Only Don’t Know! Reflections on a Thoughtless Life

John Cage, “The Return: Bearing Gifts to the Village.” Zen Ox-herding Image #10

By Jonathan Earle*

My conversion to Buddhism happened in a church bathroom.

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

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

Slogging Through Buddhist Writing

spiritual-bypassingI have a favor to ask readers of this blog. First, let me procrastinate.

When Freud published his Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, casual readers must have been sorely disappointed. The book appeared during “one of the most significant moments in the history of ideas on dreams” (Lusty and Groth, 10). Books on dreams and dream interpretation had been proliferating at an extraordinary rate for decades already. The ideas emanating from these books, moreover, were finding their way into fields ranging from the fine arts to the hard sciences. The period from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twentieth century, in short, witnessed “the unprecedented interest in dream writing and interpretation in the psychological sciences and the migration of these ideas into a wide range of cultural disciplines and practices” (Lusty and Groth, 10). The bulk of these books, often first serialized in popular magazines, however, offered the same kind of simplistic revelatory, predictive pseudo-knowledge and facile moral guidance as today’s popular dream guides. Indeed, as he complained to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, Freud detested having to read through even the much more limited literature on dreams by serious writers such as Aristotle and contemporary scientists: “If one only didn’t have to read, too! The little literature there is already disgusts me so much.” Slogging through dream studies, he griped, was “a horrible punishment” (Gay, 106).
Continue reading “Slogging Through Buddhist Writing”

Writing With Pencils and Eating Brownies: What Can Enlightened Brains Do?

Fifteen years ago there was a documentary series on HBO called Kindergarten.  The show diylab500x309followed a group of kids in the course of their school year, filming their interactions until they became almost oblivious to the cameras.  In one episode, a girl is showing her classmates something she wrote.  One classmate, apparently amazed at her friend’s ability to write, asks “How do you write those words?”  The girl replies simply “I used a pencil.”

Clearly this doesn’t answer the question intended, but it does in one sense answer the question asked.

Part of my argument here will be that the advocates of a biological account of the mind are using the same kind of response as this little girl. However, Continue reading “Writing With Pencils and Eating Brownies: What Can Enlightened Brains Do?”

Spectral Discourse

spectral discourseWhat follows is a chapter in search of a book. I originally wrote it for an edited volume on meditation and health. I thought that the editor’s idea for the book was very promising. A conference was held in which a group of Buddhist studies scholars, Buddhist practitioners, and a combination of the two, scholar-practicitioners, gave papers offering various perspectives on meditation and health. The idea for the book was to take papers that addressed the same theme but from different perspectives and put them in conversation with one another. Dialogue was central to the project. The title of the book might have been something like Dialogues on Meditation and Health.

The editor was rightfully concerned that such a book would be too strange Continue reading “Spectral Discourse”

Book Review: Realizing Awakened Consciousness: Interviews with Buddhist teachers and a new perspective on the mind

Book cover 1By Matthew Joseph O’Connell

Realizing Awakened Consciousness: Interviews with Buddhist teachers and a new perspective on the mind. By Richard P. Boyle. Columbia University Press, 2015.

In Realizing Awakened Consciousness (RAC), Richard P. Boyle, a retired sociology professor involved with western Buddhism for several decades, interviews 11 western Buddhist teachers and attempts to develop a theory of awakening with a straightforward model for understanding its core characteristics that leaves Buddhist terminology behind. Divided into 17 chapters with the first 11 dedicated to individual interviews with teachers, Boyle draws on his own sociology background and the work of a range of popular academics. The second section, by far the more interesting, develops a theoretical model of awakening, heavily informed by sociological theory, a first as far as I am aware, along with insight and theoretical support from a number of prominent academics including; the neurologist Antonio Damasio, psychologists Alison Gopnik and Daniel Kahneman, the linguist Derek Bickerton, and sociologists Peter Burger, Thomas Luckmann and Anthony Giddens. The book ends with Boyle making suggestions for further research and an acknowledgement of the limitations of his model. What makes Boyle’s work stand out from the usual x-Buddhist fare is his understanding and elaboration of social reality and the social self, which moves discussion away from an overtly individualised model of the self and the usual droll discourse of the ego as the source of all evil. In this regard, there is a potential link to the work of Mr Tom Pepper at Speculative Non-Buddhism (SNB) and his own site The Faithful Buddhist, whose ongoing and laboured critique of ideology and ideological blindness amongst Buddhists (and pretty much everybody else) has proven so enlightening. Secondly, Boyle eschews a model of awakening based on the superman and constructs his model in alignment with theories proposed by the academics above. Will it be yet another celebration of the sufficiency of Buddhism? Will it talk of the ineffable, perfect goal of perfect awakening? Let’s find out. Continue reading “Book Review: Realizing Awakened Consciousness: Interviews with Buddhist teachers and a new perspective on the mind”

Organizational Notes #34

fatigueWho can still doubt that the logic of contemporary western x-buddhism is a redoubling of the logic of western neoliberal capitalism? On one hand, this should not be surprising. For, everywhere it goes, x-buddhism conforms to the dominant ideology of its host. On the other hand, it should be outright revolting. For, everywhere it goes, x-buddhism carries with it seeds for the destruction of that dominant ideology. Which way it pivots depends on the organizations that are built to house it. These organizations conceive of the subject and fashion the person who then replicates their values. The organizations of western x-buddhism, so far, have opted for the conservative status quo role. In doing so, they function as enablers of the social-economic turmoil, the effects of which their conformist practices are, so they tell us, designed to cancel out.

To claim that the current x-buddhist situation is simply “what it is,” and that nothing can be done about it, would, of course, just be adopting a cynical neoliberal position. Repudiating this stance, we can ask questions like: under what conditions might a militant thought-practice develop? Asked another way: given the intimate group nature of x-buddhist practice–people gathered in snug settings, even private living rooms–for practice and edification; given concepts such as radical interdependency,  social-symbolic selfhood, and void; given the roots of the teachings in an urgent and outspoken disavowal of a repressive social formation, why are western x-buddhists such politically harmless creatures? Maybe it’s the organic food. Continue reading “Organizational Notes #34”

Dialogical Meditations I

dialogueMatthias Steingass: We have been talking about direct interaction in Germany/Switzerland for some time now, but for some reason it hasn’t happened so far: After some initial interest in the project most people pull out again. The initial interest oftentimes seems to consist of two parts, a) a vague notion of a new truth, and b) the expectation of authority leading to a new truth. As soon as it becomes obvious how deep the critique goes and that there will be no authority leading into the transition to a hypothetical new truth, interest fades or changes into naïve x-buddhist opposition. The result is that very few people go any further.

Glenn Wallis: I’ve experienced the same outcome. It was quite disheartening, but not the least bit surprising. I tried an experiment with a meditation group. To explain briefly, I altered the group from one that would seem strange but nonetheless familiar to a traditional (western) soto-zen-buddhist to one that was, well, just strange. The original group was popular, with twenty to thirty participants each session, and a constant stream of new people. Participants were accustomed to a predictable protocol—instruction, sitting facing the wall, walking, bowing, more short sitting, talk (by me) and discussion. There was a lot of buzz around the group, and its reputation spread. Now, I asked comers to sit facing one another in a circle for a full hour without a word spoken. After the hour, someone would read a short piece of text. Everyone was then invited to dialogue. After a few weeks, the group shrunk to three or four participants,

Matthias Steingass: To me it seems something is missing here. Continue reading “Dialogical Meditations I”

Worstward Ho!

From a talk by Badiou.
From a talk by Badiou.

I thought I’d start writing on this blog again for a while. I’d like to use it to think through some issues related to the non-buddhism project. Specifically, I want to explore, more explicitly and robustly than before, the constructive side of the critical-constructive dialectic. Many of the posts on this blog and at non + x already present promising work in that area. As a particularly pertinent example, I suggest you read Tom Pepper’s essay “Taking Anatman Full Strength and Śāntideva’s Ethics of Truth.” 1

As before, the argument driving this blog is that Buddhist conceptual materials offer potent resources for thinking radical reformations of self and society in the contemporary West. (I am primarily concerned with western Buddhism.) And yet, the noun “Buddhism” (or what I call “x-buddhism”2) indexes a historical failure to unleash the force of its very thought. “Buddhism,” that is, names an obstinate containment of potentially dynamic human goods. The end result is that Buddhism everywhere functions as a conservative protector of the social status quo, however toxic, and as an ideological fortress spawning subjects whose treasured goal is merely to rest at ease therein. Paradoxically, therefore, we cannot look to Buddhism—to its teachers and defenders, to its commentaries and explications, to its communities and organizations—to assist us in ransacking its “refuge” and interrogating its residents.

Why? Continue reading “Worstward Ho!”

Circles of the Same || Lines of Flight

linesandcirclesI am going to put this blog on low burn. Super low burn. So low that you may not even see its glow. Maybe the glow will die out, and this site will remain as an archive. In any case, I am turning my attention to a new project. It’s not overtly related to non-buddhism in any way. The one thing I can say about it is that it swings back toward the creative end of the critical-constructive continuum. I’ll announce the launching of the new project when it’s ready. In the meantime, a few thoughts.This is some text!


The circle is an apt image for Buddhism, but not for the reasons that x-buddhism itself gives. The circle is apt because with x-buddhism it’s always ’round and “round we go. Nothing ever really changes. It’s just one of a multitude of rich x-buddhist ironies that one of its central tenets is impermanence, the claim that things don’t and can’t remain the same. Yet, for Buddhism itself, it’s just the opposite: nothing really changes. Buddhism is caught in a vicious circle of sameness. No, that’s not right, vicious doesn’t work here. It suggests dynamic energy and directed intention. X-buddhism lacks both. A better word is moribund: Buddhism is caught in a moribund circle. Picture a rickety old windmill–slowly wobbling around, creaking and cracking as it does.

Another unintended x-buddhist irony is found in the person of the Dalai Lama. Continue reading “Circles of the Same || Lines of Flight”

Why Buddhism?

boatWhat does Buddhism offer that we can’t get from any other system of thought and practice?

In this post, I am asking you to share your answer to this question. You can just drop a word or short phrase into the comment section. Don’t worry about formulating a long explanation. You can do that, of course, and it would be welcome; but my aim is to encourage as many responses as possible. I particularly hope to draw out the many lurkers on this blog. I can surmise or outright conclude from subscriber data, for instance, that at least two dozen prominent x-buddhist teachers are regular readers. I also know firsthand that a good number of Buddhist studies scholars read. Both of these groups must have quite firm answers to the question. A third source of valuable responses would come from the many committed x-buddhists who read here. And then we have all of you ex-x-buddhists. You must have thought about this question in some form already, and reached certain negative conclusions. If the 90-9-1 theory of blog participation is anywhere near accurate,1 we have a huge reserve of potential respondents. So, please, tell us what you think. Continue reading “Why Buddhism?”