Buddhism in the Age of Trump

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Begins June 13, 2017

What should a socially-aware person make of Buddhism today? It presents itself as the treasure house of enlightened ideas and practices that were formulated by a gifted teacher who lived in India twenty-five hundred years ago. Followers of Buddhism, east and west, tell us that this man’s teachings accurately identify the real conditions of human existence. If true, that is quite a remarkable achievement. It would mean that an ancient diagnosis of human experience still pertains in our hyper-accelerated, ultra-technological modern society. It also suggests that Buddhist thought contains antidotes or even solutions for negotiating both our zombie-like consumer-capitalist system and our current political catastrophe. Is such a correspondence possible? Does Buddhism have anything of consequence to teach us today?
Continue reading “Buddhism in the Age of Trump”

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?”

Is Explication the Root of X-Buddhist Stupidity?

schoolmasterExplication is the annihilation of one mind by another…whoever teaches without emancipating stultifies.” –Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster

A good teacher imparts a satisfactory explanation. A great teacher disturbs, unsettles, invites argumentation. –Richard Sennett, The Craftsman

X-buddhists easily throw around phrases like innate intelligence, the dawning of insight, inborn clarity, natural wisdom, pure mind, fundamental buddha nature, and so on. Apart from revealing the (perverse) pervasiveness of atman in x-buddhism, such phrases would seem to entail a deeply-rooted conviction among x-buddhists concerning the capacity of people to know and understand. Yet, the opposite is true. Contemporary x-buddhist teachers harbor a profound cynicism regarding ordinary people’s ability to arrive at significant insight into exigent human matters. This intelligence-phobic cynicism is founded on a teacher-student model that has accompanied x-buddhism from its inception down to the present day, from Shakyamuni Buddha to Stephen Batchelor.

The x-buddhist model is, in short, that of the master explicator. The most basic assumption behind this model is that there are two types of people: ignorant and enlightened. The latter are the teachers, the former are the students. The protagonist of the Pali canon, the Buddha (a literary figure), certainly appears to be a master explicator par excellence. Yet, there are good source materials to suggest another model. Continue reading “Is Explication the Root of X-Buddhist Stupidity?”

Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice, Introduction

Book.coverI’ll post a few excerpts from Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice: Toward a Revaluation of Buddhism over the next few weeks, just to give you a taste. It’s available at Amazon and EyeCorner Press. Buy it, read it, and write a review–in that order, please!

Read John L. Murphy’s review at The Non-Buddhist.

Read Frank Jude’s review at Goodreads.



I employ the word “cruelty” in the sense of an appetite for life, a cosmic rigor, an implacable necessity, in the gnostic sense of a living whirlwind that devours the darkness; in the sense of that pain apart from whose ineluctable necessity life could not continue…It is the consequence of an act… Everything that acts is a cruelty. —Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double

Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt. ―Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

Everything that acts is a cruelty. And yet the theater, the sphere of Artaud’s own struggle, had devolved into a form of self-soothing diversion, creating a submissive public content to be “Peeping Toms,” gawking at lives that were not their own. Artaud’s sublimely impossible task was to forge this theater of complacency into an “immediate and violent” whirlwind that exposed to its viewers the raw truths of their lives. Only a theater that wakes up its audience “nerves and heart,” he believed, can approach this goal. Such a theater must be built on cruelty—on, that is to say, “extreme action, pushed beyond all limits.” If not pushed with such intentional zeal, the forces of delusion and self-satisfaction will overwhelm the vitality that is catalyzed by acts of lucid cruelty.

Everything that acts is a cruelty. What about Buddhism? Does it enable the cruel thought made possible by its sublime teaching, or does it lapse, like the theater of entertainment, into a falsely assuring aesthetics of the beautiful?

The term “Buddhism” evokes a hackneyed bifurcation. Here, we have a soft version that caters gently 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 doctrines, practices, and institutions of Buddhism’s ancient and medieval Asian past. This version advocates for a virtuosic cataclysm known as “enlightenment” or “nirvana.” Both versions flourish by virtue of a curative fantasy as ancient as Homo sapiens ape: to emerge from life unscathed.

What use is Buddhism today? It is perpetually hoisted up as the elixir par excellence against the acidic tensions intrinsic to living in an ever-accelerating technological society. Its remedy? Gelassenheit in the midst of the infernal samsaric whirlwind. Is that it? Is Buddhism a modern-day Epicurean path to eudaemonia, a garden that “slakes the thirst with a natural cure?”

Many questions present themselves. Does Buddhism 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?

The single most important question for us is: Is Buddhism fit for modern life?

The answer to that question is far from clear. Indeed, there is little evidence that it has yet to be addressed at all, and 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. It begets 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. So, who does that leave? Who will ask the question?

The purpose of this book is to engage in a creative critique of Buddhism. In doing so, we neither take for granted the salubrity of Buddhist teachings for the contemporary western world nor bar the possibility of renovation and application. We see, rather, in the very process of critique an opening. In order to exploit this opening, however, we find it necessary to create drastically new, and buddhistically indefensible, theorems.

This book is a radical laying bare of the brutal refusal of x-buddhism to honor its most basic pledge: abetment of liberation.

This is a book of heresy.

Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice consists of three parts. Each part addresses both theoretical and practical dimensions of Buddhism. Authored individually, each part nonetheless interacts with the concerns of the others. Those concerns include the formation of an autonomous subject in the face of Buddhism’s concealment of its ideological force; the possibility of a practice that thus serves as a theory or science of ideology; the reconstitution of practice as an organon of authoritative structures, including controlling social-conceptual representations; and the perception of Buddhism as the subject of a historical process. Perhaps the most salient theme running throughout the book concerns the crucial necessity of transfusing anemic contemporary Buddhist discourse with the lifeblood of rigorous, creative thought.

Will Buddhism in the twenty-first century West help fashion a liberated subject? Or will it continue to be a deceptive mythos spawning subjects who are content to rest at ease in the thrall of predatory capitalism? The three parts of the book share a common concern: to push Buddhism to the brink.

Traumatized by Toast

A Review of The Trauma of Everyday Life, by Mark Epstein, M.D.images-2

These days everyone is traumatized.

And stressed.  And unable to pay attention.  We conceive of ourselves as subjects under siege, struggling to concentrate in a world that bombards us with violent excessive stimuli; the result, we are supposed to believe, is that our originally unified consciousness, our true self, is fractured, disabled, and suffering.

The discipline of psychology, and particularly the practice of psychotherapy, has always functioned as what Foucault calls a “technology of the self,” working to produce subjects always already in need of professional intervention, subjects who can be taught to discipline themselves into productive and uncritical members of the capitalist economy.  The addition of ADD and PTSD to the DSM-III in 1980 worked to institutionalize a particular kind of subject of late capitalism, and the newly released DSM-V, with its addition of a new category of “Trauma- and Stress-Related Disorders,” has made an advance in pathologizing any dissatisfaction with the existing social formation.

Buddhism has not been slow to jump on this bandwagon, and has refashioned itself to be an effective producer of this new ideology of the subject.  Dukkha has become “stress,” attention deficits can be remedied with “mindfulness,” and now we discover that Buddhism always was really nothing but a form of trauma therapy, enlightenment merely a successful cure for the “traumas of everyday life.”

When I saw the title of Mark Epstein’s new book, I was at first appalled.  But then I considered that this might be an opportunity to investigate exactly what ideology of the subject mainstream Buddhism and psychotherapy are cooperating to produce.  As it turns out, the ideology of the subject being produced is a new-age take on the Rousseauian Romantic subject, perfectly fashioned to make the affluent more satisfied with their lives and discourage real thought or social engagement.  The only real surprise is that the subject of late-capitalism turns out to be not much different from the subject of early capitalism.

I want to reiterate here what I have so often said about my use of the term ideology. Continue reading “Traumatized by Toast”

More Walls: Contemplations of Samuel Beckett and Herman Melville

wall5More Walls: Contemplations of Samuel Beckett and Herman Melville
(Thoughts After Reading Glenn Wallis’s Post “Samuel Beckett Stares at a Wall”*)

[Unmoderated comments are permitted on this post.]

by Alan Seltzer

[Beckett] has just spent three weeks in his country house. He took walks, played the piano often, read a little. He has been reading Heine’s last poems, and he tells me that they are like lamentations. But he prefers doing nothing. Spending hours looking out the window. He is particularly fond of the silence. He also describes the sound of cartloads of beetroots as they pass his house. (Juliet 37)

Samuel Beckett was a practitioner of meditation, but he would not have labeled himself as such. He valued stillness and he valued silence, though they could at times be unbearable for him. My thought is that Beckett, in his work, might provide some useful insights into ways of thinking about meditation. How or whether he viewed silence and contemplation in relation to his art, I don’t know. There are references in interviews and conversations about his engagement with silence. The above passage is from Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde by Charles Juliet. It references a conversation with Beckett on November 11, 1977, when Beckett was 71 years old. In the passage Glenn quotes in his post on Beckett (May 18, 2013) from Lawrence Shainberg’s “Exorcising Beckett,” Beckett states that he has been staring at walls “for fifty years.” But he observes about wall staring, when told of Shainberg’s Zen practice, “you don’t have to know anything about Zen to do that.” And that is the point. Beckett’s “practice” needs no doctrines, no rituals, no beliefs, no prescribed methods, no anything. And certainly no hope, no expectations, no goals. And, of course, he would not even consider his silent sitting a practice at all. When Shainberg describes his own Zen practice, Beckett responds with perplexity: “Why, he asked, did people do it? Were they seeking tranquility? Solutions?” Beckett did not, could not, seek either. As Shainberg says, Beckett was curious about Buddhism, and there were aspects of mysticism he liked (Juliet 39), but he could never accept any system or doctrine. And perhaps the main reason was that he saw no hope or solutions for the human condition. He asserts this repeatedly in his work and elsewhere. He tells Juliet, for instance, in their conversation of October 24, 1968, that he has not read Eastern philosophers: ” ‘They suggest a way out, whereas I felt there was none. One solution–death.'” Continue reading “More Walls: Contemplations of Samuel Beckett and Herman Melville”

The Empathic Dogma

Nolde_Masks1911(Part 2 of Against Empathy.)

Empathy—what a beautiful surrogate for the disempowered. –Jan Slaby

Western x-buddhism prides itself on being an exemplary supplier of a supposedly much-needed salve to contemporary social and interpersonal conflict: empathy. But according to Jan Slaby anything approaching a robust sense of empathy–literally feeling another’s pain–would require an untenable concept of personhood. It would require, for instance, objectification of the other person through an imagined, egoistically-informed pretense to experiential correspondence. Such an imposition is nothing short of an usurpation of agency. That the prevailing x-buddhist view of empathy mimics this popular view is particularly pernicious since it requires the inclusion of an (ostensibly) impermissible metaphysical feature: an atman. In contemporary western x-buddhism, empathy is understood as an encounter or “resonance” between discrete minds. Ironically, x-buddhists may abandon this absurdity by insisting on a notion of agency that is more consistent with classical-buddhist teaching in the first place. Such a notion will require, for instance, a revaluation of the currently anathema concept of reactivity, whereby the presumed certitude of “empathic resonance” is replaced by the non-presumptuous interaction with other people, of reacting, that is, with incertitude, to, for instance, gesture, facial expression, and language. But to do so, western x-buddhists will have to forgo their celebration of the currently fashionable theory of Human Nature 2.0.

Concerning the topic of empathy, what is most in need of analysis is the remarkably swift change in style, direction and normative tendency within both social brain research and science-inspired accounts of human nature in the past thirty or so years. (21; for references and links, see “Against Empathy” post.)

In short, according to Slaby, this shift concerns the recent scuttling of Human Nature 1.0 for Human Nature 2.0.  This topic is central to a critique of contemporary x-buddhism because Human Nature 2.0 has, like the belief in empathy that is embedded within it, become yet another ingrained–and poorly considered–western x-buddhist dogma.* Continue reading “The Empathic Dogma”

Radical Potential

MalevichSpeculative non-buddhism is an attempt to think x-buddhism via radical concepts. A radical concept is one that has the status of a transcendental minimum. In Laruellen language, a radical, transcendentally minimal concept is one that “clones” the real rather than the wholly transcendental, and is thus posited by the “human-in-human” rather than by some totalizing x-system. Intriguingly, yet confoundingly, x-buddhism itself is populated by radical concepts. In Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice, I argue that the prime calculus of classical-buddhism is constituted by radical concepts. I have in mind concepts such as vanishing, ancestral anamnesis,  symbolic identity, nihility,  surface, and others (anicca, sati, anattā, suññatā, sabba).

And yet I claim that the brutal failure of x-buddhism throughout its entire history has been its inability (or refusal?) to unleash the revolutionary potential of its thought. I further claim that what has filled the space of this failure/refusal is not a merely quasi-revolutionary force-of-x-buddhism; it is, rather, an impotent collusion. Contemporary x-buddhism’s impotence makes it easy prey to the very status quo its calculus is, arguably, designed to upset. Do we need any further evidence of this than the smooth grafting of x-buddhism onto the western marketplace? In fact, this is an old pattern. Everywhere Buddhism has been brought–Tibet, China, Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, etc.–it has been co-opted by the ruling power structures, and thereby seduced away from its revolutionary designs.  It is fair to ask whether today, in Europe and North America, x-buddhism is not just another product that enables its consumer merely to retreat and  refresh before the next day’s onslaught. That would certainly fit the ancient pattern. Chinese Chan, for example, was a mix of agrarianism, Daoism, and Indian Buddhism bound tightly with the heavy chains of Confucianism. In the West, we have a mix of feel-good pop psychology, Hallmark Card-like positive affirmation, and world-buddhism trapped in the bloated cage of consumer capitalism. Continue reading “Radical Potential”

Žižek v. Buddhism: who’s the subject?

LacanSubjectŽižek v. Buddhism: who’s the subject?

By Adrian J. Ivakhiv

This started out as a response to Slavoj Žižek’s recent talk at the University of Vermont on “Buddhism Naturalized,” but evolved into a consideration of subjectivity, which happened to be the topic of my next post in the pre-G (process-relational ecosophy-G) series. [Links at bottom.] So this can be considered part 1 of a 2-part series.

There are Western philosophers with a good understanding of Buddhism. Some of them are Buddhologists: longtime scholars of Buddhism, like Herbert Güenther, Jay Garfield, Kenneth Inada, Jin Park (the definition of “Western” gets a little blurry here), Brook Ziporyn, Stephen Batchelor, and others who are philosophers in their own right (if not necessarily academically sanctioned ones), and who have cut their teeth interpreting original Asian Buddhist texts.

Others have come to Buddhism through a side door: either by accident or through a logical extension of their own interests. Owen Flanagan is one of these, and his recent book The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized provides a model for how an established analytic philosopher can develop a critical dialogue with a philosophical tradition that is foreign yet ancient, complex, and clearly worthy of comparative assessment.

Then there are those whose writing about Buddhism extends somewhat beyond what they know about it. In the past, this was excusable by the dearth of material for western commentators. Buddhist literature is voluminous — one might say it’s Himalayan in its voluminousness — and the fraction of what’s been translated into European languages is still comparatively small. But there is enough now to support full-time positions in Western universities for those who specialize in refined sub-areas of Buddhist studies. And with Buddhism alive and well now in the West and in the East, there is no end to what a Buddhist scholar can do.

Where does Slavoj Žižek fit into this continuum? Continue reading “Žižek v. Buddhism: who’s the subject?”

“A Sickness unto Death”

BrainNon-buddhism is instrumental. It’s a whetstone for chisels, a forge for hammers. Its tools are meant, as Glenn recently put it, to

deflate, flatten, and simplify the object of the application: x-buddhism. Then, you can place x-buddhism’s raw material next to mute reality. You can also democratize totalitarian x-buddhist material by putting it in dialogue with local knowledges. It is in enabling such acts of decommissioning that non-buddhism is a radical practice, “radical” meaning rendering some x-material minimally transcendental.

The aim is to “decommission” some religious material, to uncook a bit what’s been cooked up, and give us a peek at the x-meat when it’s still raw. This rawness becomes visible to the degree that the material has been rendered “minimally transcendental.” Such uncooking, Glenn suggests, can be accomplished just by bringing religious material into unprotected dialogue with other kinds of local knowledge.

Take the idea of “enlightenment.”

One straightforward way to render the notion of “enlightenment” minimally transcendental would be to assume the (not unlikely) hypothesis that “enlightenment” is, medically speaking, a pathology, a sickness, a defect, an accidental side effect of a bug in the human system.

If enlightenment is a kind of weird, local, peripheral pathology of my already strained humanity rather than the summum bonum toward which all reality bends, then . . . what?

That’s the non-buddhist question: then . . . what?

In her book, My Stroke of Insight, Harvard-trained neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor describes what it was like, from the inside out, to suffer a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain.

It turns out that, on Taylor’s own account, this kind of massive physiological trauma looks like “enlightenment.” Continue reading ““A Sickness unto Death””