Criticism Matters

handbookI contributed the chapter below to Ronald E. Purser, David Forbes. Adam Burke, Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context and Social Engagement (Basel: Springer Publishing, 2016) (link at bottom). It’s a big book, 500+ pages, with over 30 contributors. Many of those contributors will be familiar to readers of this blog; for example, David Loy, Richard Payne, Ronald Purser, and Bhikkhu Bodhi. I find the new, but obviously well-informed, voices, such as Zack Walsh, Per Drougge, and Edwin Ng, and many others, refreshing. I applaud the editors for their unorthodox group of contributors.

The title may give the impression that this is yet another of the proliferating paeans to the mindfulness industry or a How-To book. The book’s five parts reveal, however, that it’s up to something else: Continue reading “Criticism Matters”

The Myth of the Witnessing Mind, or: It’s Thinking all the Way Down

EndlicheI want to present a comment that Tom Pepper made in response to questions posed by Matthias Steingass. I think that both the questions and the response constitute a brilliant crystallization of recurring, and quite stubborn, issues in contemporary x-buddhism. The issues hover around the interplay of self, no-self, person-formation, ideology, and meditation. But first, some background.

Perhaps the gravest criticism of contemporary x-buddhism we make on this blog is that its proponents refuse to adequately think through the very postulates that comprise their x-buddhism. Sometimes this refusal manifests as blatant hypocrisy. Patricia Ivan’s previous post on the shunning practices of x-buddhist figures is a good example of this. The people she mentions there are typical x-buddhist examples in that they preach values such as compassionate engagement, the wisdom of doubting, and having the courage to be proven wrong, yet routinely shut down dialogue that genuinely and robustly tests their commitment to those values.

While such hypocrisy is unconscionable, it is at least correctable. Even darker consequences follow from the x-buddhists’ refusal to think through their premises. I am speaking of the x-buddhist penchant for reacting against and obscuring the very teachings they aim to disseminate.

One such teaching is the sine qua non Buddhist principle of anatman. This principle holds that there exist no self-entity over and above the socially-linguistically-constructed networks of discourse within which we are embedded. This principle has extraordinary and far-reaching implications for the ways “Buddhism” might contribute to a clear-eyed assessment of what it is to be human. And yet, as many essays on this blog and at non + x have shown, x-buddhists refuse to dispense with atman, positing at every turn some version of a transcendent self.* These essays have typically been met with (i) confused, convoluted, and desperate “arguments” to the contrary, (ii) hostility, or (iii) silence (see above). Continue reading “The Myth of the Witnessing Mind, or: It’s Thinking all the Way Down”

Un-Mindful Collusion

I want to ask a simple question: Are contemporary western Buddhists complicit in what is arguably a rabid capitalistic system?  I don’t just mean the conservative western traditionalists, like the Zennites, Theravadins, Vipassanins, Tibetophiles, etc. I mean those communities that modify “Buddhism” with words that are meant to impress you with their enlightened advancement over such regressive and irrational religionists. Modifiers like Secular-, Atheist-, Progressive-, Post-traditional-, Agnostic-, Existentialist-, Naturalist-, Insight-, Non-sectarian, and Postmodern-. And we certainly can’t leave out the Mindfulnistas.

Are these communities unwitting agents helping to extend our predatory social, cultural, financial, and political status quo? And, if so, do they give a shit? In Marxist terms, which comes first for an x-buddhist: private profit or social need? Please pause and think before those bodhisattva buddhemes start booming in your brain.

We may have to pose an even graver question: do western Buddhist communities and media actively aid in the creation of a person who is incapable of the passionate, risky, and sustained commitment that is perhaps the first condition of real change? Is the contemporary Buddhist person-subject just too nice, mindful, and equanimous to be anything but a dupe to Exxon and J.P. Morgan? I cannot tell you how many times I have seen an x-buddhist douse himself/herself with a debilitating dollop of “non-reactivity” or “non-judgmentalism” in the face of genuine passion.  Well, why should I be surprised? After all, the  roots of x-buddhism lie deep in the yearnings of world-renouncing ascetics. Continue reading “Un-Mindful Collusion”

Samsara as the Realm of Ideology

Speculative non-buddhism is way of thinking and seeing that takes as its raw material x-buddhism. It is a thought-experiment that poses the question: shorn of its transcendental representations, what might x-buddhism offer us?

Matthias Steingass’s last essay on the prospects of a reconfigured “meditation” (or, perhaps, non-meditation?), exemplifies both the spirit and method of this theoretical aim. His subject, “meditation,” is, moreover, one of the three central, and recurring, recipients of speculative non-buddhist analysis.

Tom Pepper, in the current essay, “Naturalizing Buddhism Without Being Reductive,” continues a discussion on the second recurring concern of non-buddhist analysis: ideology. In short, he asks: if, as it seems, we are ideological creatures by nature, might we still be creatures that are capable of gaining conscious awareness of our ideologies?  And if that is the case, might certain reconfigured forms of x-buddhism offer us methods with which we can do so?

It may be that such reconfigured x-buddhist postulates are unrecognizable to traditional practitioners. But, if this small act of destruction enables us to produce more effective ideologies and—who knows—a better world, surely no one will object, will they?

Please note Tom’s questions at the end of the essay: “Is this coherent?  Where are the obscurities, aporias, and just plain conceptual blunders?  Does there seem any possibility of such a practice ever existing?” (Glenn Wallis)


Naturalizing Buddhism Without Being Reductive

a radical, and ridiculously arrogant, reinvention of Buddhist thought

 Tom Pepper

It’s almost a commonplace in academic thought that it is impossible to accept all of the core teachings of Buddhism without accepting contradiction.  We cannot, it is assumed, take seriously both the teaching of non-self, and belief in rebirth; either one, taken to its logical conclusion, would necessarily preclude the other.  What I am going to present here is a redefinition of the core terms of Buddhism which allows all of them to be accepted without requiring any contradiction, without the need to choose which concepts to accept and which to reject, and without any hidden acceptance of a world-transcendent atman.

I am writing this to ask for criticism, to ask for any response that can point out errors or blind spots.  That said, I am going to insist on a few provisos.  First, I am not willing to engage with disagreements which depend on the insistence that there is in fact an atman, soul, or world-transcendent consciousness; I will offer, here, no argument against such beliefs and do not expect to persuade anyone out of these beliefs with this essay.  Second, I am not willing to engage the debate the I use too many hard words or ask to much mental effort of my audience; I intend, in this essay, to be fairly accessible and clear, but if you don’t know the meanings of the terms I use go look them up.  Finally, I am especially not interested, for reasons that I hope I will be able to make clear, in any citations from specific sutras which contradict my reconstrual of terms; my interest is not in the academic attempt to determine how exactly a term was used, or what exactly a concept meant, to a particular school of Buddhism at a particular time.  I think this is an incredibly valuable kind of work to do, but it is not what I am doing here; instead, I am trying to construct a possible construal of Buddhist concepts which would allow them all to cohere, and allow them to be of use for us today. Continue reading “Samsara as the Realm of Ideology”

Raw Remarks on Meditation, Ideology and Nihilism

[I will be high in the Alps (high up, that is) and largely internet-free, until early August. I would like to leave you with a few stray, suggestive, unprocessed, and probably irresponsible remarks about meditation practice. These remarks stem from a chapter of a book that I am working on. Although I won’t be able to respond now to your comments, I hope you will nonetheless “talk amongst yourselves.”]

As I was about to post my raw remarks on meditation, a comment by Tom Pepper arrived on the “What is non-Buddhism” page. I encourage you to read his comment. Tom’s questions, insights, suggestions, and general attitude exemplify the kind of thinking needed for the work that I am hoping to stoke, or indeed incite, on this blog. After reading his comment, I went back and selected different raw fragments, ones that might better speak to his remarks. Continue reading “Raw Remarks on Meditation, Ideology and Nihilism”