Non Buddhist Mysticism: Performing Irreducible and Primitive Presence
(Part 1. To read additional sections, go to the ToC and scroll down to “Non-Buddhist Mysticism“)
[The next several posts are raw materials for a book, tentatively titled Non Buddhist Mysticism: Performing Irreducible and Primitive Presence. I value any comments, questions, additions, etc, that you may want to write in the comment section.]
Non Buddhist Mysticism: Performing Irreducible and Primitive Presence is not a work of philosophy or religion or, indeed, even of “scholarship.” It is certainly not pedagogical. It contains no knowledge or wisdom. Or, if the reader determines that it does, that is purely accidental.
The reader will be best served by approaching this work, rather, as dramaturgy. The aim of dramaturgy is to “adapt a story to actable form,” to “assess the most compelling and appropriate means of staging a particular theatrical work.” At the heart of this work, then, is performance. The stage is the World; the actor is the reader; the work is the dramaturgy. In the end, it may turn out to be called a buddhoturgy or a buddhofiction. The point, however, remains: this work aims to give direction for a particular play.
The “method” of this dramaturgy relies heavily on the work of contemporary thinker, François Laruelle. I will not, however, provide an introduction to his work. (For that, I recommend Anthony Paul Smith, Laruelle: A Stranger Thought.) Rather, I will follow his own somewhat anti-methodological procedure in the substantial and far-ranging Introduction to Mystique non-philosophique à l’usage des contemporains.1 (Since this book has not yet been translated, all translations from it are mine, and should be considered tentative.) He writes:
If this Introduction requires continuous reading and linear comprehension, if it is a kind of exoteric memento for a theory, it is in order to provide the reader with an organon allowing a possibly random, free, and dispersive reading “at random” of the poorly regrouped body of the text, made up of advances, cross-checks, research, and sketches of a Word made up of lived axioms, but which gradually constitutes a canvas.2 [For us, it’s a staging.]
One benefit to this approach is that we don’t have to get bogged down in tedious explanations. Again, I am not interested in philosophy or religion or any other academic discipline. I am not interested in “getting it right.” I am interested in provocation, imagination, and, ultimately enactment. The text is thus written with a certain desire precisely to disturb the usual manner of such presentations. As Georges Bataille says of “Molloy’s Silence,” this is a work:
signing the expiration warrant of a doctrine composed in the language of dreams, preferring a speech disheveled by the wind and pitted with holes, but with the kind of authority that a ruin cannot help but have and that no mere movement can ever possess.3
We have at our disposal an extraordinary model for our such an approach, namely, that of an exalted (if ultimately heretical) mystic:
The model of this disturbance of mystical language is [Meister] Eckhart…a reading of these fragments should be of a musical type….they must finally resonate in the imagination as the experience of a new thought.4
Again, I prefer the metaphor of theater here, but the point stands. If my readers persist (in the folly of their reading?), they will at least find themselves thinking things they have likely not yet thought—for better or for worse.
What happens when we adjoin “mysticism” and “Buddhism“? That is the question driving Non Buddhist Mysticism.
Why this question, though? Does it address anything of relevance to our lives, or does it merely initiate a theoretical experiment?
I believe that the question addresses matters of extreme importance. The matters that are addressed are so important because they constitute “first things,” issues that stand at the beginning. Most immediately, the issues addressed concern our relationship to authoritarian thought systems. By “thought system” I mean the many discourses that attempt to articulate what a human being is. The list of these discourses is very long. It includes philosophy, religion, anthropology, psychology, psychoanalysis, history, literary studies, neuroscience, biology, politics, education, technology, economics, aesthetics, jurisprudence, sociology, and so on. Under each heading is nestled numerous sub-headings. Under “politics,” for example, we find “political theory,” which, furthermore, includes communism, liberalism, anarchism, libertarianism, conservatism, social democracy, illiberalism, fascism, etc., each of which can be further nuanced based on differences that emerge from history, geography, context, doctrine, and so forth. Three crucial facts, I believe, emerge here. The first fact is that such discourses are not abstract ivory tower exercises; they are, rather, the very stuff out of which our diverse views of the world are constituted. Each of these discourses, each of these views, moreover, involves institutions, organizations, and communities within which subjects, or models of a human being, are created and replicated. As such, they have a material existence that exerts influence on society and thus on us. In fact, this influence, I will argue, is not merely suggestive, it is decisive to an overdetermining extent. This is why I say that thought systems are “authoritative.” (I believe that stronger words such as “domineering,” “harassing,” “totalizing,” and even “violent,” are applicable, but “authoritative” will do for now.) The second fact is that it is not possible to escape the cumulative effects of these authoritarian thought systems. The reason for this inescapability is that they comprise nothing less than our very world. This fact is captured by the German term, sometimes used in English, Weltanschauung. Although this term is typically translated as “worldview,” its meaning is much closer to ideology. The term Anschauung was coined by Immanuel Kant to indicate something like “intuition.” This is not intuition in the New Age meaning of a kind of sixth sense or hunch that constitutes superrational knowledge. Rather, as Kant intended, intuition refers to the fact that the experience of space, time, and sensory objects occurs without conscious thought. Nothing like knowledge is given in an intuition. The thoughts, representations, concepts, appearances, that, in turn, ensue from such intuitions, however, do constitute our “knowledge,” specifically, our “knowledge” of the world; and these are (over-)determined by what I am calling authoritative thought systems (hence, the scare quotes). So, when we encounter the world—when we cross paths with a strange person, think about global warming, react to a politician’s speech, desire a new smart phone—our spontaneous response is determined by that “knowledge.” A Weltanschauung is not just an innocent “worldview.” It is the image of society’s dominant discourses reflected back to us in a manner that compels us to particular responses. This is how ideology functions, namely, as ideas and beliefs about the world, in practice. The social practice that is ideology, moreover, is so spontaneous as to seem the most natural and self-evident matter in the world. And in a very real and important sense, it is; namely, if we take “the world” to designate precisely that catalyzing reflection. All of this is of course somewhat simplified. But the point is that such a reflection, arising out of intuitions followed by data-encoded representations, is inescapable. This fact makes it all the more crucial to address the ways in which authoritarian thought systems act on us. The third fact is that, on examination, I argue, we don’t recognize ourselves in these representations of the human. And even if we did, the world we have created is obviously deeply damaged. The suspicion arises that the cumulative effect of our authoritarian thought systems is not so much the articulation of a human and of a world as it is an articulation of an android, anthropoid, abstract model, perhaps even a zombie, vampire, or monster in Hell. Does not the interminable catastrophe of our situation justify such a claim?
But, here, another question arises. Why mysticism and Buddhism? These two discourses are, after all, quite clearly sub-categories of the hyper-authoritarian thought system called “religion.” Indeed, they are arguably discourses that carry seeds of severe self- and world-negation. And, implicit in my original question is another one I should mention here: might Buddhism and mysticism offer us valuable materials for constructing more salutary ideologies and subjectivities?
Ever since the Enlightenment, mysticism has generally been viewed as a discourse of dreamy irrationality, hostile not merely to the world and to the flesh, but to thought itself. Of course, a mystical acolyte would see it differently, namely, as a practice for apprehending a profound truth that is wholly foreclosed to everyday consciousness. The oldest English attestations of the noun mysticism (early eighteenth century) capture something of both the method and goal of mysticism as well as to how the uninitiated view it.
“Mystical theology; belief in the possibility of union with or absorption into God by means of contemplation and self-surrender; belief in or devotion to the spiritual apprehension of truths inaccessible to the intellect.”
“Religious belief that is characterized by vague, obscure, or confused spirituality; a belief system based on the assumption of occult forces, mysterious supernatural agencies, etc.”
Long before the invention of the collective noun mysticism, ancient and medieval mystics understood themselves to be engaging in “contemplation” or in “the mysteries” or indeed in contemplation on the mysteries. As the above definition indicates, such engagement also took the form of reflective analysis, hence, “mystical theology.” In all of this, the original Greek root of the term, mystikos, an initiate, is operative. The image of such an initiation is also the source of the many related associations of the term: secret, hidden, dark, mysterious, occult, esoteric.11
Buddhism, too, is born in world-renunciation. Although forms with varying degrees of social concern have arisen from time to time—from ancient Mahayana to modern Buddhist Socialism and Anarchism to contemporary Engaged Buddhism and Mindful this and that—the impulse toward self and social abnegation is arguably embedded in Buddhism’s very DNA. As such, like the yearning to be saved from the world that seeps back into Christian liberation theology, the repressed of Buddhist negation inevitably returns. Simon Critchley captures this tendency with his term “passive nihilism.” In a comment that brings together our two discourses, he writes: “In the face of the increasing brutality of reality, the passive nihilist tries to achieve a mystical stillness, calm contemplation: ‘European Buddhism.’ In a world that is all too rapidly blowing itself to pieces, the passive nihilist closes his eyes and makes himself into an island.”6
So, why put these particular terms, Buddhism and mysticism, to work to help us discern the “first things” that I mentioned?
In fact, I think the result of such a conjugation of these discourses would be wholly predictable. I will develop this point later, but, in short, this is what I would predict: We would become ensnared in a schema whereby we are seduced into pursuing the very opposite of the first things that concern me; namely, in some transcendental Object, some super-essential yet absent Other, some eternally curative hyper-Real. The terms are familiar to readers of our discourses: God; Buddha mind; Buddha nature; enlightenment; the divine ladder; the eightfold path; mystical union; ascension; pure awareness; the womb of the Buddha; cosmic consciousness. Requiring, as the traditional forms of mysticism and Buddhism invariably do, an apparatus of mediation—between the Absolute X and the world, between the teacher and the student, between the preceptor and the initiate, between the Wise One and the ignoramus—such a formation inescapably entails the subjection of the seeker. For this reason, I reject this orientation out of hand.
We can, however, refine the question toward productive, and even more rigorous, ends: What happens when we infuse “future mysticism” with “non-buddhism“?
“Future mysticism” is François Laruelle’s term for his novel usage of mystical materials conceived as a materialist spirituality. It is grounded not in a transcendental Other, but in “the radical base of the Real,” in, that is, the irreversibly immanent in-human. Unlike its transcendental counterparts, future mysticism is thus “born in the spirit of heresy rather than sanctity.” As Eleni Lorandou writes,
“Future mysticism springs from the effort to join the human with itself rather than with God…The human is emptied of its identity, becomes a Christ-subject who comes to fight for the World.”7
Similarly, the raw material of “non-buddhism” is “Buddhism” shorn of its transcendental representations. The result is a profound radicalization of Buddhist material. It is radicalized in the two senses of being reduced to its immanent roots and of, thereby, being robustly oriented toward interventions into the social world. The practitioner becomes a Buddha-subject, one whose wakefulness (√buddh) renders them “fit for the clash with Hell.”
Thus, the task of Non Buddhist Mysticism is to conjugate future-mysticism and non-buddhism in order to construct a model of “first things”—those modes of thought and action that stand at the forefront of the particular ideology and subjectivity that I wish to construct.
In a move that I imagine some readers will receive as bizarrely counter-intuitive for a book with such a title, the subject of this discourse is one who possesses an “active indifference to union with God” and is outright “devoid of the mystical tendency or impulse.”8 In a non-buddhist idiom, our subject is one whose traversal of the path to awakening has rendered him not so much indifferent—he burns with passion!—as thoroughly dis-identified.
The last sentence of my book A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real is: “Disenchantment augurs passage.” Non Buddhist Mysticism opens up that passage.
[Read Non Buddhist Mysticism 2]
1 François Laruelle, Mystique non-philosophique à l’usage des contemporains (Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 2007).
2 Ibid., 7.
3 Georges Bataille, “Molloy’s Silence,” in S. E. Gontarski (ed.), On Beckett: Essays and Criticism (New York: Grove Press, 1986), 131 (slightly reworded]
4 Laruelle, Mystique, 11.
5 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. mysticism.
6 Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (London: Verso, 2007 ): 4–5.
7 Eleni Lorandou, “Non-philosophical Mystique and the Rehabilitation of Heresis,” Labyrinth: An International Journal of Philosophy, Value Theory, and Sociocultural Hermeneutics, Abstract.
8 Laruelle, Mystique non-philosophique, 16.