In a stimulating, rollicking, and exasperating discussion over at Tutteji Dai Osho’s blog (namaste, sensei!) (links at bottom) on “The triple edged sword of irony or: All You Can Do I Can Do Meta,” Kenneth Folk makes a statement that I find rich and illuminating. I’d like to explore his statement a bit in this post. (By the way, the discussion is unfolding as we speak, so why not chime in?)
The Speculative Non-Buddhists are generally perceived as angry, bitter, socially inept, mean-spirited, and frankly irrelevant. Is this how you want to be perceived? Think about it carefully, because no matter how important your message, no one will hear it if they have already dismissed you as unworthy of their attention. There is a way for you to become relevant to the culture you so wish to influence, and it is much more challenging than anything you’ve done so far. You are going to have to turn the light back on yourselves. Whatcha gonna do, little brothers? Level up or step off.
I want to take him at his word, and assume that he knows exactly what he’s talking about. That is, since Folk moves in x-buddhist teacher circles, he must surely speak to other teachers and players. So, thank you, Kenneth Folk. You have gathered good, reliable data about how current x-buddhist teachers and practitioners (= “generally”? I guess so) view “the speculative non-buddhists (= me, Tom Pepper, Matthias Steingass? I guess so).
So, to answer Folk’s question, here’s whadimgonna do. I’m going to dig into the statement a bit, and see what crawls out. After all, this kind of work, excavation, is precisely what the speculative non-buddhist critique calls for, and provides tools for. So, here goes, big brother.
On the surface of things, it is true (let’s assume): the x-buddhist community views us and our approach as mean-spirited, irrelevant, etc. The question is: why? Why do they have such a reaction, such a view? I suppose “they” would answer, “it’s simple; because you are socially inept, etc.” Yet, someone from the audience quickly chimes in, “Well, I see it differently. What you call “social ineptness, angry” and so on, strikes me as refreshing honesty.” I call this the “person next to me” phenomenon. As soon as I think I have uttered an obvious truth, like “it’s warm in this room,” the person sitting next to me says, “Really? I think it’s cool.”
The “why” in the case of warm/cool leads, I would guess, to physiological and material phenomena (all other things being equal). Maybe the fact that I just drank a hot cup of tea or am wearing a sweater contributes to my being warm, while my cool neighbor had iced coffee and is wearing a tee-shirt. There are probably further explanations having to do with individual skin conductivity, genetics, and diet. I don’t really know why two people sitting in the exact same room and near-identical location experience temperature so differently.
When it comes to the experience of perceived personal qualities, however, I do have some ideas. I’ll mention two here. The first of these has to do with subjugation. On the Tutteji site, Matthias Steingass cites Lacan to the effect that “the unconscious is expressed in what one person reads in another person writing (or talking or whatever kind of expression is used).”
We know that ideas such as “right speech,””right action,” “compassion,” “non-reactivity,” “non-judgmentalism,” and so forth, play a significant role in x-buddhist discourse. A committed x-buddhist is precisely a person who has internalized such values–made them his/her own, uses them as a guide to proper thought, emotion, and action. The x-buddhist has done so, moreover, in a way that renders such values “unconscious.” They engender real-world response that is reflexive, in the same way that a trained craftsmen reaches for the right tool without giving it any conscious thought. The thinking, the knowledge, of what constitutes “the right tool” has been internalized to the point of unconscious reflexivity.
But this is where it gets interesting. Who determines what “the right tool” is? In any given situation, differing schools of craft–Bauhaus, Gothic, art deco, Black Mountain, modernist, minimalist, maximalist, Quaker, Shaker, Cistercian etc.–provide different answers. What tool to use depends on what you are crafting, and in what style. The tools provided by x-buddhism craft, obviously, an x-buddhist subject, that is, a “Buddhist” in the style of “Soto Zen,” “Shambhala,” and so on. This x-buddhist subject is someone who perceives certain forms of communication and expression acceptable (namely, those that are kind, gentle, cause no harm, etc.), and others as unacceptable (namely those perceived as “angry, bitter, socially inept, mean-spirited”). We learn no more here about the inherent nature of the expression than we do about the quality of the temperature in the earlier example. We learn much, however, about the person making the judgments “acceptable/unacceptable.” In short, we learn that the person making the judgment of “unacceptable” is a “good subject” of the system of values, beliefs, and ideas known as x-buddhism. He accepts those values, subscribes to them, internalizes them, reacts to the world around him with them as guides. And he does all of this to the point of forgetting that they are mere prescriptions, chosen by him, with conviction, among many divergent possibilities, mere memes in the complex x-buddhist ideological apparatus.
It should not be difficult for Kenneth Folk and his fellow x-buddhists to gain insight into the fact that their reflexive decision, their affective and cognitive dependency, concerning their ideological commitments to x-buddhism are just that. It’s right there, dangling in front of their eyes, right on the surface of things. It’s so fucking obvious, so simple.
So, why do people like Folk ignore the obvious? Why, that is, do x-buddhist teachers insist that their ideological commitments are purely and simply reflections of “how it is”? I suspect it has to do with what I will call the x-buddhist middle-managment mentality. My contention is that contemporary American x-buddhism is top-heavy with middle-managers. This includes the traditional Zen, Vipassana, or whatever, leaders of sanghas and retreats as well as the internet gurus.
Middle managers of a company function to ensure that things keep working. They attend to day-to-day operations. They keep others on task, make sure they are doing their jobs. In short, the middle managers maintain the status quo. In fact, their jobs depend on it. The status quo defines the parameters of their thought and action, and it determines their constraints. Consequently, they don’t implement significant changes to the company’s basic structure. If things like self-initiative and innovation are valued by the company, they will mimic these values. But never robustly enough. After all, it is in their best interest to leave things as they are.
That our x-buddhist middle managers maintain the status quo is not so bad in itself, I suppose. They’re just doing their job. So what’s the problem? Here I am quoting from my comment to Folk on Tutteji’s site:
But as I have said many times before, you and all the other x-buddhist gurus, traditional, secular, pragmatic or otherwise, claim to have something very important to offer people. It is, according to your rhetoric if not your explicit statement, something not otherwise available. And yet, you are all so unimpressive as people. None of you shows any but the thinnest interest in the work of thinking. None of you—and I personally know or have interacted with hundreds—has any but the most basic grasp of cultural goods that should be of great interest to you. I have never met an x-buddhist teacher who has the slightest understanding of his or her place in the history of ideas. Again, if he/she did, everything would change—the warrant would be canceled, the vibrato of the soul’s heartstrings would be silenced, the safe house would be exposed. But none of this ever happens. I see you and people like Schettini, Batchelor, Meissner, Horn, Wallace as similar to mid-level managers of a company. You just keep things in working order. You don’t innovate. You have no fresh ideas. You’re taxing and deadening to those employees who have vitality and intelligence. None of you can imagine how vast the gap is between your professed gifts and the littleness of what is on display.
To summarize, why do committed x-buddhists perceive me as “angry, bitter, socially inept, mean-spirited” (on the word of Folk)? Please consider the merit of this claim:
The system protects itself with indignation against a challenge to deceit in the service of power, and the very idea of subjecting the ideological system to rational inquiry elicits incomprehension or outrage, though it is often masked in other terms. (Noam Chomsky)
Of course, one person’s “rational inquiry” is another’s irrelevant dickishness.
And around and around we go…
Kenneth Folk Dharma
Other discussions popping up:
Justin Whitaker’s blog
David Riley, alias Rev. Vajra Dharmasamvara’s blog (scroll down a bit)
And please don’t ignore this serious warning!