. Needless to say that’s a daunting task for a non-academic or for an academic who is not paid and resourced to specialise in such an undertaking. Still, its no more difficult than trying to get a grip on the analysis of mind contained in the Pali canon or in the “mind only school” of the Mahayana, to name but two examples of the long history of Buddhist investigation into the nature of mind.

    “After a while, one realizes everything (birth/death, present moment, stage-in-life, etc,etc), including how one thinks/makes-stuff-up, is all part of the cycle, and the mind is the key.”

    Where is this mind located? I would answer inside the immanent real we are before we conceptualise according to a particular thought-world or ideology; a real of the human that is simply given to itself without mediation as the immanent, unconceptualised, lived materiality before the concept of the material or the ideational arise.

    This real is radically axiomatic – a gesture in thought against capture by any “ism” Buddhist or otherwise. This option for a radically immanent real has always existed inside Buddhism as a sort of heresy or underground thinking, despite the predominance of ideas of Buddha mind or Buddha essence as some sort of transcendent operator who would liberate us.

    One way of looking at Laruelle’s thought is to say that he radically trancendentalises or immantises materialism. You could say the same for non-buddhism in its relation to Buddhism. It removes the transcendent operator who would access a “view from nowhere” and replaces it with an immanent given -of-the human, a finite entity compelled to engage the world the as a transcendental subject who is simultaneously a situated element in the worlds unfolding.

    Sorry if that sounds complex. There is no way round the effort to think through all aspects of one’s situation.

  31. red Avatar

    @Patrick Jennings

    I am not disputing it, we all make our worlds (including buddha, or laruelle).

    “Where is this mind located?”

    It is not a physical thing, it is self-created, as i pointed above. Since we are all creating our own worlds(mind), which are a result of our prior bias-buildups, we can see which kind of world is healthy/nurturing for us, or for all (“culture”).

    Just as we have a choice of anything to eat on this planet, including rocks; but it is easy to make a choice when it comes to eating, or choosing if to jump from a tree. When it comes to mind (making our own worlds), it can be that obvious too.

  32. Jonathan Earle Avatar
    Jonathan Earle

    ^^That didn’t post correctly!

    Tom, yes I don’t think I said it quite right. I understand Althusser in “The Philosophy of the Encounter” to be arguing against any kind of historical determinism, teleology. We can’t count on the fact that their will be a proletarian revolution just because Marx says thats how it is supposed to go. I take him to be saying that we need to empirically examine historical events as unique, contingent phenomena rather than as instances of an “arc of history,” and so, as you said, it is only after-the-fact that we can determine patterns. I think his other point is that because of the indeterminacy of contingency, we can recognize past patterns in present circumstances and exploit them. I don’t know how helpful these ideas really are other than getting people out of a more dogmatic view of history.
    About personal vs. political, I wanted to say that they seem distinct, but in actually aren’t. I was trying to clarify the connection between non-buddhism and politics.
    I was talking about establishing a non-buddhist practice among an already radical group. Preaching to the choir, I guess. As for breaking people out of capitalist ideologies, if we take Althusser’s idea of the “encounter” seriously, then you are right: as effects of social structures, individual subjects can’t topple capitalism. The conditions have to be there to make that possible, but we also cannot simply wait for that to happen. My point is, that leaves us with no single cure for the interpellated capitalist subject, simply the necessity of examining previous revolutions so that we can learn social practices that worked in the past, update them, and apply them to our present. Not that we can start a revolution now, but as you implied, spread revolutionary consciousness to shape future conditions so that someday a socialist “encounter” can firmly “take hold.”
    It seems like to get a practice like non-buddhism to take hold we have to be honest about the social conditions at play: in the US, Buddhism is a religion of the white upper-middle class, so perhaps a non-buddhist practice will only ever take hold in liberal urban areas. Maybe not. To me, the greatest potential for spreading critical thought and practice (maybe we need a non-christianity?), might be the Black and Latin@ communities which have long histories of radical thought and maybe the white working class (obviously not a monolith, but the rise of Bernie, and obvious frustration suggest maybe the time is ripe?). Maybe in these communities, which are largely Christian, it wouldn’t make any sense to import buddhism, but it would make sense to import Laruelle. (I guess Liberation Theology is evidence enough that Christianity can be radical?) Maybe in parts of the country (like conservative, suburban CT), individual bad subjects have to use the internet to stir stuff up. As much as you doubt the internet’s efficacy, Tom, at risk of sounding like a flatterer, your essays have been profoundly influential for me.

    @Shaun, since it seems like you are already doing a lot of this, what sort of specific practices do you engage in (in the anti-capitalist Buddhist group, for example)? Meditation?

  33. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    @Shaun, since it seems like you are already doing a lot of this, what sort of specific practices do you engage in (in the anti-capitalist Buddhist group, for example)? Meditation?
    @Jonathan Earle

    This is the invitation to our next meditation group:

    “Shaun Bartone and I are starting a queer meditaion group.In the face of such uncertain times and political chaos in, let’s build community. This will be a once monthly get-together at Bird Hill Farm to support each others meditation practice, share food, and build a community of peer support.”

    This is the invitation to our meditation group. It has an overtly political message, that we need to create community as a ‘refuge’ from a violent fascist regime. Radical Faeries call it a ‘sanctuary.’ But you have to understand this within the context of queer embodiment and political resistence.

    We are facing one of the most repressive regimes in American history. even if Trump is impeached, he probably gets replaced by VP Mike Pence, who is a virulently anti-gay Christian Soveriegntist, who has real power to persecute queer people. The Regime is filled with fundamentalist Christian Sovereigntists. So the group we are creating both provides refuge and sanctuary, but it is also designed to strengthen and support a queer resistence to the Regime of White Supremacists and Christian Sovereigntists. In as much as the Trump Regime also represents global gangster Capitalism, we also resist that aspect of the regime by creating a cooperative farm (Bird Hill Farm is an actual working farm). We create a community that embodies a Commons approach to land and a sharing economy, rather than a privatized ownership model of bourgeoisie professional gay people. We are a peer group model of self-direction and mutual support. There is no ‘revered teacher’, no heirarchy.

    I have been to many “queer dharma” groups. There’s nothing “queer” about them, except they happen to feature gay people. It’s always about the same thing: meditation, sitting quietly, still, saying nothing. This violates a strong queer political axiom, which is “Silence = Death.” For us to be silent and still is to erase who we are as queers; it denies our queer embodiment.

    We become queer, or “peform” queer, when we are vocal and communicative, when we are moving, dancing and expressing oursvelves. So we place queer embodiment and expression at the core of our practice. We share food, which builds community. We incorporate music, chant, and dance. We employ costume, drag, ritual and theatre to create fantastic queer characters that express both our spirituality and our queer desires, almost in a tantric sense. This is also part of the Radical Faerie tradition. We are blending the two: Buddhist and Radical Faerie.

    We plan to offer workshops on art and craft, which we call “crafting the path.” This involves our queer aesthetic sensibility. It can be a quiet meditative experience, but again, it is expressive. And we meditate, of course.

  34. Donna Brown Avatar
    Donna Brown

    @Shaun, you say, “in the US, Buddhism is a religion of the white upper-middle class”. I would guess rather that Buddhism as you define it is a religion of the white upper-middle class. But your definition appears to leave out the substantial proportion of American Buddhists of Asian origin (perhaps the majority of Buddhists in the US) as well as SGI. Maybe we need to remember Buddhism includes them…

  35. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    @DonnaBrown You make a very good point Donna. I attend a weekly meditation session at a local Sri Lankan temple, run by Sri Lanka monks and having a large Sinahalese community, but less than a dozen white members. And have been the only white member of another Sri Lankan community. (I like the Sri Lankan tradition.) That said, even though I am queer and in the minority, I still have white privilege, which I try to be mindfully aware of when I’m in those places. So I have been a member of a couple of Asian-immigrant sanghas, though not Asian-American sanghas, which is a different dynamic altogether.

  36. Patrick jennings Avatar
    Patrick jennings

    Hi Shaun,

    Have to confess that I knew little or nothing about faerie radicalism.

    “This violates a strong queer political axiom, which is “Silence = Death.” For us to be silent and still is to erase who we are as queers; it denies our queer embodiment.”

    I feel like writing that slogan on my wall. Never too late to re-eduacate!

    Your description of Bird Hill sounds Real, with all of the depth of meaning of that word.

    I think that is the way to go –- we must try to build small local communities that are a refuge in quite a physical and material way for those who are victimised and a base for activists to recharge their batteries, find inspiration, educate themselves and learn how to organise from those more experienced in the art of agitation. At a deeper level such a place is an ethical and practical “exemplar”, a way of showing a form of proto-communist living to a sceptical and increasingly desperate generation who know nothing of the radical counter-cultural practices of the sixties.

    There is a long, worldwide, cross-cultural history of such radical communities of course. I think immediately of the leveller and digger communities of the Cromwellian period in England and Ireland and the great explosion of anarchist and communist/socialist communities of the emerging industrial period but one could stretch the western lineage back even further to the radical Christian communities of the first century, or even further, who knows. As for black, Hispanic, Asian and other traditions I suppose there are endless examples to learn from. So we have a noble history to emulate, that’s for sure.

    Hi Jonathan,

    Congrats on a great post. As you say in #32, other traditions have their radical critique, liberation theology being one of the most radical in thought and practice; witness the generation of radical nuns and priests committed to a life of solidarity with the poor and marginalised, in some cases suffering arrest,torture or assassination for their pains.

    I don’t think there is any need to campaign on behalf of a specifically Buddhist radicalism though. One could simply take one’s place within the existing broad struggle at whatever level one is interested.( Or not as the case may be. There should be no moralistic insistence on a form of knee-jerk “activism” especially by white, relatively privileged and fairly safe individuals — me, for example).

    On the question of founding radical communities I feel repelled by an overtly religious emphasis, or on proselytising on behalf of radical Buddhism or non-buddhism. I think the situation is different for minorities who benefit from distinct self-organised communities based on their unique situation of oppression and marginalisation, such as the community Shaun describes. But a specifically non-buddhist practice or community leaves me cold, despite my continuing interest in Buddhism and non-philosophy. There are already structures, organisations and practices of resistance in place at every level.

  37. Patrick jennings Avatar
    Patrick jennings


    Just another short comment. I am reading “Philosophy of the Encounter” too, on and off, but making slow headway with it. If you really want to put the “cat among the pigeons” read it alongside Henry’s “Marx: Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy” which follows an incredibly close immanent reading of Marx’s early manuscripts. You can get a free download at Library Genesis.

  38. Lish Troha Avatar

    Dear Jonathan,

    Thank you for sharing your story with us. I think that many (if not all) of us can relate to the frustration of “endless seeking,” of making the same error over and over again of believing that [insert spiritual teacher/school of thought here] has the answers. Since I have become consciously concerned with matters of the existential/spiritual nature, it’s always felt necessary for all “beliefs” to go through the tumbler of my own mind, be explored thoroughly, and then ultimately get rejected.

    I am (very) new to this blog, and to “the path” in general. By this, I only mean the course we take towards becoming awake human beings, nothing necessarily eight-fold about it. I picked up Glenn Wallis’ books at my library (his translation/additional texts of The Dhammapada as well as “Basic Teachings of the Buddha.”). I was immediately drawn to his attitude towards the Buddha as being “nothing” but a human. I am personally pretty tired of the mistaken belief that “enlightenment takes thousands of lifetimes,” as if the pursuit of it is futile, or as if—even though I also am “nothing” but a human—there’s some deep, mystical reason why enlightenment is an impossible goal for me, you, and everyone else. Awakening is not the magical punctuation mark to life that most seekers imagine, and it’s nice to see someone who understands that.

    Anyway, because I am new, I hope you’ll forgive if this is a stupid question: Isn’t one of the basic concepts of Buddhism to strive for groundlessness? As in, avoid the very natural inclination to adhere to someone else’s dogma, or cling to any teacher’s words? Again, I am not well-versed in Buddhism, but the most well-known Western Buddhist figures (Pema Chodron is who I have in mind) give talks on abandoning ideology, on watching the mind as it habitually seeks some position or philosophy to identify with.

    I guess I’m answering my own question, because if that was understood by most Buddhists (Western or otherwise), organized Buddhism would not exist at all, or at least not in the same way. In any case, I am glad you are in a better place, and I’m thankful to Glenn for starting up this blog. You are very talented writer!

  39. Jonathan Earle Avatar
    Jonathan Earle

    Dear Lisha,

    Thank you for the kind comments! I’m glad you found your way to this blog and enjoyed the essay. There’s a lot of great ideas on this blog. I hope you have a chance to read some other posts as well.

    A few things strike me about your response. Before I respond, I should point out that when I say “ideology,” I’m not using it as a synonym for “beliefs.” I’m talking about Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology as a “‘Representation’ of the Imaginary Relationship of Individuals to their Real Conditions of Existence”—the mostly unconscious beliefs/practices that constitute our “place” in (capitalist) society (“Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”).

    It strikes me that you are advocating “abandoning ideology” and rejecting beliefs that you’ve “explored thoroughly,” yet you also mention the idea of “the path” and “awakening.” To use Glenn Wallis’ concepts, this already suggest a ”buddhistic decision.” “Decision” is an idea modeled after the work of François Laruelle, who (I would say) has advanced Althusser’s project of understanding ideology scientifically (precisely, theoretically). Glenn defines decision as “a cutting off, a scission, of reality in the positing of particular terms of representation” (“Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism,” 6). Following Laruelle, “the decisional division is between (1) a major dyad, consisting of a conditioned given and that which conditions it, a fact, and (2) a prior synthesis necessary for grounding (transcendentally) and guaranteeing the (immanent) unity of the dyad” (6). Decision is a really difficult concept that I don’t fully understand.

    Based on what you wrote, you don’t think that enlightenment is something that will take “many lifetimes.” It isn’t “mystical”; it’s possible in our every-day life. This is an example of buddhistic decision. There is a dyad of terms—“every-day life” and “awakening”—the first is ostensibly “immanent” and empirical and obvious; the other is “transcendent” because it necessarily exceeds the quotidian. However, ultimately, the ever-day can be enlightenment and enlightenment is possible in the every-day, so there is a unity. Actually, though, neither of these terms are strictly “scientific”—they both have an associated web of meanings (and this covert decisional structure that connects them). You could call “awakening” and “the path,” “buddhemes.” Glenn defines these as “the iterative vocabulary, phrases, and sentences that comprise virtually one hundred percent of buddhistic discourse.” I guess you could compare them to memes—little cultural molecules that are repeated and recombined by x-buddhists and which can become impediments to original thought.

    In short, you have already picked an ideological or philosophical position. So how does your spiritual practice (whatever that may be) cause you to behave in the world? What social effects does it have? That’s an important question for all of us to explore.

    I think it’s great that you pointed out that “one of the basic concepts of Buddhism [is] to strive for groundlessness.” Aside from the fact that the question itself is symptomatic of buddhistic decision (which buddhism are we talking about? What practices/beliefs does the term “groundlessness” index?), you get at a key function of this blog: uncovering the powerful ideas that buddhism has created. Because, yes, everything is empty/impermanent, right? So if we take that idea to its limit, so is buddhism. Now, how do we use buddhism without falling into any philosophical decision? How do we use buddhist ideas, immanently, non-dualistically, as materials? Can we create new and positive ideologies with these materials and imagine new subjectivities to inhabit?

    Let me know if you have questions, Lisha, and if anybody else wants to correct mistakes that I’ve made, please feel free.

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