Reality and Retreat

By Tom Pepper

Does anyone have any interest in conducting a bit of research into a question that has haunted this blog for years: what kind of collective subject is the Western Buddhist?

I don’t mean scholarly research here, but a more anthropological approach involving participation in a specific Western Buddhist practice, the “online retreat.”

Shambhala is currently broadcasting such a retreat, free for this week only (with, of course, the hope that participants will pay the $147 to get copies of the recordings). The link is:

What I have in mind here is not any attempt to disrupt or influence the retreat or its discussion. Like good anthropologists we would need to remain relatively unnoticed. I also am not interested in debating the teachings, in catching them out in errors or contradictions, etc. The goal I have in mind is simply to discuss the teachings presented, and the comments posted, and try to decipher what kind of a collective subject is being produced by this discourse.

I can try to respond to some of the recordings—but there will be three a day, and surely thousands of comments. So I would guess any clear conceptualization of the kind of discourse this is could only be done by multiple participants.

To begin, perhaps just look at the two short “preview” recordings posted yesterday. Holly Gayley offers her advice on avoiding the pursuit of “bliss” or a “bubble of peace” on the cushion. She suggests that the task of meditation is to realize that the “discourses” or “spinning thoughts” or “rehearsed scripts” we participate in every day are a mask for a “deep” underlying core of pain, and the task is to “relate to that pain.” What kind of subject is produced when we think of our world this way—instead of, say, conceiving of those social discourses as the “real” that causes this internal sense of pain, we are taught to think of these discourses as relatively insignificant products of the already existing deep pain?

Gayley suggests that those who frequent meditation retreats get to be “really familiar with” these “spinning thoughts” and “rehearsed scripts.” Perhaps this gives us some clue to the function of this practice? To reify and externalize the social discourses, and produce some kind of discourse in which one can remove from them and do…what exactly?

Then Rick Hanson suggest exactly the opposite: that in fact the task of meditation is to produce exactly this state of peace and calm that Gayles warns won’t occur. For Hanson, what he calls the “green zone” of “unshakeable happiness love and peace” is what we must accomplish to begin meditation. We should, he says, feel “already full” so that we can “default to the resting state” where “nothing is missing.” He calls this a “scientifically plausible way to a state of being with little basis for craving.” We should conceive of ourselves in a sort of behaviorist stimulus-response manner, resting in contentment until we are provoked to unpleasant thought and action by some lack, then returning to our blissful inertia once the lack is met. What kind of subject is produced by thinking of ourselves this way…instead of, perhaps, considering the interaction with the world as a source of joy?

Both of these teachers, clearly, have an understanding of the concept of emptiness: for both, what is dependently arisen is “unsubstantial” or illusory, and what is real (because not dependently arisen either socially of phenomenally) is the core of our deeper feelings and perceptions. But the concern here is not to debate whether this is the “correct understanding.” Rather, the interest is to trace the kinds of subjects such beliefs lead to when used to structure these specific practices.

We could also consider the discourse of the comments. Those writing introductory comments seem to be suspiciously distributed (only a few from New York, for instance, and just as many from distant lands and small cities in the Midwest or Southwest), heavily weighted with therapists of various kinds, and fond of the terms “path” and “journey.”

My main interest, though, is in discussing the fifteen recordings (perhaps along with any discussion that might follow in comments). Clearly, I can’t address them all, but I’ll try to address a couple of them. Anyone interested in contributing, just email me (, and I’ll add your contribution to this post, instead of putting it in the comments. The goal here, though, is not to argue with the teachers, but to try to describe the kind of collective x-buddhist subject being (re)produced by this now familiar Western Buddhist form of practicing: the online retreat.

The implied promise of this online retreat is that it will teach us to use meditation to get a clearer grasp on reality.  But perhaps we can consider it from outside its World, and discuss what kind of reality this practice works to produce?


After Day One:

One interesting point in this retreat is how explicit it is about what Master Tutte always tried to teach us about Western Buddhism: it is mostly a marketing ploy, trying to sell us…well, more marketing ploys…and so on, and so on… With the promise, apparently, that eventually we will buy that book or that pricey retreat that will qualify us to start selling our own bestselling books. This idea of marketing nothing but empty promises does seem to be one of the major functions of the term “Buddhism” in America.

But still, there is a certain kind of subject for whom such practices are operative. I’m still trying to figure out exactly who that is, and what kind of things they do, or avoid doing, in the world.

The big question, that Ryan Stagg asks and the presenters repeat, is “how does mediation help us access reality.” The idea that “reality” is something that must be “accessed” with some special procedure is a particularly modern one, so it seems we have a modern/capitalist subject of some variety. From the scientific method to deconstruction, we moderns always understand our common way of engaging the world as somehow missing what is most important, and the technique of breaking through it to how things really are promises greater happiness and freedom.

There also seems to be a central loneliness or sense of profound isolation and emptiness, in both the presenters and those commenting. The many comments about being alone, and having no group to practice with, or the frequent mentions of some loss or rejection as the motivation to practice meditation. And the sheer desperation of the teachers to sell those books, to reach the broadest audience, to be popular no matter what kind of nonsense they have to spout to get that spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

Wright seems a bit confused and desperate, like he feels the meaninglessness and absurdity of his reductivism and wants someone to tell him how smart he is for explaining it, like he needs some contact that exceeds his ostensible belief that we are all just mechanisms to reproduce genes.
Piver puts on the most polished show, sitting cross-legged in her gauzy dress and denim jacket, repeating vague metaphors that say nothing at all. She seems so tightly wound that one is almost afraid that if Ryan pointed out to her that she answers only in vague metaphors and cliches she might snap. Or just drop the name of her exotic sounding teacher a few more times?


I have one suggestion, so far: the variety in the presentations seems to function as a kind of complete circle, each teacher taking a different side to circle the subject within, and all seeking to ward off different approaches of that one threat: serious thought about the real causal power of social structures. This is, of course, what the neoliberal subject can’t tolerate: the idea that the system we live in, the social practices we collectively produce, might be collectively changed.

So Piver tells us that “from nowhere” something cuts in and tells us “you’re thinking. You wake up. Where does that come from? I don’t know the answer.”

What kind of a subject do we become if we accept this? If we accept that the thought that you were thinking is not itself a thought—that the only thing that counts as thoughts are those random things that go through our mind without efforful control? And she says that this interruption comes from the “same place” as “love and wisdom and insight and creativity.” She has no idea where that “place” might be, but it is certainly the source of anything good—all those terms valued positively in Romantic discourse, that arrive once we stop thinking, and are beyond our control. All, of course, terms we can never define (what is creativity? Wisdom?), but just know are vaguely good things that cannot possibly be produced intentionally in social practices.

Wright wards off the social from the other side, with a kind of popular pseudoscience. He assures us that everything is a matter of biology (it isn’t mystical gifts of creativity from some spirit world here, but the demands of a reductive mechanistic causality made possible by the frequent use of scare quotes to avoid the need for real explanations). Wright’s subject is the perfect neoliberal, envisioning the world as beginning in scarcity and competition, a vicious struggle for survival. Buddhism functions then as a substitute for Hobbes’s state, allowing us to cause a bit less suffering to each other as we each pursue our biologically determined desires.

Wright’s idea of the Buddhist concept of nonself is telling in this regard. He understands it to mean that we have no control over…well, anything. Our thoughts, our actions, everything is mechanistically determined, and our thoughts are pointless epiphenomena invented after the fact for no apparent reason. This subject powerless over forces beyond any control, isolated and at best hoping not to cause too much suffering to others, still seems to be lacking something…

It would seem that the gaze that would promise this atomistic and powerless subject a future reward, or reassure them they are special in the present, can only come in the form of book sales and an audience willing to shell out their $147 dollars…

But the one thing that all these teachers guard agains is the consideration of how social practices might produce part of our delusions and desires. That, and the terrifying possibility that we might, in some kinds of social formations, get some enjoyment out of impermanent things like work and engaging in the world. That they might be enjoyable exactly because of their impermanence. What if something like planting crops or building a house or playing music were enjoyable exactly because it doesn’t go on endlessly? The inability to think that meaning might come from the social, rather than biology or the mysterious beyond, suggests a kind of desperate, non-functioning, idle subject.

52 responses to “Reality and Retreat”

  1. Michael J∆mes Avatar

    If I wasn’t so busy i’d be down for it. I’ll be waiting to read your results!

  2. wtpepper Avatar

    Yeah, it’s a busy time of year, and its during the middle of the week. I don’t imagine anyone will have time for the entire “retreat.” So, if you’re interested, just pick a specific teacher and report on that one part. I won’t have time to engage with everything on the retreat, either.

  3. Mal Avatar

    OK, I’ll bite. I read Robert Wright’s book last month and it, kind of, regenerated my interest in Buddhism. But my interest quickly waned again! I got bored with my attempts to relaunch mindfulness meditating, and my attempts at reading those tedious suttas, again, and gave it up, darn quick, with relief.

    I was thinking of dispatching my Buddhist books to the charity shop, but thought I’d give Buddhism one last chance as my interest was, kind of, regenerated again with a discussion between Horgan and Wright here:

    I more swayed by Horgan’s points, but Wright’s enthusiasm was catching, and he did make a good fist of a defence of Buddhism & mindfulness meditation. So as Wright is in this retreat, and I have lots of spare time, I’ll give it a go. One big last chance, kind of!

  4. Mal Avatar

    As you say, Tom, Holly Gayley suggests avoiding the pursuit of “bliss” on the cushion. She suggests meditation should unmask internal discourses to reveal an underlying core of pain, and the task is to “relate to that pain.” You ask, “What kind of subject is produced when we think of our world this way—instead of … conceiving of those social discourses as the “real” that causes this internal sense of pain, we are taught to think of these discourses as relatively insignificant products of the already existing deep pain?”

    I would suggest, because Holly gives no indication of how to “relate to that pain”, you are left with a subject that was, perhaps, alright until Holly suggested the subject had a core of pain. Now they are left contemplating an imaginary core of pain that only $147 can assuage. This is superb marketing! Take a customer who feels OK, make them feel that they are “really” in pain, and then suggest a $147 course will help them get rid of of the pain. As she says, “Some advertising might be manipulating people”.

    Looking at the comments reveals a “typical” Buddhist response to a teacher with a fancy title (don’t know what an acharaya is but it sounds mighty important :)) Most of them are saying no more than “thank you, nice talk”, which is very tedious. No attempt at critical questioning. I’d questions your suggestion that we not make ourselves noticed. Why the hell not? I’m going to get all Socratic with them… otherwise I might fall asleep… How can you decipher what kind of subject is being produced without questioning that subject? The only way to penetrate that Buddhist fog, to make things clear, is with some sharp Socratic questioning, I feel. Although I doubt they’ll answer, just put the fog generation machine into over-drive….

  5. Mal Avatar

    Comments on Susan Piver’s lecture:

    Susan Piver says Buddhism allows you to view REALITY, and if you can view it you stop suffering. This begs many questions. How does the meditator know this is REALITY and not the matrix? Any proof that seeing this stops suffering?

    She says a leading monk told her that Enlightenment offers complete relief from suffering and brings you sanity, short of that you are insane! So the student Buddhist self (SBS), in her view, is insane. Again, a great incentive to pay $147. “You may feel sane, but you are actually insane, this way for a cure…”

    Interestingly, in the comments she tries to heartily discourage a guy with PTSD from meditating and getting involved in any kind of meaningful way with the Sangha, suggesting he do menial tasks like “stack cushions” or “make the tea”. Maybe they’ve been getting too many people with mental health problems on their courses, who they can’t deal with because… er… their technique don’t actually work on anyone who is really suffering (!)

    There is a strong rejection against the rational, thinking, discursive mind in her talk. According to her, any chain of thoughts is bad and should be let go of to focus on the breath. Her Buddhist subject does not try to replace bad thinking by better thinking, but by attention on the breath, or some other mundane thing. The possibility of having better thoughts, and actions, isn’t even considered. It’s better thinking that led to the advances in science and democratic thought. But to her, this isn’t worth mentioning, “Watch that breath”!

    For her the SBS is a very inadequate being which, in no case, meditates correctly (!) The three jewels, Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. Are absolutey NECESSARY to any progress. (Another good pitch for that $147…)

    She also says “I’m teaching meditation and writing, next week, even though I’m not a writing teacher” This reveals a certain arrogance to the BS, being a super-mediator seems to mean you can do, or teach, anything! No need for any real qualifications or experience. From what I’ve seen on the web, many meditation “teachers” have this arrogance about teaching meditation.

  6. Mal Avatar

    Comment on Robert Wright’s talk:

    Wright says: You crave a doughnut, feeling the gratification it will give you, but on eating the doughnut gratification evaporates, giving way to feeling of restless dissatisfaction. So to Robert the SBS is a craving self that on consuming any object of gratification finds the object not really satisfying and is thereby left with a feeling of continuous, endless, restless dissatisfaction.

    Well that’s Robert. When I eat my afternoon snack I’m usually satisfied. Maybe Robert just has a personality that fits the IMS description of the Buddhist self like a glove, a perfect guy to frequently hand over $147. A guy who’s never satisfied! I can see why he might be attracted to Buddhism. Epicurus suggested we need very little to satisfied, just food and shelter, and friends to discuss Epicurean philosophy, and related matters, in tranquility. This fits with my view of things! Give me a peanut butter sandwich and a gentle(ish) discussion of philosophy, Buddhist or other, and I’m satisfied.

    For Robert, “evaporating Gratification” and “restless dissatisfaction” are deeply ingrained and not easily “fixed”. As are other feelings like rage, that he can’t deal with easily, so turned to meditation. Again, I don’t really rage that much, and just telling myself not to get into a rage usually works. He thinks we are enslaved by our feelings, backed by his belief in evolutionary psychology. But the Ancient Greeks for instance suggested we could argue ourselves out of bad feelings, and that has been my experience. So is it really that difficult to modify our feelings? Robert would say that it is, that we need mindfulness meditation.

  7. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Tom,

    I listened to the Robert Wright interview with Ryan Stagg. (Thanks for that link, by the way, Mal. Very interesting.) My objective was to understand the subject implicit in his discourse. I’ll call this the “Wright Subject,” or WS. Terms in quotes are Wright’s own words.

    The Wright Subject views feelings and thoughts as extraterrestrial beings. These beings intrude on experience, so they are somehow extra-subjective. The Wright Subject understands that this alienating element of “confused reality” is compounded by the fact that experience per se is unfolding within a “matrix of illusion.” Clearly then, feelings and thoughts—”experience” itself—must be “dealt with.”

    The strangeness of things grows. The Wright Subject is deeply knowledgeable of the profound truth at the very core of “our human predicament.” That truth is articulated most accurately by evolutionary psychology. It is, namely, that we have been “designed for unsatisfactoriness.” All of our feelings—anger, sadness, anxiety, fear, joy, pleasure, pain, etc.—”are designed to be guides” in life, and so must be understood as “deeply ingrained.” So, the Wright Subject lives within the worldview, holds identical assumptions and premises, as an evolutionary psychologist. A feeling is a “guide” because it directs us into a posture of optimal survival and perpetuation of our genes. It is thus less important that that snake I see in the woods is a stick and not a snake at all than that the fear that it aroused functioned properly to warn me of the threat to my gene perpetuation. If I am fortunate, fear will be triggered regularly, as a guide, as a warning, just in case. The Wright Subject understands that “natural selection favors unsatisfactoriness,” and that this condition is ”a chronic feature of human existence.” “Unpleasant feelings are designed to recur,” we are “not designed to be happy,” and this state of human affairs is, to repeat, “deeply ingrained.”

    Yet, knowing these things does not help or serve the Wright Subject from a “practical standpoint.” That is, WS may know that anger has an evolutionary value, but the subject is nonetheless disturbed by its presence. Wright’s discourse produces a subject who learns to desire “to get a grip on” feelings and thoughts and experience in general. The subject believes that mindfulness or Buddhist “meditation can help with problematic feelings.” WS learns to interpret the term “help with” as meaning “gaining distance from” experience.

    Here we come to the real crux of the Wright Subject’s manner of living in its World. The incredibly rich, complex life of some feeling or thought is simply reduced to a kind of aesthetic objectivity. Wright himself exemplifies this reduction when he tells us about the time he experienced anxiety in his abdomen as if were “a piece of modern art,” that is, “something with texture” and contours, and so on. The WS learns to see such aesthetic objectivity as an experience of “not-self,” which in turn is akin to an “enlightenment” experience. “Meditation,” WS believes, “is dramatic and difficult” in precisely this manner. The experience can be replicated in daily life as well. When the Wright Subject is in a grocery store checkout line, for instance, and the “jerk” in front of WS does something jerky, WS can see the not-self inherent in the situation (maybe Jerk “just discovered that his wife has cancer,” hence, no inherent jerkiness there), and transform “jerk” into “not-jerk.” WS lives in a state of perpetual “equanimity without numbness.”

    The Wright Subject does not inquire into the social influences at work in “experience.” Experience is simply infolding “up here, in my head.” It is, for instance, not even “in” my tight, tense chin, clinched as it is from over-caffeination. WS, applying this insight, simply dissolves the discomfort. And so this subject lives, I suppose, ad infinitum.

    The subject of the comment section, Commenter, is a sad, lonely figure, hungry for any crumbs of Wisdom that might be thrown its way. Commenter, must not risk putting off Teacher with any remark even slightly resembling criticism. Teacher must be praised. The gulf of Wisdom between Teacher and Commenter must be maintained. No original response is required to indicate genuine engagement. In fact, genuine engagement is neither required nor desired.

  8. wtpepper Avatar

    Yes, for the Wright Subject, there is that need for the supplement of an aesthetic experience, isn’t there? There’s no explanation, in his reductivism, for why we might bother to stop just killing off our weaker neighbors to make more room for our genes. In fact, we certainly should not do so. And unlike Mal, who finds simple food and good conversation satisfying, this subject can’t find any satisfaction, only a constant state of pain until death. But there is a certain conviction of a littel surplus, a soul, that isn’t in those thoughts or experiences, but separate from them, witnessing them, not constructed by or necessary to evolution. This seems to be where the need for aesthetic experiences comes in—remember his account of finding the weed beautiful, and believing that at that moment he has escaped all “human imposed” conceptions, is in “reality” free of all sociality. Of course, this is when he is most deluded, when he has most thoroughly reified the concept “weed” exactly by thinking he has seen the weed as it “really” is. When, that is, he has seen forgotten that the concept of weed is a human construct meant to serve a social purpose of maximizing the food supply….but such social practices as maximizing the food supply have been eliminated, and we return to only passively struggling for survival in a hostile world we cannot produce social practices to alter. This sinking into pure animality is, then, liberation for the WS.

    Okay, but look how easy it is to see through this. Mal, Glenn, myself, we aren’t all that special. No doubt most people see that Wright merely takes the subject of capitalism and naturalizes it with his absurdly reductive misunderstanding of evolution. So, who is the subject who buys his book? Reads it? Follows his advice? Is there such a subject, really? Or is he just so ridiculous that the subject he produced is the critical subject, dismissive of Buddhism and pop-science? I don’t know, because I honestly don’t know anyone who ever read one of his books (or will admit to it). (Frankly, when I wrote that Shinzen Young critique, I had thought of doing one on Wright’s book, but I couldn’t get through the first chapter. Young is kind of stupid, but Wright is really even worse).

    What I’m wondering, what I’m trying to suggest in my addition to the post above, is that perhaps nobody takes Wright seriously at all. Perhaps he’s just a guarantee that they don’t have to bother with all that science and thinking, it’s been done for them, and they can stick with Piver’s platitudes and vague metaphors or Gayley’s odd masochism?

  9. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    I think that’s a good point about Wright representing for his readers “a guarantee that they don’t have to bother with all that science and thinking, it’s been done for them.” But I think that means they are taking him seriously. I should say Commenters rather than readers, because we are talking about subjects here, not actual people. Of course, the goal is to form actual people from the implied reader, or subject; so it is serious business. I actually do know people who read these kinds of books, and who do so in the spirit of an incipient subject. Where you, Mal, and I see “ridiculous,” these people see Wise and Realized. These people want to inhabit the Wright Subject’s World. They want desperately to do so. If doing so means viewing feelings and thoughts as alien intruders to be dissolved into impermanent aesthetic objects, they are all-too ready, willing, and able to do so.

    One feature of Western Buddhist subjectivity that I have never understood is the intelligence factor. I think it is safe to assume that Wright and his readers are of above-average intelligence. I think it’s generally accepted by observers in the west that the person attracted to Buddhism is better educated than the average. So, what happens once “inside”? What happens once a reader becomes a Commenter? Why do we get those soulless, uninspired, insipid comments that we do on the Shambhala site? Why is it not considered an embarrassment to post such thoughtless, groveling tripe? Again, I am asking not about some person, but about the way the person is interpellated into self-presentation. Why is the WS subject, as it is manifesting on the Shambhala site, so mindless? Why, for that matter, is Wright himself given a platform as One Who Is Supposed To Know? Is it not painfully obvious that he knows very little about Buddhism and even less about meditation? Why does Ryan Stagg not ask the most obvious follow-up questions to Teacher’s rambling and shallow utterances? “Lack of intelligence” is not the answer to any of my questions. The answer has to do with the formation of the Western Buddhist subject as a stultified consumer of someone else’s unchallenged Wisdom. And the Shambhala “Reality” project, so far, is doing a good job at producing this subject. What an incredible waste of an opportunity. I’ll go watch the next one. Maybe an inspired, passionate, soulful subject is the order of the day. May it be!

  10. wtpepper Avatar

    Well, it depends what you mean by “intelligence,” I guess. If you mean something like a biological capacity of the brain, maybe that’s not lacking. But if we think of intelligence as a practice of the subject, the practice of thinking rigorously and critically, then I would say yes, lack of intelligence is exactly the answer. The subject being produced here is denied the practice of intelligent thought.

  11. Mal Avatar

    Glenn – I agree the Wright Subject considers that feelings and thoughts—”experience” itself—must be “dealt with”. But is this stance a bad one, doesn’t he need to deal with his craving for doughnuts?

    WS seems to live in a world of continual dissatisfaction, which may be more due to living in academia than through any evolutionary legacy. I’ve lived in academia so know how frustrating it can be! So one moment WS is craving a doughnut, the next he is dealing with a ridiculous colleague (he discusses this at more length in his book…) No rest for WS. Academic and pop sci writer, perhaps it’s all too much for WS.

    Maybe he needs a different, more relaxing job. He expands on his dissatisfaction with writing in his interview with Horgan, maybe he needs to do something else. As he can only bear meditating half an hour a day, maybe something relaxing like bird watching would do it. He seems to like birds, at one point thinking he is a bird, having lost his self for a moment. But only one moment in twenty years, as WS wants to present himself as a modest chap, and doesn’t want to suggest, he states explicitly, that he might be any kind of guru. (Fearing , perhaps, the panning his colleagues in the media might give him.) But in stating he has had “no self” experiences he does want to seem like a guru. WS wants to have his doughnut and eat it.

    Think of a lion in Africa, in a rich, supportive natural environment, It feels a need for an antelope, kills antelope, then lies under a tree, content for days. Not much dissatisfaction there! No book tours, doughnuts, or ridiculous colleague to deal with.

    WS has a very “short trigger” and thinks that mindfulness meditation may cure this. For instance, he sees someone acting badly in checkout and automatically thinks, “Jerk! He deserves a beating!” WS then produces a long, complicated pseudo-Buddhist argument, “He isn’t essentially a jerk, having no self, maybe having a bad day, with no self, there is no inherent jerkiness there…”

    One wonders why he can’t just replace his “jerk” thought with the “bad day” thought, without using ak the resources of the dhamma. Or use some other, perhaps more generally useful reframing, like reflecting on the social causes of jerkiness in late capitalism. The latter, especially, might (eventually) lead to improving social conditions that leads to less jerkiness – unlike WS in his mindful state which leads only to WS being a bit less of a jerk himself (maybe.) As Glenn says:

    “The Wright Subject does not inquire into the social influences at work in “experience.” Experience is simply infolding “up here, in my head.” It is, for instance, not even “in” my tight, tense chin, clinched as it is from over-caffeination. WS, applying this insight, simply dissolves the discomfort. And so this subject lives, I suppose, ad infinitum.”

  12. Mal Avatar


    Wright goes on at length about the “weed” in his book, indeed bases a whole chapter around it “12 A Weedless World”. His hatred of the weed started when the particular weed (plantain) invaded his lawn and he couldn’t get rid of it.

    He makes no mention of the concept of weed as a human construct. Here, I guess, it’s not weeds are bad for the food supply, but the trivial desire to “have a perfect lawn” like a true American, (many Brits are the same… though not me… laziness & disdain for social standards trumps weed pulling in my case…)

    I’d like to know what he is doing about lawn weeds now, is he still pulling them? Does social conformity trump a momentary insight on retreat? I would wager it does, which is why mindfulness meditation is so attractive to the bourgeois self. On the mat, you can see the weed as beautiful, off the mat you can still hate it and pull it. Best of both worlds, and your bourgeois existence isn’t affected in the slightest, and the bad stuff is made bearable.

    OK, I admit it, I bought the book. Amazon had a special offer on Kindle, and I remember finding “The Moral Animal” quite interesting many moons ago. On the plus side, maybe it’s a negative, I think he writes decent prose – smooth journalese, easy to read, easy to understand, which kept me going. Also I think he’s quite good at describing evolutionary psychology, mental modules, and such matters, to laymen, like me. And sometimes his parallels between Buddhist & evolutionary psychology/mental modules, and the like worked, for me.

    But his examples and metaphors are often very clunky and not that interesting or informative (that “weed”, “no self bird”, doughnut, jerk, etc…) I don’t think I’ve ever followed his advice, so I don’t think I’m a Wright Subject. The stuff I do, now and again, that he recommends (Mindfulness Meditation, say) I’d already done before encountering him, and probably at least as much as him – and there’s another criticism, is he really expert enough to be writing a book on Buddhism? I like to read books by people who know more than me about a subject in which I’m not an expert.

    You should do a critique of Wright’s book, Tom. I agree the first chapter is a bit of a hurdle, with the clunky pseudo-intellectual matrix metaphor. Is Wright really stupid? Or is he dumbing down, in a clunky fashion, to try and reach the average Joe?

    I think people do take Wright seriously, look at the Horgan interview. Horgan takes him seriously, while disagreeing with a lot of what he says. And Wright has Pulitzer nominations, and other almost-prizes. So some do take him seriously! Surely there is a place for popular science writers like Wright? We can’t study every science through the original material; “all that” is too much for a hundred people. We need Wright (or his like!) to give us non-specialists the low down on evolutionary psychology, but maybe someone else to tell us the truth about Buddhism.


  13. wtpepper Avatar

    Day Two:

    Okay, at this point I’m not sure I’ll make it through four days. Partly it’s just that all that is on offer here is advertisements for books and retreats. We are watching four hours a day of infomercials—and bad ones at that.

    I kind of wonder if this is what Joseph Ratzinger (do you still call him Pope?) would feel like if made to watch several hours of Joel Osteen videos.

    (By the way, Mal, I have also worked at universities and colleges. The thing that makes it aggravating is exactly people like Wright—poor thinkers who get on the faculty because they had a bestselling book.)

    The thing that troubles me here is the kind of subject that might actively seek out the piles of vague metaphors and trite cliches we hear from Maull or Salzburg or Manuel. The general absence of thought evident in all the speakers is, for me, less troubling than their specific ignorance, or the fact that these metaphors are being used to advocate inaction and anti-intellectualism. Because these metaphors are themselves an instance of this—they are the practice of actively being a passive mindless subject.

    Manuel tells us that things like “legislation, ideology, and economic theory” are all fleeting, impermanent, would take continued effort in the world. So they are not worth pursuing. Instead we should “back up” and “go through the fear” and “see where the heart and soul have been abandoned in our self and society.” Don’t change the world, retreat from it into empty metaphor.

    Maull tells us that “bringing more mindful self-compassion allows more space in the internal landscape,” and Salzburg echoes his metaphors. Then they claim that “people wouldn’t have been doing mindfulness for thousands of years all over the world if it didn’t work,” and they both laugh and nod knowingly. Well, in fact mindfulness is a fairly recent invention of the West, and even among Buddhist most of them in history didn’t not do much meditation at all—much less modern “mindfulness.” So a combination of flat out lies and vague metaphors satisfies this kind of subject?

    I am, of course, disturbed by the particular approaches to social problems here (Maull suggests that black people need to understand the humanity of white supremicists; Manuel uses the metaphor of different plants in a garden to advocate segregation, because any attempt to change racial ideology would be…well, the great evil of “ideology.”). But the bigger concern is that there are subjects out there for whom these vague metaphors work. What do they do when they leave?

    Years ago, I worked at a university where the dean got a grant to support “critical thinking” in the college of arts and sciences. So he paid a lot of money to have a speaker come and give a lecture on critical thinking. She told us, for an hour, that our students are wandering around in the dark, and critical thinking is like giving them a flashlight to find there way around. (I think there were other metaphors, but the light/darkness one was repeated most often). Then, at the end, a number of faculty members spoke up to say that yes, their students really were in the dark, and needed to shine a light.

    And that was it. That was the entire “critical thinking” program for that year. Nobody seemed to even notice that this was a vague metaphor and nothing was really explained, not a single actual example of a critical thought was offered, and no explanation was given of what actual practice might correspond to the metaphorical light switch or flashlight.

    How often do each of these “teachers” say that they “want to open up discussion” of (fill in the blank here: race, gender, social activism) but never actually do it? They just say they will, or want to, or we need to be more free to talk about his things—and saying that we should seems to substitute for doing it.

    Isn’t this collective subject frustrated and exasperated by the lack of real answers? After years in the addiction/recovery community, I see how common this kind of subject is: the meetings where everyone raises their hand to recite a cliche, and they all nod and smile—and almost nobody ever gets sober.

    Is this pile of metaphors offered only as a way to insist that any real thought about the problem is futile and even harmful? Does this work for anyone who actually has any kind of difficulty? Or is the subject of this discourse just those who are fairly comfortable in the world, and want reassurance that nothing needs to change?

  14. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Mal. Very astute observations. About your first question, I guess it comes down to how we judge whether a feeling must be “dealt with.” Given WS’s subscription to Evolutionary Psychologist’s value system, I wonder what criteria WS can use to make such a judgement. For, it knows that natural selection does not favor satisfaction, and so on. So, why should WS not see a selective advantage in that craving for a doughnut or in the rapid labeling of “jerk”?

    I think the way you place WS’s interpellator, Wright himself, as the main node in this network of subject postulation is very helpful. It reminds us of the deeply personal nature of theory construction, or, in the Shambhala teachers’ case, World construction.

    Tom Right, of course! How easily subject discourses can be mistaken for biology or “human nature.” That’s precisely where these discourses are operating, isn’t it–in that area where ideology appears as just the way things are?

  15. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    I tried to listen to the Day Two talks. I just can’t do it. I listened to each talk for at least ten minutes. It is simply too…what’s the word?…dull, maybe. Nothing is being said. It is cliché after cliché, vacuous metaphor after vacuous metaphor, one obscurum per obscurius after another. It is so uninteresting, so unedifying. I really would like to know the answers to your questions, Tom. Why don’t x-buddhist teachers permit a genuinely open exploration? Why is the collective subject not utterly “frustrated and exasperated by the lack of real answers?”

    Is this pile of metaphors offered only as a way to insist that any real thought about the problem is futile and even harmful? Does this work for anyone who actually has any kind of difficulty? Or is the subject of this discourse just those who are fairly comfortable in the world, and want reassurance that nothing needs to change?

    Can anyone out there help us out here?

    This Shambhala Reality-Apparition project just further drives home the point that what is needed is not a re-invention of the Buddhist wheel, but a robust application of that wheel. I think the elements of a valuable practice are present in the dharmic repository. Imagine a subject honed for real-world action with the likes of void, social-self, and radical contingency burning in its blood. The x-buddhist practice structure is not bad to that end. As I have experienced it, it has all the necessary elements for productive subject formation: in its ritual dimension, it offers an exercise of self-care, and a program for personal repair; in its social dimension, it offers an epoché, a shared space removed temporarily from the World, where we might consider things apart from the harassment of our everyday concerns; in its educational dimension, it offers concepts that do not shrink and shrivel before the real; in its interpersonal dimension, it offers genuine relations, unfettered by the need to protect one another’s self-esteem and sense of rightness; in its very structure, desert-like and fragile, it offers the possibility–indeed the very necessity–of personal courage, and so on.

    The “offerings” that I am naming here are, of course, potential. They constitute precisely that which is not actualized in current x-buddhist practice. Assuming that the teachers who are presenting in the Shambhala Apparition project represent our garden variety American x-buddhist guide, I see no reason to place any hope in the product of Buddhism’s subject factory.

    As I write this, “Ryan, Jessie, Hannah and the SMC Team” sent out this encouraging message about the upcoming session:

    I hope you’ve been inspired in your practice of meditation and inquiry through the first two days of the Reality Summit. Tonight, we’ll go a step deeper, engaging in a discussion about the Nature of Self.

    Rick Hanson will share his unique perspective of Neurodharma, Rev. angel Kyodo williams will lead us in a contemplation of the social forces at play in our construction of self, Anam Thubten will discuss a Buddhist understanding of self with Fleet Maull, and philosopher Evan Thompson will discuss the construction of self through different states of consciousness. It should be a thought provoking evening that I hope will stimulate insight as you to take a deeper look into your own lived experience.

    So, if you would like to engage in some anthropological field research, be sure to register.

  16. wtpepper Avatar

    Okay, I’m about defeated by these videos. The mind-numbing stupidity, the vague metaphors, the triteness, the cliches…I couldn’t get through them in day three. I made it through Thompson and Williams, but only got about ten minutes into the other two.

    I can’t tell if the viewers have all given up, or just given up on commenting, realizing that the presenters aren’t responding to, or apparently reading, the comments.

    One thing that day three has done is confirm my long-held belief that many, perhaps most, of those in the x-buddhism grift have just failed at their original field, and so added the term “buddhism” to whatever they coulldn’t sell in it’s original form.

    Williams does a really bad version of 70s-style interpersonal psychotherapy, combined with what would amount to the very worst kind of African American Studies class one could imagine. Since she seems unable to do psychotherapy well, or to do the kind of rigorous work on present day institutional and social structures that serious African American studies would demand, she calls her poor version “Buddhist,” and sells some books. Although when asked about “non-self” she is clearly baffled, and babbles incoherently about the “true self” and “being fully ourselves.”

    Thompson (whose book I did read most of the way through) is just doing bad pop science, the kind of depressing pseudo-science no real scientist would even read, so he adds the term Buddhism, with apparently no understanding of Buddhism beyond what one might get from reading Wikipedia, and sells some copies of a book nobody would otherwise read through.

    Neither williams nor Thomspon can offer any productive results—but if they call it “Buddhist” this seems not to be expected of them.

    So, I kind of get why THEY do it—to sell some books repeating the same tired (and failed) popular pseudo-intellectual fads from a few decades back. I still can’t see who the audience is, or what effect participating in this kind of absurdity might get them.

    Overall, we get in ever day a combination of the vague and silly spiritual langauge about “opening up a space within to touch the heart of the interdependent soul,” or some such nonsense, and the crappy reductive pseudo-science that claims, yet again, that the real truth of Buddhism was a prescient foretelling of the worst kind of mistaken half-assed empiricism. (Really, read one of Donald Lopez’s books—enough of this already).

    It’s reminds me of the beginning of my favorite Zizek tome, Less than Nothing, where he talks about morons, idiots, and imbeciles. The morons take all the ordinary “common sense” cliches and metaphors for absolutely reality, while the idiots are incapable of grasping the social dimension at all and think that al there is is material reality. And here I am, the imbecile, listening to this and expecting somebody to try to actually say something.

  17. Mal Avatar

    I’m defeated, I agree about the triteness, vagueness, and cliches. They also use terms without defining them, and there’s far to much repetition of Buddhist basics. I gave up on Hansen’s video – early on, for instance, he uses the buzz word “insight” without bothering to define it at all, or indicate how we might get it. Then it all gets even more vague and boring. Ted talks have been criticised for just being commercials for books, and are totally useless, you have to read the books. Or read good reviews, and avoid the books, if there are any good reviews, as the reviewers tend to be bad journalists, or fellow bad scientists, or fellow woo-woo pushers. Where is wisdom to be found?

    I think the idea of “failed at the day job, so I’ll be a Buddhist” is an intriguing one. Thanks for the Zizek plug, I’ll check out “Less than Nothing”. Have you read “The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Actually Change You?” by Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm? They seem to be serious research scientists, and heavily criticise the MBSR research – showing it up to be very bad science – hundreds of papers have been produced with no proper controls – the few with proper controls show the controls to be as good at alleviating depression and anxiety as the MBSR stuff!

  18. Mal Avatar

    Garfield has a reputation so I decided to dip into his talk, wish I hadn’t.

    Garfield seems very flip and his “arguments” are easy for anyone to counter. The “asshole” who feels “life is good” while poor people suffer will probably not reflect “how can I be happy while others suffer”, and become unhappy. He will not suffer from being an asshole, he’ll just dismiss the thoughts of others suffering, “what can I do about that?”, and go on being happy.

    Are all of phenomena inherently inter-connected? Fritjof Capra tried to push that view in “the Tao of Physics” and real physicists laughed at the idea. So do you believe a rather unlikely proposition of a pre-medieval monk or the latest results in physics?

    “Sometimes the glass is wet, sometime it’s dry, it may break, there is no essential glass.” Way to state the obvious! Where’s this leading? Nowhere! Garfield appears to be empty of interesting and useful thoughts.

    “You experience yourself as your self… does that help a little bit?” No Jay, it doesn’t.

    I could be reading Orwell, and I’m watching this tedious stuff. I need to get better at deciding what to allow into my conscious awareness. (Try “Burmese Days”, the best piece of “writing involving Buddhism” I’ve read in years.)

  19. wtpepper Avatar

    Yeah, this was kind of a waste of time, in one sense. But in another, it was interesting—all these “teachers” are part of the collective Western Buddhist subject, and a big part of the social practice that makes up Western Buddhism is hiring marketers like Stagg to help produce advertisements in the guise pseudo-religious events, to make money by getting people to pay to see this advertisement, and hopefully pay more money to buy the book that will really give them the solutions the “retreat” keeps promising it is about to talk about…but never gets to. I’ve been to some of these retreats, although not in years. The online retreat—essentially a long infomercial that you can buy for a hundred bucks or so, is a fascinating part of what makes this Wester Buddhist subject. What kind of person do we become, if we do these retreats, buy these books, and then get trained to try to sell our own “teachings” to the next group of people? Buddhism as a kind of spiritual Amway? Are we meant to become those poor deluded folks at the middle of the sales pyramid? What happens when in collapses? I see, in a sense, what’s going on…but I can’t quite graps who that subject is who might make it through these things and not, like Mal, just feel a waste of time better spent reading a different kind of book. Or going for a hike, or going out and “gleaning” at a farm for the local fooodbank, or just sitting in a coffee shop talking with some friends. If you don’t think that just about anything would be less a waste of time…what then do you get from this? I really still don’t have an answer.

    Maybe I’d need to read a bunch more of these pop-Buddhism books? Go to some more “Buddhist” sanghas and practice chakra cleansing? Maybe then I’d “get it”?

    On Garfield, I thought his talks was the only bearable one. But look now many comments he got! Of course, this is day four, and I”m guessing everyone has given up on the nonsense by now. After a five or six hours of these things, someone starts out with some inanity like “I feel that the openly question mind is a spectacular thing” and you feel queasy and can’t go on. Garfield was a break from all of that.

    Also, his assertion that there’s no point in “meditation’ until you’ve first spent time studying and thinking about the philosophical teachings is absolute anathema to American Buddhists, and directly contradicts what every other teacher in this whole “retreat” is saying. He advocates thinking? That can’t be Buddhist. Buddhism is thought free emotion!

    I agree, though, that his explanations often don’t quite help. My guess is too many hours of giving that lecture in undergraduate classrooms, finally getting caught in the same “accessible’ example, simplifying it, watering it down to make it palatable, until it becomes useless. I’ve seen it happen to even the best scholars when they teach the same work of literature of fifteen years—their classroom presentation becomes so “watered down” that eventually they wind up teaching something completely opposed ot what they write in their scholarly work.

    For me, the first step is to drop the example of the glass! That gets us nowhere. Push the student to investigate something else—justice, love, freedom, emotion, anything we assume is a “real thing” that we just fail to “see clearlly.” Because a “middle way” investigation of the glass would have to accept that yes, the glass does exist—all that nonsense about how our senses only perceive certain aspects of the thing, how it might break and so is impermanent, is just a metaphor for emptiness, and people then think that is what emptiness really means! The glass does exist, and knowing what enables the molecules to cohere in that structure is part of knowing how it is dependently arisen—when we say “it isn’t really a glass, but a mass of molecules temporariiy in glass form” or whatever, we avoid the core point, which is to know how it temporarily coheres as an actually discrete object. And then, of course, the real problem is to engage with the kind of mind-dependent, transitive, human social practices that produce things like glasses with a meaning and a function….But we never get there with that tired old example. When someone holds up the water glass at a Buddhist talk or retreat, I always know they’re going to offer the same wrong but comforting explanation of emptiness…

  20. wtpepper Avatar

    My last thoughts on this:
    I went into this thinking, as I suggested in the post above, that the dicourse and practice of Western Buddhism was working to produce a certain kind of neoliberal subject: one conceiving of the world as a place of scarcity, a Hobbesian brutality of atomistic individuals in fierce competition, and so working to develop a kind of asceticism and inactivity, a masochistic enjoyment of pure impotence and reified emotion.

    What I found instead was, but should not have been, a surprise. The teachers and students here, or purveyors and consumers, are a subject desperate to be heard, despite not having anything of use to say. In fact, like the toddler urgently attempting to interrupt his parents’ intimate conversation, the demand seems to be that he must be heard not despite, but exactly because he has nothing to say, lacks all understanding or ability—that his worth depends on being “listened to” even without giving anything in return. (In this respect, I would suggest that Garfield was oddly out of place here—he seems trying to convey something he takes to be of use).

    Furthermore, this is a subject in the grip of powerful craving, of a desperate, even angry, demand to be given that next “thing” that will assuage its pain. The retreat, the book, the praise of the teacher, the permission from some list of teachers with exotic names to be heard yourself, the book contract, the book sales…I’ve never seen so many people desperate to get validation and money by having people they don’t know and aren’t much interested in buy their book (well, not outside a creative writing class, perhaps). The money and validation are connected here—you are wise not becasue of what you understand or can do, but because of how many people are sufficiently more desperate and deluded that you to confirm your specialness and existence by buying your book (or coming to your retreat, etc.).

    This isn’t so much the typical neoliberal subject (who is more the consumer/worker of late capitalism), but the new Master subect (the producer/owner of late capitalism). Perhaps only I was dense enough to expect something other than this? Hadn’t Master Tutte already taught us that this was the subject of Western Capitalsm…er, I meant Buddhism..

  21. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Yes,the fact that we could not complete the experiment in a thorough, rigorous fashion does not mean that it was a failure. Actually, the very fact of inability to complete is an important datum in itself. Maybe it is even related to Tom’s perception that Garfield was out of place. I didn’t watch his presentation. But taking your word for it, I could draw a few conclusions for our experiment. One is that Garfield, unlike every other presenter, is not the realized Western Buddhist subject. (Whether he is a realized x-buddhist subject of some variety is another question.) So, if we can subtract the qualities that made Garfield stand apart, we can better see the qualities that define the WB subject. Based on my encounters with Garfield through conference videos and through his books and articles (I discuss him at length in my new book), here are some suggestions of the difference between outlier Garfield (subject G) and everyone else (subject WB). G is trained in a strict discipline. In person Garfield’s case that discipline was western philosophy. G thus comes to x-buddhism with a whole set of skills, concepts, and questions that are not necessarily native to x-buddhism itself. WB’s skills, concepts, and questions seem to be formed within the x-buddhist ideological apparatus exclusively. I don’t mean that WB has no prior training of any sort (like psychology, social work, biology, whatever); it’s just that WB, unlike G, has allowed the x-buddhist project wholly determine the prior knowledge. G is more of a democratic non-buddhist in that it keeps the other systems in play. We could continue in this vein and add that G is disciplined and driven even to the degree of learning the classical languages (Tibetan, Sanskrit, etc) required to really dig into the texts that function as blueprints for the lived tradition. Another conclusion might be that WB’s desire for big Other certitude is more quickly sated than G’s. So much of what I heard I had already heard in my teen years. That is, as evidenced by our realized WB subjects, there is a nearly pathologically juvenile quality to the WB discourse. Putting aside the question of intelligence, I can only assume that this puerility signifies a high tolerance for inexactitude, conceptual muddiness, platitudinous speech, borrowed thought, and so forth. I do know highly intelligent people who have such tolerance. I know a super serious Heidegger scholar who admires Thich Nhat Hahn’s books! But as Tom pointed out, I should not be surprised, for “intelligence” is a production of the ideological system. Subject G is still questioning long after subject WB has settled into a comfy certainty. As a side note, I have a hunch that Ryan Stagg is closer to G than to WB. He seems to know better than to allow the kind of stultification that is happening. He even struck me as embarrassed at times. The question for him will be whether he stumps his intelligence as a WB subject or sharpens it as a G, some other x-buddhist subject, or as something else entirely.

    I am sure we could all say a ton more. So much of what we observed is ripe for interpretation: the entire ritualized presentation of the on-line retreat; the various tones of voice; sitting postures and hand gestures; speaking styles, including length of time between question and the completion of the response (always so long!); word choice; general affect, etc, etc. So, it was an interesting project. Thanks for suggesting we try it, Tom.

    In the spirit of buddhofiction–of, that is, a re-configured, presumably more constructive usage of the WB materials we just encountered–I was wondering if anyone might want to say what such a practice might look like. Tom’s last paragraph about the glass is beginning to do so. Imagine you were offering a practice session. What features would it have? What kind of subject would it produce?

  22. wtpepper Avatar

    My own idea of what practice ought to be would have to move away from the obsession with exotic ancient terms we see in most American Buddhism (or, at least, I saw so often when I went to Zen centers and retreats years ago, and even in the sangha I used to belong to). Terms like skandhas or vipassana or satori or whatever (the list is enormous) serve only as floating signifiers to cover over the absence of any real action or clear concept. They get recited, and nobody notices they are just like chanting a mantra or something.

    The “five aggregates,” in my view, were something like a general theory of the subject around the time the suttras were being written down. The task then was to question the reification of this theory, to see it as just an ideology of the subject. We could do the same with our theory of the subject—that is, instead of doing phenomenology and pretending it is “ancient eastern wisdom” we could begin to see that phenomenology is just an ideology of the subject, a recasting of empiricism in different terms. (The same goes for the “cognitive” cult: what exactly is a “cognition,” and why exaclty can’t we ever locate the connection between it and the brain that supposedly produces it…etc.). This woudl be effectively the same kind of practice as the Buddhist contemplation described in the old texts, but with our current ideologies. Instead, what we get is an attempt to map ancient terms onto modern concepts with which they are thoroughly incommensurable. (On this, Kurt Danziger’s amazing book Naming the Mind is probably more thoroughly “buddhist” than any other book written by a “buddhist psychologist” I’ve ever encountered).

    But instead, I would like a practice that focuses outward, onto the practices in our culture we reify and can’t quite conceive of as dependently arisen. How is “intelligence” produced in our culture? What purpose does it serve? What does it prevent? What are we doing when we are using our “intelligence”? This is one of the most reified and most hotly contested practices in our culture. We could do the same with “emotion”, though. Why did the eighteenth century invent the term emotion? What kind of practice does it describe not already covered by previous terms like “passion”? What kind of practice does it validate or forbid? What are we really doing, or avoiding doing, when we emote?

    This would take a “teacher” who is, well, much more knowledgeable and just “smarter” than any pop-buddhist grifter currently selling books on Amazon. (Folks like Alan Wallace or Bachelor or Wright would never even understand this). Perhaps it isn’t even so much ignorance or lack of intelligence as it is, well, a kind of awakening, or in my preferred Althusserian idiom a subject that is distantiated, that knows its ideology is an ideology (the bad subject, for Althusser, the spinozist or marxist).

    And what kind of subject would it produce? If successful, a subject that is motivated (again, a term we would need to examine) to change the world rather than adapt to it, to enjoy argument and work and efforful interaction, social construction of meaning and goals, etc.

    The puzzle, for me, is not what the practice should be, or what it would produce. The mystery for me—and I mean this quite seriously—is how we find even a few poorly interpellated subjects willing to engage in such a practice? The puzzle for me is in those moments in ancient scripture we pass over: how did Buddha find those first five? Jesus the first twelve? Where are those people, in our world, so poorly interpellated they don’t even want to try to adapt to the monstrous soical system we are all caught in?

  23. wtpepper Avatar

    One other small point, and then I’ll stop perseverating on this (for today, that is). I could do this kind of practice (yes, I’m arrogant enough to think I “know” something some people don’t), but only if it were kept completely outside the circuit of money. For me, introducing money, the core delusion would destroy any chance of success. Unlike the analyst, who needs to be “paid” for the abuse the analysand inflicts (I’m not being facetious here, I do think this is necessary to analysis working), the teacher of the kind of practice I envision needs to be offering it with nothing in return—so that he or she can be as demanding or dismissive of the “student” as he needs to be, and never need to concede or accommodate the student’s demands to retreat into the hegemonic ideology for comfort.

  24. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Tom, this is great. Every sentence sparkles with real-life, real-practice possibility. Am I correct to see “intelligence” as the core concept? I would say that the most bothersome aspect of the Shambhala retreat, just to take a recent shared example, was its production of stultification. I felt dumb just listening to the presentations. In fact, I had to cool my own potential intelligence down several degrees just to get through ten minutes. So, a critique of a retreat or even a single session wherein people are gathered (even a dinner party) can be constructed around the concept of intelligence, how it was viewed, directed, fostered, stultified, etc. If anyone is interested, Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster addresses this issue.

    How do you picture the ritualized elements here? A group of people sitting around a table? Is there a text or image as the focus? Is it a mainly practice of dialogue and exchange?

    I agree that money is a filthy, corrupting influence. I am trying to get outside funding for my Incite Seminars so that the actual sessions can be free. I am now registered as an educational non-profit, so certain possibilities in that regard have opened up. But, as you know, even non-profits generate income to cover costs, including livelihoods of the organizers. I can’t even get presenters–academics, writers, thinkers–without the money issue coming up from there side. First and foremost, in America, we are all subjects of the capitalist master. So, how do you envision operating outside of the circuit of money?

  25. Mal Avatar

    I’d be impressed by any teacher who decided to

  26. Mal Avatar

    … offer their books and services for free. (Apologies for split posting, typing error…)

  27. wtpepper Avatar

    “So, how do you envision operating outside of the circuit of money?“

    Well, Paul was a tent maker, right?

    I imagine dropping the fancy digs, and meeting for a hike on the old WPA trail at the local state park. Or in a coffee shop, if it’s cold. Sure, reading, talking, thinking, writing…

    Mal: sometimes teachings are offered for free, right? There’s no charge for Glenn’s blog.

    I believe there are some teachers in the US who don’t charge for their books, or for their talks. Not many, but some. Americans just don’t take them as seriously as the “New York Times bestseller” teachers, and generally aren’t as comforted by what they teach.

  28. Mal Avatar

    Blogs aren’t serious. What about serious books? Up the standard of, say, Anālayo, “Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization”, which is the best example I can think of, off the top of my head, of a “free serious book”.

  29. wtpepper Avatar

    Yes, that’s the problem—free teaching aren’t “serious.” Unless you pay for it, and it comes in the form of a print book by a teacher with an exotic name, it can’t be “real Buddhism” for most people. Analayo offers the typical combination of a naive attempt to torture ancient concpepts into modern ones and the principle of sufficient buddhism—a promise of a state of bliss, all that crap. But it’s “serious” because he says it in a book, and has an exotic name, and offers talks in lovely retreat centers run by soft-spoken vegan marketing majors. Whatever.

    So sure, that you won’t get for free. But I’m not talking about that. When I write an essay on a blog, I mean it perfectly seriously, and think it’s more “liberating” than a three month silent retreat or a shelf full of Buddhist books by Bikkhu Satipants. But only if taken seriously—even when joking.

    I remember reading somewhere that at one point written suttras were considered “not serious buddhism” because proper transmission had to be oral. Now, it seems the opposite is true—a wandering seeker of truth is “not serious” unless she has a book to sell.

  30. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    So I watched the Angel Kyodo Williams talk (as one of the pop-reruns) and I have to say that I was impressed with her ability to pull the discussion out of the black hole of endlessly looping reference to a [non-existent]self and [non-existent]reality. She described a personal ‘self’ that is the product of interpersonal relationships, social process and cultural context. She then described a collective ‘social self’ that is socially constructed and a ‘national self’ that is historically constructed; and consequently ‘black’ and ‘white’ social selves that are socially and historically constructed. She described these personal and larger social selves as formed by habits of thought, reaction and behavior that are usually unexamined. She described the practice of interrogating, investigating and deconstructing not only the personal self, but the social self and the historical selves that shape our sense of ‘self’. She describes this process of Investigation and Inquiry as the effective Buddhist “practice” for understanding and deconstructing these social and historical selves. This obviously requires a lot of thinking. She even suggests that practitioners educate themselves outside the realm of Buddhism in order to understand this process, to read the particular histories and the social critiques that make it possible to investigate the social selves. I didn’t find much to fault her presentation in terms of the critiques that have been discussed here.

  31. wtpepper Avatar

    Thanks Shaun. I wonder if you could say more about this? I just don’t see the williams talks as all that impressive or radical. To clarify: it sounds to me a bit like when an English major in their senior year writes a paper about Shakespeare’s, pointing out that Shakesespeare’s “genius’ is a social construction, that all aesthetic judgements are produced for political ends, and that the practice of reading Shakespeare is an ideological one. Sounds promising, right? But it’s disappointing because all it does it state vague assumptions. The point is to say exaclty how it is socially constructed, to say exactly what ideological practice is being performermed, and explain precisely who is benefited by this ideology, and how, etc. Williams seems to me to be saying that we need to “invesigate” these things, that the self is socially constructed….but it comes off sounding like just a rehearsing of the kind of vague assumptions that her educated audience believes they share, but that remain without real content. Does she go beyond this in her book, Radical Dharma? Is this just the sales pitch for a book that carries out this program? If so, that would be interesting—as it is, it comes off, in this retreat, as one more way for the liberal subject to reassure himself he really isn’t racist/sexist/homophobic or whatever, by just agreeing that yes, these things exist. That’s the feeling I got from watching her video, at least—it left me feeling this kind of uncomfortable queasiness. Like when I watch an atheist give a talk….sure, I agree with the conclusions, but there aren’t any real arguments there, and no clear sense of what exactly we should start doing or stop doing and why.

    You mentioned in an email that you took part in an online retreat called “What’s my role in the revolution?” Did that fulfill the promise? Was there any real action suggested? Was there an explicit suggestion about what kind of action one might take to advance the revolution? What I mostly see is the kind of “be the change you want to…” stuff. This was my experience, at least, when i used to do these retreats; I was always told that if I eliminated by intellectualizing, which masked by hidden anger and racism and elitism, then the revolution would gradually spread outward. I’m wondering if things have changed in “engaged” Buddhism since I gave it five or six years ago?

  32. Mal Avatar

    Tom – you missed my point. Analayo’s book is sold, BUT it’s also available free on his University web site. This seems a good approach, by being in print he ticks the “serious” box for many people, and in being free he ticks the “that’s the way to do it!” box for all. And it’s also a deeply scholarly work, I read it was his PhD thesis. With all those references it certainly seems that way! If it’s not a serious text on Theravada Buddhism then what is?

    It’s standard for people to be given an “exotic” name when they become a Theravadan monk, he hasn’t adopted it just to look trendy. I think “free texts” are “real Buddhism” for many people, e.g., Thanissaro, “Access to Insight”, as well as Analayo, get a lot of respect on the dhamma wheel forum. (He’s just been slammed for selling a book without a free version available!)

    People pay the deepest respect for “free” . Analayo’s book seems to tick all the practitioner, university and religious institution boxes, and isn’t a “come on” for expensive retreats or associated with tedious requests for dana in an inappropriate context (Western capitalism.) Bodhi comes in for a lot of stick for not releasing all his stuff for free.

    Have you read Analayo’s book? I don’t see how you can call it a naive attempt! It was his PhD thesis and seems a very serious attempt to me. But you may have something when you suggest it is a rather torturous attempt to translate ancient concepts into modern ones. I actually used the online version as the basis for a lengthy, forty page, precis that attempted to produce a less tortured version! But, looking at it again, after two years, I do feel the need to go further and produce a version (for my own consumption) that just uses modern terms.

    Analayo is very critical of the “promise of a state of bliss”. Downloading his pdf and searching for bliss, he says:

    “It is telling if one contrasts the Buddha’s experience of sitting without moving for seven days experiencing only bliss with a description of sitting “with determination” in Maha Boowa 1997: p.256: “sitting … for many hours … the painful feelings quickly spread to all parts of the body … even the backs of the hands and feet
    feel as if they are on fire … inside the body it seems as if … bones … are about to break apart and separate … the body … as if it were burning in a mass of flames externally… internally as if it was being beaten by hammers and stabbed with sharp steel daggers… the whole body is in agony.”

    “At A II 165 the Buddha compared attachment to the gratification and bliss experienced during absorption to grasping a branch full of resin, because owing to such attachment one will lose the inspiration to aim at the complete giving up of all aspects of one’s personality and experience. At M I 194 the Buddha then illustrated such attachment using the example of someone who took the inner bark of a tree in mistake for the heartwood he was searching for. Cf. also M III 226, which refers to such attachment to jhãna experiences as “getting stuck internally”. Buddhadãsa 1993: p.121, even goes so far as to suggest that “deep concentration is a major obstacle to insight practice”.

    Yes I’ve read some of your essays and agree they are “serious”, but the problem is most blogs aren’t taken that seriously ’cause most blogs are waffle. But I think you agree with me, as you’ve published a book which (I’m guessing!) extracts essays from the blog, and you have put other essays in a 99 cent Kindle ebook. So I think you realise books are the way – just one more step, give ’em away!

    Now I think about it, perhaps my guess is wrong. Because your blog is so extensive, I’ve thought, “well no need to buy the book, it’s all on here!” So perhaps you are losing serious readers for your most serious, developed, thoughts because you have such a comprehensive blog!

    Do you believe that “proper transmission has to be oral”? I don’t. I think the idea is still current, as the wandering seeker of truth is only taken seriously if she does actually wander to your neck of the woods and gives a talk, or leads a retreat, at five star hotel prices, plus a big nudge for a wodge of dana. Of course to be really taken seriously she must also have a book to sell. Never mind if it’s just saying what another thousand Buddhist books are saying, and in a way vastly inferior to the original.

    Talking about a “wandering she”, what do you think of Sheila Catharine? I was thinking of reading “Focused and Fearless”, the online intro. reads quite well, but I suspect it’s just another “one in a thousand” mindfulness meditation guides. I suspect they all crib their stuff, badly, from “The Heart of Buddhist Meditation” by Nyanaponika.

  33. Mal Avatar

    “Shakespeare’s “genius’ is a social construction, that all aesthetic judgements are produced for political ends, and that the practice of reading Shakespeare is an ideological one. Sounds promising, right?”

    Doesn’t sound promising at all. I agree with Harold Bloom that aesthetic value is an actuality, that beauty and pleasure are to be found by a receptive reader encountering Shakespeare’s works, whatever the political context. So aesthetic judgments may be produced outside of political ends, to direct the reader to sources of beauty and pleasure.

  34. wtpepper Avatar

    Yes, I agree that if you are impressed by Harold Bloom, you are likely to be impressed by Analayo! They are engaged in very similar projects in different discourses.

  35. Mal Avatar

    So, Tom, has anyone from your project taken on Bloom in way the average Joe could understand? I’m only partly impressed by Bloom, I think many of the writers he admires are part of an intellectual elite trying to distance themselves from the masses by producing works that only they can read. In many ways I prefer John Carey, in his book, “The Intellectuals and the Masses”.

    By the way, I think this kind of elitist, intellectual obfuscation, may be true of many of the “Continental Philosophers” you admire. They are, at least, very difficult to read! And that includes Ziszek (I just gave up on the work you recommended…)

    Gutting is quite good on this, I think:

    “Because of its commitment to clarity, analytic philosophy functions as an effective lingua franca for any philosophical ideas. (Even the most difficult writers, such as Sellars and Davidson, find disciples who write clarifying commentaries.) There is, moreover, a continuing demand for analytic expositions of major continental figures. It’s obvious why there is no corresponding market for, say, expositions of Quine, Rawls or Kripke in the idioms of Heidegger, Derrida or Deleuze. With all due appreciation for the limits of what cannot be said with full clarity, training in analytic philosophy would greatly improve the writing of most continental philosophers … in view of the unnecessary difficulty of much continental writing, most analytic philosophers will do better to rely on a second-hand acquaintance through reliable and much more accessible secondary sources… It may be that the most strikingly obscure continental writing (e.g., of the later Heidegger and of most major French philosophers since the 1960s) is a form of literary expression, producing a kind of abstract poetry from its creative transformations of philosophical concepts. This would explain the move of academic interest in such work toward English and other language departments. But it is hard to see that there is much of serious philosophical value lost in the clarity of analytic commentaries on Heidegger, Derrida, et al… the primary texts of leading continental philosophers are still unnecessary challenges to anyone trying to come to terms with them. The continental-analytic gap will begin to be bridged only when seminal thinkers of the Continent begin to write more clearly.”

    Do you rate Gutting’s book, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960”?

  36. wtpepper Avatar

    Never read Gutting. The paragraph you quote sounds similar to the project of Christopher Norris (Chuck’s more cerebral brother). I do like reading Norris, and suspect Gutting also has something useful to say (judging only from one paragraph, so I can’t be sure.)

    However, in general, I agree with Glenn’s position on this. Clarity isn’t just overrated, it’s dangerous. What is most “clear” is generally what we already think, or what we want to hear. How “clear” was the theory of relativity at first? Or those we now embrace as models of clarity in any other field?

    I had a professor once who on the first day of the semester used to give his class in Romanticism a short passage from the Norton Anthology of Literature introducing the Romantic period. He’d ask them to explicate this passage—a model of clarity at the time, understood to be the antidote to that obscure French theory. Nobody could do more than restate it, or offer a string of tautologies. When someone says (I’m taking this sentence from a new book on poetics sitting on my table) “what we must do is engage the students in the aesthetic intensity of the poem, to teach them that intensity in poetry makes for intensity in life”, do we really know what that means? Yet this author, a professor at an Ivy League university, is hailed as one of the “clearest” writers opposing “theoretical jargon”.

    So, no, I’m no fan of clarity. On the other hand, it is true that sometimes obscurity of language just masks obscurity of thought, and leads only to the kind of “human bondage” Spinoza tried to free us from. The really hard part is knowing which is which, I guess.

  37. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Thanks for sharing your field notes, Shaun. I would be very interested to hear how, in your view, Williams’s socially-aware teaching benefits from a connection to x-buddhism. That is, it seems to me that her insights into the “social self” derive from observing and thinking about the reality before her eyes. That’s great. And there is nothing to fault in that. I am just wondering what you think x-buddhism might have contributed to her understanding of the “social self.” In other words, could we not arrive at her conclusions without anatman</> as an instrumental concept and meditation as the organon that reveals the truth of the “social self”? Williams seems to hint at as much when, as you say, “She even suggests that practitioners educate themselves outside the realm of Buddhism in order to understand this process.” So, what does x-buddhism contribute here? Thanks.

  38. Mal Avatar

    Tom – the Norton guy defining Romanticism was probably a woolly English teacher. But what if a serious analytic philosopher had a go at defining it? Lord Anthony Quinton, no less, has a crack in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy… rats… I was hoping to say, “there you are Tom, King Tony has defined it, so put that in your pipe…”) Unfortunately he doesn’t, he’s unclear. He has a surface clarity in defining general, Romanticism, which I’ll attempt to summarise (below). He’s all-round unclear on “philosophical romanticism” and I will not even attempt a summary. (Continental philosophers from Kant & Hegel onwards are, of course, central to this idea and it’s as if he can’t be bothered to properly summarise their views, just putting forth sentences that seem to say something clearly, but say nothing.) Anyway on poetic Romanticism, with British poets involved, he has to at least make a start on being clear, or the senior common room will disown him:

    “Something [the idea of romanticism] is needed to distinguish Pope from Wordsworth… The Romantic is defined by holding one, or probably several, of the following attitudes: “favouring the concrete over the abstract, variety over uniformity, the infinite over the finite, nature over culture, convention, and artifice, the organic over the mechanical, freedom over constraints, rules, and limitations… it prefers the unique individual to the average man, the free creative genius to the man of good sense, the particular community to humanity at large…, [it] prefers feeling to thought, .. emotion to calculation, imagination to literal common sense, intuition to intellect.” The Romantic, “disdains ordinary rationality as a practical makeshift for the earth-bound, yielding only a truncated, superficial, and distorted picture of the world as it really is. The direct, intuitive, even mystical, apprehension of the world which we owe to poets and other such created geniuses does not stand in need of any reasoned support or articulation.”

    Starts well, but there are big problems here! What about the average medieval farmer? He prefers the concrete, variety, nature, organic, natural, particular community, intuition-not-intellect, but is certainly not Romantic. So are “infinite over finite” and “against convention” the keys? But Wordsworth was, or became, very politically conventional, but still harping on Romantic themes… and so on. Anyway, Quinton doesn’t say if these are key. Too many holes, and lack of examples, in your argument m’Lord.

    So I’ve dug out Isaiah Berlin’s “The Roots of Romanticism” – I’m sure he must a have a clear definition, I recall it being a cracking good read, and this is (supposedly) the key British Philosophical text on Romanticism, time for a re-read, it must have the answer, and show those continentals how to be clear. I’ll get back to you to say if Isaiah succeeds…

  39. wtpepper Avatar

    Mal: For me, this is exactly Buddhist practice. I need not be on some baffling ancient text using terms we don’t ordinarily think in. That was useful for ancient people, who did ordinarily think in those terms. For us, today, the point is to examine exactly these things we think, at first, are so clear and obvious. This is what was being interrogated when the ancient Buddhist practitioner thought about the skandhas, for instance.

    So we think, oh, sure, that jargon-free and nontheoretical description of Romanticism is perfectly clear….until someone challenges us. What exactly do we mean by terms like: intuition, organic, nature, culture, freedom, genius, etc? How exaclty do we know that these poets give us an “apprehension of the world as it really is” unless we already know, outside of Romanticism, what that is. In which case why do we need it at all? Once we start to question these terms, the whole “clarity” thing resolves. It remains “clear” only so long as we forget to question all those obscure floating signifiers that keep us saying things we don’t quite understand.

    Of course, I do still think it’s useful to investigate ancient Buddhist, or medieval European, ways of thinking, in part because they are so different, and can help denaturalize our way of thinking, and offer workable alternatives.

    But to my way of thinking, we are engaged in a kind of madhyamaka Buddhist practice whenever we begin to question the constructedness, and the obviousness, of our present discourses. About literature, pscyhology, economics, or anything else.

    Good luck finding that “clear definition” of Romanticism. MIght I recommend “The Historicity of Romantic Discourse” by Clifford Siskin?

  40. Mal Avatar

    Wittgenstein suggested we try and define “game” and showed how difficult it was. Thinking of chess someone might say a game is a finite world with a set of rules whereby one player, or set of players, tries to “kill” the other. One might then point to other examples in support of this (football, draughts…) But it’s quite easy to see exceptions, hopefully not much “killing” going on in “peek-a-boo”, only one player in solitaire, etc.,… So then one extends the definition to include these counter examples, and goes on doing this. So we end up with a “pretty clear” definition that works “most of the time”, and we should be able to deal with counter examples as they come up. So can’t we do this with “Romanticism” and the terms that define it: organic, intutive, etc.

    I think “A Romantic farmer is organic, an average farmer is not” is fairy clear to any adult, of reasonably wide reading. They could unpack the meaning reasonably well. “Organic” here encompasses the modern idea of farming without pesticides, but an “average” farmer might “go organic” in this way ’cause it makes him more money, so that’s not all.

    A Romantic farmer is “organic” in the sense of being connected to the land, growing with it naturally, like an animal living in its natural habitat. Of course you might argue that farming is unnatural, humans are “naturally” hunter gatherers. So maybe a serious “back to the land” Romantic would go hunter gathering! But you might argue that humans became farmers in pre-history and so it’s “reasonable” to go back to living off th eland like they did. Even then, there are borderline cases of course.? Can a Romantic farmer use a tractor to give him more time to read Wordsworth? So terms like “organic” are problematic, but they can be used reasonably well, have a reasonable clarity, I would argue, and (thankfully!) without having to forever unpack them.

    “Romantic” is a difficult case! It’s made even harder by many artists going through Romantic and non-Romantic phases. So it’s difficult to feel, “I fairly sure I have a clear view about what “Romantic” means.”, even after reading Berlin’s classic account!

    Siskin is expensive! I’ll see what else there is in my local library and online… like… The Emergence of Romanticism by Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, which starts well,

  41. wtpepper Avatar

    Yes, certainly we can have a “reasonable” idea of how and when to use a term, and successfully reproduce the discourse. And practices that the term helps construct. And to do this, we really do need to stop “unpacking” them, to just do what Zizek says the “moron” does, and agree that this language does really map reality successfully. This is absoteely possible! In fact, it is what almost everyone does almost all the time!

    I’m not so interested in doing that, though. And my position is that what I take ot be the useful practice we can get from Buddhism is the practice of NOT doing that, the practice of :endless unpacking” (Siskin, by the way, was my dissertation director, and was always demanding that I unpack things—he liked that term). No, I don’t think this is unique to Buddhism. In fact, it probably isn’t even common IN Buddhism. But creating intentional communities devoted to the collective practice of examining our common reification is one kind of (admittedly rare) Buddhist practice, and one I think could be beneficial.

    One point this discussion raises for me is the problem faced by the x-Buddhist teacher. Because I would never do this practice for money, don’t depend on it or on paying customers, I’m free to say to anyone what I woudl say to Mal: sure, you don’t have to do this. If you want the common way of thinking, that’s up to you…but I’m not interested in it. A teacher who need an audience has to shift positions, start saying what the audience wants to hear, or they lose their paying customers. Even an ordinary college or high school teacher faces these problems—when students’ beliefs are challenged, they drop the class, write bad evaluations, complain that the teacher has “liberal bias,” and the teacher either waters down the message to fit the traffic, or gets fired. This is why, for me, it is crucial that my income doesn’t depend at all on my buddhist or philosophical position. I will always discuss Buddhism freely with anyone who is interested…but almost nobody is. They want something that “resonates” with their beliefs, or comforting platituted, or “buddhism in 25 words or less,” and all I can say is, you can get that from Tricylce, but I can’t help you with it.

    Yes, Siskin’s book is hard to get, unfortunately, It also might be a bit less comforting. You could always take a look at my essay on Wordsworth’s poem “MIchaal”, which is fairly easy to get for free online or through any library. It would also fail to reproduce the common understanding of Romanticism, though, and might lack clarity for those who find Romanticism a “fairly clear” concept.

  42. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    In response to Glenn and Tom about the BPF online retreat “What’s my role in the revolution?”–The online retreat is a way to present BPF’s current modus operandi called “Block, Build, Be”. These are three modes of action/contemplation that can be used to address social justice issues. In some cases we ‘block’ things like pipelines; sometimes we ‘build’ things like community gardens; and sometimes we just ‘be’, focusing inward on healing and spiritual development. These three modalities bear no relation to any Buddhist text or practice, which is not a problem for me. ‘Being’ can mean meditation or other forms of self-care. The Block Build Be retreat is something they’ve done a couple of times on location near their HQ in San Fransisco. (I wonder how any full-time Buddhist activist can afford to live in the Bay Area, but that’s where they are.) They have finally moved the retreat online, with one chosen speaker to represent each of the three modalities. For Block, they had a Native American woman who is not Buddhist, but practices her own Native rituals; she teaches environmental activism in the west coast that involves blocking pipelines, coal ships, etc. For Build they brought in Ai-Jen Poo who runs the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an organization that advocates for immigrant women of color in service jobs such as home care for the elderly. She’s a MacArthur Fellow with an impressive resume who does some serious work in the area of immigrant labour rights. However, the interviewer from BPF (the lectures were set up as an interview) really had no substantial questions to ask about her work, and Ai-Jen Poo looked bored and uninterested. There was so much more that could have been said. Ai-Jen Poo doesn’t identify as a Buddhist either, although some Buddhist practices are part of her spiritual repertoire. And the third, “Be” was presented by an African-American member of Shambhala NYC. These were really top notch people who excel in their fields, but aside from the ‘Be’ speaker, they weren’t tied in any substantial way to Buddhism.

    The question for me is this: what is the ‘Revolution” they are talking about? There’s never any discussion about what kind of revolution[s] they are trying to foster, or what kind of society they are trying to create. Asking “what is my role in the revolution?” begs the question “what revolution?”

    From my dissertation, the quintessential political question is “what kind of society do we want?” That has to be an open, deliberative process, not one that is assumed.

    “Again, the political moment, when the question is addressed what is the very form of society we currently live in, or strive for, is circumvented. . . . A third option, finally, is that disagreement entails a radical choice for one or another type of society. In such a case, we are confronted with a cleavage that is constitutive and can (should) not be solved or reconciled as such.(Kenis et al, 2015).”

    So neither BPF nor the online retreat ever ask the question, ‘what revolution’ and towards what aim, or what kind of society are we striving for? That question is deferred, and what is presented are the typical current popular protest movements such as Black Lives Matter, anti-pipeline protests, or the particular projects the Board and prominent members of BPF are working on. That’s all fine, but the larger political question is lost.

  43. wtpepper Avatar

    Thanks Shaun. It is interesting to me that the “buddhist” part focuses on “being” and they bring in people who don’t identify as buddhist to add the actual social change part.

    I’m all for trying ot advocate for the rights of immigrant workers. But if we had some concept of the society we wanted, it might be easier to also advocate for those “off-the-books” or minimum-wage workers who are not immigrants of color, and try to force some real change. We just need to know what kind of change we really want, first. It’s important to block a pipeline, but how about working toward a system in which destroying the world for profit isn’t something we enlessly need to try to stop?

    I just got back from central PA, where the home-care workers who are getting paid less than minimum wage, many off the books, to take care of the enormous aging population, are not immigrants, or people of color, but children of former factory workers living in trailer parks. While it might be great to try to “organize” and advocate for them, they would see it as endangering their precarious livelihood. Until they can see the promise of an alternative World, I can’t see how that would be possible until they have some idea exactly what revolution we’re talking about—until revolutionary isn’t just the latest hip advertising buzz word.

  44. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    @Glen Wallis Finally getting to your specific question on Rev. Williams’ presentation, Glen. (I’ve been recovering from surgery so a little slow on the uptake).” I am just wondering what you think x-buddhism might have contributed to her understanding of the “social self.” In other words, could we not arrive at her conclusions without anatman</> as an instrumental concept and meditation as the organon that reveals the truth of the “social self”? Williams seems to hint at as much when, as you say, “She even suggests that practitioners educate themselves outside the realm of Buddhism in order to understand this process.” So, what does x-buddhism contribute here? Thanks.”

    I don’t think reference to ‘anatman’ or the ‘organon of meditation’ or even ‘X Buddhism’ is a strong background reference for her remarks. I think what’s “outside the frame” of her presentation are references to the following: (1) her personal involvement in the historical Black Civil Rights movement, and in particular (2) her involvement in its current form, the Movement for Black Lives (#BLM), and its cultural ethos of being “woke.”

    “Woke” has an interesting ambiguity to its cultural meaning. “Awakening’ was historically part of the American Evangelical Revival movements that happened periodically in US history. There was a ‘Great Awakening’ In the colonial period, and another just before the Civil War, in both white and black congregations. The pre-Civil War ‘Great Awakening’ was linked with the Abolitionist movement that pushed for the end of slavery in the South. Black Evangelical churches have been the foremost leaders of the Black Civil Rights movements even until recently. White ‘awakened’ Christian Evangelicals supported the leadership of Black brethren churches. But at that time “awakening” was a Christian Pentecostal experience, similar to believer’s ecstatic experiences of the ‘Holy Ghost’ at the summer tent revivals. It was also a moral awakening, that elevated ‘justice’ over ‘obedience’ and ‘piety’. Bible passages that were used to support the abolition of slavery were elevated over Bible passages that actually condoned slavery. But the current Black Lives Matter movement has slightly reinvented the ‘great awakening’ meme as “woke”. It has a meaning that is still laden with it’s Christian Evangelical history (white and black), but it now blends in and refers to the Buddhist meaning of ‘awakening’ that is becoming popular as more middle-class Blacks become interested in American Buddhism. There has been in the growth of urban Black, college-educated, middle-class (though not necessarily middle-income) practitioners in nearly all sects of American Buddhism. A significant portion of them are LGBTQ or ‘Blaqueer’ as #BLM tags them. Many of them report that they no longer (or never did) feel comfortable in their childhood traditional Black evangelical churches and have struggled to find a home in white western American Buddhism, which is also frankly racist and dismissive toward them. But that ‘Buddhist element’ has seeped into the meme of ‘awakening’ until it has become a new form of the meme, ‘woke’. This new ‘woke’ also signifies a moral awakening. For Black radicals it is a refusal to submit to police brutality and state violence, a call for radical activism and resistance. For white Buddhists and Yogis, ‘woke’ signifies their alliance with social justice movements, that they view their non-western religious views and practices as ‘counter-cultural’, ‘against the stream’, intended as a cultural opposition to Trump’s America of the White Christian Right.

    I think Rev. Kyodo Williams sees herself as the new Buddhist leader of this ‘woke’ movement and tries to position herself in every venue where civil rights and social justice are preached, in online and on-the-ground conferences. She wrote the book “Radical Dharma” with Lama Rod Owns and Dr. Jasmine Syedullah, a Buddhist response to #BLM and a manifesto on Black Buddhist radical politics. Williams is interesting because I find to her to be the most self-marketing BBT (Black Buddhist Teacher) out there, with all kinds of videos, retreats, TED talks and marketing gizmos. (I have gotten some of her email promotions: “The Gates of Liberation are Open! Sign up for my next online dharma session that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE!”). So it has this kind of evangelical emotional force to it, which makes it ‘counter-culture’ to the bland zombie-like flatness of most white Buddhist sanghas, and not so comfortable for them. Her message is all about personal “empowerment”, laden with teachings on the Bodhisattva Warrior and ’embodiment’ practices that are magically empowering. So Williams is an interesting contradiction. I think she sees a giant gap in the market for Black Buddhism and racially conscious Buddhists of Color, and she’s aiming to capture that market herself, as a kind of Black Public Intellectual and BBG (Black Buddhist Guru).

  45. Mal Avatar

    But doesn’t “awakening”, in the Buddhist context, mean “achieving Nibbana”, and nothing else? Doesn’t highlighting Christian evangelical & moral meanings of “awakening” just muddy the Buddhist waters? Does it need any meditation to realise that “black lives matter” just as much as white? Just the simple observation, probably from my mother, at age 7, that people are people whatever the colour of their skin was an “awakening” for me – but (of course!) very far from enlightenment in the strict Buddhist sense. Should Buddhists be getting involved in social action at all? Is there a sutta that says, “thou shalt march against the Trumps of this world.”? Such activity would seem to be opposed to the renunciation needed to follow the 8FP. Shouldn’t serious Buddhists be seeking a solitary existence in the forest, or with a sangha of similar renunciates? Isn’t such a situation needed to pursue vipissana and gain the insight that leads to awakening? I did go on a lot of marches in my youth, and didn’t find it at all conducive to peace of mind and happiness. Once awakening is achieved, then the compassion of the arahant may be directed to acting well in the world, without disturbing the equanimity and happiness of the arahant. In summary, I might march again if I become enlightened, but until then isn’t it better to sit quietly in my room and work on my sorry self? (To borrow a metaphor from Pascal…)

  46. wtpepper Avatar

    Yes, Mal, this is a very typical Western Buddhist understanding of what “serious Buddhists” do. Fortunate that we discovered this, because all previous Buddhists in all Buddhist countries, all the way back to Buddha himself, had the mistaken notion that Buddhism was quite politcal! Good thing we Westerners can set them straight on what Buddhism really is. From Ancient India to Tibet and right up to the present day (watch the news) Buddhism has always been political. We might not want ot take the Western Buddhist teachers pushing the next New York Times Bestseller on how to work on our sorry selves as the authorities on what real Buddhism really is. Just as a starting point, consider this:

  47. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    So here’s the other side of the angel Kyodo Williams project, the ‘Oprah’ side. She is marketing retreats in Hawaii for the ultra-rich that includes all sorts of x-buddhist, x-yoga self-soothing practices, orchestrated and presented by the Master of Wokeness herself, aKw. It’s called in hip text-speak” :be-ing transformation.” aKw wrote ‘Radical Dharma.’ What’s “radical” about spending $20K to fly to Oahu to stay at a beach resort and be pandered to by your very own Black Zen master? Exactly what is she marketing and who is she marketing to? Need I ask the question? I know she’s going to find this comment someday, but it begs to be said. transformation
    2018 Molokai retreat
    FINAL DAY for early birds to catch the Molokai sun… transformation 2018: June 2-9 | Molokai, HI transformation – where the souls best is offered
    LAST CHANCE and ONE SPOT for Early Bird Rates. BIG GRATITUDE to early applicants for the 2018 transformation retreat. There has been a very strong showing and gorgeous applications showing vulnerability and commitment to embodying the power and love already within them. Cross genders, race, class, and borders (woot to Aussies and le French for coming in,) the cohort is shaping up beautifully. Seven people have applied and been accepted, so just one spot remains at this rate.

    The website will debut December 1, which means the end of early applications for Early bird pricing of $2650 + travel. That’s up to a $350 discount to honor your YES! now. Base price will go to $2850 until January 1, then $3000 for an experience easily valued at $4500. If your application is accepted there is a $500 non-refundable deposit to secure your place. Payment plans will be available. So if you know you are ready to do this, now is the time.

    And for those of you wondering from last year, yes, it is official: i am so profoundly honored to announce my dear friend, singer, songwriter and Medicine Woman, gina Breedlove will be with us this year offering Sound Healing for the entire cohort, with options for individual sessions.

    Rigorous assessment, meditation, yoga, sound healing, physical, emotional, structural alignment inside and out. Held at Hui Ho’olana in Molokai, Hawaii with a dream team of master teachers, trainers, facilitators and healers. Most of us have enough information, this retreat empowers us toward transformation. If your deepest integration of Love and Power are calling, don’t wait: answer now.

    “The part of me that did not want to live is now healed, and present – no more plexiglass shield separating me from the world. What a feeling.”—2017 Participant transformation: place.spirit.embodied life.
    Molokai 2018

  48. wtpepper Avatar

    Although I couldn’t make it through “Radical Dharma”, from what I read this is exactly what I would have expected. The book is just an incoherent jumble of terms and phrases from the more new-agey part of the spiritual grift. No different than most others. “Radical” is just a buzzword for such people—an advertising slogan. (My toothpaste and laundry detergent are “radical,” too). Unfortunately, many other terms that might otherwise have some real significance have also been adopted as hip buzz-words now. Anything can sell tickets if you say it “crosses boundaries,” but really, is there any way class boundaries could be crossed, here? It’s like labeling every textbook “multicultural”: the word has lost whatever meaning it might have once had, and is just an empty assertion that you are in some vague way morally superior to others.

    But hey, three grand for a new-age party on the beach in Hawaii? That’s not so bad, if you’re one of those not suffering the effects of the neoliberal economy.

    I wonder what the criteria for “acceptance” of the applications is? Who do they reject?

    For the rest of us, fortunately, one doesn’t need to be on the beach, or pay money, to actually learn about Buddhism…or philosophy, or economics, or aesthetics…

  49. matthewoconnell Avatar

    Great discussion in the comments here and illuminating as always. Whatever Tom might think of the value of undertaking the writing here at the SNB site and this field work, I always find a great deal of food for thought and am reminded that intelligent discussion of Buddhism and Buddhists can still take place. I for one would not be willing to follow the online retreat as you all did and am not sure whether I should thank you for reminding me that American Buddhism is very much business as usual.
    I do listen to folks like Wright in interviews with non-Buddhists and have found him, in particular, to be rather dull. He has his own video/podcast series at BloggingheadsTv and he is a poor interviewer. I can’t help but think that he and many of the Buddhist teachers critiqued here are simply externalising their own search for truth, freedom, ‘heroes journey’, X-, etc into books, retreats, and using them as a form of proselyting rather like the soapbox speakers in Hyde Park. This might explain why so much of their discourse surrounds the personal and avoids the social and any thought that may challenge their romantic myth-making. It may also be why their Buddhism is ultimately a form of narcissism and in debt to the New Age cult of self.
    I just wish we could get to hear Tom question these folks 1 on 1 in a video series. I’d like to hear them defend their positions from someone as well read as Tom and as unwilling to indulge their narratives. I’d happily pay for that! By the way, we’d still love to get you on the Imperfect Buddha podcast Tom. Evan Thompson will be on as a guest in January and you could follow his showing up with as much critique as you like.

  50. wtpepper Avatar

    Yes, the business of Buddhism is business. I find it amusing that you believe any of these people would ever give serious answers to serious questions, no matter who asked them. Even Garfield would certainly never stoop to respond to a question from the likes of me. But the rest, I can hear there answers already: “I’m not interested in polemic” and “I don’t find that critique convincing”; basically, the polite equivalent of equivalent of “Nuh uh, I don’t think so.” That’s all we ever hear from them, and all we can ever expect. They just claim profound boredom whenever someone points out there naivety, aporia, or contradictions.

    You do a podcast, Matthew. Why not try asking them tough questions yourself? You’re certainly better mannnered than me, so there’s not that excuse to refuse to answer you.

  51. Mal Avatar

    Here’s a tough question: should Glenn be charging $114 for his book? I just can’t see any justification for it.

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