Why speculative?

Speculation as Rupture and Disruption.speculative (1)
Glenn Wallis

The term “Buddhism” evokes a bewildering bifurcation. Here, we have a “soft” version that caters to the desiccated middle classes of the twenty-first century West. This version promises salvation in the form of diurnal restoration, like ease in the midst of “stress” or “real happiness.” There, we have a “hard” version, derived from the models, doctrines, practices, and institutional structures of Buddhism’s ancient and medieval Asian past. This version advocates for a virtuosic cataclysm known as “enlightenment” or “nirvana.” I know of no third version; all sub-varieties get snared by one of these two. Both versions flourish by virtue of an ageless curative fantasy of human beings: to emerge from life—and death—unscathed.

What use is “Buddhism” in the twenty-first century West? Does it even yield useful knowledge anymore? Doesn’t science provide more satisfying models of, for instance, perception and cognition, than does Buddhism? Doesn’t philosophy better articulate the questions that seem to animate Buddhist discourse on meaning, language, and being? Doesn’t psychology offer more effective forms and models of mental health? In short, are Buddhism’s institutions and beliefs too cumbersome and unsophisticated to satisfy any but the most willing to believe? Is “Buddhism” anything but an archaic relic of the past embraced today by a populace adrift, a mere sop to modern fears and human vanity?

The answers to those questions are not clear. Indeed, there is little evidence that they have yet to be addressed at all, certainly not in any sustained manner. Neither those who embrace Buddhist teachings nor those who reject them are inclined toward such questioning. To the former, querying is threatening. Genuine questioning involves the possibility of unforeseen and undesirable transmutation, even destruction. To the latter, such questioning is irrelevant, for they have already foreclosed on Buddhism’s viability.

The purpose of this blog is to engage in a speculative critique of Buddhism. In doing so, I neither take for granted the salubrity of Buddhist teachings for the contemporary world nor bar the possibility of renovation and application. I see, rather, in the very process of speculation an opportunity. In order to seize this opportunity, however, I have found it is necessary to stake out new ground for myself as critic. Proximity is of paramount importance in this endeavor. Too close, and the effulgence of Buddhism’s charism blinds; too far away, and the embers turn cold.

Speculation, as its cognate perspicuity reveals, implies a clear, plain, and intelligent seeing through of a matter. Such seeing presupposes, however, a unique relationship to the matter at hand. In our case, the matter at hand is “Buddhism.” A speculative position toward Buddhism neither embraces nor rejects Buddhism’s postulates. Speculation operates in the mode of interrogation. Therein lies its function as precursor of rupture. Speculation breaks open the closed systems of Buddhism. It is not difficult to see, then, how rupture of Buddhism also includes its disruption: the normative claims underlying Buddhism’s ostensible continuity and unity, is, in the interrogation of speculation, interrupted. What ensues from an interruption? Perhaps discontinuity or even disassembly. Certainly disruption of some form and extent.

This blog is meant to serve as a forum for speculation on Buddhism (more properly, on what I call “non-buddhism“). Perhaps you will use it for discussions and as a source of information regarding this issue of Buddhism’s maturation, rupture, and disruption. The blog neither takes for granted the salubrity of Buddhist teachings for the contemporary world nor forecloses on the possibility of adaptation, renovation, and application. It sees, rather, in the very questioning a speculative opportunity.

Image from the 2011 exhibit “Speculative.”

24 thoughts on “Why speculative?

  1. The rupture and disruption of speculation !

    If you speculate about woman you will find them in your lap
    If you speculate about buddhism you will find a lot of crap
    If you speculate about entheogens you will find the end of rap

  2. My speculation about ‘speculative buddhism’ is that it is based on a variant of frustrated angst against any traditional form of ethical and mental discipline that many of today’s anarchists espouse. The Buddha was subject to far more vitriolic attacks than any such attack today’s anarchists can dream of, bordering close to physical harm. Buddhism has flourished not because it ‘promises’ any ‘ease in the midst of “stress” or “real happiness’ as the distorted version of interpretation in this blog proposes – it makes no promises at all. The statistical chances of ‘salvation’ according the canons were abysmally ‘low’ – in prevalent metaphysical terms it took many many lifetimes, if ‘at all’ to reach perfection. So any such claim that it claimed salvation is false propaganda which is regrettably the case with this blog’s modus operandus.

    Rather, the phenomenal success of Buddhism is due to the fact that it has the universal blueprints of a socially relevant system of ethical conduct and thinking as the main driver of personal and universal growth. To lead life according to the Eight Fold Path can be construed to be difficult to impractical in today’s terms, but such a lofty aim is outside the ambit of today’s social-theory armed ‘critics’ that populate this blog’s core ‘pseudo-thinkers’. May be all ethics, all attempts to perfect their own conduct is irrelevant to these bunch of know-alls whose lives are thoroughly useless to society compared to the immense stabilizing factor that Buddhism has been historically.

    In that, it is not speculation – its a meaningless attempt to belittle the efforts of millions of human beings, who are by far more productive and utilitarian as a cohesive group of Buddhists, compared to a bunch of comical anarchists who have felt that ‘speculative buddhism’ might be remotely meaningful either etymologically, or even in any deconstructivist sense.

    Namo Budhha.

  3. Greetings, Speculative Non-Buddhists. May I propose a variant, “Speculative Non-Nothing-In-Particular?” I think a lot of people who have foreclosed on Buddhism would describe themselves as “nothing in particular.” This would give we nothings something to speculate on.

  4. May be all ethics, all attempts to perfect their own conduct is irrelevant to these bunch of know-alls whose lives are thoroughly useless to society compared to the immense stabilizing factor that Buddhism has been historically.

    Do you mean, for example, “stabilizing factor” as this in case of medieval Tibet (http://www.michaelparenti.org/Tibet.html)? Or maybe some other example that I’d be glad to hear about?

  5. Medieval Central Asia was a violent turbulent environment. No one in their right mind would assume that the Mongol and Tibetan feudal structure adopted any form of Buddhism that can be considered a ‘religious’ revolution. Most missions from India and China had limited success against feudal forms of animism and Bon and Shaminsitic practices which continue till this day. But after the mongols appointed their warlords as the Dalai Lama, it took many many generations before a Buddhist theocracy developed. Only in the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama,, any serious attempt at integrating with Greater Mongolia, the Qing dynasty and feudal Tibet was made. It failed, and Tibet again continued on its warpath against China. Did the Buddhist theocracy bring peace and stability to Tibet ? Resoundingly the answer is ‘no’. Political instability is independent of any allegiance to any form of faith.

    To look at the stabilizing factor of Buddhism, one needs to consider the area where the vast majority ( 90 %) of world’s Buddhists live. The whole of the Asian backdrop from China, Japan to SE Asia, where Buddhism flourished over centuries. Few instances of mass genocides, war, instability – until the rise of destructive forms of anarchist ideologies like Communism arose, Imperialism in japan after the fall of The shogunate and embracing colonialism, and western style economic exploitative political capitalism takes hold.

    Buddhism, as the Buddha was supposed to have predicted, goes through peaks and troughs. Its heartening to note that Buddhism is returning to Japan, and China; restructuring in Communist Asia. Its true the Western form of Buddhism was more personal right from the outset, but that’s why, its unlikely to work here at any significant level than a intellectual movement with little emphasis on social behavior and morality. Cynicism is logical in this environment, as there is no hope of it effecting a fundamental shift in overall perception. The only significant contribution from Buddhism in the Western intellectual sphere has been a better understanding of the mind working as a field generated from neural activity, and as Thomas Metzinger and the German neurophilosphers put it : a validation of the no-mind through the use of ego-tunnel type concepts. From the social cohesion point of view, Western society as a whole is a gigantic mess, and as the afterglow of the Industrial revolution diffuses out, the levels of alienation will exponentially skyrocket.

    Without appreciating the value of social concepts like compassion and ethical decisions based on an understanding that the self (and self-interest) are neural constructs, bleakness is an absolute certainty. The WHO projects depression to be the number one health burden in the west by 2020, and to criticize people who are trying to fight this alarming trend through whatever mind-tweaks they find beneficial and essentially obtain social cohesion is moronic, to say the least.

  6. sidg219 (#2). Thanks for joining the conversation.

    My speculation about ‘speculative buddhism’ is that it is based on a variant of frustrated angst against any traditional form of ethical and mental discipline that many of today’s anarchists espouse.

    No, it is based on an observation that x-buddhism, in its current form(s), constitutes a blind refusal to recognize the ethical and practical dimensions inherent in teachings such as, say nullity, fading, and radical contingency. If there is any frustration, it is most likely rooted in this refusal. “Tradition,” has become code for particular modes of obscurantism and reactionary distortion of certain human truths. Also, why “anarchist”? Who cares what anarchists espouse? I don’t.

    The Buddha was subject to far more vitriolic attacks than any such attack today’s anarchists can dream of, bordering close to physical harm.

    If there are any shared beliefs among those of us writing here, one, I think, is that “the Buddha” names, at best, a literary protagonist. No one knows anything about what the man behind the myths and legends was “subject” to. All we can know, if we give it the thought required, is what various versions of “the Buddha” subject believers to. Anyway, making reference to “what the Buddha said,” is just a marker of affective and cognitive decision. It is also an act of, called here, the example fetish.

    Buddhism has flourished not because it ‘promises’ any ‘ease in the midst of “stress” or “real happiness’ as the distorted version of interpretation in this blog proposes – it makes no promises at all. The statistical chances of ‘salvation’ according the canons were abysmally ‘low’ – in prevalent metaphysical terms it took many many lifetimes, if ‘at all’ to reach perfection. So any such claim that it claimed salvation is false propaganda which is regrettably the case with this blog’s modus operandus.

    “Buddhism” is precisely a kind of Rubik’s Cube of promises. The question is how you line up the hues. It promises to help you gain a view on irrefutable human truths. But it also promises to show you how to flinch in your reception of these truths. Contrary to what you say, it–x-buddhism–also promises many different means of escaping unscathed from shear humanness (aka, salvation). Even the current anodyne literature on “mindfulness” can be seen in this light. And you surely can’t deny the more robust forms of x-buddhistic salvation, such as enlightenment, rebirth, perfection, purity, etc., etc. Yes, maybe these are just forms of “false propaganda,” as you say; but it is propaganda produced by the x-buddhist bureaucrats. Also, keep in mind that we are largely critiquing contemporary x-buddhism–sometimes vis a vis “classical” forms of x-buddhism, yes; but often not.

    I can’t follow your last two paragraphs. Can you try again? Thanks.

  7. sidg219 (#5). You really are quite the x-buddhist romantic, aren’t you? Your view of the “stabilizing factor of Buddhism” in Asia requires a robust ahistoricism, one that is, moreover, hardly anything more than an Orientalist whitewash.

  8. To Glen Wallis :

    Tradition, whether its Buddhism or anything else at all, invariably leads to obscurantism. Dosen’t the economic, financial system and our legal and political systems too, steeped in tradition, rely heavily on academic obscurantism; do those systems or not ‘implicitly’ promise a fair and free economy, justice and a guarantee that human rights be protected ? Do you see it only in Buddhism, or do you see it in anything that is subject to the academic process of ‘institutionalization’ ? In the case you see it in most institutionalized systems, it is healthy and mature to see it as an inevitable process affecting all institutionalized systems.

    You need to really look at the evidence of where ‘promises of Salvation’ comes into the nature and manner of Buddhist doctrines. In the ancient Aryan (Hindu) traditions, moksha (or freedom from the cycle of birth and death) was an Universal concern. So was rebirth – it was a ingrained belief system, still is, in non-Buddhist cultures too. Ethical perfection (the paramitas) were not promises, they were attributes described that set a role model for a person who has awaken ‘attained Bodhi’. Every civilization has had its models of perfection, right down to Nietzsche’s Uberman (do you look at them too as ‘promises’ ?). Purity has never been a Buddhist concern, it is an Aryan (Hindu) concept that has a lot of racial overtones as well. If you make an effort to understand where Buddhist metaphysics stood in the Aryan system, it actually called for abandoning the idea of salvation. (There is no human soul to salvage, no agency to salvage either. You might argue there was the concept of realms one transmigrates to, but that wasn’t Buddhist either. Buddhist ‘reincarnation’ is based on the idea of a sort of recycling consciousness, that breaks up into its constituents (skandhas) at death, then again recycling.) The point of telling you this is to point out that the aim of Buddhism was to challenge the Aryan Brahminical system, all its Gods and theological beliefs were challenged, and one of the main reasons was to challenge the class distinction that existed in Aryan society. I REPEAT – the aim of Buddhism was atheistic reform : not to build a ‘new’ set of beliefs from scratch. Any evaluation of a ‘Buddhist package’ of beliefs that does not address its history, is in essence based on prejudice than reason. At no point I have indicated that I subscribe to your view of X-Buddhism, what X-Buddhism does is irrelevant to the concerns of a huge international community of Buddhist scholars, historians and practitioners. The whole concept of aiming to classify a community of 350 million people based on a scheme that you don’t any basis or statistics to arrive at, apart from employing a generic rhetorical device is exactly what I personally define ‘obscurantism’ is.

    Finally regarding your statement ‘no one actually knows anything about the man behind the facade of the Buddha’ hence ‘he is at best a literary protagonist’ would be based on the same level of logical absurdity as ‘no one actually has seen a dinosaur, only arrived at conjectures from bones scattered all around, so the dinosaurs at best were mythical figments of our imagination.’ The historical Buddha is a mathematical approximation of a large number of sources within the Nikayas and Agamas, but as cross referencing, inscriptions and sculpture is concerned, he remains one of the most replicated biographies in human history. The last 45 years of his life were particularly well recorded in the Tipitakas, starting often with a daily account of his teachings and public meetings. (the first definitive compilation happened not long after the Buddha’s death at the First Council). It is there where the attacks on his life were recorded and i quoted from. While i completely agree with you that a lot of the stories of his early life was the stuff of legends ( i am sure Abraham Lincoln’s early life would have had been subject to the same stuff of legends), his later life was systematically chronicled in the Tipitakas. If you are disputing the very existence of Buddha as a historical personality, which makes you an unique conspiracy theorist in the history of anti-Buddhism, you are implying that the whole Buddhist archives that methodically chronicled his daily later life was all an elaborate hoax/ fabrication. (But if you look at the process of systematic comparison of his biographical reconstruction, Alexander Berzin’s pieced biography is a succinct summary. http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/approaching_buddhism/teachers/lineage_masters/life_buddha_pali_canon.html)

    To end, I would quote Donald Lopez whose name has been quoted on your blog. The scientific Buddha, only 200 years old and Western, (ref : http://yalepress.yale.edu/book.asp?isbn=9780300159127 ), is actually the very Buddha which ‘western secular Buddhism’ puts up as it saviour of sorts. This is not the vibrant Buddha which Lopez (and I argue strongly for against) who exists in the East. The teachings as presented to you through this scientific Buddha is far removed from the original context of the teachings (as Lopez demonstrates beautifully in his book), and if your blog implies X-Buddhism is your terminology for the same entity, I would expect an in-depth look as Lopez does in his life’s work as a Buddhist historian.

  9. Just the opposite. X-buddhism is a poor understanding of the western reincarnation of Buddhism. My very point of contention is that Western pseudo-Buddhism is generating pseudo-critics like you. I side with Donald Lopez and Rupert Gethin who have bothered to study the history.

  10. sidg219 (#5) So, if I understand your argument correctly you seem to suggest that “stabilizing factor” you find in Buddhism can be discerned on the basis of relatively “few instances of mass genocides, war, instability” comparing to what we have seen since “the rise of destructive forms of anarchist ideologies like Communism arose, Imperialism in japan after the fall of the shogunate and embracing colonialism, and western style economic exploitative political capitalism takes hold”? Do you really suggest that the differences in a scale of oppression and the means used to implement that oppression by Buddhist clergy and rulers (compering it, say, to communism) can be a proof that Buddhism “stabilizes” the life of its believers? Can we, people of XXI century, judge the unforgiving methods of papacy used to promote the Catholic “truth” in any period of its history as “stabilizing factor” for its subjects, just because in XX century we had all those horrible regimes ruled by bloodthirsty “unbelievers”?

  11. Papacy no; a model slightly closer to Islam perhaps yes. The Papacy functioned mostly through large-scale reprisals, political murder, genocide (Cathar uprising), class-hatred (e,g. anti-semitism),advocating violence and coercion as a method of its continuation of power.

    Islam on the other hand, largely in medieval times, was the stability factor in the middle-east and beyond; when Europe was plunged in the Dark Ages by Catholicism. It was liberal, pro-education, pro-science, and forged a pan-Islamic identity which was egalatarian and classless. How it reverted back to its feudal, non-secular Arabic military nature in parts of the Islamist (non-Islamist) world, and lost modern relevance demonstrates classically how cultures and ideas rise and fall, sometimes cyclically.

    Buddhism in East Asia wasn’t really a matter of ‘being better by scale’ – by its very nature, Buddhist monks do not have a clerical nature, by which one means having an institutionalized power base. The model works through a form of moral coercion from ‘outside’ – there is no direct mechanism to participate in state politics or military reform. The stability factor I mentioned is on the basis of the Buddhist orders in these states as essentially analogous to a ‘moral lobby’, a watchdog so to speak; with Buddhist monks often joining masses against authoritarian regimes as seen in recent years, increasingly (despite occasional comical aberrations like a ‘Buddhist liberation army’).

    Show me any aberration to this model, and I would stand corrected.

  12. sidg219 (#10) I think I’ve already mentioned about such a glaring aberration to your “model” – Tibetan theocracy, that you seemed to downplay, saying that eventually “(p)olitical instability is independent of any allegiance to any form of faith.” But is it? It is me who would like hear from you about any concrete example where in the world past and present your Buddhist “model” worked as a “stabilizing factor”. Where Buddhist “moral lobby” have done anything more than just stabilizing status in favor of itself and the ruling class?

  13. Tomek :

    I find it a bit surprising why you are projecting yourself as someone who is totally out of touch with current affairs, through the television or even newspapers. Is there any reason for that ? I will come to the Tibet issue later, but first let me update you with recent world events re : the moral lobbying aspect. I am sure it will prove educative for you :

    1. This article, from Human Rights Watch, is fairly comprehensive about the Buddhist Monk lobby in Myanmar (Burma). Contrary to your insinuations about stabilizing its own status, thousands of monks disrobed and took fighting of the military dictatorship to the street. Aung San Suu Kyi’s pre-democracy movement was crucially dependant on the 2007 Buddhist monk led ‘Saffron Revolution’ (easily google-able). lets hope they continue to find success with reforms. Link to article : http://www.hrw.org/news/2009/09/18/burma-end-repression-buddhist-monks

    2. This NY Times article describes the Buddhist lobby in Sri lanka again entering the fray by supporting the government’s stance against secession of the north of the country to the Tamil rebels. The main point here is, that the Buddhism as you would see in this article, is not the official religion in Sri Lanka but a ‘principal’, in view of its historical role in mediation, often as you’d see ( in the article) between ‘quarrelling rulers.’ Never playing an active part in the government on their own. I trust this in the English lexicon can be called a ‘stabilizing role’.
    Link : http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/25/world/asia/25lanka.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    3. The Thai government’s laws that effectively ban Buddhist monks from joining politics have been defied in recent years, as more and more Buddhist monks have joined the anti-government protests. Link : http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/southeastasia/view/1047125/1/.html. While Thai politics is a complicated issue in itself, it will become clear to you that the anti-government protests are primarily pro-democratic. Link : http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/26/world/asia/26iht-letter.html

    4. Buddhist monks are still the supporting hand behind whatever is left of the anti-communist movement left in Laos and Cambodia. Link : http://www.asiapacificmemo.ca/buddhist-monks-and-militant-violence-in-laos.
    You may find it interesting that the Paul Pot regime in Cambodia had decimated the Buddhist monks in a 99 % Buddhist country – at one stage to around just 100 monks. Buddhist monks have been the main target of authoritarian communist regimes in many SE Asian regimes.

    Hopefully this dispels all your illusions that the “Buddhist “moral lobby” have done nothing more ‘than just stabilizing status in favor of itself and the ruling class.’ We are entitled to our opinions, but not entitled to our facts.


    At no point I mentioned that Tibet was an aberration. However, although 6 million out of a 350 million Buddhists world wide (1 . 8 %) cannot be considered representative of Buddhism, Tibet again is an extremely ‘outlying’ case study of Buddhism itself. It is the only known case study of Buddhism applied to a pre-medieval feudal and often largely nomadic society, The reason for this is of course the geography of the Tibetan plateau and greater Mongolia : having no major river system, no urban or agrarian culture ever developed.

    All Tibetan Buddhist lineages started as political strongholds. There was simply no other players in the nomadic society. No middle-class, no intelligentsia. Beyond Tibetan lamas, there is no Tibetan culture – sheep farming and cattle herding hardly is conducive to any intellectual or political activity over a huge geographic territory with a very sparse population.

    When you are defining stability in such a society, whose stability are you referring to ? The nomadic way of life continued unchanged for a 1000 years, or so, until recent times. The Tibetan Buddhist lineages too were geographically dispersed, there is no record of any necessity to fight amongst themselves. The TIbetan lamas however continued to expand their religious sphere of influence, while the Chinese and Mongols continued their power games over Tibet. Link : http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=aa71

    Has Buddhism brought stability to Tibet ? Who cares ? Its remained a thinly populated country with an ancient way of life that has gone on unchanged, and the Buddhism that developed was a curious mix of animism, shamanism, Bon, Hinduism and traditional Buddhism. It remained extremely backward as well, largely as its remoteness to the outer world. With the escalation of Buddhism however, the old culture of violent tribal warfare gradually restructured to a Lama based form of theocracy, a mass of ritualism and year long public religious activities and festivity.

    Stability is hardly a concern in such an idyllic, non-progressive society – it perhaps stayed too peaceful as a result of being totally cultural isolated. It dosen’t sound proper to me to use Tibet as an example discussing Buddhism; like I do not think Leichtentstein as a proper example to discuss European politics. It would suffer from considerable irrelevancy.

  14. sidg219 (#8). Read the post and comments to “Ghost Buddha.” If you still have comments, I’ll be happy to engage you in dialogue.

    Regarding your comment #13: Statements such as “Stability is hardly a concern in such an idyllic, non-progressive society – it perhaps stayed too peaceful as a result of being totally cultural isolated” are indicative of the incredible naivete that runs throughout your comments. I really wouldn’t know where to begin.

  15. The point you should begin is coming out the cynical, homophobic environment which you have assumed is the norm. .And giving up the notion that only you can think, and the rest are self-deceptive idiots. When it comes to cultural practices, the matter is always fuzzy. You cannot set up a hypothetico-deductive experimental situation that you can set up a null hypothesis in, and conclude definitively that you were right all along. What you consider naivete is completely dissociated from the reality you will face if you physically get out of your theorizing armchair, and immerse yourself in seeing for yourself how indigenous cultural groups function – Bushmen, Mongolian herdsmen and yes, the Tibetan diaspora. Their rules of reality involving ghosts, shamans, reincarnating Lamas, animal spirits is all that is culturally relevant to them. Their sense of stability is derived from the continuity of this shared worldview. As being part of the neuroscientific establishment, I consider this sense of cultural self-identification one of the main components of a ‘stable’ worldview. No matter how much you view your mission of being an ‘ambassador of rationality’, the fact remains that that idyllic ‘traditional’ worldview that you consider naive, is what they consider their cultural heritage. And however far removed it might be from your personal definitions of ‘stability’ it might be, it remains an ‘observable scientific’ fact. Reality is largely a ‘pre-frontal’ cortical funcion – you have yours, they have theirs. Period.

  16. sidg219 (#13), thank you for the update. But don’t you think that those current events you mentioned are just a modern exceptions to the historical rule? I mean – following scholarship of D. McMahan – that a modern this-worldly orientation that entails a degree of social and political involvement – usually inspired mainly by western ideas of social justice and human rights – in case of various ad hoc emancipatory Buddhist movements is probably unprecedented in the history of Buddhism. That most orthodox forms of Buddhism in its long history have been notoriously used by various earthly rulers around Asia to transcendentally legitimize and built their power structure. Usually without much protest from the Buddhist clerical establishment itself. Well, unless those rulers directly threatened the power structure of the Buddhist establishment itself.

    By the way, have you had a chance to read Glenn Wallis article “Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism”? If you have, may you share you thoughts about it?

  17. Tomek :

    Thanks for showing yourself as someone, who wants to discuss evidence rather than force their understanding on others solely through a word-permutation based rhetorical system.

    I fundamentally belong to the modern scientific tradition above all other forms of ideologies that I may have considered as a side-interest. I do not believe there is any other basis of discussing ideas in the contemporary world, that is consider of any utility to myself, or anyone else who have any claim to a rational worldview.

    In particular, although I am not as hostile towards philosophy as some of our modern day scientists (Stephen Hawking, who famously said ‘Philosophy is dead’ ( Link : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/8520033/Stephen-Hawking-tells-Google-philosophy-is-dead.html), I do hold it as a fundamental axiom – that without evidence that can be intuitively relied upon as admissible, no form of discussion is of any significant value to human beings.

    As in my own work in academic medical science in Britain, whenever I am asked to evaluate a paper, I always start with an open mind. And the hallmarks of a credible paper (irrespective of the specialism) that today’s scientific mindset requires are (a) it must be intelligible (b) admissible evidence must be placed well before any conclusion can be drawn (c) a balanced argument must be presented both in favor and against the leading propositions in the paper and (d) care must be exercised in the process of demonstrating whether the evidence presented can be logically linked to the propositions that form the paper’s conclusions.

    I did therefore embark upon the venture of reading Glen Wallis’s paper “Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism”. My unbiased thoughts, as it would apply to any other paper I read can be summarized as :

    1. Intelligibility is rather low. I admit this is at least partly because of my spectacular disinterest in jargon-based philosophy as it is not any admissible as form of evidence that would be conducive towards developing a scientific worldview. The elegance of simple philosophical ideas is another matter altogether : one of the main reasons why Greek philosophers (and ancient Eastern philosophy) still remain heritage material.

    2. Admissible evidence in support of arguments is resonatingly ZERO. ”The original impetus to my specific formulation of ―non-buddhism was my reading of Françoise Laruelle‘s ―A Summary of Non-Philosophy” (quote), one can perhaps reason is based on mirror neurons at work ( if mum-bonobo displays her incisors as hostility, baby-bonobo can ‘mirror’ the process as a ‘socially acquired’ skill); but the question here that needs to be explained is why such an impetus is justified. Any suggestion that Buddhism developed as a philosophical system in first place runs counter to any form of evidence – the ancient Aryan (Hindu) philosophical principles were already ingrained in place, all Buddhist ‘philosophical’ terminology were borrowed form some other form of philosophy which was already there (rebirth, anatman, dukkha, nirvana). The Buddha’s central messages cannot be in any rational framework be considered as motivated by any concern on the Buddha’s part to be projected as a philosopher (aka the ‘Noble silence’ aspect on any metaphysical question posed) : ‘the causes of suffering, the methods to overcome suffering” are practical psycho-therapeutic concerns, and the Buddha has been ‘recorded’ as saying in the Nikayas that any teaching which does not address this fundamental concern were irrelevant to him. To confuse the Buddhist concerns with the philosophical climate in which it developed in first place, is a mindless act of pseudo-scholasticism. The practical teachings to alleviate our existential and other forms of suffering, would in essence incorporate the philosophical framework of its day – its a no-brainer. How Francoise Larousse’s ‘non-philosophy can be applied to the central Buddhist concerns and mirror-neuron processed as ‘non-Buddhism’ is beyond any form of rational explanation. I am not a Larousse specialist, but from whatever the Wikipedia has to say about Larousse, I don’t think that suffering, reducing suffering and right living were any of his concerns in any way.

    Another example – “Every utterance, every written word, every claim of the type ―Buddhism holds or ―the Buddha taught‖ or ―according to the Heart Sutra/Pali canon/Shobogenzo/this or that teacher, every attempt to formulate a ―Buddhist (or crypto-Buddhist/mindfulness) response/solution to X invariably instantiates buddhistic decision” (quote from paper) indicates that every bit of Buddhist literature has actually been looked into or evaluated. The physical impossibility of the task is one aspect (the Buddhist material corpus is in-exhaustible), but even if it is a polemical device to emphasis a point (or non-point), history points out that different schools of Buddhism were often radically opposed to one another. e.g. Pudgalavadins – http://www.iep.utm.edu/pudgalav/ . The philosophy came into Buddhism much later, as different groups and cultures often used dramatically differing ideas to evaluate the Buddha’s core teachings, which were rarely philosophical ideas in themselves. They were practical suggestions to overcome the obstacles that one’s mind posed to oneself, and the Buddha encouraged everyone to apply their own framework of reason. [“Do not believe in something because it is reported. Do not believe in something because it has been practiced by generations or becomes a tradition or part of a culture. Do not believe in something because a scripture says it is so. Do not believe in something believing a god has inspired it. Do not believe in something a teacher tells you to. Do not believe in something because the authorities say it is so. Do not believe in hearsay, rumor, speculative opinion, public opinion, or mere acceptance to logic and inference alone. Help yourself, accept as completely true only that which is praised by the wise and which you test for yourself and know to be good for yourself and others.” (Anguttara Nikaya 3.65) ] The whole idea of a defined “Buddhistic decision” is as infantile as applying Laruelle’s concept of pre-hoc decision based philosphical matrices to an open-ended system as Buddhism. Where is the evidence that Buddhism is pre-deterministic about its philosophical course, which has continually changed over the centuries ?

    Second random example – “Analagous to non-Euclidean geometry, whereby de-commisioning of a single postulate—thus severing Euclidean geometry‘s integrity—permits elliptical and hyperbolic curvature.” This statement in the paper illustrates the perils of generalizing without any significant understanding at all, but merely depending on regurgitating examples quoted by others, without any effort to understand by oneself. ‘Severing Euclidean geometry’s integrity ?’ what does it mean in mathematical terms in a way Earthling’s understand ? The father/co-father (if you include Lobachebsky) of non-Euclidian geometry János Bolyai would turn over in his grave if he came to know if he was being accused of ‘severing the integrity of Euclidean geometry’. As any high-school student who is interested in understanding mathematics would know that Janis Bolyai’s universal geometry was an attempt to understand geometric spaces and frameworks independent of Euclid’s fifth postulate – instead he developed a universal constant k, and thus defined ‘equivalence classes’ called horocycles/horspheres commonly, where Euclidean geometry is as valid as its hyperbolic variant. Bolyai’s semi-official homepage at the Hungarian Institute of sciences is here : http://bolyai.mtak.hu/en/revolution.htm, the concept is well illustrated.

    And if one’s basic understanding of a simple mathematical concept is so flawed, how can you even go on reading a paper that asserts that it has found an analogy to Buddhism using this model. At this point, I stopped reading the paper. Its as anti-science as anti–sense.

    (c) Balanced argument criteria – non-applicable, as the style adopted is ‘pre-determined propaganda’. No opposing arguments have been presented, nor any scope exists.

    (d) Evidence based arriving at conclusions – No scope of evidence remotely relevant, non applicable too.

    Therefore I had no option but to conclude that the ‘paper’ is not an academic paper in any sense of the word ‘academic’, but a pdf document of unclear status.

    Tomek, I will write about the politcal dilemmas in south east asian buddhism another time. Regards and Metta.

  18. “Both versions flourish by virtue of an ageless curative fantasy of human beings: to emerge from life—and death—unscathed.”

    The actualization of uselessness adn irrelevance takes shape in teh very core of Buddhism questioning. You call it speculation. What is this ? The core of Stephen Batchelor´s Korean Zen teachings. Hmmmm.

    A quest … but how can we forget it, the complexities of avoidance of time of course are irrrelevant or redundant after embracing Emptiness bliss.

    We need to change this world. What is useful for that ? What are the relevant questions ?

    Is it that hard to understand the need to fight cruelty in all its forms ?

    Is it not so obvious that egotistic institutions of cruelty need to be changed ? And that modern institutions of solidarity – of which not one was created by buddhism – is what we need to strenghten ?

    Diletantism is a fine art, sure it is. You have all the Buddhist market to awaken to the gyrations and self-centered need of its own speculative oppotunity.

    As time goes by.

  19. sidg219 (#17) Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the paper. But I must admit that reading your response, much more general question came to me. I mean despite sitting myself here and there for years I’ve never decided to call myself “Buddhist” and now every time I hear people saying, as you did in one of your recent comments, that they call themselves “Buddhist” I truly have no idea why is that so? Would you say why have you decided to call yourself “Buddhist”? What does it really mean to be a “Buddhist” to you?

  20. Tomek :

    I called myself a Buddhist for the first time nearly 8 years back. Despite my parent’s religious beliefs being officially European Theravada Buddhism, I refused to call myself belonging to any denomination till my early 30’s. (And defined myself as an atheist according to the British census form). My subsequent change in self-declared status can be attributed to the following concepts I hold integral to my own understanding, which should answer your question :

    1. Any form of -ism can only be subscribed to with conscious reason, when you buy into that idea. I bought into the idea that the Buddha expressed, that suffering can be transcended through understanding its roots, and that process of understanding leads to an exalted level of ethical and intellectual development that the Buddha was obliged to define according to his cultural background as ‘nirvana.’ The individual definitions of words that the Buddha used in +500 BC can be subject to unending scholasticism, which I have not the slightest personal interest in.

    2. Those base ideas, subsequently turned into a series of religious, political and social movements, quite differing in their scopes and interpretations. Although they all identified themselves as Buddhist, of different denominations (some so remotely removed from their root that its barely identifiable), the social aspect of the definition ‘Buddhist’ still required three basic criteria or vows – 1. Taking refuge in the Buddha (as your mentor), 2. Taking refuge in Dharma (as your guiding principles – 8 fold path, derived ethics etc.) and 3. Taking refuge in the Sangha (a community of the like minded, in a mutual support system). This is an expanded form of my identity as a Buddhist, and therefore I have correspondingly altered my mindset to accomodate all three criteria. I personally do not indulge in water tight compartments as to define boundaries of these concepts, and like the HH Dalai Lama’s views as I understand on the matter, its entirely possible to have entities like Christian Buddhists, atheist Buddhists, secular Buddhists, non-believing non-practising Buddhists etc etc. Its irrelevant to my concerns, as long as I am clear of my purpose of subscribing to the 3 above goals.

    3. In an equal measure, I do not subscribe to religion, philosophy, science and social movements as different activities, such a reductionist approach is at odds with my observation of reality as a composite, complex entity. Thus any attempt to solely describe Buddhism as one thing ( e.g. ‘just a philosophy’ or ‘just a social movement’) does not correspond to the reality we see around us – an entanglement of all the reductionist strands we are trying to pick out as our ‘approach of special interest.’ Historically however, I view Buddhism as a significant movement in our species’ cultural history – one well known British history professor Bettany Hughes described the Buddha in her recent BBC series ‘Seven Wonders of the Buddhist World’ as one of the principal architects of the modern world. I subscribe to this view because it led to a profound shift in our paradigms about the process of approaching reality and its understanding of it. To call the Buddha’s approach a cultural version of ‘hard anthropic’ scientific theories as some people are hell bent to proselytize is deeply flawed, and the reason is my firm conviction that to understand the totality of any movement the best one can, one needs a kind of historical immersion to understand how that movement originated, and subsequently developed.

    To this end, I have tried my own immersion for myself, and I concluded that the ‘liberation’ that the Buddha experienced was from the limitation of ‘inherited’ unquestioned worldviews and assumptions that inhibit our abilities to develop our own unique ways of thinking and experiencing the world with fresh eyes, every time someone like ourselves are born. In the Buddha’s world, perhaps the most dominant worldview to challenge would have been the puritanical Brahminical worldviews, and my understanding of history from that era suggests that it was a dominant political goal he had to liberate people from that old, divisive mindset. However, in his teachings, the Buddha laid down the frameworks of an universally applicable framework of liberating our minds from its conceptual limitations – by strongly insisting on models by which one can experience the process of this mostly psychological liberation. In some cultures, the idea had limited success, and Buddhism acquired more of a ‘mindless’ religious character, but as a memeplex (borrowing Richard Dawkin’s idea), Buddhism was successful as an ethical system without any supernatural reward system as its goal.

    The modern understanding of the human mind, however, has laid the grounds for yet another revision in Buddhism’s course. This time, it comes from our strengthening field of neuro-psychology of consciousness. We understand some aspects of Buddhism’s core principles better, some of the ancient Aryan Hindu speculations like anatta, anicca etc etc relate more an more to our modern understanding of reality as they developed independently – emergence, field theories of consciousness. Some old concepts are however no longer relevant, but as i stated in point 1, ‘reducing our suffering’ the fundamental axiom of ‘why start Buddhism at all ?’ has now a much more robust basis in our scientific world view again. More importantly, this time it can be expanded to areas which demand urgent attention : world peace, practical techniques of psychotherapy, tolerance of diversity, ecology, democracy (in some situations) and human rights. You can argue however that these areas do not necessarily need Buddhism to function and I would agree with you.

    But the over-riding reason why I identify myself as a Buddhist in its modern sense, is because I strongly believe that ‘ethics and virtues’ are principles to live by : as philosophical principles they are useless to society. Modern philosophy has so much turned into a jargon-based academic space-filler that it has ceased to function as a practical method to address any humanitarian concerns at all. The average person in the street would run away from a modern philosopher, as the intelligibility barrier has reached ludicrous proportions. Science alone cannot address the pivotal concern ‘How can I best lead my life’ (quoting the HH Dalai Lama from ‘The Universe in an Atom), and our modern philosophers have lost any last bit of relevance. A form of ethically inspired social activism, and a kind of active ‘morality’ driven social consciousness is our last remaining front against a totally unchallenged materially-driven automaton-based society particularly in the West, as in other parts of the world, traditional religions continue to hold sway and even flourish.

    It with with this tacit goal of a modern form of engagement with our social conscience, I felt it necessary to call myself Buddhist. Yet again.


  21. Thanks Sidg, I appreciate you comment. And metta to you likewise.

    I wrote a few weeks ago the following here which may have some implications about what you wrote above:

    “As with the subject of right speech, and Tom Pepper´s commitment to “forcing Truth”, it has to do with language, with vocabularies.

    We pragmatists think that vocabularies are made, not given. And that vocabularies are made by SPEAKERS, not grammarians or else.
    There is no right speech BECAUSE there is no exclusive monopoly of vocabulary.
    There is no “forcing of Truth” because truth is a characteristic only applicable between vocabularies, not TO vocabularies.
    It follows that truth is made, not found.
    Hence “forcing the Truth” and right speech are the expression of the same authoritarian view of the world, or more congruently with I just wrote, simply other ways of speaking or writing.

    Having said that, I celebrate the commitment to freedom of speech in this blog. It is my thinking that such commitment is better served by explicitly acknowledging the importance of freedom of speech in the direction of creating new vocabularies and allowing open conflict between new and old ones, which is what happens with Tom Peppers and with all of us, given the occasion. It is worth noting that Buddhism is still struggling with this well established principle of liberal democracy. As does Tom Peppers for orthodox-marxist reasons or what I call attachment to old, not very useful vocabulary.”


    I see Gotama´s teaching as of great value because it directly points to the contingency of language and whatever sense of selfhood one may have. And he clearly taught against cruelty. From my point of view one of the strong basis for acting with cruelty (the ugly occasional or persistent suffering caused by humans upon other humans and animals) is the use egoistic people, their tribes and institutions make of essentialism, foundationalism, metaphysics, dualistic forms and final descriptions or “Truths”(as in bad Science and traditional Philosophy i.e Badiou´s graphic about Platonic eternal truths). This applies also to morality in which sensibility and prudence should substitute principles of any kind.

    Now, a practice that enhances one´s way of acting with more sensibility and prudence, that helps one understand the contingency of language and of selfhood, and which take effective action against cruelty both individually and socially, well that is something I believe we all want for our beloved humanity, or don’t we????



    So again and more to the point of this thread:

    Speculation as a tool for “seeing clearly through things” …. hmmm … prepotency apart, what can be more dualistic than assuming there are things which can be “seen” through conceptually, as cultural objects of meaning detached from the specific situation and needs of whom said or wrote those words, and what is more important, detached from the situation and needs of who pretends to analyze “them” as if they were standing out there awaiting to be examined for ages from the right distance by the right person?????? Is this like in developing and “using” a “Seeing through Zen” bookish type of (academic) approach????

    No sounds. No bells.

    “We pragmatists hope to make it impossible for the sceptic to raise the question “Is our knowledge of things adequate to the way things really are? We substitute for this traditional question the PRACTICAL question:

    Are our ways of describing things, of relating them to other things so as to make them fulfill our needs more adequately, as good as possible?

    Or can we do better? Can our future be made better than our present?”

    Can Buddhism help in this direction, can we start by using PRACTICAL questions in place of speculative questions??????


  22. Hi All

    Contradiction is essence of reality. What our mind concludes is impossible is experience of present moment. can any language name it?
    where is ” don’t know in your practice? ” Where is mystery?

  23. Rebecca (#23). Thanks for joining us. Can you elaborate on what you mean by “contradiction is the essence of reality”? Do you mean in the sense discussed in the post “The Power of Negative Thinking“? If in another sense, can you say more, maybe give some examples? Also, why don’t you just say where “don’t know” and “mystery” are in your practice or life? I don’t work or think with those terms. If you do, maybe you can explain to me what you mean. Then, with some understanding, I can respond. As it stands, it appears that you are employing Zen thinking. Is that right?

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