No Thought, No Problem

IMG_0021An interesting but rarely discussed puzzle: in those social formations in which we are most certain that language and thought are devoid of all causal powers, we become most terrified of them and eager to escape their unbearable power over us.

Readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with the standard x-buddhist assumption that thinking and language are the source of all suffering, and the retreat into pure non-conceptual perception or affect would restore us to some original state of endless orgasmic bliss (the state we apparently will enter permanently if we can only become sufficiently indifferent to the illusory phenomenal world around us). However, the paradoxical discourse about the oppressive ill effects of language and thought (of, that is, discourse) is not limited to Western Buddhism. It seems that the popularity of various x-buddhisms might in fact be a result of their echoing of this powerful trope, so important to the success of global capitalist ideology. If only all people could be convinced that thinking is both the real cause of all their suffering, and that they can stop doing it if they try hard enough, just imagine how much more easily the 98% could be managed.

This terror of thought has been addressed to some extent in everything I’ve ever written for this blog, from my first posts on anti-intellectualism and Buddhist therapy to the most recent on mindfulness and Locke’s invention of “consciousness.” So why raise it yet again? In part, there are personal reasons. Continue reading “No Thought, No Problem”

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”

Notes Towards a Coming Backlash


Notes Towards a Coming Backlash: Mindfulne$$ as an opiate of the middle classes

By Per Drougge*

The “Western Buddhist” stance is arguably the most effective way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity. –Slavoj Žižek 2001: 13

This is what we are obliged to posit here: the historical tendency of late capitalism—what we have called the reduction to the gift and the reduction to the body—is in any case unrealizable. Human beings cannot revert to the immediacy of the animal kingdom (assuming indeed the animals enjoy themselves such phenomenological immediacy). –Fredric Jameson 2003: 717


An earlier version of this article appeared in a Swedish anthology, Mindfulness: Tradition, tolkning och tillämpning (“Mindfulness: Tradition, Interpretation, and Application”), back in 2014. As it is a kind of “nethnography,” or at least cites numerous online sources, I’d been thinking of posting a hyperlinked version of it on my own website; the web is really a much better medium for this kind of text than a printed book. I never got around to it, however, so I was very pleased when Glenn Wallis suggested I post an English translation on this blog. A man of many talents (and languages), Glenn also made a preliminary translation, to which I’ve added some corrections and updates.

Just like in the US and many other places, mindfulness has become part ->

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?”

On Being an Irrelevant Dick

SteveCarrollIn 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…



Tutteji Wachtmeister

Kenneth Folk Dharma


Other discussions popping up:

Justin Whitaker’s blog

David Riley, alias Rev. Vajra Dharmasamvara’s blog (scroll down a bit)

Mumon’s blog

And please don’t ignore this serious warning!

Buddha, Inc.

corporate buddhaIs it just me, or does American x-buddhism resemble Corporate America more and more with every passing day? Slick websites touting cutting-edge technology (in the service of The Dharma, of course). Packaging of meditation as a means, like deodorant and fresh breath, to increase happiness and effectiveness. Buddhist community as product: something to be had at a price—liking, joining, registering, signing up, paying. Most of all, the promise of something continually NEW AND IMPROVED!

Perusing the bodhiblogosphere, I can’t help but wonder whether this identification is intentional. The corporate world, after all, presents sterling examples of sprawling social influence and huge profit margins. So, why not mimic it? Is that the case here? Are our x-buddhist entrepreneurs consciously imitating their American capitalist masters for the obvious reasons?

Or is it a case of unconscious identification? A major activity of all varieties of American x-buddhism is to bemoan the debilitating stress caused in no small part by the role played by Corporate America in our society. How curious, then, to observe x-buddhism mimicking the corporate daddy. Or is this to be expected? Freud observed a tendency in his patients to punish themselves “in a hysterical fashion” after the death of a parent, and to do so, crucially, “with the same state [of sickness]” suffered by the parent.

Come to think of it, another way of viewing the x-buddhist tendency toward the censorship and intolerance—known in x-buddhist circles as “right speech”—is in light of this movement toward corporate clubbiness. Try an experiment. Continue reading “Buddha, Inc.”

The Radical Potential of Shin Buddhism

imgresimages[NOTE: Comments are allowed on this post, but will be moderated by the author.]

Recovering Shinran

Why Shinran?  Why try to recover this obscure failed Tendai monk from medieval Japan, the founder of what is now the most conservative and least active of Buddhist sects, a Buddhist sect, moreover, that the majority of even long-term Buddhist practitioners in the West have still never heard of?  Surely if we want to find the true transmission of Buddhism we should turn to Shinran’s contemporary, Dogen.  Or else return to the ancient texts of the Pali Canon to find the true, original Buddhism?

I’m going to make the argument that Shinran’s Buddhism is the most radical approach we could take today to reducing human suffering.

Because so few Western Buddhists are familiar with Jodo Shinshu, I’ll begin with a brief sketch of Shin Buddhism and Shinran’s thought. I will then delineate what I take to be the core universal truth in Shinran’s rereading of Buddhism, the truth his practice is meant to force into appearance for all of us.  In the words of Pierre Macherey, “all authentic reading is in its own way violent, or it is nothing but the mildness of paraphrase” (113).  Shinran offers an authentic reading of the Pure Land tradition of Buddhism, attempting to recover, to remain faithful to, a truth.  I hope to offer an equally authentic reading of Shinran, to remain faithful to that same truth in our very different world.  Once I (re)orient Shin Buddhism toward this truth, I will describe the practices Shin demands of us.  Shin Buddhism is often called the “path of easy practice,” with the only practice being to say the nembutsu: Namu Amida Butsu.  I will argue that it is in many ways the hardest practice of all; furthermore, I will claim that there are really two stages of Shin practice: the practice to attain shinjin, and the practice from within the mind of shinjin.  The former is perhaps more difficult, even though the latter requires much more effort. Continue reading “The Radical Potential of Shin Buddhism”