Samuel Beckett Stares at a Wall

wall[Meditation] is a faith, with the sufficiency of faith, intended by necessity to remain empty but which necessarily evades this void by its repopulation with objects and foreign goals provided by experience, culture, history, language, etc. Through its style of communication and “knowing” it is a rumor—the [Asian] rumor—which is transmitted by hearsay, imitation, specularity and repetition.1

That passage came to mind while reading texts and watching video on the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society website.2 Laruelle is talking about philosophy, but the statement works equally well for meditation (and its varieties: contemplation, mindfulness, centering prayer, even yoga, tai chi, and so on). Much of what I read and heard about contemplation on the Center’s website struck me as reasonable enough. A typical example:

Contemplative Practices cultivate a critical, first-person focus, sometimes with direct experience as the object, while at other times concentrating on complex ideas or situations. Incorporated into daily life, they act as a reminder to connect to what we find most meaningful.

That’s reasonable—as an opening. An awful lot of questions would have to be asked about the statement, though. What, for instance, is this “first-person focus” of direct experience? What, for that matter, is “direct experience”? Anyone who has been reading this blog knows how attuned some of us are to the machinations of unacknowledged ideology. For instance, concerning this overlap between first-person accounts and experience, a reader recently wrote to me:

[T]here is a built in petitio principii that makes the viewpoint unfalsifiable. The ideology includes a meta-message regarding the autonomy of (meditative) experience as a veridical source of knowledge. This seems to be what [B. Alan] Wallace is up to with his emphasis on “first-person” experience, arguing from an assumption that such experience is autonomous and not already formed by ideology.

I agree with that assessment. It succinctly identifies the big question for meditation: is it a vessel for ideology or a science of ideology?3 Does the practice, in fact, produce new knowledge, about, say, subjective experience or the intransitive world, or does it merely reinforce the views provided by doctrine? I’m still holding out for the former (barely). So, I’d want to ask the people at the Center why, if they believe that meditation-contemplation holds such natural human promise (as the director says, in effect, on a video), do they incessantly populate it “with objects and foreign goals provided by experience, culture, history, language, etc.”? Why not let the practice do its work, unencumbered by over-determining doctrine? I am not going to offer a critique of the Center’s site here. I am more interested in the wide-spread x-buddhist phenomenon of what Laruelle calls here “re-population.” Continue reading “Samuel Beckett Stares at a Wall”

On the Grammar of Meditation: Parataxis

parataxis2Here, mute world.
There, dharmic tale.
Near here, inching ever closer,
the persecuted human.

Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life is, by nearly every account that I have heard or read, painful to watch. It is frustrating, boring, uninteresting. Nothing happens.  No story is told. Imagine—a movie without a story!

These are curious reactions to a film that enables us to be present at the creation of the universe, watch dinosaurs fighting in pristine forests and frolicking on the shore, be voyeurs of a darkly suffering family in 1950s suburban Texas, and witness the stellar conflagration that ends it all.

Yet, it is true: no story is told. In this lack, the film shows us a way to exorcise the enchanters haunting x-buddhist meditation.

Exorcise it of what, exactly? First of all, of the controlling narratives which invariably cleave to it. I mean the heroic narratives about its origin, value, use, benefit, purpose. Once we evacuate the narrative from the practice, we can exorcise it of the subordinate grammar that supports the narrative. What is left is a form of severe parataxis. Severe, but just. It is an existential grammar without coordinating or subordinating connectives. It’s this next to that. No hierarchy. No and, for, with, because. No therefore, since, and then, as, if. No essential sense or meaning—the fires that fuel the narrative juggernaut.

Malick’s paratactic cinematic grammar is a model for our meditation grammar. Continue reading “On the Grammar of Meditation: Parataxis”

The Epistemic Meditator

blackarrowCan meditation produce knowledge? Or is it a vessel for dogma?

The latter is without question the case. How else should we understand the perfect confluence of some x-community’s practice with its doctrine? It never fails. It appears to be as inevitable as it is complete. Whether Trappist, Quaker, Zen, TM, Shamanic, Wiccan, Vipassana, MBSR or any other form, what happens in meditation never fails to validate the claims of doctrine. Let me converse for five minutes with any meditator, and I can tell you to what system of thought he or she subscribes. Meditation, it seems, is a potent tool for inculcating ideology. And the meditator, as good subject of that ideology, cannot hide the fact. S/he cannot but expressively ventriloquize the terms and beliefs that populate the practice.

If it is demonstrably the case that meditation can be employed as a tool for indoctrination, is it necessarily so? Can the term “meditation” be used to designate a human practice that produces knowledge? If so, what conditions might be required?

On the back cover of her new book, In-Cite: Epistemologies of Creative Writing, Camelia Elias, writes:

The epistemic creative writer is not merely an expressive writer, a writer who writes for creative writing programs at diverse university colleges. Rather, the epistemic creative writer is the writer who understands that in order to say something useful you must step out of the space that engages your ego. Awareness of what really matters comes from the contemplation of the futility of words. Before the word there is silence. After the word there is silence. But during the word there is knowledge that can be made crystal clear. [Links at bottom.]

Similarly, the “epistemic meditator” is not a ventriloquized subject, one who practices obediently within a particular tradition and dutifully absorbs the views of that tradition. Rather, the epistemic meditator is one who understands that in order to think or learn something important he must step out of the very space within which the community’s subjugating practice does its work. That space is demarcated by the words of the community’s doctrine. Words are the furniture and infrastructure of the x-buddhist fortress. By accident or by design, those words are compelling and coercive. “What really matters,” for example, is already given in x-buddhist postulates. It is, in fact, provided at the very inception of “Buddhism.” X-buddhism’s origination myth has the Buddha-figure attaining to saving knowledge. And so the first tracks of borrowed thought are lain. “Awareness of  what really matters” is not awareness at all: it is rather acquiescence to tradition’s formulation. The x-buddhist who “sees” that “all is suffering” (or whatever) is merely seeing what he, by his affective acquiescence, has decided to see.  What he has “seen” is the ostensible value of a particular formulation. If contemplation reveals “the futility of words,” the first words to fail are those that say what contemplation is.

Before the word there is silence. After the word there is silence. X-buddhism, like all systems of thought, is nowhere to be found in this empty silence. Yet, x-buddhism, the paladin of emptiness, is nothing if not a loquacious filler of the silence. Continue reading “The Epistemic Meditator”

Practicing in Delusion

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Practicing In Delusion

By Craig Neely

Inspired by Glenn’s recent post “Works of the Spirit and the Hardness of Fate,” I asked the question of Tom Pepper: “How can you sit through those deluded, x-Buddhist dharma talks at your sangha?”  Rather than give me a quick answer, Tom invited me to write a post about how I might answer this question.   The broader question is, “How does one coming from a non-buddhist critique practice in a deluded, x-buddhist context?”  I’ve come up with six potential outcomes culled from my experience as a thinking person in the midst of Christianity and x-buddhism.  The main focus of this post will be on the last two options.

Possibilities for practicing within the x-Buddhist context:

  1. Hem and haw about it ad nauseum.
  2. Quit and practice by yourself.
  3. Quit and not practice at all.
  4. Start your own sangha.
  5. Sit with the dissonance and practice as a non-buddhist in an x-buddhist sangha.  Don’t go to the things that really bother you and critique when possible.
  6. Pulling through the void…intentionally making meaningless meaning as a way of ‘sitting with’ and ‘not flinching’.

I am most familiar with possibility 1.  I’ve spent lots of time in institutions bitching and moaning about the situation and doing nothing about it.  Granted, it wasn’t until the last decade or so that I actually realized I had a choice in these matters and then it took a few more years to actually make a choice to change.  That being said, we are caught in many institutions that we cannot change or leave.

When you’re done pissing and moaning, you can leave and practice by yourself.  Or just quit practicing altogether.  These two options may seem simple, yet they can be difficult to do.  Being raised as a Christian, it took years for me to realize that I really didn’t have to go to church on Sunday.  This carried over into Buddhism where I “felt bad” about missing a week at my local sangha…even when it was just me and another practitioner.  So, there are two possible outcomes, quit and keep practicing or quit everything altogether.   If you do keep practicing, you may want to start your own group.  That is a whole other post. Continue reading “Practicing in Delusion”

Works of the Spirit and the Hardness of Fate

Tree of Life4What does speculative non-buddhism have to say about practice? I feel compelled to raise this thorny issue because of a comment on this blog by Craig and, just a day later, an email by Rod Abbott. Craig wrote:

I’d like to say that I suffer in this life and as a result I came to buddhism. Seeing the non-buddhist critique has kind of left me feeling a little hopeless and ungrounded. Of course there needs to be a major system change…but is there anything that can help in the mean time. I have to say that I feel guilty about just wanting to do my little meditation/chanting practice and not read this or any other blog and mindfully live out my days…but that seems to be dangerous. I still have to deal with basic day to day suffering…i.e: getting out of bed :-). (Craig, comment #294 on “X-buddhist Provocateurs?”)

Then came this email by Rod Abbott:

I love ritual and “aesthetic beauty and complexity,” but I’ve have been struggling with how to manifest it meaningfully without transcendence, without anthropocentrism. I would very much like for us to explore this “form” side more. It would be nice to once again explore the Tridentine Mass without the transcendence, and I’d love to talk more about witchcraft and tarot.

“Aesthetic beauty and complexity” was a phrase I used to describe my own practice life. Since I also value conceptual austerity, that richness seems contradictory to people who don’t know me. Both of these modes follow from my involvement with speculative non-buddhism. So, let’s talk about it.

What is a non-buddhist response to Craig and Rod? One quick answer is: practice is your own business. That answer assumes that by “practice” you mean something like meditation or devotion. Another quick answer is: speculative non-buddhism is the practice. That answer assumes that that previous sense of “practice” prejudices you to dismiss theoretical thinking as a viable and valuable practice in and of itself.

The second quick answer would, I imagine, leave Craig cold. And I think Rod would find the first answer a bit disingenuous. Continue reading “Works of the Spirit and the Hardness of Fate”

The Mirror of Practice

What concrete answers can you offer to the following question? It is a question that goes to the very heart of this blog:

“Can Buddhist practice be the one place where we are still allowed to open our eyes to the truths that shape our lives everyday? Can it teach us not to hide from the truth inside a cloud of incense, mindfully experiencing our bodily sensations?” (Tom Pepper, comment #28 on “Running from Zombie Buddhas“)

This blog is concerned with the human. Buddhism claims, too, to be concerned with the human. So, why does this blog not simply offer a straight-forward presentation of Buddhist thought and practice? The answer is: because of the human.

Non-buddhism is an exploration of the suspicion that, as it is, Buddhism ultimately fails the human. Many reasons for that failure have been offered here, and more are on the way. They include the failings of both traditional and contemporary, largely secular, forms of Buddhism (and crypto-buddhism); for example: ideological occlusion; facile moralism; emotional prescriptiveness; program subscription; shallow scientism; insistence on sufficiency; unacknowledged transcendentalism (in the religious sense);  hidden ascetic mores; collusion with late-capitalist consumerism, and much more.

Can x-buddhist postulates be employed in creating a place where we are still allowed to name and explore human truths and craft them toward correspondingly truthful ends? Continue reading “The Mirror of Practice”