No Thought, No Problem

IMG_0021An interesting but rarely discussed puzzle: in those social formations in which we are most certain that language and thought are devoid of all causal powers, we become most terrified of them and eager to escape their unbearable power over us.

Readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with the standard x-buddhist assumption that thinking and language are the source of all suffering, and the retreat into pure non-conceptual perception or affect would restore us to some original state of endless orgasmic bliss (the state we apparently will enter permanently if we can only become sufficiently indifferent to the illusory phenomenal world around us). However, the paradoxical discourse about the oppressive ill effects of language and thought (of, that is, discourse) is not limited to Western Buddhism. It seems that the popularity of various x-buddhisms might in fact be a result of their echoing of this powerful trope, so important to the success of global capitalist ideology. If only all people could be convinced that thinking is both the real cause of all their suffering, and that they can stop doing it if they try hard enough, just imagine how much more easily the 98% could be managed.

This terror of thought has been addressed to some extent in everything I’ve ever written for this blog, from my first posts on anti-intellectualism and Buddhist therapy to the most recent on mindfulness and Locke’s invention of “consciousness.” So why raise it yet again? In part, there are personal reasons. My chronic pain has recently taken a turn for the worse, and I’m unable to sit in a chair, or to stand for more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. As any Western Buddhist readers might expect, I’ve been told that if I could just experience the pain as a phenomenal illusion, as not part of my real self, I could use it to become enlightened….and all that crap. The problem, according to the x-buddhist popular literature, is that I continue to think, and so can’t float free into some blissful state. Or become masochistically attached to my pain, like Don Gately in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. For me, however, the one thing that my malfunctioning body has made all too clear is that it is only in thought that we can become free.

The other reason I want to raise this question yet one more time is that the assumption that thought is an unnatural cause of all suffering is so powerful and ubiquitous that it seems for most people to be completely impossible to question. Not just in x-buddhist discourse, but in every kind of discourse that functions to produce our social world, the simple solution to all our problems is to somehow escape the trap of reason, language and concepts, and to live in a state of pure intuition or affect. I’ve encountered this claim in so many areas of my life recently, that I thought I’d take one more shot at raising the unthinkable question: why are we so afraid to think?

Because I’m writing this lying flat on my back with my iPad on my zafu beside me and a Bluetooth keyboard on my stomach, I’m going to try to limit my citations of texts, and be somewhat informal in my approach. The claims I’m making could surely be extended endlessly, and the examples here are not meant to be exhaustive; nor do I intend to claim that the few texts I will cite are somehow responsible for this persistent problem—they are merely indications of how universal this mistake really is. My hope is simply to incite some thought, to allow for some awareness of how we might better be able to really reduce suffering, instead of endlessly blaming the victims, asserting that their suffering is a result not of real human practices in the world but of their own stubborn refusal to stop thinking.

In Zen baggage, Bill Porter’s memoir of a visit to China, the first chapter is entitled “No Word,” and is perhaps the most succinct statement of how this universal assumption works to block any real effort to reduce suffering in the world. Porter offers one version of a fairly standard narrative of the human fall from grace: “Early humans lived in a sea of sound. It took a long time before language and music pulled us out of that ocean and we had to start using religion to find our way back to its shores” (26). Porter invokes Darwin, but in an odd way, suggesting that language is in fact a flawed and accidental misstep in evolution, an unnatural process that interrupts the blissful animal state we lived in “before language came to dominate the human race,” a time when we lived purely in “emotion” instead of “information.”

Interestingly, Porter also recounts his meeting with the Zen master Ching-hui, who tells him he has translated into English the “wrong version” of the Platform Sutra. Porter has translated the version in which the well known poem of Hui-neng includes the line “our buddha nature if forever pure,” instead of the version where the reading is “actually there isn’t a thing.” The difference here is telling: two versions of an important Chinese Buddhist text, one which advocated the “buddhanature” concept and the idea of an essential and eternal consciousness, the other which advocates the “emptiness” concept. Porter seems to see little difference, however, and passes over this discussion quickly with the suggestion that it really isn’t important which text he used. He seems completely unable to even consider the possibility that there might not be an eternal consciousness outside of, not “dominated by,” language. The importance of this question is just unfathomable for him, as it seems to be for most of us.

But this is almost universal in Buddhist discourse in the West. Let me turn to an example from a very different discourse: Marxist theory.

In a recent book Capitalism and Desire, Todd McGowan promises to explain how “Capitalism traps us through an incomplete satisfaction that compels us after the new, the better, and the more.” Using a blend of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and Marxist theory, he tries to demystify the core fantasy of our world: the illusion that we will someday reach absolute fulfillment, what I have called “imaginary plenitude,” is possible only because of the very structure of capitalist practices, not least of the powerful illusion of the magical power of pure exchange value, or a particular commodity capable of effortlessly calling into being our every desire, if we could only accumulate enough of it. Given my own theoretical position, obviously I was enthusiastic and hopeful about this book’s potential.

I became concerned, however, fairly early on with the account McGowan offers of language: “We aren’t capitalist because we are animalistic, but because we are fundamentally removed from our animality…It is language that gives birth to the possibility of this economic form” (23). While I still think the overall project is useful, I would suggest that it is getting the relationship between language and economic practices completely wrong that is our greatest problem in bringing an end to capitalism. What if we were to think of this differently? Surely, language has existed much longer than capitalism, and has not always seemed to carry with it this possibility of the commodity form. I would suggest that some languages are even incompatible with the practice of capitalism. Instead, we might do better to consider that the rise of capitalism makes possible a particular practice of language in which we can come to believe that it would even be possible to think outside of language. Instead of assuming language causes capitalism, what if we begin from the assumption that capitalism causes our tendency to reify, and blinds us to the most important feature of language: its social nature. It is this social nature of language that gives us the power, as humans, to free ourselves from animal necessity.

Along with this this pervasive idea that language is an unfortunate and unnatural aberration, a deviation from the animal state and the laws of evolution, there is an equally pervasive confusion concerning the nature of thought. Almost everywhere these days, one encounters the claim that our problems are a result of thinking, or “intellectualizing,” too much. I hear educators telling students to stop thinking so much, insisting that the attempt to “understand” things is their problem, they ought to just try to memorize. Worse, teachers at the secondary level at obsessed with the idea that their real job is to “teach students, not subjects,” and the best teachers will “relate to” kids, not try to oppress them with facts and concepts. After all, happiness is found at the level of the emotions, and thinking, an unfortunate byproduct of language, causes suffering. This account is so common, one can hardly read a newspaper or watch a television show without hearing it, once we begin to notice it.

In a popular self-help book called The Teen Girl’s Survival Guide, girls are encouraged to “Be More, Think Less.” The way to greater adolescent happiness, they are told, is to focus on emotions—a quote from Osho tells them to “Think less, feel more.” The author, a clinical psychologist, uses the common strategy of reducing thought to nothing except obsession and rumination. Since these can be included under the category of thought, and they are not productive, the assertion is all thought is bad and the better solution is to stick with emotion. This kind of sophistry is almost universal in the field so psychology, in self-help discourse, and in Western Buddhism. Once it is agreed that certain kinds of “thought” (e.g. obsessively rehearsing an insult or disappointment) is bad, then it follows that all thought is bad…so the alternative, emotion, must be good.

However, we might do better to consider Spinoza’s theory of the passions. As Etienne Balibar explains, for Spinoza the passions express our submission to external causes, they “are not a sign of the adequate knowledge that man may acquire of what is useful to him, but of the image he forms of what might be useful to him through his ignorance” (84-85). Emotions aren’t even, then, an opposite to thought. Rather, like rumination or obsession, they are one more kind of poor thinking, enslaving us to the conditions in which we find ourselves. This contemporary cult of emotion serves to block the one kind of human practice that might allow us some real agency and freedom from suffering. The problem is, of course, that this practice might just enable us to question the social conditions which oppress us, and to begin working to change them.

As another alternative, consider the position of the Medieval Catholic theologian Duns Scotus. Perhaps because he is thinking in a world in which capitalist commodity forms are far from dominant, Duns Scotus can help us to think in ways not thoroughly conditioned by capitalism. For Scotus, nature and necessity are not the ideal and the unavoidable that they are for most of us today. The ideal of human free will for Scotus is found in our capacity to do something that is neither natural nor necessary. That is, if an act is necessary or naturally occurring it is not an act of will, and the human capacity for free will is our most important power and one we ought to try to make use of. As Ingham puts it, “without the presence of the intellect or act of cognition, Scotus maintains, the will would be blind. With it, one may speak of free will or free choice in the rational agent” (95). This way of thinking is powerfully antithetical to the dominant understanding today, when following reason is felt to be a kind of harsh and restrictive oppression, and the absence of rational thought is felt to lead to free action. For Scotus, because we are thinking beings who use language to produce abstract concepts, we can be free of necessity. To the extent that we abandon this task, we are blindly enslaved (and, for Scotus, sinfully rejecting God).

In Speech and Phenomena, Derrida accomplishes an almost impossible task. He draws out the unexamined assumptions that structure phenomenology, and by extension all Western thought from Descartes and Locke to the present day. It’s a difficult text, but the difficulty is in this: it refuses to begin from our most common assumptions. Derrida exposes the fear of impermanence and of the social constructedness of the human that underlie our insistence that language is a prison that traps us, our belief that we can find some permanent present free of thought. If Scotus is just as difficult as Derrida or Spinoza, I would suggest it is for the same reason: all three reject the assumptions about language, emotion, action, and freedom that structure most of our thought today.

If we were to invert the common understanding what might we be enabled to do? Suppose instead of telling our daughters to stop thinking so much and wallow in blind emotion, we were to explain to them that ruminating and obsessing are not real thought, and teach them how to actually think? What would be so terrible about them coming to understand exactly why being snubbed by a more popular kid has really upset them so much? Suppose we were to begin to explain how capitalism entails attempts to reify language, and why the invention of dictionaries and the frantic search for original or natural languages began just when capitalism became the dominant mode of production? What would be so terrible about rediscovering the inherently social and collective nature of language?

There is, of course, one terrible consequence. We would lose the powerful fantasy of imaginary plenitude. We would lose, that is, the hope that we will some day reach a state in which we are nothing but pure bodily bliss, a sort of spiritual version of the orgasmatron in Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper. We would lose the illusion of our immortal souls, only to gain real freedom and joy in the world. But this freedom and joy come with the price of having to make some bodily and mental effort. A price not many are willing to pay.

This fantasy of absolute power without any effort, which I have called imaginary plenitude, also goes by the name of exchange value: the illusion that we can accumulate so much wealth that our every desire will be instantly fulfilled and we never need make bodily effort, or negotiate with others in some kind of social process, again. Infinite wealth is infinite control. Of course, the absurdity of this illusion should be obvious (what is money worth without a collectively negotiated social system to insure its value?), but too often it is not.

And it remains obscure in part because of the universal tendency to naturalize capitalism. Although capitalism has existed for only about .6% of the time humans have been in existence (or less, depending on what we count as truly “human” and what we count as true capitalism) we tend to think that there has never been a time when the commodity form of money, and capitalist acquisitive individualist subject, did not exist. Some years ago, David Graeber (the author of Debt: the first 5,000 years) lamented the fact that today even the Marxists naturalize capitalism. If we can’t stop making this error, we may never be able to stop destroying all life on the planet.

One way that capitalism is naturalized in by making our natural ability to think, collectively, in symbolic systems seem to be the both unnatural and undesirable.

We are asked to forget that it is only because of language and reason that we have things like electricity, vaccines, a surplus of food and drinking water, air travel, central heating, much less the wine to sip and kitchens to chop carrots in as we mindfully attempt to escape the evil trap of language.

The erroneous belief that we would be much happier without language and conceptual thought asks us to deny what we are by nature. Our ability to use language is one of our natural capacities. The only way humans can be joyful (and here I am just following Spinoza—I have made this argument at great length elsewhere on this blog) is if we are able to make use of our natural capacities. To fantasize that only non-human animals are “natural,” and wish to be like them, is a grave error. We suffer when we are unable to make use of our ability to increase our interaction with the world. We may sometimes gain temporary pleasure by sacrificing this ability. We, do this when we substitute increased interaction in virtual worlds of video games for real interaction, or when we accept the approval of the gaze of some imagined Other as compensation for denying ourselves joy (in asceticism, in which category I would include mindfulness). But these temporary pleasures will always produce more suffering than joy.

Because of the, today almost ubiquitous, idea that thought and language are evil, we try to reduce ourselves to the miserable pursuit of an elusive state of complete mindlessness. Aquinas might have called this attempting to abandon our rational souls and inhabit an animal soul, a pursuit that would have seemed foolish at least, and sinful at worst. A pursuit that can only leave us enervated and discontented, dreaming of escape into some other world than this.

The solution is not to sink deeper into torpor and ignorance, but to see that this illusion is the source of our unhappiness. Not thought, but these mistaken ideas about what thought is, cause our misery. The problem, of course, is that we can only grasp this in discursive thought!

In conclusion, then, I would suggest that we be on guard for every single instance of someone telling us to stop thinking so much. Always be quick to point out the sophistry involved, and the horrible consequences that follow. Don’t fall for the argument that such calls to stop thinking are a kindness, because those suffering need relief and can’t be expected to do the horrible painful work of thought. Real thought need not be horrible or painful, and it is the only thing that can set us free from the bondage of necessity, or from the trap of our current social formations.

We need to conceive of our species-specific ability to think in language as a naturally occurring power that has set us free from complete submission to contingencies. Our terror of using this power is not some great spiritual advantage, but the result of socially produced ignorance, the result of a long struggle of the few to gain and maintain control of the many.

We can’t think too much. We can’t stop thinking. We can only choose between thinking poorly and thinking well.

37 thoughts on “No Thought, No Problem

  1. The author has set up a straw-man to attack and then justify his position all without understanding the first thing about the mind and the Buddha Dhamma. Perhaps the Author needs to learn about the mental hindrances and learn how to “be here now” with or without thought. When the mind is free from hindrances the mind is free to think appropriate wholesome thoughts or to just be in the moment. The problems that the Author did not address is telling. May the author investigate more and write less and think less.

  2. Yes, Dhammaratohappybloger, and excellent example of what I’m describing. The incorrect use of philosophical sounding terms like “straw-man”, hoping readers won’t know what they mean but will be impressed, and the mention of technical buddhist terms that don’t really apply, but hopefully readers won’t know what they mean either and so will be impressed. This is how we use people’s ignorance to convince them to stay ignorant (and, conveniently, gain a little power/profit in the process?). Nicely done. Sounds like Master Tutte.

    Here’s another example, from Tricylce’s Daily Dharma:

    Learning to let thinking come and go, we can eventually understand a thought as a thought and a word as a word, and with this understanding we can find a measure of freedom from thoughts and words.

    —Norman Fischer, “Beyond Language”

  3. Tom, just to clarify, when you say that our ability to think in language gives us “real agency,” and frees us from “complete submission to contingencies,” the agency and freedom you are talking about are completely contingent. Agency doesn’t refer to any kind of unconditioned freedom or will, but to our positions in structures, correct? We are freed from the basic contingencies of survival that other animals face because language allows us to organize our behavior much better.

    I was in an interesting situation recently where the members of a group were asked about their “personal philosophies.” The entire group agreed that they believed in free will. Someone said that if there was no free will we would be like automatons, unable to act and forced to “go with the flow” without any choice (sounds like a mindfulnista). As subjects of capitalist ideology, it is difficult to think of agency in a way that avoids atomism and free will. If I understand you right, this problem of free will entirely misses the point because it assumes its own premise: we never had any freedom from contingency to begin with! Maybe it is useful to talk about agency precisely because it is so difficult to think causation structurally?

  4. “standard x-buddhist assumption that thinking and language are the source of all suffering”

    the article started off with a wrong assumption, and a broad brush. Source of all suffering is one’s actions (karma), actions of all kinds(mental, intentions, actions, thoughts, etc). I am not quite sure which x-buddhist you are referring to in your assumption. Perhaps the non-buddhism’s own x-buddhism invention?

    all x-buddhist agree the solution prescribed by buddha is to focus on one’s wholesome actions (all kinds). Lot of buddhists get this, keep it simple. There are x-buddhists who got bogged down in rituals, and other diversions, but even they see the need for wholesome actions , at the end of the day.

  5. Jonathan,
    Yes, this is a difficulty. Everyone in our culture says they have free will, but they can’t explain exactly what they mean by this. I once had my students read and respond to Peter Strawson’s essay on free will “The impossibility of Moral Responsibiliyt” (I think that’s the title, anyway), and they became quite irate. Basically, he asks us to consider what exactly we might mean when we use terms like “free” and “will” and “choose.” So, no, I don’t mean we have something like atomistic free choice–our choices only feel “free” to us to the extent that we do exactly what the structures of collective thought demand of us without a problem.

    And certainly agency is not “free” in the sense we usually mean. Spinoza somewhere says something to the effect that we are only free to the extent that our ideas are clear and correct–to the extent that we understand correctly the working of the World we inhabit. This, of course, is not what most people mean by “free.” For most of us, we think we are free when we are not subject to the laws of nature, or the structures of our social system. Instead, we are free only when we realize that we are subject to these, and know exactly what they are. So we cannot “freely choose” how we might prevent polio–we can prevent polio only when we understand that there really is a specific sets of causes for the disease, and a specific way that we must act to prevent it–it has nothing to do with “will,” only with correct knowledge. This is what I mean by “agency,” here. We cannot choose to walk up walls or fly, but we can understand how to make ladders and planes. Agency is the ability to comprehend structures in symbolic systems, and so to operate in effective ways within them (or, perhaps, if they are human creations, to change them…but with relational thought, not desire. I address this problem to some extent in my response to Jodi Dean’s book “Crowds and Parties” over on Lines of Flight).

    What I would consider useful meditation would be reading and thinking through an essay like Strawson’s, which can help us to clarify how we are using poor thinking to avoid real agency. Much more productive than a whole year of Buddhist retreats trying to gain “freedom from thoughts and words,” to repeat Norman Fischer’s goal mentioned above.

    Language does allow us to organize our behavior–without it, we would likely be extinct as a species. Of course, poor use of langauge prevents us from achieving exactly this kind of true agency–and most people use languages of all kinds (all symbolic systems, including mathematics) quite poorly. This is perhaps what enables this common argument against langauge and thought: since poor use of langauge leads to poor results, then the only alternative is to abandon langauge completely. The same sophistry we see with the conflation of perseveration or rumination with thought.

    Does this clear anything up? Obviously, a whole essay, even a book, could be written on this question, and it would be worthwhile to attempt it. There are certainly enough essays and books trying hard to confuse people about this matter…

  6. It is certainly foolish to respond to anyone who uses the rhetoric of “too broad a brush” (or of “straw man,” or the old “down on the ground dealing with reality” trope, or accusations of “mental masturbation”…all of which indicate a lack of intellectual capacity to comprehend real argument). But as usual, I’ll go ahead and be foolish…

    I didn’t provide lists of x-buddhists making the “stop thinking/escape language” claim, mostly because my intention here was to demonstrate that this error is much more widespread–that we can find it just about everywhere, in every discourse that in any way deals with ideological practices (and quite a few that purport to be “scientific,” as well…). Of course, Red Pine and Norman Fischer can’t be held solely responsible for this error. I could go on to collect similar quotations from almost every popular Buddhist teacher in the West…but I really don’t feel like wasting my time. I’ve done such things before, and the response is always something like “yes, that’s may be true of those thirty teachers, but not of any others…” or “yes, they wrote that, but you’re focusing on their words, and not what their deeper meaning is…” or some such nonsense. My interest, anyway, is in dealing with this problem in the wider culture.

    That said, if anyone is really interested in this problem in Western Buddhism in particular, take a look at Dale Wright’s book from about twenty years ago, “Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism,” particularly the chapter on “Language.” Wright explains both the error being made, and how it relates to Romantic thought in the West. He does focus on Zen, and on one particular example, but again, the point is to explain the error…it’s easy enough, once it is understood, to see how ubiquitous it is.

    And sure, many x-buddhists would say that performing “wholesome actions” is desirable. The problem is in knowing exaclty which actions are wholesome and which are not…and deciding that is where they begin to insist we must not use any conceptual thought, but follow intuition, escape the trap of thought and language. Think a little more carefully, and it becomes quickly obvious this error is in all Western Buddhisms, from Tibetan to Thai Forest. Or don’t think, and remain oblivious to it…and see how far that gets you. Not thinking seems to be working just great in American culture today! It can even get you elected president.

  7. Red (4). I wonder if you might consider taking up this challenge: Locate a single instance in Buddhist literature that contradicts Pepper’s statement that “the standard x-buddhist assumption” is that:

    thinking and language are the source of all suffering, and the retreat into pure non-conceptual perception or affect would restore us to some original state of endless orgasmic bliss (the state we apparently will enter permanently if we can only become sufficiently indifferent to the illusory phenomenal world around us).

    Focusing on the “source” is trivial and uninteresting. (You will always find instances where it is explicitly stated that the source is this or that–desire, ignorance, mental afflictions, whatever. But in such instances, the role of thought merely remains implicit and/or obscured.) What is much more valuable is to find out whether his statement amounts to a general discovery about x-buddhism. If so, we have to admit that this attitude toward thought and thinking is a constitutive feature of x-buddhism per se. If that is the case, it is a problem for x-buddhism. It establishes it as something like a visionary account of reality rather than the “scientific” (empirical, naturalist, phenomenological, etc.) account that its acolytes claim for it.

    I have always suspected that intra-buddhist critique is so fatuous because of the reflex you seem to be exhibiting here. Buddhist-A makes a statement, and gives an example from Teacher-A. Buddhist-B contradicts him based on an example from Teacher-B. In Cruel Theory/Sublime Practice I refer to this tendency as “exemplificative braggadocio.” It’s a ridiculous term to capture a ridiculous aspect of x-buddhism. No real examination of Buddhist postulates is possible. Only the interminable exchange of examples. And the examples are largely based on hearsay, rumor, or tradition.

    So, since this is the way of x-buddhist discourse, my challenge to you is to find an example that contradicts Pepper’s statement. God knows x-buddhists are masters at the feint and the flinch; so, it has to be a robust contradiction. After locating the contradiction, we will then have to analyze it within context–you know, to see if it does what it says.

  8. Tom,
    Yes, that was helpful!
    To what extent do you feel desire has a role to play in politics? In your review of Jodi Dean’s book (https://linesofflight.co/2016/02/26/what-should-a-communist-party-look-like/), you object to her idea that the party should act as the “transferential site” of the raw emotion of the discontented crowd because you feel that the crowd itself is a symptom of the contradictions of capitalism. The party’s job isn’t to fulfill a particular group’s desires but to analyze and critique our ideological practices. This is obviously an important task, but doesn’t the party also necessarily produce ideology? Doesn’t interpellation involve desire, between the subjects and Absolute Subject? By creating revolutionary ideological practices, isn’t that providing a positive, anti-capitalist direction for desires, rather than acting out the role of the neurotic subject? Am I misunderstanding something, or do you just feel that desire isn’t that important? How do you see desire relating to agency (in a non-atomistic way)?

  9. you postulate something, and ask me to find a contradiction in buddhist literature for it ? The problem is, the root/focus of most of the literature you refer to is not trying to address what wtpepper is referring to. They are concerned about more fundamental/core issues, existential questions, no question or stone un-turned. So, it was not the focus, there isnt going to be either confirmation, or non-confirmation. If you see confirmation, it is a mis-interpretation, or you making (something they used as a tool) as their core thing.

    Let me reiterate, “thinking and language are the source of all suffering” was/is never the main thing. It is not the core or foundational thing. So if you point me to instances which you generalize all-x-buddhist as making this their broad-brush/core concept, it is missing the point. Yes they may have used these concepts/words to convey, or point to, or explain their core issue…but it is NOT the core issue itself. I am not disagreeing they used these as tools/explanatory devices. But they dont get hung up on this as the core, or be-all. Not even remotely.

    @wtpepper
    “problem is in knowing exaclty which actions are wholesome and which are not…and deciding that is where they begin to insist we must not use any conceptual thought, but follow intuition, escape the trap of thought and language.”

    Lack of thought/logic, in buddhism ? I am all for critiquing some of x-buddhist’s ritual/prayers, or other distractionary/self-illusioned practices, but in-general lack-of-thought is not something i associate with buddhist-thought in-general. Again, if we broadly categorize entire x-buddhist as lack-of-thought/intuition people, we are missing their core focus/point.

    The foundation started with a thought. The roots are immersed in perfect wisdom. Some branches/leaves may be dying out, but not their root/source.

    Let me leave this question, forget buddhism, what would be a perfect way to “condition one’s-self” (“buddhi”) ? What is existence, at any moment (or for a lifetime) ? how it came to be it, how could it become (or, come to be) perfect, always without-fail (end-of-karmic-cycle). Shantideva, or any of the seemingly idealist, literature obsessively focusing on “action” is to condition themselves to involunatarily “become-it” (buddhi => buddha). This is not lack of thought, or logic, IT IS full of logic/thought, intentional practice, always thoughtful. There is no doubt/question which is wholesome, which is not. It is as clear as day and night. Do you think shantideva had a doubt/confusion about what is wholesome, and what is not. Same goes for some of the modern x-buddhist figures. Again, i do not disagree there are questionable/confusing teachings/practices going-on, but i am not sure we can broad-brush the whole thing as you did here.

  10. Red (#9).

    you postulate something, and ask me to find a contradiction in buddhist literature for it?

    Yes, your assignment is to find a single quote from x-buddhist literature, ancient or contemporary, that contradicts the claim that

    thinking and language are the source of all suffering, and the retreat into pure non-conceptual perception or affect would restore us to some original state of endless orgasmic bliss (the state we apparently will enter permanently if we can only become sufficiently indifferent to the illusory phenomenal world around us).

    You say that this is a faulty assumption about x-buddhism, and that it must be a non-buddhist invention. I say it is a fundamental x-buddhist premise, one that informs virtually all Buddhist writing and, well, thinking. For instance:

    Stop talking and thinking and there is nothing you will not be able to know. (Hsin Hsin Ming)

    No thinking, no mind. No mind, no problem. (Seung Sahn)

    Names and forms are made by your thinking. If you are not thinking and have no attachment to name and form, then all substance is one. Your don’t know mind cuts off all thinking. This is your substance. The substance of this Zen stick and your own substance are the same. You are this stick; this stick is you. (Seung Sahn)

    Zen has nothing to teach us in the way of intellectual analysis. [Sutras are] mere waste paper whose utility consist in wiping off the dirt of the intellect and nothing more. (D.T. Suzuki)

    Mindfulness is not thinking. This is one of the reasons it is so powerful. (Trevor Leggett)

    It’s like this. If you start really paying attention to your own thought process, you’ll notice that the thoughts themselves don’t go on continuously. . . . Most of us habitually fill these spaces with more thoughts as fast as we can. . . . Try to look at the natural spaces between your thoughts. Learn what it feels like to stop generating more and more stuff for your brain to chew on. Now see if you can do that for longer and longer periods. A couple of seconds is fine. Voilà! (Brad Warner)

    Meditation is like a game of Simon Says with the most devious, misleading, and clever Simon ever — your mind. In absolute silence, with no distractions, and you focusing on only one thing, your mind can send you careening off of stillness in less than a single breath. (“The Secular Buddhist,” Ted Meissner)

    So, can you flip through your books and find a single statement that contradicts, in word or spirit, Pepper’s assertion?

  11. RE #8: I do think the goal of a communist party (or a Buddhist practice) ought to be to produce ideologies. But to do it in rational thought.

    When I object to desire, what I have in mind is the meaning of “desire” theorized by psychoanalysis. That is, the desire of the capitalist subject, which depends on a structuring fantasy, conceptual error, etc. And, most importantly (as Zizek never tires of reminding us) is largely a desire to continue desiring–that is, “desire” in this sense is impossible to “fulfill,” because it is a desire for absolute freedom from effort, necessity, contingency, and most importantly social demands…coupled with the desire for approval of some other and endless material satisfactions/pleasures. An impossible contradiction (e.g., I must not be subject ot the desires of other people, but I must BE what those other people desire, etc.).

    The idea of basing a communist party on the desires of the neurotic, divided, muddled subject of capitalism is…well, can anybody say totalitarianism?

    We often use the word “desire” to refer to things like food, shelter, safety, sex, etc. But these aren’t “desires” in the same sense–these are needs that can be met, whereas desires cannot be fulfilled. (Equivocations using the term “desire” are just as common and just as pernicious as the equivocation that conflates obsessive rumination with thought).

    One objection I have to Dean’s position, and to Zizeks, is the assumption that the capitalist subject is universal. I think reading ancient texts, ones that no longer seem “good” or “compelling reading” today, can help disabuse us of this assumption (the seem “dull” because they assume a sujbect that is not like us). Communism, which can only occur once the commodity form (a human practice) has been eliminated, will not have the same kinds of subjects as capitlaism. That’s a bit disconcerting even to us hardcore antihumanist marxists, because, well, we don’t know what the subject will look like, and we’ll have to theorize it all over again…but I continue to believe it can’t possibly be worse!

    This discussion is powerfully important to the anti-thinking issue. Because one way we are taught that our desires are universal and natural is by insisting that thinking is NOT. As Spinoza explains, passions (which might be better translated as desire than as emotion) are just unclear thought. To naturalize unclear thought, and reject clarity of thought, is central to the capitalist sujbect and the practice of capitalism. If we could understand that we can act for reasons, that reasons can be causes of human behavior (even if, in our culture today, they generally are not), we might begin to solve this problem. Diseases aren’t cured with desires, but with clarity of thought. We don’t plant crops because we passionately desire the experience of plowing, but because we rationally know that this will enable us to meet our needs (again, food is a need, not a desire).

    Yes, a communist party should produce ideology. But in clarity of thought. People need to learn to act for rational reasons–that action, that practice, is still ideological. Just not ideological in the way capitalist ideology is.

    We don’t need to have an Absolute Subject, or a transcendental signified, or whatever. We do, in capitalist ideology, always have them–and we chase after the “correct” langauge that is not socially constructed, looking for final answers that will free us from effort and work. We want what Andrew Collier called “out of gear freedom” instead of “in gear freedom,”. But if we learn to prefer “in gear freedom” and social construction of meaning and endless effortful engagement with reality, we can stop assuming the MUST be a Big Other.

    RE #9, 10: I would say, myself, that the anti-intellectualism, and the goal of imaginary plenitude, is ubiquitous in Western Buddhism, which is what I mean by x-buddhism generally. It is also clearly common in many non-Western and non-modern buddhisms, but I don’t think it’s universal there. I would say that no, Santideva does not “know” what is wholesome, at least not in any intuitive or easy sense. This is why he emphasizes thought–because we need to make great intellectual effort in every situation to determine exactly what the best action is. But then, Santideva, and Nagarjuna, are not particularly popular in WEstern buddhism, except in a few poorly translated quotations out of context. Many x-buddhists despise Nagarjuna, and don’t consider him a “real” buddhist (at least, I have heard and read this often–and just try to get an x-buddhist group to spend time studying Nagarjuna instead of trying to stop thinking!).

    I could personally name a few Buddhists from recent decades who do not reject thought or promise eternal imaginary plenitude. So I do think it’s possible. But none of them are popular in the West.

  12. “find a single quote from x-buddhist literature, ancient or contemporary, that contradicts the claim”

    RE #10:

    ok. I will show 2. One from the horse’s mouth : “right view” (i would prefer “wholesome view” as the quote) …You cant have a view, right or wrong, without thought (and its derivatives/helpers/tools, like language). So i do not think thought is despised or discouraged, as you cannot come into a wholesome view without it.

    For 2nd example, i will pick one of the people you quote, say. Hsin Hsin Ming. he says,

    “To return to the root is to find meaning” (http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/buddhism/third_patriarch_zen.html)

    There would be no “meaning” if you do not have comprehension/perception (and its derivatives/dependencies -> thought/language,etc). So, i do not think he is saying “thinking and language are the source of all suffering, … retreat into pure non-conceptual perception”. In fact, he cautions against such passivity,

    “When you try to stop activity by passivity , your very effort fills you with activity. ”

    They may seem contradictory, but only if you analyze them literally. The problem, as it so happens often, is interpreting things out of context, or without considering entire stream of “thoughtful” view. Every stream/concept, has a root (point of view), and all subsequent thoughts that come from it, look illogical/contradictory if you dont start from the root.

    In other words, He has a “view” on things (the root), which he came to via thought/contemplation/practice over a long time. You are interpreting some of his quotes, without taking the root view into consideration.

    Like every concept, or skill, or even sport, you cant look at higher level concepts and question why are they not using thought/language. For conception, one can do without thought/language, if they BECOME IT (or, ingrain a right root view). Hsin Hsin Ming’s teachings have a structure (which only come from deliberate/thoughtful activity), they are not random, they have a logic/reason for why he says what he says.

    All these people are after one thing – unqualified freedom. Not unlike humans fighting wars for freedom (from oppression, or slavery, or from mass-propaganda/religions if you are thoughtful). These practices just happen to fight from mental traps of all kinds. Nothing limits, or defines them. And you can only BECOME IT(the freedom, pure choice), if you deliberately condition your-self to be it, become it.

  13. Red, I suppose it’s the format of having a discussion on a comment board, but your answer just seems confusing (confused?) to me. I guess its labyrinthine traversals through The Mystical permit Wisdom virtually any destination it fancies. For what it’s worth, I was looking for an x-buddhist validation of thought and disavowal of idealism. Something along the lines of (to roughly invert Tom Pepper’s original statement):

    Thinking and language are essential to overcoming all suffering, and the idea of retreating into some pure non-conceptual perception or affect that would restore us to some original state of endless orgasmic bliss is one of the most suffering-inducing thoughts of all.

    In other words, a straight-forward statement that extols rigorous critical thought and repudiates any and all attempts to valorize idealist withdrawal. No need to continue the conversation here. But the fact that no x-buddhist teacher has ever encouraged such an unambiguous attitude toward thinking should be of concern to people who believe in the the rational qualities–not to say superiority–of x-buddhism.

  14. Glenn Wallis, you asked me for anything that captures the “spirit” if not a direct quote. Sorry, i could not get you direct quote, i hoped i explained the “spirit” clearly contradicting wtpepper’s assertion.

    That said, your comment is well put, it is exactly “permit Wisdom virtually any DESTINATION it fancies”. But,
    I am crystal clear on my comment, no confusion on my part, i know exactly what i am talking about.

    I love “rigorous critical thought” ,just like the next guy.

    My point in the comment was that , these people came to that state through exactly the same “rigorous critical thought” (not because buddha/god said it, even it may seem so), and they realized , once you become a by-product of well reasoned/”rigorous critical thought”, you do not have to continue doing “rigorous critical thought”…as they explored every possible DESTINATION through rigorous critical thought, and there is no more DESTINATION (to do rigorous critical thought for), there is only becoming/assimilating (this state is all-seeing).

    You wont find them obsessing on “rigorous critical thought”, as their main focus is on assimilating. And, “rigorous critical thought” is not nearly sufficient for “conditioning one’s nature” (assimilating), sometimes it could be deterrent. It is just not efficient/sufficient. The root focus is on “buddhi” (self-nature), and conditioning it, so they could be/become “buddhi => buddha”. This process may seem idealistic, but it is “common sense” for them, which arrived after a prolong/life-long “rigorous critical thought”. So it is not idealistic, as you misleadingly suggest.

    for what its worth, i read your books and they are one of my favorites due to their focus on going to the source/basics. and, thanks for responding.

  15. Let me summarize/simplify my comment about Hsin Hsin Ming’s quote(s).

    At its core, his teachings take a view-point/”meaning”, which can only be arrived through thought/reasoning , just like any-other view-point. So if you find him saying “dont think”, you will have to put it in perspective.

    Specifically, he is suggesting you dont have to think …. only if you already know your destination (the view-point/meaning). By all means, think/have-rigorous critical thought if you want to know the destination…but you dont have to, or it is not necessary, as at-the-end-of-it, you would come to same destination, and you would want the same assimilating-process (which itself does not need critical reasoning…it just has to do with self-nature…becoming…cultivating good habits at the basic level).

    so the whole rigorous-critical-thought thing is nice and all, but not necessary if you just want to follow-him. If you dont want to follow-him, he would be the first person to beg you to do the rigorous-critical-thinking (as he knows you will see same common-sense destination that came to).

    I am also suggesting he came into that view-point through his own prolonged rigorous critical thought (he wont bother focusing/discussing it, as they dont serve his common-sense destination).

  16. I would argue that most people misundstand the concept of emptiness. One of the most important aspects of emptiness is that nothing is inherently good or bad. This would of course include thinking as well.

    Seeing the emptiness of pain doesn’t imply stopping thought. It only means to see the pain for what it is – just information. If you can do this you will stop resisting the pain itself. However, this does by no means stop you from doing something about the underlying issues. In fact, you will probably be able to deal with those more skillfully.

  17. Yes, I would agree that most people misunderstand emptiness (this helps them to avoid thought, and reify their culture). For example, you’ve completely misunderstood it in your comment. To assume that there is some objective reality of what pain, or anything else, “really is,” once we see “just information,” is exactly the mistake Nagarjuna, for instance, is trying to correct. Pain is dependently arisen, and arises with the quality of “badness” connected to it, and to remove one of its essential qualities is to miss the whole point, to fail to notice what the causes and conditions of pain are, to fail to notice that it is a thing that arises in the world and so can be removed, etc. To say that pain “really is” information in the nerves (Skinner, for instance, makes this claim) is to foolishly essentialize, to be reductive, and to miss the point of emptiness completely. (Yes, I know I’m an obnoxious asshole, opoetisk, so you don’t need to point this out if you reply).

  18. @opoetisk / @wtpepper

    One could go one step further, and stop thinking in in-terms of thought or no-thought, or even emptiness -or-
    no-emptiness all-together. And, just focus on doing good karma. And everything will fall into place. In turns out , you couldn’t do better any other way, anyways. That was my point in my comment about Hsin Hsin Ming.

    You could then question, how should one know/define what good karma is. We have two choices, you could either follow folks like Hsin Hsin Ming and do what he says (dare i say, without thinking), OR, you could do your own explore/self-test the samsaric-waters and figure out what is right/wrong, and come to a satisfactory way-of-life (just make sure you dont get stuck in thought, and that you actually transform/become your-self into that new view-of-things).

    If you see most of bodhisattva literature, those folks are obsessed to a fault, to seemingly thoughtless/idealistic-ways. But , they see no other “smart/thoughtful” way to become/conduct their lifes. We cant just see their words/actions, and conclude these people are thoughtless/just-follow-their-intuition. NO, they know exactly what they are doing, and it is a deliberate/planned becoming (not a thoughtless thing, not even remotely).

    regarding physical pain, it depends on your priorities really, just like life/death. If you ask these bodhisattva folk , they would just obsessively focus on cultivating their state-of-mind even if it costs them double the pain. So, what are you after. Which is important, your future becoming or your pain. It turns out, if you obsessively immerse your-self in anything you would momentarily forget everything (just like you wouldnt notice pain if your mind is immersed in the middle of a thriller movie or something). These bodhisattva folk happen to choose the thing that will cause their future becoming , as their thriller movie. (they actively retain/form their “buddhi”, 24/7). Tell me if there is anything more “thoughtful” than this.

  19. @wtpepper

    I can handle your sharp writing style. Don’t worry about that 🙂

    My criteria for understanding a concept is whether it helps me function better or not. It so happens that my ability to not flee pain itself has increased as my understanding of what I call emptiness has increased. This has led to a dramatic decrease in pain and other physical problems that have arisen as a result of fleeing pain (example: I used to tense up when I felt pain. This lead to more and more tension and pain. Yes I too suffer from chronic pain, but it is getting better everyday 🙂

    Maybe my understanding of emptiness is not the correct one. But I don’t care as long as it helps me function better 🙂

    If you want to know, my understanding of emptiness is very much informed by the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett who studies emotions. If you don’t know her look her up! I think you’ll like her a lot…

  20. Yes, I see your point. Being wrong isn’t so important, if your goal is functioning well in American society. In fact, it’s usually a disadvantage, so long as you’re from the right social and economic class. Barrett’s claims to a revolutionary breakthrough are kind of funny, but what she’s doing is just one more attempt to save the Lockean subject. If she ever got anything right, certainly she would not be so successful in a field like psychology, where profit and the production of capitalist ideology are the game. So stick with what works for you.

    I’m not quite sure, if you have such a highly successful ideological interpellation into the world as it is, why you’d be reading a blog like this one, though. What did you expect to find?

    As for managing pain, the problem you describe is probably better handled, for most people, with simple relaxation exercises. There’s no need to add on an incorrect understanding of an important philosophical concept. For most people, anyway. I do find it interesting that misunderstanding difficult concepts could be helpful for managing pain! I can see why it might help one be a better capitalist, but I’d never considered that this kind of error might be useful at a bodily level. It does seem to suggest that thought has an impact at a much more fundamental level than most people would admit–but personally I can’t see how exactly it woudl work for chronic pain (unless, of course, the pain is completely psychosomatic, wihich I’m assuming yours is not).

    I am aware that Barrett just published a book, and at some point I may have to read it. I sometimes teach a class for freshman trying to learn to write research papsers, and a favorite topic (for them, I’m sick of it) is emotions. They desperately want to avoid or dismiss the “cultural construction of emotions” approach, so I’m sure they’ll love Barrett’s book and I’ll likely have to read it. Not looking forward to it, though.

  21. I don’t know what made you think I embrace American capitalism. What I’m saying is that the fact that I function better as a result of my understanding is indicative that I’m right. At least more right than I used to be. If you update your model of reality and now suddenly you function better in the world, then your model is probably more accurate. I never said it was irrelevant whether I’m right or wrong. But I don’t give fuck about what would be the correct buddhist understanding.

    And no, when I say I function better that doesn’t mean becoming a better capitalist. If anything I have become a better rebel. I’m not afraid to make people uncomfortable. You don’t know how I live my life. You don’t know how much trouble I have caused. I am comfortable in chaos and that makes people scared. But I can also be very likeable and loving. I love and hate fully. I have nothing to prove to you, but there you go you fuckhead.

    I don’t think you know what you’re talking about when you talk about Lisa Feldman Barrett. Her whole argument is that emotions are constructed and shaped by our culture…

  22. Glad to see you can handle my sharp writing style so well! What a relief.

    You did start out by saying that “most people misunderstand emptiness,” so I took that to mean you were going to offer a more correct understanding of the concept. If you don’t give a fuck what the correct concept is, then I don’t see why you are claiming to correct the errors of others. But I’m no longer interested.

  23. Ironically, the title of this article is indeed true “no thought, no problem”! . To be my-self, do i have to think ? One just is. It is called self-nature, and one can cultivate/become it. And they don’t have to “think” to cultivate/become…the more important/efficient thing actually is “action” (karma) … not “thinking”.

    To develop good personality , do i critically think about it, i just develop/do good manners/habits. Thinking doesn’t even have to figure in the equation. If kids/children were asked to critically think, rather than “do good action” to become better adults, they would be clueless. Thinking/thought is a tool, not a necessary mechanism. And, some of us dont even have the ability to properly/critically think…just like children when growing up. No thought, no problem! just follow the eight fold path, everything falls into place. yes, think if you want to, but you dont have to. Just do!

  24. As an example of this anti-intellectualism in Zen, I recall a ‘student’ at a Zen retreat, who was clearly highly intelligent and intellectual, being verbally reprimanded by a ‘lay nun’ with a value judgement about his intellectualism.

    Related, I recall another such ‘zen nun’ expressing the view that ducks she had seen living in a tree were in some sense expressing their ‘Buddha nature’ because they had forgotten their conditioning.

    Such misunderstandings are understandable and forgivable perhaps. But more dangerous, sinister even, was an idea that I heard expressed by two very experienced teachers, that the best way to change the world for the better was to do lots and lots of zazen meditation, rather than engaging with the world. I called this ‘saving the world by sitting on your arse’. I left that organisation soon after.

  25. Liam,
    This has been my experience too. I gave up Zen many years ago, but the last time I was at a retreat at a Zen monastery, I was told this exact same thing by the abbot. It’s sort of the “ripple out” idea, so popular with the American liberal today. If we just improve ourselves, the world will get better by a subtle influence. They love to repeat that ubiquitous Gandhi quote about being the change you want to see in the world.

    My suggestion here was meant to be that this kind of x-buddhism is so very popular because this idea is so pervasive in our general culture, so, as the x-buddhists like to say, it “resonates” with many people, tells them what they already believe is a deep and ancient truth.

    When I was a grad student and had to take a multicultural sensitivity class, the entire semester was spent lecturing us that we couldn’t and shouldn’t try to change institutional racism. (This was a psychology grad program, and we were told it would be professionally unethical for us to try to do such things). Instead, we needed to focus on unconscious “micro-racism,” and try to change these subtle unnoticed behaviors in ourselves, and that would gradually change the rest of the world.

    Just recently, I read an editorial/review in The NY Times, arguing a similar thing: that economic inequality is not something we should change at an institutional level, but at the level of noticing and stopping subtle unconscious “micro-aggressions” against poor people. The gist seemed to be that lack of education or resources or family support can’t prevent anyone from climbing the soical ladder, the only real impediment is the withering glance you get when you wear the wrong clotihing or use the wrong fork or don’t know which is the most fashionable new workout routine. If we can just stop judging people for these things, the writer suggested, we don’t need to do anything about the educational system or the nepotism that controls access to high paying jobs.

    All of this is very much part of the general American anti-intellectualism. It takes intentional thought to change an institutional structure, but not to send out positive vibes to a poor person you see on the street. The problem is, people really can, and naturally do, think about such things–it takes a huge effort of ideological conditioning to train them to fear doing such natural things as thinking. It seems, though, to be worth the expense and effort, for those who benefit from the existing system.

  26. I’m curious about that NY Times article. Will have to look that up. All the twists and turns we do to justify doing nothing about the obvious structural causes of poverty is forever infuriating and baffling. Definitely an example of fighting against thought.

    I can also relate to the training in ‘multicultural counseling’. I’d say those courses helped me see that I really had no idea what the experience of a minority was and that this should inform my counseling practice. However, I was always so disgusted with the fact that any discussion about structural causes of oppression were literally ignored. I used to go crazy wondering if I was just ignorant or in the wrong graduate program! Ironically, I’m thinking about going back into the addictions field. Not sure I can though given my knowledge about addiction and bad capital subjects.

  27. Hey Craig,
    I can’t remember who wrote the article, but it was in the form of a review of two recent books, one on structural and institutional causes of poverty, the other arguing that the real cause of inequality is unconscious micro-aggressions. The reviewer, obviously, found the latter book much more convinging (as I’m sure most NYTimes readers would).

    The addiction field is one of the most powerfully anti-intellectual. Oddly, they have about a 0% success rate, with recovery just slightly lower after treatment than for those who avoid all treatment, and roughly a quadrupled rate of suicide for those who go through inpatient rehabs. Still, they’re very sure they have the right answers. And the mantras of antiintellectualism are constant. Thinking leads to drinking. Get stupid to get sober. I”m sure you’ve heard them all. In my substance abuse treatment class in grad school, the professor literally told us that all addicts and alcoholics are liars and sociopaths, so there’s no point in trying to treat them, therapists should just focus on treating the “real victims,” their famiilies. And she assured the class of mostly middle-class young women (who were happy to hear it) that the cause of addiction was “overintellectualizating” (I’m not sure how she spelled it, but she loved that word). Recently, I heard a young man say that he quit college because his therapist finally explained to him that the cause of his addiction was that he “over-intellectualizated,” and I had to wonder who his therapist was!

    I’ve seen a lot of people die of addiction in the last ten years, and only a handful get the problem under control. Those who succeed usually do so by ignoring the addictions industry professionals and thinking through the real underlying causes of their addiction. Ironically, the AA “Big Book” says explicltly that “drinking was but a symptom, we had to get down to causes and conditions.” But don’t quote that particular passage to an addiction counselor (she’ll just accuse you of overintellecualizating, probably).

    Have you ever read anything by Lance Dodes? He wrote a book, I think called “7 Steps to Brreaking Addiction” or something similar. It’s a useful appraoch (the language is a bit self-helpy, and insultingly patronizing toward the addict, but if you can ignore that the practice might be useful if you do decide to go back into the addiction field.).

  28. Liam, agree it’s a problem, but aren’t you missing forest for the trees. Broad-brushing. Even, making intellectualism/critical-thought be all end all. Those zen nuns, examples, you cite perhaps are less than 20%, definitely not maority….I could be out of touch here…but I tend to think there is room for intellectualism more in x-buddhisms , than any other mass-propaganda systems..aka “culture”/religion.

  29. Again, red, can you quote a single x-buddhist teacher extolling the value of intellectual work? I don’t mean someone merely positing its value rhetorically (aka. paying lip service to it), the way, say, Stephen Batchelor, Alan Wallace, and Barry Magid do. I mean an example of someone encouraging us to follow the critical intellect even when it leads us away from the principle of sufficient buddhism. Thanks!

  30. Wtpepper,

    The dominant approach to tackling global warming in the west, with it’s emphasis on individual conscience and consumer choices rather than regulation and institutional change also seems pertinent here.

  31. This was my original initial post, which didn’t appear for some reason:

    This ‘thinking is bad’ principle does exist in Western Buddhism and it’s offshoots. I agree that it’s problematic.

    It does not exist in the original Dhamma as taught by the Buddha (AFAIK). Richard Gombrich wrote a book presenting the teachings of the Buddha as a body of intellectual work (as opposed to a mental or mystical state) and called it ‘What the Buddha Thought’.

    (For full disclosure I’ve studied early Buddhism, practiced (and studied) Zen fairly extensively and taught mindfulness.I haven’t done any of those things for years now so I’m rusty.)

    As far as I can tell, this no-thinking idea originates as a strand within Zen or a misunderstanding of a Zen teaching. You see it in popular Zen discourse regularly, as manifested in various expressions of anti-intellectualism and most overtly in the foolish idea that meditation involves sitting with a blank mind and an effort to not think. In my own experience, modern and historic Zen teachers vary on this point, but generally speaking, the idea that ‘meditation = not thinking’ is treated as a mistake, but some degree or anti-intellectualism is widespread. The obscurity of influential teachers like Dogen doesn’t help much.

    The mindfulness techniques and principles I was taught (MBCT) were clearer and better on this point. It’s not about not thinking, it’s about noticing the thoughts, whenever possible. It’s not intellectual activity that’s bad, it’s that some types of unproductive, repetitive, obsessive, usually subconscious, thinking (‘rumination’) furthers depressive and anxious states. Awareness of those activities and habits, gives us back a ‘choice’ (questions about freewill notwithsatnding).

    As for the idea that encouraging non-thinking allows people to become easier to manipulate as a passive subjects of capitalism, I’m pretty skeptical that this would be an effective way to control people, and the numbers involved as far too small anyway, and large scale conspiracies by “Capitalism”, or more accurately “Neo-liberalism”, seem pretty far-fetched. To neo-liberals, its more important that we want the right sort of things and think the right sorts of thoughts, rather than have no thoughts, which as any right thinking person knows, is impossible anyway.

  32. Glenn Wallis, I think we have two different questions here.

    Is (critical) thinking better than other approaches. Approaches, for example of repetitive-practice (eg. effectively applied in sports, any skill basically..including “self-nature”). One could 100% get-away without using critical thinking to excel at something/anything. Put differently, Is no thought really a problem ? (the topic of this article). Particularly, considering you could get to the same end goal which you are trying via critical-thinking, much quicker/efficiently/skillfully if you use repetitive-practice. As demonstrated extensively in human behavior/evolution.

    Critical-thinking is a resource-waste/energy-inefficient exercise/tool…most of the masses just cant afford it (in terms of their mental faculties, or even plain mundane affordability).

    most of the x-buddhist teachers just focus on the masses…they are not after intellectual analysis. They already have a model (which we can critically analyze), they dont need critical thinking , as its just not scalable for the masses.

    Is x-buddhism’s majority/totally discouraging critical-thinking (or any thinking) ? And you ask me for direct quotes contradicting this claim. My point is , all of their literature/discourses do not deal with this, hence you are not going to find direct quotes on this. But, >80% i would say would not have a problem if you frame the question “can we contemplate/analyze/think-about your teachings” … they wouldn’t be able to say “No, god says so, there is nothing here to think”. In fact, they will refer you >1000 years of all-kinds-of-thinking-literature in x-buddhisms history. They are just past the critical thinking phase, they already have a model, which they want to actualize … particularly among the masses ( scalability ). Granted, this model is not well defined, branched, probably not even the same. One could critically analyze the model itself, but claiming critical/thinking is something you absolutely have to have, i am not so sure (considering the end-goals).

  33. Re. Liam: “As for the idea that encouraging non-thinking allows people to become easier to manipulate as a passive subjects of capitalism, I’m pretty skeptical that this would be an effective way to control people, and the numbers involved as far too small anyway, and large scale conspiracies by “Capitalism”, or more accurately “Neo-liberalism”, seem pretty far-fetched”

    Agreed. Yes, my rhetoric gets a bit overblown at times. I shouldn’t imply that there is anything lik a consipiracy of the minority to produce an ideology in a secret cabal, and then indoctrinate the rest of us. Certainly, ideology works at the level of social practices, and the 1% is just as thoroughly indoctrinated in the ideology they practice as the rest of us. It’s just that the ideological practices that work best to reproduce capitalism (ideology just is the way we reproduce our social system, which is why we can’t avoid having an ideology) tends to be anti-intellectual. Rigorous rational thought is tends to undermine the error and illusions on which capitalist institutions depend, so in a capitalist society those who fail think will do better, and the institutions which prevent thought will succeed, etc. The term ideology tends to raise thoughts of secret conspiracies, partly because at some points there were such plans (see for instance H.G. Wells’s description of the ministry of propaganda in Britain during WWI), but mostly because we don’t feel our own ideology is anything other than what we naturally do, so think it is not in fact an ideology at all–so any other belief not our own must be alien and created for devious purposes.

    I’d also strongly agree that neoliberalism works more at the level of what we desire than what we think–this is kind of my whole point. We mostly share a similar structuring fantasy, and so have the same kinds of desires, both the few who benefit from the system and the many who suffer from it.

    What interested me is the claim that “the numbers involved are two small.” Do you mean the number of the wealthy conspirators would be too small to have a real effect? In that case, sure, they don’t exist anyway. Or do you mean the number of people who advocate not thinking are too small? Because for me, this is the bigger concern–they seem to be the majority. If this isn’t the case, I’d like to hear where serious thought is being encouraged. Really. Because anti-intellectualism was common in universities back when I was an undergrad, but mostly in departments like education (the mantra of “smart people make bad teachers” we universal already thirty-five years ago, and the idea that it was “unfair” to ask students to do any critical thinking and they could only be asked to memorize was the message of every class in pedagogy), or psychlogy or business. But now I see it among science professors and even in philosphy departments. I’m at the lowest level of academia, though, so maybe it’s not so universal as it seems to me?

    The demand that we think less, and feel more, though, seems to be so common in mass media generally, from newspaper editorials to tv sitcoms and from self-help books to marxist theory, that I can’t see where the serious critical thought might be occurring. I listen to college campus tour guides tell prospective students that they need not fear, they’ll never have to read a book or write a paper at least until senior year, and see their parents nod in approval, and, well, I have to wonder. Where is the serious critical thought still occurring?

    So, sure, nobody is in the control room planning out this strategy. But I think it is the case that not thinking makes people better subjects of capitalism. If there are collective social practices in which thinking still goes on, I would expect they aren’t going to be thriving, and certainly won’t be profitable.

  34. “my rhetoric gets a bit overblown at times. I shouldn’t imply that there is anything lik a consipiracy of the minority to produce an ideology in a secret cabal, and then indoctrinate the rest of us. Certainly, ideology works at the level of social practices, and the 1% is just as thoroughly indoctrinated in the ideology they practice as the rest of us.”

    A reasonable position. Thanks for clarifying.

    “Rigorous rational thought is tends to undermine the error and illusions on which capitalist institutions depend, so in a capitalist society those who fail think will do better, and the institutions which prevent thought will succeed, etc.”

    I see. I haven’t seen much evidence that reason alone is enough. I think you’re underestimating the extent to which ideology and political predisposition dominate thinking, including highly educated, intelligent intellectuals. It’s human psychology. People start with conclusions and come up with the rationalisations to justify them.

    “What interested me is the claim that “the numbers involved are two small.” ”

    I meant that the numbers of people involved in what you call ‘X-Buddhism’ are too small to for ‘Capitalism’ to use it to manipulate society to ‘it’s advantage’. But I see you’re describing this as part of a larger anti-intellectual trend, which makes more sense. Yes, we seem to be living in a particularly anti-intellectual era. I’m not sure where you’re from, but I think the USA is the worst for it in the West. In the UK, much of the popular discourse is dominated by the Murdoch family of right wing, neo-liberal, anti-intellectual tabloids. And anti-intellectualism is part of what lies behind Brexit and the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment.

    “So, sure, nobody is in the control room planning out this strategy. But I think it is the case that not thinking makes people better subjects of capitalism.”

    I see. Well it certainly takes some critical thinking to make changes to society or even envisage them. I’m not sure that I agree that anti-intellectualism explicitly supports capitalism/neo-liberalism per se, so much as that it supports the status quo (which in the west is capitalism/neoliberalism at this point).

    Another qualifier I’d make is that I do think that emotion is essential too. Here in the UK, we’ve recently had a surge of support for socialism. That surge didn’t occur just because a bunch of people just happened to start thinking more, much or most of it was an emotional reaction, a growing disgust towards punitive austerity, a need to be able to hope for more, and a reaction to the respective personalities of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps especially the latter’s sincerity in contrast to the former.

  35. “I think you’re underestimating the extent to which ideology and political predisposition dominate thinking,”

    This kind of surprised me, since for so many years I have been almost constantly accused of exaggerating the extent to which ideology does, in fact, dominate our thinking!

    I would agree with much of what you say, except I wouldn’t so much say “emotion” is important, as ideology. We do need some ideological practices to help organize and motivate the actions that are most rational to take. But the rational decisions, while difficult, are possible. Here in the U.S., we so value the “gut reaction” and villainise thought, that we wind up with a country run by a 71-year-old tantrum-throwing sociopathic toddler.

    And sure, likely lack of thinking is beneficial for maintaining the status quo in most times. They didn’t want the peasants studying philosophy in feudal times, or the slaves reading and writing in the Roman Empire. But there is a particular fear of doing things for reasons, as opposed to emotions or desires, that seems to begin around the time of the coming to dominance of capitalism (and it usually gets blamed on Hume, as if he cause it all by himself.).

    Overall, though, certainly people will have to get hungry enough, poor enough, and discontented enough with their barren lives sitting and tapping at their iPhones all day, before rational thought will be of any real danger anyway.

  36. For me this post is so timely. I’m forever trying to engage reactionaries, among others, and it’s a futile effort precisely because people don’t think. Not only that, if they do think a bit they flinch, like Glenn says. I was recently accused of being a ‘liberal’ because I asked someone what they meant by the word ‘lefties’. Conversation stopped. What more can be done? Even with folks who are available to converse it takes a long time to talk and think things through when it’s focused on the nature of ideology and capitalism. SNB is the only place I’ve found anywhere that at least attempts to not stop the conversation. The moment we stop thinking the conversation stops and we’re left wallowing in the predominating ideology yet again.

    It’s late, I may not be making sense!

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