On Reading Hegel as a Corrective for Meditative Malpractice

tumblr_m4iypr5qUt1qcu0j0o1_400This summer, I am making a commitment not to meditate.  At least, not to meditate in any way that Western Buddhists would identify as Buddhist meditation.  My meditation practice, I have decided, will be to do a slow and careful rereading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, attempting to think dialectically about every argument Hegel makes.

In part, this is motivated by having recently read Zizek’s Less Than Nothing, which offers a fascinating and compelling  interpretation of Hegel’s thought.  In part, it is motivated by the enormous increase of attention to Hegel in the English-speaking world, and the numerous stimulating recent books on Hegel, such as Jameson’s The Hegel Variations and Pinkard’s Hegel’s Naturalism: Mind, Nature, and the Final Ends of Life.  In addition, I came across a pdf of Pinkards new translation of the Phenomenology, and realized, thumbing through my yellowed copy, that it has been close to twenty years since I’ve read it all the way through.

Although the summer is just beginning, and I am proceeding slowly through the book, I am already convinced that a bit of time spent with Hegel could be a useful corrective for the current state of Western Buddhism.

We are all familiar with the constant admonishment to “spend more time on the cushion” as a cure for whatever it might be that ails us.  Buddhism in the U.S. has turned its focus to guaranteeing the pleasures of the body (witness the current issue of Buddhadharma), if we will only consent to abandon the life of the mind.  Any thought is called “clinging to views,” and argument or critique violates the suffocating misunderstanding of the concept of “right speech”; we are told to feel, never think, to perceive with bare attention, to dwell in the ineffable and learn complete acceptance of whatever is.  All of this will relieve our “stress,” break our “addictions,” and give us states of bliss of varying duration and intensity.

Years ago, when I was returning to an active interest in Buddhism after a couple of decades of being a bookstore Buddhist, I read a little collection of texts on meditation translated by Thomas Cleary.  In his introduction to this little collection of Chan and Zen meditation manuals, Cleary describes the “fifth and highest type of meditation…called pure clear meditation arriving at being-as-is”: “This is considered the most penetrating insight and the nearest that an individual consciousness can come to true objective identity”(ix).  Rereading Hegel’s Phenomenology recalled this definition of the goal of meditation–a goal I had at one point assumed to be the goal of most people who practiced Buddhism–because Hegel intended this book to do much the same thing as what Cleary describes the five types of meditation as attempting to do. Continue reading “On Reading Hegel as a Corrective for Meditative Malpractice”