About “Speculative Non-Buddhism”

 

In music something exciting happens when traditions cross-breed.  African music’s encounter with the European tradition gave birth to gospel, blues, and jazz; Chicago and Memphis electrified blues and made it rock; Rock-a-Billy merged Rock and Country;   Bernstein melded classical and jazz and put it on Broadway; Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project furthers the cross fertilization of Eastern and Western traditions.

Similarly, Modern Buddhism (or “Protestant Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism”) continues to emerge from ongoing dialogues between East and West, traditionalism and modernity, Buddhism and science, romanticism, and existentialism.  Purists deride emergent forms as heretical, inauthentic, and watered-down. Skeptics think the emergent forms don’t go far enough in a modernist (or post-modernist) direction. Charismatic con men, hucksters, and self-appointed gurus ride the emergent wave along with a spectrum of sincere seekers, scholars, teachers, bloggers, reformers, and critics. In the midst of this ferment, Buddhist influence on American culture continues to grow (and vice versa).  According to the Pew Foundation’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, “Buddhism” (whatever that means) is now the fastest growing religion in America.

In staking out my own position regarding American Dharma – - loving practice, affectionate towards tradition, skeptical of dogma, favoring transparency, appreciating scholarship’s demythologizing of received narratives — I’ve recently come across a number of contributors to the Buddhist Blogosphere who take a position towards Buddhism somewhat more radical than my own.  I am thinking of writers like Ted Meissner (The Secular Buddhist) who is atheist where I am merely agnostic, of David Chapman  (Meaningness) who rues the incorporation of Western Romanticism into Modern Buddhism, and Glenn Wallis (Speculative Non-Buddhism), a long-term practitioner and scholar who, having found the Buddhist project “fruitlessly tedious,” makes no assumptions about the validity or value of any Buddhist practice or tenet, wishing to open everything to the “coruscating gaze” of reason.

I want to focus this particular post on Glenn Wallis, who holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Harvard.  He’s taught at the University of Georgia, Brown University, Bowdoin College, RISD, and (currently) the Won Institute of Graduate Studies, and has written a number of books including Basic Teachings of the Buddha (Random House, 2007), The Dhammapada: Verses on the Way (Random House, Modern Library, 2004),  Mediating the Power of Buddhas (State University of New York Press, 2002), and, most recently, Buddhavacana: A Pali Reader (Pariyatti Press, 2011).  Clearly Glenn Wallis knows more about Buddhism than I can ever hope to know.

I welcome Wallis’s intention to examine Buddhism dispassionately — neither as insider nor outsider — from a distance sufficient to obtain clarity, but close enough to know the material intimately.  He brings an interesting and provocative mind to the online mix.  It’s his tone, however, that I find disquieting.  He intends his gaze to be coruscating, but his voice tends toward the corrosive  –  arrogant, scornful, and dismissive of those holding differing beliefs and attitudes.  Now I’m not one of those who believes, along with Alice’s Dodo, that “everybody has won and all must have prizes.” Not all opinions are created equal — some are clearly wrong.  (As Daniel Patrick Moynahan famously observed, we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.)  It’s fine to engage in robust discussion and critical discourse, to call things as you see them.  I draw the line, however, at sneering derision that impugns the intelligence and motivation of one’s peers.  Buddhist (and Non-Buddhist!) values call us to a higher standard.

Let me cite examples from two of his recent posts on Speculative Non-Buddhism.   Wallis begins a post entitled “The Elixir of Mindfulness” with the following paragraph:

 “The mighty “Mindfulness” juggernaut continues to roll joyously throughout the wounded world of late-capitalism. And why shouldn’t it? The Mindfulness Industry is claiming territory once held by the great occupying force of assorted self-help gurus, shrinks, health care workers, hypnotists, preachers, Theosophists, the church, the synagogue, actual gurus, yogis, meditation teachers, and even—gasp!— Buddhists themselves.  Who, after all, can compete with an industry that claims to offer a veritable fountain of bounty, an elixir to life’s ills?”

 

He concludes:

 “By re-packaging age-old optimisms, the Mindfulness Industry feeds off of the multi-billion dollar addiction of the desiccated twenty-first century middle classes for anything that will lead them to the promised land of ‘well-being.’”

 

Not content to skewer would-be healers who have jumped aboard the mindfulness train without sufficient grounding in practice, Wallis goes right for the jugular in attacking its founder, stating “the vacuity of the term ‘mindfulness’ can be traced, in fact, to the vague, platitudinous, and circular definition given it by Jon Kabat-Zinn.”

Now Mindfulness is not sacrosanct.  There are plenty of unresolved questions about what to properly include in its definition, how best to measure it, differentiating state and trait aspects, discriminating active ingredients from placebo, and understanding who might best benefit from it.  There is already a substantial and mind-numbingly voluminous body of research and scientific literature exploring all of these questions.

Having followed a great deal of that scientific literature (which I doubt Wallis has), having contributed to it, having participated in an MBSR internship at the Center for Mindfulness in Healthcare, Medicine, and Society, and having had the experience of teaching mindfulness to clinicians, medical patients, and psychiatric patients over the years, I have a different perspective on mindfulness than Wallis has.  I found it to be personally transformative and of great benefit to a variety of my clients with problems as diverse as anger management, chronic pain, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative disorder.  The research literature has found it helpful in a great variety of other disorders, as well as in simply relieving stress, and has begun to explore the biological correlates of mindfulness practice, including its effects of brain structure and function and immune function.  This is not trivial work.

Nowhere, however, does Wallis acknowledge Kabat-Zinn’s depth of understanding of the Dharma, sincerity, intelligence, and commitment to the scientific method as a means of exploring the nature and value of mindfulness.  I find Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness to be perfectly intelligible and clear as a guide to practice, if not sufficiently operationalized for research purposes.   I’ve always found him, and the researchers associated with the Center for Mindfulness in Healthcare, Medicine and Society, to be open to critique and willing to follow wherever the data leads.  These are serious people engaged in a serious project.

Why the animus against them?  Why question the relationship of mindfulness practice to Buddhist practice in general?  Are Thich Nhat Hanh (who wrote The Miracle of Mindfulness and Bhante Gunaratana (who wrote Mindfulness in Plain English) not sufficiently Buddhist-y for Wallis?  Who meets his qualifications?

In the second example,  Wallis accuses Buddhism (in general) and Zen teacher Barry Magid (in particular) of “flinching” because of its/his claim that practice leads to deep joy.   Wallis begins by expressing admiration for Magid (and his teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck), but then quotes Magid’s “In Memoriam” piece for Beck in Buddhadharma:

“When students were preoccupied with transformation, she took what was in danger of becoming a toothless Zen cliché—being just this moment—and turned it into the challenge of having no hope—a radical acceptance of the totality of the present. Yet she never failed to emphasize that at the bottom of the well of self was deep joy. A lifetime of teaching about death and dying was summed up as ‘this too is joy.’”

 

Wallis, apparently, objects to all this “joy” talk, writing:

He, Beck, and all of Buddhism shore up the existential nullity…  with what amounts to an ideological sandbag: “deep joy.” The “bottom of the well” and the “deep” are not given in the equation. They are smuggled into to it by merchants of hope. They are instances of a transcendent, specular, all-seeing-from-above dharmic dream of what should be/we would like to be the case. They are not, by any means, necessarily what is. The “deep joy” at the “bottom of the well of self” is a new, uniquely self-help-obsessed-American Zen cliché; one, moreover, that flashes the sharp teeth of all “spiritual” salesmen—and saleswomen. For it locks the practitioner into the endless pay loop of should-could-want-would-like-deep-joy.”

Toni Packer, one of the teachers who has deeply influenced me, shares a great deal in common with Joko Beck.  Like Joko, she makes all of life grounds for investigation and questions the value of many traditional Buddhist practices.  She also went one further than Joko, leaving even words like “Buddhism” and “Zen” behind.  For Toni, there is truly “just this.”

I can’t remember Toni ever using the word “joy” per se, but this [1] is her interpretation of her own experience:

 “Sitting quietly, without desire or fear, beyond the sense of time, is vast, boundless being, not belonging to you or me.  It is free and unattached, shedding light on conditioned being, beholding it, and yet not meddling with it…. It is not what is seen that matters, but that there is seeing, revealing what is as it is, in the light of wisdom and compassion too marvelous to comprehend.

I suspect this description of “vast, boundless being” and “wisdom and compassion too marvelous to comprehend” is what Beck and Magid mean by “joy.”  It’s what Shabkar Tsodruk Rangdrol meant when he described the mind’s nature as “intrinsically empty, naturally radiant, and ceaselessly responsive.”  It’s quite all right to say that never having experienced what they experienced, one wonders whether their view of the way things are is real.  Its quite another to say that in presenting their own experience they are “flinching,” in other words, being intellectually dishonest and evasive.  I never thought Toni was offering up a “new, uniquely self-help-obsessed-American Zen cliché” or acting as a “spiritual” saleswoman.  She was just sharing her own experience, and her belief that if others would only look they might discover the same.

Magid responded to Wallis in this way:

 “The Buddha might have said Life is Suffering and left it at that. Impermanence is inescapable and our practice is first and foremost a confrontation with our avoidance of this reality. But Zen is not just a matter of swallowing bad tasting medicine. The experience of long sitting also opens the door of joy — when we cease our protests against life as it is we experience the poignancy and joy that life emerges changes and departs. I don’t hold this out as a carrot or antidote or promise. But it is my (and Joko’s) first hand report from the front lines.”

 

To which Wallis, in turn, responded:

“I am sure you’ll agree that each of us has to submit our own first-hand report. It’s wonderful that some reports contain descriptions of deep joy. But I can’t submit a report based on what you or Charlotte Beck or the Buddha discovers on the front lines. That report would be untruthful. Why are some first-hand reports from the front lines universalized by tradition (and its present-day teachers) as necessarily desirable, as a special species of experiential truth-telling? And what effect does it have on students when teachers make such reports openly? What are teachers doing when they do so?”

I’m sorry that Wallis hasn’t found the joy at the bottom of the well in his own practice.  I can’t imagine, however, why he questions the value of teachers reporting on their own experience as a way of pointing out what might be possible to their students.

All of this boils down to the question of what motivates our practice to begin with.  Why practice at all, unless one is seeking medicine for spiritual unease and the unsatisfactoriness of one’s life?  If the Dharma isn’t authentic medication for that, what use is it?  Does it provide us with a way of being that feels more authentic and vital?  Does it help us to develop awareness and equanimity?  Does it help us in becoming less self-centered?  Does it assist us in exploring our narrative of who we are and the way we construe the world? Do we become more compassionate in the process?  These are all meaningful questions.  We all have skin in this game.  We are in it because we are seeking something.  If some people who have been at this longer than we have report that joy is part of what we might find at the bottom of the well, is that somehow magically illegitimate?  Is that hucksterism?  Is that wishful thinking?  Why not include that in the list of things we may just discover if we persist in our practice?

Wallis loves the idea of existential courage — of facing things as they are without any sops.  But the idea that in moments of clear seeing there might be genuine peace and happiness beyond mere sensory pleasure can be part of reality too. It’s not all grimness and eat your peas.  There’s a certain degree of sourness at the bottom of Wallis’s well.

I want to contrast Wallis’s slash-and-burn style with an alternative mode of inquiry that Andrew Olendzki proposes in an article excerpted in the latest issue of Buddhadharma.

In discussing rehabilitating Protestant Buddhism Olendzki writes:

“A crucial first step in the process is to recognize that new forms of Buddhism, at their best, are based upon the creative ways of synthesizing meaning rather than on undermining the beliefs and practice of others.  In other words, while it is not okay to say that others have got it wrong and this is the right way of looking at things, it is entirely appropriate (and natural) to say, “ Here is an interesting new way of understanding things that I find particularly meaningful.”  Even if we get it wrong once in a while, better to be actively inquiring into the meaning of the dhamma at every opportunity than to passively accept tradition in a given form…. We are not necessarily better at understanding these teachings because we are moderns or Westerners or humanists or typing on keyboards.  We cannot assume the troubling bits, about miracles, rebirth, and hell realms, for example, must not be “true” and that we, of course, know better.  It is possible to hold the greatest respect for all those who think differently from ourselves, for all those who construct their own meaning of these teachings differently than we do, and simply say at some point that we are not capable of seeing it that way.”

 

Exactly.

Catch the difference in tone?  It’s possible to question, critique, and explore, without being beholden to any orthodoxy, and at the same time remain open to, and respectful of, those who hold the teachings differently.

I’ll continue to read Wallis’s blog.  He has interesting and important things to say.  It’s helpful to grapple with ideas that challenge one’s own assumptions.  He’s a member of my club — the club of Westerners struggling with the gift of centuries of Buddhist practice, devotion, and contention.   But I hope he finds a way to be more at home in the world, more happy, and  — dare I say it — more joyous.  And I hope he discovers a tone of voice that’s less prickly, less irritating, less dismissive, and — dare I say it — more consistent with Buddhist aspirations.

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  1. [1] Packer, T. (2004). The Wonder of Presence. Boston: Shambhala, p. 131

109 thoughts on “About “Speculative Non-Buddhism”

  1. One caution: The Hegemony of Niceness.
    People are born with temperaments.
    There are stories of Tibetan masters with reputations of harshness.
    Another writer you mentioned, addresses this need to be nice in “Nice Buddhism“.
    I put this doubt forward about the need for others to be as you think they should be.
    Just a caution, just a doubt, I know nothing about Wallis but find his challenges to be good for Buddhism.

    • Just came back from vacation in Victoria, British Columbia. Everyone there — hotel clerks, shopkeepers, panhandlers, waitresses, bellhops — was so infallibly “nice!” I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!

      I’ve read David’s post on “niceness” and found (as you might guess) many points of disagreement. My memory of the hippie movement of the 60s diverges from his, and when the Dalai Lama says his religion is “kindness,” I don’t think he is making a Protestant Buddhist point. But let’s let that be for now.

      But you are right. All those salty Mahasiddhas, yogis, and Zen masters do provide a counterpoint to niceness. They make for great stories! And people are born with differing temperaments, and there is not much you can do about it. What would literature do without tortured Heathcliff, gloomy Eeyore or Marvin the Paranoid Robot? You have to make the best with the cards you’ve been dealt.

      No rule fits all situations, and when it comes to ethics I am a bit of a consequentialist, so that I agree that there must be certain situations in life where respect for and concern for others must take second place. Policeman must project resolve and toughness, soldiers can’t worry about the feelings of their adversaries.

      Having said that, I’ve been fortunate to have lived a charmed life. I have yet to encounter a situation in which respect and concern for others has been completely irrelevant. When it comes to the world of serious ideas (not the flat earth kind) I am not sure where dismissiveness, derision and sarcasm have their place. I think they detract from whatever argument you are attempting to make.

      But I appreciate the caution, and it is noted!

  2. Great job, Seth. I’ve been working on a post regarding some of the things you’ve mentioned here, but I haven’t been able to pull it together the way I want.

    Speculative non-Buddhism? His explanations for that term are so convoluted that it makes no sense to me. I think that is part of the problem. Some people cannot relate to simplicity. Mindfulness is a fairly simple concept and a simple practice. I see no purpose served by attacking “mindfulness” because it has become a buzzword. How does that negate the deeper aspects of what it represents? And if it wasn’t mindfulness they’d just object to whatever word was in its place.

    I do think it is okay to say that people are wrong. When they criticize something they don’t understand or have not experienced, that’s wrong. When they bend history to fit into some nutty theory and misinform others, that’s wrong. And someone should say so, but nicely, as you have here, because Buddhism is about being nice and engaging in respectful dialog.

    This is a tough practice. It takes a lot of encouragement to get along. Inspirational words help. When someone thinks “deep joy” is just a cliché, I suspect that person hasn’t experienced any joy in their practice. Maybe they don’t practice or there is something wrong with their practice. Either way, I don’t think they know what they are talking about. And you notice, they hardly ever seem to get around to offering an alternative to all these words and concepts and approaches they dislike so much beyond vague allusions to some other way or endless off-the-subject metaphysical speculation.

    • Thanks, David. Yes, simple things are best.

      I have some of the same questions you do about Wallis’s own experience of practice, but I hate to speculate about what other people’s experience may be without having really explored it with them. Clearly Wallis has been disillusioned in some fundamental ways by his 35+ years experience with Buddhism. I’d love to hear him talk in a direct and heartfelt way about the ways in which his Buddhist experiences have disappointed him. Then I would have a better idea of what he is talking about. We all come to practice with certain hopes, some of which are met, some of which are dashed.

      For example, when I started exploring Buddhism, I had hopes that there might be answers there for some of the problems that have bedeviled Western philosophy: issues like dualism vs. monism and free will vs. determinism. No such luck there. Disappointment. The Buddha was serious when he said he taught one thing and one thing only (although, actually, he didn’t really say that — that quote doesn’t occur anywhere in the suttas!)

  3. I commented last night when I was tired. Here is hopefully a clarification and an expansion while more awake: When I started Seth’s article, I was excited by his usual fantastic writing style and was looking forward to listening to Seth wrestling with Waliis’ influences on Modern Buddhism, but the article seemed largely a deriding of Wallis’ temperament — thus my first comment.

    I don’t know Seth at all, but his writing makes him seem like a sweet fellow (albeit with a bit of an intellectual pride — though well earned). Seth’s choices of pictures on his blog may have influences my impression of his temperament. Scanning through the last several posts I see most pics are of an idealized (with all 32 marks), sweet, smiling Buddha-Bliss-Body ready for worship.

    I wonder, for instance how these pictures would have worked on this blog:
    Alice’s non-discerning Dodo
    or
    Wrathful Deity

    But I must say, even when I disagree with some points in Seth’s posts, I still walk away influenced in his direction — his clarity, thoughtfulness and open-personality can’t help but change me. Thanks. These other guys change me too — I love the entire dance.

    • Oh dear! Its been a year since I’ve used a wrathful deity on this blog! It does say a lot about my character.

      I don’t know Seth at all, but his writing makes him seem like a sweet fellow (albeit with a bit of an intellectual pride)

      You got me!

      I agree with you about the entire dance. All voices contribute — even when they irritate. It’s always useful to look at my irritation and try to understand where it comes from. What am I needing to defend, why do I feel I need to defend it, and does it need defending or change? Why do I not find much of value in Wallis’s posts so far? I am not sure whether I am just so put off by his style that I can’t see beyond that — or whether I find the points he has to make buried deep within that style are unimportant to me– either because I already agree with them, or they are irrelevant to my own interests, or they disagree with my own experience. Oh, and then there is always the possibility that he is making excellent points and I just can’t see it yet because of some attachment or blindness on my own part. That will clarify in time. Stay tuned.

  4. @David,
    You said:

    I see no purpose served by attacking “mindfulness” because it has become a buzzword.

    It has been a while back since I read Wallis’ stuff but wasn’t he criticizing the huge amount of flowery promises offered in marketing Mindfulness? Wasn’t it the marketing aspect he was addressing — that is, the use of a fine practice to support one’s business and thus manipulating it to meet the tastes of the consumer?

    I think that was part of what he was attacking. But I don’t clearly remember. Do you think that Wallis had any good points?

    @Seth,
    Curious: Did you comment on Wallis’ site and bring up your issues? Have you met him or discussed these with him? Did you let him know you did this post?

    • @Sabio. No, no, and no.

      To your question about Wallis’s intent in his mindfulness post (which you adressed to David), my problem with the post is that it really didn’t seem to have a point other than to be dismissive of the entire enterprise. Be cruel to be kind for sure, but there was no “there” there, other than his animus against the whole of it. I didn’t read it as just a criticism of the marketing aspect of it. There are many interesting questions that he could have raised, about, for example, the relationship between the Pali word “sati” and the meaning of “mindfulness” in Western Buddhism, and how that particular interpretation arose. But that was not the kind of article he was writing.

  5. @Sabio – I wasn’t referring just to Wallis. There is no doubt that some people are just using Mindfulness as a marketing tool, just as Zen and Vajrayana are used to the same end these days. But flowery language by itself is not indicative of a marketing campaign and often when I see criticism about mindfulness and other words, it is usually too general to be of much use. Are they attacking the word, the practice, the use of the word? – sometimes this is not clear.

    @Seth – Speculation is bad, especially when you are speculating about a speculative non-Buddhist. I learned this morning that apparently Wallis teaches meditation. Guess what he teaches? Mindfulness! Only he doesn’t call it that. Go figure . . .

  6. Greetings Seth. My sincerest thanks for your attention to my work. As a fellow researcher, you know all-too-well, I suspect, how uncommon someone’s paying attention is.

    I would think that Speculative non-Buddhism–tone and all–would resonate well with your “existentialist Buddhism” slant, your “dharma without dogma” tag, and your choice of the Kalama Sutta as an exemplary Buddhist statement.

    I have received many emails–mostly off-line–from mindfulness teachers and practitioners about the first post you refer to, “Elixir of Mindfulness.” In each case, the comments concerned something about my “disappointment” in practice or lack of mindful speech or, in one case, my “incorrect practice,” and that sort of personal thing. In each case, too, I asked the writer to comment on the substance of my comments. Like you, maybe they had trouble seeing the stuff (substantive critique) for the fluff (style). Get past the language, and there are several issues that I raised that should, I would think, call for thoughtful response. All I got, though, were ad hominem, well, attacks. (I don’t mind those, except for that they distract from the ideas themselves.)

    Also, there is ample discussion on the blog about why I take the tone that I do. It’s a conscious, calculated, cautious choice–believe it or not!

    Your post here exemplifies the entire raison d’etre for Speculative non-Buddhism. If you want to understand why I say that, I recommend that you take the time to read the blog, along with the comments. My impression from your post is that you probably have not yet had the time to do your homework. For instance, that you can ask whether certain figures are “Buddhist-y enough for Wallis” shows me that you have a less than adequate understanding of the Speculative non-Buddhism project. “Buddhism” names, in that project, a narcissistic hallucination of reality. “Buddhism” names a specular, “dharmic,” occlusion of reality. So, yes the men you mention are indeed Buddhist-y enough for me–all-too-Buddhist, in fact. What I mean by those phrases (the ones that likely made you wince) is exhibited in your post. It has to do with the presumption of the desirability and obviousness of dharmic/mindfulness values. “Buddhist aspirations”? Who/what provides the cosmic warrant for Buddhist aspirations?!

    Thanks, again, Seth. I hope you’ll join us over at the blog sometime.

    In sum (apologies to Nick Land.):
    [Speculative non-Buddhism] is a transgression against [buddhistic] transcendence, the dark and unholy rending of a sacrificial wound, allowing [an understanding] more basic than the pseudo-[understanding] of instrumental [buddhistic/mindfulness thought and practice]. The heart of [Speculative non-Buddhism] is the death of [hope/flinching/platitudes like "mindfulness," etc.], the violent absence of the good, and thus of everything that protects, consolidates, or guarantees the interests of the individual personality. The death of [hope, etc.] is the ultimate transgression, the release of humanity from itself, back into the blind infernal extravagance of the sun.

    • Welcome, Glenn! My hope is that this can be a fruitful dialogue for both of us.

      You’re right to think Speculative non-Buddhism has the potential to resonate well with “Existential Buddhism.” As I noted in my post, I consider us members of the same club — the club of Westerners struggling with the gift of centuries of Buddhist practice, devotion, and contention. I meant that sincerely, but we are members with differing temperaments, at different stages of engagement with practice, and possibly with somewhat different goals in mind.

      Beyond my problem with the tone of your posts, I also have a problem with your philosophical vocabulary, which makes your ideas needlessly obscure. I know there are sometimes reasons to adopt a technical vocabulary that seems free from unintended connotations so that new ideas are not mistaken for old ones. Heidegger thought so too, but that’s why so few people take the trouble to understand him. Plain language suffices for most purposes, while jargon has the unfortunate effect of creating an in-group which derives status from understanding it, and an out-group which scratches its collective head in bewilderment. If you want to be better understood, it might help to find a language more intelligible to the uninitiated.

      The last paragraph of your reply is a case in point. The opening phrase about Speculative non-Buddhism being “a transgression against [buddhistic] transcendence”, and a “dark and unholy rending of a sacrificial wound.” Poetic, but what exactly does it mean? Hard to say. Let me try to parse it out. “Transgression” and “wounding” seem positively valued, as “is the violent absence of the good” referred to later on, an inversion of the way these qualities are usually valorized. It sounds vaguely like the rationale of Dostoyevsky’s nihilists who wished to blow things up in hope that something liberating would emerge from the wreckage. But I’m not sure I understand this correctly.

      I had better luck (perhaps) with that phrase, however, than the following: “‘Buddhism’ names… a narcissistic hallucination of reality,” and “‘Buddhism’ names a specular, ‘dharmic,’ occlusion of reality” Here, I’m afraid, you have really lost me for good. I hope you will return to this site to explain these phrases in a way I (and my readers) can understand.

      Enough about tone and intelligibility, however. I’d like to clear up a misunderstanding about my comment regarding Thich Nhat Hanh and Bhante Gunaratana. It was made in response to the following:

      “From the perspective of Speculative non-Buddhism, “adapted from Buddhism” speaks of a perfectly legitimate enterprise. But, in my reading of the mindfulness literature, it is not at all clear whether, to what degree, and precisely how such an adaptation has occurred. My sense is that mindfulness adherents merely pay fealty to Buddhism. Whether they do so because of Kabat-Zinn’s early relationship with Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn or as an attempt to gain legitimation or for some other reason, is unclear. That there is an explicit and demonstrable affiliation with—an “adaptation from”—some form of Buddhism remains to be shown.”

      I thought you were suggesting that the relationship between mindfulness practitioners and Buddhism was somewhat tenuous and by citing Thich Nhat Hahn and Bhante Gunaratana, I was pointing out that mindfulness practitioners have not strayed all that far from the mainstream of the canon of Modern Buddhism. But I do understand the issue of mindfulness being genuinely Buddhist is not the most important issue for you.
      It’s “genuine” Buddhism (however one might define it) that you wish to deconstruct.

      One more issue before I reply to the content of The Elixir of Mindfulness. In your reply you write:

      “It has to do with the presumption of the desirability and obviousness of dharmic/mindfulness values. “Buddhist aspirations”? Who/what provides the cosmic warrant for Buddhist aspirations?!”

      Obviously there’s no cosmic warrant for Buddhist aspirations. Moral philosophers have written a great deal about the nature of the Good, from Plato and Aristotle, through Kant and Mill, straight through to Derek Parfait. While those thorny issues remain forever unresolved, its useful to question and investigate and see if its possible to see things freshly.

      As it is, those aspirations and values are part of what attracted me to Modern Buddhism in the first place, and I’m quite fond of them. Compassion, respect, caring, concern, and, wherever possible, kindness are values Modern Buddhism valorizes and are also at the very center of my own existential project. Whenever I’ve tried the thought experiment of imagining a life of diminished awareness, discernment, responsibility, and care — one given over to sensual hedonism, for example, or the pursuit of knowledge or art without concern for the happiness and well-being of others — it’s never much appealed.

      I’m sure the ethics of Buddhism can be improved on. I’ve never been happy with either the overemphasis on intent in the Buddha’s interpretation of karma, or completely consequentialist interpretations of “upaya.” And yes I’m aware that Modern Buddhism’s emphasis on “kindness” is not always evident in the fabulous stories of the mahasiddhas, yogis, or zen masters. But I’m happy to have as much of it in my life as is possible.

      Now on to the ideas contained in The Elixir of Mindfulness. Let me list them in the order in which they appear in the post and respond to each in kind, indicating areas of agreement and disagreement. I apologize in advance if I have misinterpreted any of the ideas, and invite correction.

      1) There is an existential or spiritual wound in our current social and economic order, (Marx’s alienation?) which has been historically ministered to by an assortment of traditional religious, psychotherapeutic, and alternative healers. I am reminded here of Gene Taylor’s wonderful book “Shadow Culture” in which he explores spiritual healing in America from Swedenborgian homeopaths, mesmerists, theosophists and Christian scientists, through William James, straight through to contemporary humanistic and transpersonal psychology. (We agree here.)

      2) Mindfulness is occupying the space in contemporary culture that other forms of spiritual healing formerly occupied. (I wonder if you think it is successfully competing in the Marketplace of Existential Balms because it serves as a more effective balm than its predecessors?)

      3) There is something illegitimate about filling/soothing that existential void — it prevents one from facing the void directly and dealing with all that it implies more authentically (I am just assuming this here, you haven’t openly stated it.) If Mindfulness is in effect only a “balm” I would share your aversion. But what if it does facilitate directly addressing the existential issues in a meaningful way?

      4) Mindfulness advocates overhype its benefits. You cite a quote from mindfulness.org that “a dose of mindfulness (or a very large helping) can enhance your joy and appreciation of everyday life—and help you to deal with some of life’s toughest challenges when they arise.” That quote doesn’t seem like hype to me (although it is sales lingo!). It seems, in my own experience, to be actually true. It also seems true to me that mindfulness can be useful in caregiving and death and dying (I have used it here myself in dealing with my late wife’s illness and death), parenting, sex (Masters and Johnson’s “sensate focus”?), healing and health (there is a vast research literature here), navigating intimate relationships, cooking (Dogen’s Instructions to the Cook?), eating (Kristeller’s research on mindfulness and obesity and bulemia), sports (George Mumford’s work with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers), working with prisoners (the work of Goenka, Kabat-Zinn, and Fleet Maul, just to name a few), and protecting the environment (Joan Halifax’s Deep Ecology, Sulak Sivaraksa’s work to protect the Thai environment). This strikes you as ludicrous, but it seems perfectly reasonable to me that mindfulness is a set of skills and a philosophy that transfer well to a wide variety of human domains. Nothing on the list strikes me as, on its face, patently absurd.

      5) If mindfulness is synonymous with ordinary cognitive functions of attention and caution, how can it be so revolutionary? My response is that while mindfulness is an ordinary human capacity (namely paying attention in a specific manner with a specific set of intentions), it is not one that comes naturally to most people. If certainly was a revelation to me when I first encountered it at forty-five years of age. You could say the same thing about many altered uses of consciousness (e.g. hypnotic trance, Gendlin’s Experiencing, Perls’s Gestalt process). Discovering how to utilize and incorporate it into one’s everyday routines (wherever appropriate) takes time and practice.

      6) The concept of mindfulness entails 1) mental operations and behavior, 2) is learned through a variety of contemplative practices, and 3) has relationship to concepts such as being-in-the-moment, moment-to-moment being, relating more effectively to thoughts and feelings, acceptance, etc. making the term vacuous and inchoate. Again, as I read the contents you have included here, I don’t see any fundamental objection. Mindfulness, as taught by Kabat-Zinn and company, is not just a single attentional skill, but is a skill deployed within a particular philosophical context, which is largely a translation of Modern Buddhism into therapeutic language. I’ve always said that mindfulness deployed without this fuller context (presence, acceptance, friendliness to internal experience, etc.) is probably not worth very much. Within that context, it’s worth everything. It’s alright with me if the word “mindfulness,” is used as a shorthand by its advocates for the whole package — both the skill and the philosophy it flourishes within.

      7) It’s not clear why the mindfulness advocates tie their project to the Buddhist project by adding the “as adopted from Buddhism.” My answer is because it has been adopted from Modern Buddhism (without all the trappings of enlightenment, celestial beings, hell realms, rebirth, and karma). Kabat-Zinn not only has historical ties to Seung Sahn and the Cambridge Zen Center, but decades of more recent involvement with the Insight Meditation Society. He and Larry Rosenberg, for example, have been comrades-in-arms for decades. Please refer back to my earlier comment about Thich Nhat Hahn and Bhante Gunaratana. Mindfulness is in fact a form of Buddhism for modern non-Buddhists.

      Lastly, Mindfulness is not sufficiently secularized, but has close ties to post nineteen-sixties new age, hippie spirituality. I refer back to Gene Taylor’s book on spiritual healing in America. He divides American psychology into three streams – the academic, the clinical, and the spiritual healing streams. The later stream has always historically been somewhat fringy. All kinds of pseudoscientific practices have arisen within its boundaries. It’s natural that folks attracted to crystal healing, thought field therapy, and God-knows-what-else will also be attracted to Buddhist-derived mindfulness. But amidst all the preposterousness in alternative healing, there is a reason why it persists. There is a fundamental truth within — that our spiritual (read existential) state does effect other domains of our well-being, including our health. Mind does have its various effects on body. Although people with dubious spiritual allegiances might flock to the mindfulness banner, this does nothing to discredit mindfulness itself, anymore than the fact that liberals and atheists believe in global warming and evolution discredits those theories.

      I hope I have been fair to your ideas. I appreciate your taking the time to visit my site, and hope my response clarifies the areas where we might agree and disagree. I look forward to any reply you might care to make.

      • Greetings Seth,

        Thank you very much for taking the time and trouble to reply as you have. I appreciate it.

        My reply back will, alas, be insufficient. I have certain amount of time between taking one daughter one place and then another, another. So, it’s blogging on the fly. As someone trained as a textual scholar, I am frustrated by internet interactions. I see texts—even emails and blog comments—as tightly interwoven wholes. But, alas yet again, I can’t,given the tick of time, treat yours as it deserves. So, my biggest, broadest points:

        1. My most substantive claim (accusation?) about mindfulness has still not been addressed. (And I have had contact with a good twenty-five mindfulness advocates as a result of the post.) I mean my contention that “mindfulness” is an empty signifier, along the lines of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s use of mana. The specific question I posed was: Is it possible that “mindfulness” is like “mana” in being both an amorphous floating signifier, yet one that hovers around something like “the animating elixir of life”?

        2. In a reply to a comment, I explain why I am so unimpressed by the research done on mindfulness. It’s reply #7, I think, beginning, “This reply is to Earl, Brad, Andrew, BenA, and Jayarava.” In short, the research strikes me as an accumulation of questionable, often trivial, results (poor protocol, definitional poverty, small samples, minute quantitative shifts in attention, etc., and more). I have been directly involved in several such studies as an evaluator, design consultant, and even participant.

        3. But the main point that I want to make is as follows. Given the nature of my Speculative non-Buddhism project, I am not, or no longer, in “the club of Westerners struggling with the gift of centuries of Buddhist practice, devotion, and contention.” Speculative non-Buddhism is a thought-experiment that poses the question: shorn of its transcendental representations, what might Buddhism offer us? BUT: My heuristics render Buddhism unrecognizable, indeed, uninterpretable, to itself. Speculative non-Buddhism is an approach to analyzing and interpreting Buddhist teachings in a way that devitalizes buddhistic charism. Buddhistic charismata are the incalculable averred “gifts” of wisdom, knowledge, community, teacher-student relationship, healing, and so forth, that cascade out of the dharmic dispensation. Such gifts exert a binding influence on the Buddhist. One result of charismatic influence is the blinding of the Buddhist to what I call decisional structure and decisional commitment. Enactment of Speculative non-Buddhist heuristics enables the Buddhist to unbind and unblind from the coercive yet largely unconscious effects of the charism. My entire project is about exposing a structural syntax that animates all buddhistic utterance, from the sutras to your blog posts. This syntax is what I call “decision.” Decision is both an affective and cognitive operation. Affectively, “decision” is used in its colloquial sense. It involves a psychological and emotional (and, in many cases, economic) determination to accept a particular condition or state of affairs over and against other options. In this case, the decision involves (i) adherence to Buddhism’s/mindfulness’s claims to verity and (ii) dependency on its charism. Cognitive decision is a technical usage. It involves a fissure between an immanently given (empty reality of the world) and a transcendentally idealized (dharmic representations of the world). This splitting permits Buddhism the specularity that constitutes it as the totalizing dispensation given in it rhetorics. Simultaneously, however, decisional splitting disqualifies Buddhism from the community of knowledge. Speculative non-Buddhism unmasks this decisional syntax, which operates without exception in every instance of “Buddhism,” including covert forms like MBSR, etc.

        So, whenever someone cites a Buddhist/mindfulness scripture or teachers to me, I only hear a fresh instance of decision. It is precisely because of this interminable iteration of the same—namely, dharmic specularism—that I speak of buddhistic hallucination and of Buddhism as occlusion. The former is a claim that Buddhism only ever presents itself. The latter is a claim that “Buddhism,” via its infinite dharmic inventory of reality, hides, precisely in its dharmic representation of reality, reality itself.

        I am currently writing an article and a book that spells all of this out more expansively.

        Peace.

        • Thanks, Glenn, for taking the time to reply in length to my reply. Let me reply back briefly. I have put your words in boldface for clarification:

          My most substantive claim… has still not been addressed… my contention that “mindfulness” is an empty signifier, along the lines of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s use of mana.

          I did not specifically refer back to that claim because I have not read Levi-Strauss and wasn’t sure what an “empty signifier” might mean. I expect that is probably why you have not heard a response to it from other members of the “mindfulness community” as well. I had assumed it meant that mindfulness’s definition was diffuse and drifting, and I had hoped I had addressed it when I wrote in response to point 6:

          The concept of mindfulness entails 1) mental operations and behavior, 2) is learned through a variety of contemplative practices, and 3) has relationship to concepts such as being-in-the-moment, moment-to-moment being, relating more effectively to thoughts and feelings, acceptance, etc. making the term vacuous and inchoate. Again, as I read the contents you have included here, I don’t see any fundamental objection. Mindfulness, as taught by Kabat-Zinn and company, is not just a single attentional skill, but is a skill deployed within a particular philosophical context, which is largely a translation of Modern Buddhism into therapeutic language. I’ve always said that mindfulness deployed without this fuller context (presence, acceptance, friendliness to internal experience, etc.) is probably not worth very much. Within that context, it’s worth everything. It’s alright with me if the word “mindfulness,” is used as a shorthand by its advocates for the whole package — both the skill and the philosophy it flourishes within.”

          Guess not.

          In regards to your view of the adequacy of mindfulness research, I will acknowledge the inadequacies and shortcomings of many of the research studies. I have dissected these studies as well in the seminar I taught on Buddhism and Psychology at Yale. But we come to differing conclusions, in the end, as to where the research points at this stage. The fraud of cold fusion was disposed of in a matter of months. Mindfulness research stays with us after decades with more positive results being published every year. Are there problems of interpretation? Sure. But there’s gold, Glenn, in them there hills.

          But the main point that I want to make is… I am not, or no longer, in “the club of Westerners struggling with the gift of centuries of Buddhist practice, devotion, and contention.

          Alas, you are, Glenn, whether you like it or not. You may not be a Buddhist, but you are still struggling with it’s gift, else why bother talking about it? Just like I, who have never been a Christian and have no interest in becoming one, still struggle with the dubious gift of 2,000 years of Christianity — and not just the dogmas, persecutions, pogroms, crusades, and inquisitions — but Augustine and Aquinas, Michelangelo and Bach, Tillich and Merton.

          You seem to be saying that one needs to stand outside a tent to see it clearly. Having spent much of my life standing half-outside of things casting suspicion on them, I no longer have much interest in that position. When you love someone, you love them whole-heartedly despite their shortcomings. When you have fallen out of love, their faults outweigh any possible merits, and you wonder what you could have ever seen in them. I suspect it comes down to this: my forty-five year love affair with Buddhism continues, but you’ve filed for divorce. No judgment there — we are just in different positions. Disagreements are compatible with love, vivisections not so much.

          As to the rest of your response, I still find your language obscures your meaning more than it reveals it. Sentences like “this splitting permits Buddhism the specularity that constitutes it as the totalizing dispensation given in it rhetorics” are uninterpretable to me. Blog exchanges are no place to clarify significant questions and I suspect I’ll have to await your book to understand the points you are attempting to make more clearly.

          Thanks again for your willingness to engage! Until next time!

  7. Seth, thanks as ever but the inadequacy of words to convey the Dhamma is troubling me as are the dangers of misinterpretation, misuse and attachment to such words.

    “He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.” -Lao Tzu

    Confucius says: “Not teach ripe person: waste of person. Teach not ripe person: waste of words.”

    Both quotes are from Anthony de Mello’s “Song of the Bird”.

    I sense that the spirit behind the words is much more important than the words themselves? I always like the spirit behind yours and David (aka TheEndlessFurther), amongst others,
    Regards, Terry

    • But here, Terry, is another quote (from Art Spiegelman’s Maus):

      “Samuel Beckett once said, ‘every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.’ On the other hand, he said it.”

  8. I gather from Mr. Wallis’ response that he doesn’t like Buddhism very much. One wonders why he bothers with it then. Why not just chart a new spiritual course, because if Buddhism is so problematic, how could anything based on it be of much value?

    This sure makes sense: “”Buddhism” names, in that project, a narcissistic hallucination of reality.”Buddhism” names a specular, “dharmic,” occlusion of reality” Well, how can it be a “hallucination of reality” and yet mirror-like (specular)? That seems contradictory to me. I’d also like to know how one arrives at the conclusion that Buddhism is also somehow closed off (occlusion)? And finally, I would like to know how Mr. Wallis manages to receive emails off-line? I haven’t figured out how to do that myself.

  9. P.S. also from “The Song of the Bird” is this:

    “THOMAS AQUINAS STOPS WRITING
    The story goes that one of the world’s ablest theologians. Thomas Aquinas suddenly stopped writing. When his secretary complained about his unfinished works, Thomas replied: ‘Brother Reginald, some months ago I experienced something of the Absolute, so all I have ever written of God seems to me now to be like straw.’ ”

    That’s enough words from me.

  10. Po Chu-i:

    Those who speak don’t know,
    Those who know don’t speak.”
    It is said that these words
    Were written by Lao Tzu.
    Now, if we are to accept
    That Lao Tzu was one who knew,
    Then why did he compose a book
    Of five thousand words?

  11. Seth -

    Thanks for another ambitious, penetrating essay. Just one point to question. According to Roshi Joan Halifax’s account, Joko Beck’s last words were not “This too is joy” but “This too is wonder.” (http://www.shambhalasun.com/sunspace/?p=22049). Wonder is not the same as joy. But would you see them as roughly equivalent in this context? Wonder, as you know, is also a central word in Toni Packer’s vocabulary.

    Ben

    • Ben, thanks for the correction of the historical record! I was quoting Glenn Wallis quoting Barry Magid… a bit like a game of telephone. Not sure where the error crept in.

      I don’t see the two words as equivalents.

      I like “wonder” even better in that quote, with all its ambiguity.

    • @ Ben & Seth
      Just from a historical perspective, was it an error? Was Magid right or Halifax right? Certainly “wonder” would not be a candy wrapping on reality like “joy” could be. All these words are slippery, of course.
      Even if Magid or Halifax were at the bedside of the departing, and they disagreed, it would not be surprising. Our minds often hear their expected meaning and retranslate into our own words. In either case, Magid wrote “joy” and this is what Wallis was addressing. He emphasized himself that he was illustrating a phenomena, not attack a person.

      • Sabio, I’m not sure where the error crept in. I don’t know if Magid was at Joko’s bedside and heard things differently or he was misquoting Halifax. All I know is that the Halifax version is the one that seems to be most widely re-quoted and I can find no other references to “This too is joy” on the web. Sorry I can’t be of more help. But you’re right to say in the end it doesn’t matter. It’s Magid’s joy that Wallis questions.

  12. Seth, regarding my previous comments please allow me to plead guilty to attaching to words, that is, the quotes I cited and ,perhaps, misappropriating them by quoting them out of context. As you know I am only a beginner on the spiritual path.
    However I wpuld like to refer to the article “Attachment to Teachers” from Ajahn Sumedho which I read earlier in the week and quote excerpt this from it because I believe it is relevant to your essay and ensuing comments:

    “‘Wisdom’ in this sense means using wisdom in our practice of meditation. How do we do that? How do we use wisdom? By recognising our own particular forms of pride, conceit, and the attachments we have to our views and opinions, to the material world, to the tradition and the teacher, and to the friends we have. Now this doesn’t mean that we think we shouldn’t attach, or that we should get rid of all these. That’s not wise either, because wisdom is the ability to observe attachment and understand it and let go – rather than attach to ideas that we shouldn’t be attached to anything.

    Sometimes you hear monks or nuns or lay people here saying, ‘Don’t attach to anything.’ So we attach to the view that we shouldn’t be attached! ‘I’m not going to attach to Ajahn Sumedho; I can learn from anybody. I’m going to leave, just to prove I’m not attached to Venerable Sumedho.’ Then you’re attaching to the idea that you shouldn’t be attached to me, or that you’ve got to go away to prove that you’re not attached – which isn’t it at all. That’s not being wise, is it? You’re just attaching to something else. You may go to Brockwood Park and hear Krishnamurti and then you think – ‘I’m not going to attach to those religious conventions, all that bowing, Buddha images, monks and all that stuff. Krishnamurti says it is all poppycock: “Don’t have anything to do with it, all that is useless.” ‘ So you attach to the view that religious conventions are all useless, and you shouldn’t have anything to do with them. But that’s also an attachment, isn’t it? – attachment to views and opinions – and if you attach to what Krishnamurti says, or you attach to what I say, it’s still an attachment.So we’re recognising attachment, and it’s wisdom that recognises attachment.
    This doesn’t mean that we have to attach to any other opinion, but to just recognise and know attachment frees us from being deluded by the attachments we do make.”

    Thanks for this opportunity to be informed and learn, Terry

    (Ref: http://www.amaravati.org/abmnew/documents/cittavivaka/data/15attac.html)

    • Is this correct? “So we’re recognising attachment, and it’s wisdom that recognises attachment. This doesn’t mean that we have to attach to any other opinion, but to just recognise and know attachment frees us from being deluded by the attachments we do make.” Shouldn’t it read “non-attachment frees us from being deluded”? If it did, I’d say, right on. Then I’d say, it’s really rather simple, why do we try to make so much more complicated?

  13. @ Seth,

    First, I wrote a post just for you today. I don’t know if I have written to you about comment hierarchies, but I think they are horrendous when used on any blog that has a significant amount of comments.

    As you can see above, the comments get lost, chronicity is lost and it is easy to miss comment. Please click the link and read my suggestion if you’d like.

  14. @ All
    I think what Glenn wrote was spot on. Well, I think so. I agree with Seth that Glenn’s writing seems unnecessarily obscure. Having done my graduate studies in both Philosophy and Medicine, I was disgusted by the crippled writing in these fields. But Glenn’s style is different — it is just plain difficult with many specialized terms. I guess I will have to wait for his book and build a glossary.

    But meanwhile, if I have gleamed correctly from his writing, Glenn is addressing many of the aspects of Buddhism that I try to criticize on my blog. He is addressing all the common sociological, psychological, marketing and philosophical aspects that dresses up Buddhism and Buddhists so that they can’t even see beyond what they claim their practice helps them see beyond. So much so that the dressings of Buddhism (practice, jargon and philosophy) cloud the benefits potentially there to those on the outside who are disgusted by it (like bad writing) or are trapped in their comfort within it.

    I am naive, unskilled and uneducated in Buddhism and thus a poor spokesman on this issue but hopefully I don’t pretend to speak from any other voice.

    I like what Glenn said and feel his contributions are fascinating — even though his language initially put me off. But after more reading, I found much to benefit. The deeper his ideas sting, the better. But it appears no other commentor here agrees, alas. It seems, instead that they want to dislike his style so much as not to try and hear anything of value.

    My deep apologies if I have misinterpreted Glenn — but hell, he invites it!! :-)

    • Sabio, the problem is that these criticisms are just too general, you need to be more specific. “addressing all the common sociological, psychological, marketing and philosophical aspects that dresses up Buddhism and Buddhists”? You’re talking about every form of Buddhism and every single Buddhist? They’re all the same, I guess, dressed up in all the stuff you think they are dressed up in. What about the jargon and philosophy that clouds your own point of view? Why can’t you accept that language is imperfect and we are doing the best we can to use this imperfect thing to communicate complex “things” and leave it at that, and move forward? To me, dealing with all this as people like you and Wallis do keeps us stuck in one place. Personally, I want to go further.

  15. Sorry to interject myself here again, and also apologize if I am too plain-speaking or blunt, but charism? Why do people insist on using Christian concepts to discuss Buddhism? They are worlds apart. “In this case, the decision involves (i) adherence to Buddhism’s/mindfulness’s claims to verity and (ii) dependency on its charism.” Another case of someone making broad generalizations, as if “mindfulness” were the only Buddhist practice, not to mention apparently having a complete mis-understanding of how mindfulness works. The “gifts” come purely from one’s own efforts. Wallis says he teaches a meditation practice based on “attentiveness”. How is that different from “mindfulness?” Does this sound a bit hypercritical to anyone else?

    I think Mr. Wallis needs to “unbind and unblind” himself from his arrogance. He apparently thinks he can see through the mask of 2500 years of wisdom. He alone, with his Speculative non-Buddhist heuristics can save us from the “decisional splitting” that “disqualifies Buddhism from the community of knowledge” and expose the “structural syntax that animates all buddhistic utterance, from the sutras to your blog posts” that he has decided to “call ‘decision’.” I’ve decided to call this BS.

  16. @ David
    OK, I agree, the terms are odd, Glenn’s reach is huge.
    But “2500 years of wisdom” seems a perfect example of what Glenn is addressing. That platitude is packed with nonsense. There are also 3,500 years of wisdom in Astrology — would that move you to tears?
    Buddhisms around the world and over the centuries contradict each other, abuse their populaces, act as carriers of dangerous superstitions and more. Over those glorious 2500 year the various Buddhism have also falsely comforted, deceived, and scared their populaces too.

    Do you not hear an iota of value in what Glenn is writing? Does everything have to be packed in the familiar glorious Buddhist trappings you’ve grown to love and identify with?

    • Sure, every single form of Buddhism around the world and over the centuries contradict each other, abuse their populaces, act as carriers of dangerous superstitions and more. Every single one.

      Do you not hear an iota of value in what Glenn is writing?

      No, not as long as his target is so general. If he were more specific, perhaps.

      Does everything have to be packed in the familiar glorious Buddhist trappings you’ve grown to love and identify with?

      Come on, you’ve read enough of my blog to know that the answer to this is also “no.”

  17. @ David
    I am going to ignore these confusing heirarchies:
    You wrote to me:

    Sabio, the problem is that these criticisms are just too general, you need to be more specific.

    I don’t think you are helping the dialogue with the defensiveness — I think you agree with some of the points but you dislike both the tone, the language, and what you feel are over generalizations. Perhaps a useful common ground would be by admitting what you agree with.

    On my blog I do write specific criticisms and I indeed try to be very careful to be specific. For I strongly agree with you — over-generalizations are unproductive for those who are unconvinced.

    Here are a few specific examples if you are really interested (they are short):

    1. Being Zen vs Being Japanese

    2. Loving Buddhist Bells

    3. Preserving Creeds while sacrificing meaning

    4. Buddhism IS a religion

    5. Buddhists LOVE their Ancient Holy Asian Languages

    Finally, you said,

    To me, dealing with all this as people like you and Wallis do keeps us stuck in one place.

    Sorry you feel we are such obstructions and curses. I hope Seth does not feel like that also. I would be glad to stop commenting if this was universal — nah, maybe I wouldn’t :-) He’d probably just have to spam me.

  18. @ David & Seth

    I had not read Glenn’s most recent post, but then did and now understand your comments to which I’d like to comment.

    “When someone thinks “deep joy” is just a cliché, I suspect that person hasn’t experienced any joy in their practice. Maybe they don’t practice or there is something wrong with their practice. Either way, I don’t think they know what they are talking about.” — David 10:50 pm 9/7

    Wow, David — that was harsh. Especially in light of your statement that:

    “And someone should say so, but nicely, as you have here, because Buddhism is about being nice and engaging in respectful dialog.”- David (same comment)

    When I came back and read your criticism I was surprised at both the ironic tone and what appears to me a misunderstanding of yours which Seth too did not seem to see. Seth was more generous saying he would not judge Glenn’s experience, as you had.

    Anyway, here is what Glenn said he felt was a flinch:

    “Yet she[Charlotte Beck] never failed to emphasize that at the bottom of the well of self was deep joy.” — Barry Magin speaking of his deceased teacher.

    Glenn felt that the “flinch” is the claim that the aim of Buddhism is “deep joy” but instead he was more sympathetic with “radical acceptance of the totality of the present” which is found in Becks other teachings. He sees this as contradictory and lucidly explains why. He does not say “joy” is not one of the many possible experiences of practice, he just does not valorize it for all the reasons in his fine essay.

    Am I misunderstanding something, or are you both going out of your way to not understand Glenn Wallis because of his language and his picking on some of your favorite terms?

    • Sabio, I was being nice. I could have been, and was tempted to be, much harsher. I have little patience with things like “My heuristics render Buddhism unrecognizable, indeed, uninterpretable, to itself.” I could care less about his heuristics. I am trying to understand and practice Buddha-dharma and that’s quite an undertaking for one lifetime. If people don’t like Buddhism, then they should go do something else, start their own -ism, but just don’t muddy the waters and confuse others.

      I would still like to see you or even Wallis respond to the question I raised about making broad generalizations.

      Not to plug my own blog, but in today’s post the Dalai Lama provides a little insight into what joy means in terms of Buddhist practice.

  19. @ David,
    To me, you seriously seem to keep missing the point. He was point toward phenomena and not generalizing about all people. I don’t think I can explain it better. I seriously don’t think you want to hear. But then, maybe it is just me. :-)

    During the Vietnam war, when I criticized my country (USA) my father returned the all-too-well know “Love it or Leave it!” I left — 12 years in Asia but I am back.

    Your voice reminded me of my father a bit.

    • Sabio, my friend, the point I was making is plain as day: you cannot find fault with all of Buddhism, you need to be specific. Not all people who teach mindfulness teach it the same way. But to listen to you and Wallis and others like you, one would think that every teacher who uses the word is trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes or soothe them with simple slogans. You cannot use such broad brush strokes, not if you want to be taken seriously. In my opinion.

      In the 60s we were protesting an unjust war, an unequal economic and class system, among other things. We had specific, credible complaints. The difference here is that I don’t really understand what you folks are griping about. You just seem to be playing semantic games. I will leave it at that and give Seth back his blog.

  20. Seth and all, I offer this quote from Joko on practice and wonder for your reflection:

    “How do we know if our practice is a real practice? Only by one thing: more and more, we just see the wonder. What is the wonder? I don’t know. We can’t know such things through thinking. But we always know it when it’s there.”
    Charlotte Joko Beck; “Nothing Special”, p. 241

    Terry

  21. To David and whoever it may concern. Just a reminder in response to the claim Glenn isn’t specific enough. His question in a nutshell (imho):

    “Shorn of its transcendental representations, what might Buddhism offer us?“ (See above in his post)

    This is very specific, I think, although it concerns western buddhism generally… and I don‘t wonder any longer to what lengths modern-day-buddhists go to be prevented from seeing that someone is putting forward an honest question when this question threatens their belief-system.

    Every set of claims in which claims are not open to interrogation and conversation are sacred cows. In buddhism there are lots of holy cows: reincarnation, karma, deities, 100‘000 prostrations, tulkus en masse, the infallibility of the Dalai Lama, meditation as healing everything… every item is a very specific transcendental claim which, in most buddhist sanghas, is not open to discussion in a manner which leaves the outcome open.

    Every situation in which a given problem is not open to a free conversation is pervaded by an authoritarian spell. Ideology is reigning. Everyone can look at the groups with which one has to do and see if it is possible to speak out! Are your peers able to look at unpleasant questions?

    And one more point – regarding the sometimes vitriolic tone of Glenn‘s speech. I turn around the accusation against his “aggression”: the lovely flowery jargon in which modern-day-buddhist‘s realization of the joy at “the bottom of the well of self“ is presented, is in itself an aggression if it is the only key in which one is allowed to communicate experience. The flowery key in which the “reports from the front lines“ are presented (note the contrast “the door of joy“ vs. the war-metaphor “front line“ in Magid‘s response to Glenn!) are often regarded as defining wordings for certain experiences. The only problem is, if everybody uses the same words, everybody uses these words – and nothing else can be said. Whether or not there is an experience cannot be discerned. Knowledge of some kind is not only a claim but also the bearer must be able to make an account of his command of this specific knowledge. The fencing in of a certain wording for certain experiences is an aggression as it simply excludes people with a different language. The bearer of knowledge must be able to give a specific account of what he is experiencing at his personal frontline – albeit this might be lyrical, expressionistic, stockhausian and whatever, like in the songs of some yogis of tibet or in certain japanese lyrics. There are many forms of expression… would you think Virginia Wolf had insight into the nature of mind?

    So there are two points here. First, if experience of certain practices of consciousness is only ever presented in the same buddhist jargon, then it is not discernible if the one speaking about his experience is really at some front line. Second, buddhist jargon is a fencing off of creative language for experience and is as such an aggression against creative expression.

    And one last word. What really turns me off are the last two sentences of this posting about “Speculative Non-Buddhism.” This is as arrogant as it can be. Such are the words of every true believer who “knows,” who is “saved” and who prays to god for my salvation.

    Thanks a lot for your prayers, Matthias

    And don‘t forget: just say no to transcendence.

    • @Matthias:

      “Every set of claims in which claims are not open to interrogation and conversation are sacred cows. In buddhism there are lots of holy cows: reincarnation, karma, deities, 100‘000 prostrations, tulkus en masse, the infallibility of the Dalai Lama, meditation as healing everything… every item is a very specific transcendental claim which, in most buddhist sanghas, is not open to discussion in a manner which leaves the outcome open. Every situation in which a given problem is not open to a free conversation is pervaded by an authoritarian spell. Ideology is reigning. Everyone can look at the groups with which one has to do and see if it is possible to speak out! Are your peers able to look at unpleasant questions?

      Hi Matthew! Looks like your experience in the Buddhist camp has been different than mine. I’ve never been anywhere where I wasn’t free to believe what I wanted and express what I wanted. Most Buddhists I personally know don’t believe in deities, reincarnation, the infallibility of the Dalai Lama (even he doesn’t believe tin that one!), or meditation healing everything. They don’t seem very much like sacred cows to me. More like dead horses or straw men. The buddhist blogosphere is rife with dispute. Is it possible to speak out? Hell, you can’t get anyone to pipe down!

      “The only problem is, if everybody uses the same words, everybody uses these words – and nothing else can be said.”

      Matthew, we use the same words because a common language aids communication — and because, hopefully the words express something real and meaningful to the communicants. Buddhism has discussed the inadequacy of words to convey the fullness of experience for most of its history — words being only the finger pointing at the moon. Can words sometimes obscure the real moon? Of course. Keeping things fresh is an endless practice. Can words be aped without any genuine personal experience underlying them? Of course. It happens all the time. The existence of a common language doesn’t, however, prevent new things from being said.

      First, if experience of certain practices of consciousness is only ever presented in the same buddhist jargon, then it is not discernible if the one speaking about his experience is really at some front line.

      That’s true whether the language is old or new! Its always hard to judge whether people know first hand what they are describing, whether they are repeating handed-down descriptions from authority, or whether they are making it up out of whole cloth. Wish it was easier to figure these things out, but it isn’t.

      “Buddhist jargon is a fencing off of creative language for experience and is as such an aggression against creative expression.”

      That is of course Glenn’s contention. I don’t think it’s hampered my free expression. Nor do I feel particularly aggressed against. I’m reminded here of poor Michael Palin in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Come and see the violence inherent in the system. Help! Help! I’m being repressed!” Please!

      • I’ve had generally the same experience in sanghas I’ve been part of: questioning and critical inquiry were welcome. Hell, I was ordained by a Korean Zen teacher who does believe in karma and re-birth, for instance, even though he knows I do not! As part of my training, I wrote some papers that offered strong criticism of many aspects of the Zen traditions, including the ‘transmission’ and ‘lineage fetish’ as well as of re-birth and karma. He asked me some further questions to check my understanding and went ahead and ordained me.

        However, I have also been a part of a sangha where it was made plain to me that there were at least one or two things that were simply not open for questioning or disagreement. Sadly, this was with the sangha around Thich Nhat Hanh.

        • Thanks, Frank, for you input. This is also a good opportunity to refer people to your blog, Zen Naturalism, (http://www.zennaturalism.blogspot.com/) where you discuss some of these issues at greater length.

          The Buddhaverse is very diverse, with sanghas that are very open to inquiry (and less hierarchical in structure), sanghas that are completely closed to challenging received dogma (often with a cult-like organization), and sanghas that lie on an infinite number of points between poles of the continuum. Folks who are unhappy in their sangha should be aware that they are not stuck, and that they can choose one more congenial to their needs.

          I am sorry to hear that your experience has been that Thay’s community is less open to questioning and exploration of teachings than your present Kwan Um community. If you have already posted about your experiences in Thay’s sangha, please pass on the URL.

    • “Shorn of its transcendental representations, what might Buddhism offer us?“

      Matthias, what makes you think this sentence by itself refers specifically to Western Buddhism? Even if it does, there is a lot of Western Buddhism already shorn of transcendental representations. The sacred cows you mention are not my sacred cows, or those of many I know who practice Buddhism, So, then, who are you talking about? Aren’t you being a bit vague and general?

      I don’t have a problem with Wallis’ tone, it’s his content that I find seriously lacking. How does he or you know there is no realization of joy at the bottom of the well of the self? What evidence do you have to disprove that? Although I must say that it seems that some of you are unable to recognize statements of that sort as being highly figurative. No one says we have to use the same words. However, using so many different words for the same Buddhist terms does get confusing sometimes. To me, the bottom line is, if you don’t want to use the word mindfulness, then don’t. It’s really that simple. I just don’t feel it’s a good idea to disparage others who, by their own right to choose whichever words they want wish, do employ it.

      I don’t understand why you insist on using just one definition for transcendence. Maybe to some folks it refers to some mystical thing or another, but to many others it simply means ‘crossing over suffering’.
      Finally, I am not sure what ‘empty signifiers” means to whoever used it in this discussion, but I do understand Nagarjuna to some extent, and he said that all words are empty signifiers.

  22. Hello Seth and David

    Thanks for taking your time and responding to me.

    Yes indeed, your experience surely is different. To be more specific, I can speak only of my experience in tibetan buddhism and then only in the german speaking area, and maybe I followed also some discussions in the written and virtual realm. That is where my experience comes from. I should give some examples about what I mean with sacred cows.

    First of all I must say I have been welcomed in a lot of place in a very warm tone. There‘s no doubt. But there are topics one should not address.

    One prominent example is life after death in tibetan buddhism. This is of course the one and only real sacred cow. Prominent promotors take the afterlife at face value – or at least they say so. The Sogyal “Rinpoche” in his famous book goes as far as to say “The I owns the 5 khandas when it is reincarnated and it gives them up when dying.” (I can give an exact quote if necessary) The I quite literally experiences the death realm without a body. Dzogchen Ponlop is one more famous tibetan adhering to the same “axiom” (in his “Mind after Death” for example). Robert Thurman in his “Infinite Life“ – the same. Now, try to question these people and their true believers about life after death and you know what a sacred cow is.

    Some years ago Donald S. Lopez published the book “Prisoners of Shangri-La.” The main these he puts forward is that the western view on tibetan buddhism is a very specific notion of buddhism which has developed over several hundred years; at the point in time when tibetan buddhism reaches out to the west, it is not simply received in a ,pure‘ form, but it is intermixed with the western notion of it which has developed over a long time before it encountered the real thing. Lopez‘ publication received quite some attention. There has been a colloquium and some papers were published in response to the book. These papers are relatively well mannered, as it is mostly usual in the academic area, with the exception of the one from Robert Thurman. His ad hominem-rant in his “Critical Reflections on Donald So Lopez Jr.‘s Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West“ is the one great telling defense of the sacred cow of tibetan buddhism.

    Traces of these two examples you will find in every western-buddhistic tibetan-sangha. This is the law: You do not discuss life after death; Tibetan buddhism is a pure thing, salvation guarantied. Even most people in groups of the most liberal teachers (of the scottish James Low for example) adhere to these and other standards without being asked to do so. The result being that it is difficult or impossible to discuss some important questions even in those not so conservative environments.

    One other prominent example, not from the western-tibetan scene but from american zen is the “Shimano Problem“. There is strong evidence that Eido Tai Shimano was able over decades, since the sixties, to exploit people in his sanghas sexually – without the american zen community able to put him out of business! The whole piece is a great example how the discourse around a sacred cow works. It is an great example because it is so well documented and one can see how the ,axiom‘ works that the teacher-roshi-lama as an enlightened being hovers above all worldly concerns. Robert Aitken split with Shimano in 1964 because of an affaire Shimano had. In 1982 Aitken writes in a confidential memorandum to Taizan Maezumi and Richard Baker: “We take this means to announce to our members that we do not endorse Eido Tai Shimano as a teacher of Zen Buddhism.  […] Mr. Shimano is so involved with personal concerns that he cannot be clear about the Buddha Dharma or empathetic in personal relationships.” In August 2010 finally an article in the New York Times was the last straw that broke the back of the camel. Roshi Joan Halifax in surprise asks herself “Many Buddhist practitioners have known about this for a long time […]. What was this silence about […]? Why did we not act? Why are we, as Buddhists, so conflict averse?” (You find links to material regarding this case at the bottom of this page: http://buddhagoespop.jimdo.com/chronologie/sex-selbst/ )

    These examples suffice to make clear that there are no-go-areas in western buddhism and when even someone as Joan Halifax asks question like “Why are we so conflict averse?“ one should be convinced that there really is something smelly.

    The overarching structuring theme, in my opinion, in all this is the transcendental claim that enlightenment is guarantied if one follows an enlightened teacher with enlightenment being something for which one has to make at first and foremost a leap of faith. In this rendering the whole thing is true whatever happens, even – excuse me for being bluntly explicit – if one gets fucked by the roshi simply because he is horny head over heels.

    Now, regarding the term “transcendence,” because David asks why I insist on using just one definition of transcendence.

    I don‘t insist. But in this discussion it is a definition of transcendence which one can very well understand if one takes the time to read a bit in speculative non-buddhism. It is not about “crossing over suffering“ however noble this might be. I think a discussion begins to lack seriousness if one does not take the pain to use a word in the sense another person uses it when responding to this persons claims.

    This leads also to Seth‘s assertion “we use the same words because a common language aids communication“ in regard of my argument against aggression via repetitive, tautological speech. Of course we need a common language to communicate. I think we are of one opinion here. The problem again is exemplified by the “Shimano Problem“. There are power-structures, discourses in the foucaultian sense, which construct that which they speak about. It is speaking, writing, thinking, acting, referencing something which is generated by these same acts (to put it in a nutshell). Such a theory by the way, in my view, is really buddhistic in a (es)sense, because it shows the constructedness of a worldview. The point is, how am I sure that my realization is the ultimate non-constructed?

    And in saying this, David, I am not saying “that here is no realization of joy at the bottom of the well of the self?“ – I am merely asking how a discourse might construct realization? I think we are very near Nagarjuna here.

    If there really is something smelly here, maybe a corpse in the cellar, it is perhaps not the best idea to cope with it as the pet-shop owner does in Monty Python‘s “Dead Parrot“. (=> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vuW6tQ0218).

    Thanks again and all the best to you, Matthias

    • @Matthias

      One prominent example is life after death in Tibetan Buddhism. This is of course the one and only real sacred cow.

      Of course most Tibetan Buddhists believe in rebirth. They may even be right about it. But since I am not inclined to believing things which can’t be either directly experienced or tested by the scientific method, I haven’t joined a Tibetan Buddhist sangha. Even so, I know that prominent Tibetan Buddhists who doubt literal rebirth do exist — and are vocal about it. I know because I took a course in Tibetan Buddhism with one at Wesleyan University. (We even used Donald Lopez’s Prisoner’s of Shangri-La as a textbook in the course.)

      In my fourteen years in the Insight Meditation community I met folks who believed in rebirth and folks who did not. Most didn’t. There was never any ban on discussing it. The pros and cons got discussed quite a bit. No one cared very much what you believed in as far as rebirth is concerned. In my current Zen community, no one has mentioned rebirth since I joined over a year ago. I suspect most members don’t believe in it, but I couldn’t know for sure since it never comes up as a topic. I also suspect no one really cares all that much. I see Stephen Batchelor, for example, is teaching a retreat for agnostic Buddhists at Joan Halifax’s Upaya Zen Center later this year.

      One other prominent example, not from the western-tibetan scene but from american zen is the “Shimano Problem.”

      Sexual abuse remains a problem with Buddhist teachers… as it does with Catholic priests, clinical psychologists, physicians, lawyers, public school teachers, boy scout leaders, politicians, and parents everywhere. It’s a problem wherever there are groups with explicit or implicit power hierarchies — which means all human groups. Groups vary in terms of their norms concerning it, and how well and transparently they deal with it. Buddhist groups may have some unique vulnerability in this regard do to certain beliefs. I’ve written about this here. This is an issue which is being actively addressed in many Buddhist communities, as it should be.

      There are power-structures … which construct that which they speak about.

      True about Buddhism. True about science. True about speculative non-Buddhism, too. You have too belong to some community. We humans are, as Heidegger pointed out, beings-with-others. Chose your poison!

  23. Hello Seth

    Perhaps I am carrying dead parrots to Athens. You in North America seem much more advanced in the discussion about sex and afterlife then we here in the old world. I can see this, regarding sex, from your post “Buddhist Teachers Behaving Badly“. I find your post very instructive for one from abroad to widen the view about american buddhism. But I find your answer to the question „why does misconduct continue to occur?“  not convincing: “because all human beings are imperfect“. That is perhaps more like the main thruster for human development.

    Perhaps one should turn around the whole thing. There are, in spite of being imperfect, lots of human beings in responsible positions who do not exploit others sexually. There are healthy partnerships between teacher and student – as you say. How can this be? I don‘t think it has primarily to do with deeper insight into tantra or sudden enlightenment and gradual cultivation, rather then with something old fashioned like “honesty”. Maybe insight, before everything else, has to do with the search for and development of this trait.

    So why do I have to become buddhist anyway to be a better human being? I just can try to be a trustworthy human without anything else – for example without a big sign on my forehead: “I am mindful!“

    The same goes for death. Literal reincarnation is most probably just „magical thinking“ – the kind you mention in the other post about behaving badly. The history of the topos is well researched (e.g. Cuevas “Hidden History“, Lopez “Prisoners“, Kapstein “The Tibetans“). The question is, why want tibetan buddhists believe in literally going through a bardo when there are much more convincing explanations today how personal and social life evolves from sheer nothingness.

    The answer is, I think, they want to be special. Being a trustworthy nobody is no option.

    To the last paragraph, power-structures. I don‘t think it is as easy as you put it. I think Wallis‘ speculative non-buddhism is about the question if there is a break from this “decision.”

    So long, Matthias

    • You in North America seem much more advanced in the discussion about sex and afterlife then we here in the old world.

      I don’t know if you meant that ironically or not, but it certainly isn’t true. Stephen Batchelor, after all, is connected with Gaia House in Devon, England, and Toni Packer, who was born in Berlin, has held retreats at the Haus Der Stille in Roseburg. Plenty of “enlightened” European Buddhists!

      But I find your answer to the question “why does misconduct continue to occur?“  not convincing: “because all human beings are imperfect” There are, in spite of being imperfect, lots of human beings in responsible positions who do not exploit others sexually. I don‘t think it has primarily to do with deeper insight into tantra or sudden enlightenment and gradual cultivation, rather then with something old fashioned like “honesty”.

      Most people in authority don’t betray trust and cross boundaries, but about 10% do, across all social classes, professions, religions, etc. That 10% figure is why you can always expect some teachers to abuse their students. Why do some yield to the temptation to abuse their role and others don’t? The answer is, of course, quite complicated, and probably depends on the persons particular sexual predilections, unique interpersonal needs, a variety of situational factors, and their particular constellation of character strengths. You are right that none of this has anything to uniquely do with Buddhism. Character strengths are not the provenience of any religion, although religious insights (of any religion) can sometimes contribute to them.

      So why do I have to become buddhist anyway to be a better human being?

      You don’t. I’ve never noticed that Buddhists are better human beings, as a group, than Baptists or atheists, for example. Buddhism has not made me a better human being. It has, however, enhanced the quality of my life.

      The question is, why want tibetan buddhists believe in literally going through a bardo… The answer is, I think, they want to be special.

      Tibetans believe in the bardos for the same reasons Christians believe in Heaven. It’s a belief that has been passed down from one’s elders — not because people want to be special. In addition, there are a variety of meditative experiences that meditators rightly or wrongly construe as evidence and confirmation for the existence of the bardo realms, just as Christians may take near-death experiences as evidence for the existence of Heaven.

      Being a trustworthy nobody is no option.

      Unless you are the late Ayya Khema (another native German!) and believe “being nobody, going nowhere” is the essence of Buddhism!

  24. I’ve never noticed that Buddhists are better human beings, as a group, than Baptists or atheists, for example. Buddhism has not made me a better human being. It has, however, enhanced the quality of my life.

    That is an interesting statement, Seth. Does mindfulness just train the mind to taste life better without social or moral consequences. I think some would say that ideally practicing Dharma should produce a better human being.

    I must say, much like you, I have always been satisfied with quality of life changes and not optimistic about being a “better person”. I wonder what sort of controversy that would stir in various sanghas. Ah, how I love controversy — it stirs self-complacent deceptive slumber.

  25. @ Sabio

    I wasn’t trying to suggest that the eudamonic outcome of Buddhist practice can be divorced from ethics. Aristotle was the first to suggest (as far as I know) that wisdom, virtue, and eudamonia were inextricably interconnected. I think the ethics of Buddhism are part of what makes for inner well-being. I am only stating that there is no evidence that I have seen that Buddhist ethics are superior to Christian ethics, Jewish ethics, atheist ethics, Kantian ethics, Nichomachen ethics, or whatever. There is a great deal of overlap between these ethical systems, and that probably reflects the fact that there is a universal component to human values irrespective of culture. Each system seems to produce virtuous heros — the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, etc. And each produces its moral failures — like the Sri Lankan monk who destroyed an Islamic shrine this past month. The Dalai Lama, by the way would agree with this assessment. He urges Westerners not to become Buddhists, but to strive to be kinder within their own traditions. Good people can be found anywhere, but that doesn’t mean Buddhism works without it’s ethics.

  26. Hey Seth,
    Yes, I understand how “ethics” are a huge part of Buddhism — “sila” being 3/8ths of the 8 fold path: right speech, action and livilihood.

    Almost all religions have ethics as part of their core.

    In the Christian-Atheist debates over the centuries, Atheists are fear (if not killed) because since they did not buy into any religion, they were declared to be ethically dangerous. This is an image constantly fought — even today. Heck, believers may tolerated people of another faith because at least they got “some kind of ethics”.

    This has been studied fairly extensively, as you know and the evidence is weak and where right, right for surprizingly different reasons than one would imagine.

    Do when discussing ethics, morality and behavior in Buddhism, we are actually making empirical claims. They could actually be tested. I wager to say that your intuitions are probably very close to correct that Buddhism does not make someone as ethical as they think it should. But this would take research, and I am not sure it is done on Western Buddhists.

    In line with Buddhist thinking, I think we deceive ourselves about much. Our beliefs about ethics may be self-deceiving too.

  27. Sabio, one way or another we deceive ourselves about most things. That is what Buddha-dharma addresses and some people are of the opinion that it also provides tools to assist in that endeavor. It is possible that at some point we begin to deceive ourselves about the attempts we make to quit deceiving ourselves, yet it is not a given. If we make no attempt, then all is hopeless. I doubt many people are actually interested in learning why Buddhism does not make someone a more ethical person. I think most people are far more interested in exploring ways in which they can improve certain conditions in their life and in the world. Depreciating all efforts in that direction does not seem like a constructive use of one’s time.

        • Now boys, behave yourselves! You both make good points. Sabio, that Buddhists may, as a group, not be more ethical than any other group (an empirical question for sure!), and David, about self-deception (and self-deception about self-deception) in Buddhism. David, I don’t think Sabio was suggesting that people shouldn’t strive to be more ethical, or that he was casting aspersions on folks who strive to improve their condition and the world. He was only stating that the evidence is lacking that Buddhists are particularly better at this than other groups.

          I personally like the Buddhist approach to ethics (for the most part) and take it very seriously. But I was a morally earnest person before I ever became a Buddhist, and I can’t say for sure whether my Buddhist practice has improved me any in that regard. It has, on the other hand, reinforced my efforts in that direction. It has taught me the value of setting an intention to be in a certain way.

          Sabio, David is of course right that comments here are public and all are free to comment (but you already know that, wise guy!). Guys, breathe a little, and see if its possible not to get too much under each other’s skin! :-)

          • Sorry, Seth, didn’t mean to sound testy. The point I was trying to make is something like this: I don’t practice Buddhism so that I can become more ethical than someone else or anything along those lines. And I doubt that anyone really practices because they want to be better than others, they simply want to better themselves. Constructive criticism is fine, but I have a problem with deconstructive criticism. Once you have identified a fault, then you should make efforts to correct it and improve the situation. Why continue to belabor the point that it is faulty?

          • “I personally like the Buddhist approach to ethics (for the most part) and take it very seriously.”
            – Seth

            I love Buddhist ethics too. It is said that in Thailand of the 227 vinaya rules for monks, most only pay attention to 19 of these Buddhist moral codes. Some of them are fascinating:

            No dancing, cracking knuckles or wiggling fingers or toes. (Sekhiya 10:5-6)

            No laughing loudly (Sekhiya 10:11-12)

            I will not slurp when I eat (Sekhiya 10:51) = ouch, most for most of Asia

            I will not defecate or urinate while standing (Sekhiya 10:53)

            Tickling with the fingers is to be confessed (Pācittiya 52)

            The act of playing in the water is to be confessed. (Pācittiya 53)

            Should any bhikkhu bathe at intervals of less than half a month, except at the proper occasions, it is to be confessed. (Pācittiya 57)

            Intentional emission of semen, except while dreaming, entails initial and subsequent meetings of the Community.(Sanghādisesa 5:1)

            57. I will not teach Dhamma to a person with an umbrella in his hand and who is not ill: a training to be observed. (“According to the Commentary, this rule applies regardless of whether the umbrella is open or closed, as long as one’s listeners has his/her hand on it. If, however, the umbrella is on the listener’s lap, resting against his/her shoulder, or if someone else is holding it over the listener’s head, there is no offense in teaching him/her any Dhamma.”)

            61. I will not teach Dhamma to a person wearing non-leather footwear who is not ill: a training to be observed.

            62. I will not teach Dhamma to a person wearing leather footwear who is not ill: a training to be observed. (“Wearing means any one of three things: placing one’s feet on top of the footwear without inserting the toes; inserting the toes without fastening the footwear; or fastening the footwear with the toes inside.”)

            I am curious how skinny and out of place this hierarchy comment falls.

            But after reading the Jewish 613 Mitzvot (commandments), Seth, I applaud your desire to treasure the Buddhist approach to ethics.
            :-) — all in good jest, of course.

          • There’s a wonderful tale that as the Buddha lay dying, he told Ananda that after his death the sangha would only have to follow the major rules of the vinaya and could revise the lesser ones. Ananda reported this to the Council. “Great!” they exclaimed. “Which one’s are the lesser ones?” “Oops!” Ananada reportedly said. “I forgot to ask.” So all the rules remained in effect. The rules against swimming and tickling have always been my favorite candidates for revision.

  28. A word about Glenn Wallis. Apparently, in the 1980s, he was the lead vocalist of a Punk rock band called Ruin. I came across his band while looking up covers of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”: http://relivethe80s.com/articles/ruin.htm

    “Glenn was nurtured on artists such as the STOOGES, LEONARD COHEN, the Ramones, Sex Pistols, Stiff Little Fingers, SHAM69, and the CLASH. While he was shaping his vision, he was listening to Crass, (anarchist art punk band), and Motorhead, (seminal speed metal band). Glenn became convinced that rock could be a vehicle to help stimulate the transformation of one’s being to a higher stage of development, resulting in positive social behavior”

    Despite his Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Harvard, and despite his having written several books on Buddhism, it seems to me he’s still more of a punk rocker than a Buddhist scholar. He exists in a sort of occupational no-man’s-land — too distrustful of American mainstream culture to have weathered the demise of Punk in the 1980s as a musician, and too punk rock to live comfortably under the pious aegis of “Buddhism.”

    The thing that confuses me about Wallis, though, is why — as with Brad Warner, another Punk rocker turned Buddhist turned disenchanted enfant terrible of the Buddhist blogosphere — he doesn’t just abandon Buddhism altogether, gather up whatever benefit he has gotten out of the exercise, and move into landscapes less encumbered by cultural baggage. It seems, by this point, that Buddhism has become more of an obstacle or a detour from manifesting his true ambitions. He alludes to wanting to change Buddhism. He wants desperately to be heard. He shows up on various Buddhist internet forums, trying to bring attention to his manifesto and his blog. Yet, you have to wonder why he would settle for making a mark on Buddhism, when that seems to be a mere consolation prize for his true ambitions: making a mark on the world and the way people think about it. That sounds Quixotic and grandiose, but it’s far from uncommon. And you do not become attracted to punk rock if you do not have a desire, at least on some level, to stir up a ruckus.

    I sense in his seeming turgidity and ornery bite a desire to embue his language with the visceral immediacy of music. And it’s a desire that engenders itself in frustration. It’s a frustration familiar to poets: to be enthralled by the power of words, and yet disheartened by the sad impotence of language in the face of… well, everything. That frustration with language seems to mirror his uneasy relationship with Buddhism. It seems like he has been trying to negotiate the revolutionary potential he sees in Buddhism with the stultifying effect its sanguine vocabulary and trappings of religiosity have on it as a possible force for combating the “grayness, uniformity, and boredom” of technological society (quoting his website).

    Of course, I may be way off. Perhaps I’m just seeing what I want to see. But if I’m not, I can’t help but see Glenn as a sort of kindred spirit. Though my love affair with Buddhism ended long ago, I share his anxiety and his restlessness.

    • Thanks, Ryan, for your interesting (and well-written!) observations. I don’t know Glenn, or anything about him other than what he has put up on his website, so I have no idea whether your interpretation is accurate or not. I just read his latest post “X-Buddhistic Hallucination” and found its prose even more oft-putting and impenetrable than the language of his previous posts. I’m afraid his language will just marginalize him and prevent him from gaining much of an audience for his ideas. Europeans may like this way of talking, Americans (outside of lit theory types) not so much. I am going to leave off criticizing his ideas for now, mostly because I find them baffling and, (to follow Karl Jaspers usage), “ununderstandable.” Glad you found your way to my blog! Musically, I am an old 60′s folkie, with a soft spot in my heart for the Grateful Dead and Talking Heads, and now I’m mostly a classical and opera buff — Punk (except for single songs here and there from The Clash and Violent Femmes) was never my cup of tea. Perhaps there’s an attitudinal/generational gap in addition to the ideological and linguistic ones that separates me from Glenn?

      • Hi Seth! Thanks for your response. Yeah, to tell the truth, I don’t understand a word of what he writes much of the time either. But I think I can kind of understand why he might be writing that way. He seems to have become so uncomfortable with Buddhism that he wants to make his discussion of it completely unrecognizable as discussion about Buddhism. Who knows? Maybe all those years of scrutinizing the meanings of Pali and Sanskrit scriptures have pushed him into overdrive. I think he wants to “decenter” (to use the language of psychology) the general consciousness of Western Buddhist discourse: to launch at it something so radically outside-the-box and unsettlingly unfamiliar that it sends that general consciousness into a state of shock. Having been shocked out of their comfort zone, I think he’s hoping to give people the experience of an entirely fresh perspective on what they’re doing under the bannerhead of “Buddhism.”

        Again, I think he’s still thinking like a punk rocker, so you may be right about that attitudinal gap. Punk is loud, chaotic, and off-putting if all you’re used to is disco or pop music, but it gets pretty exciting if you stop expecting it to make sense by your previous definitions of music. It’s sort of like a lot of contemporary poetry — its use of grammar and syntax is so unfamiliar that it has to circumvent our usual way of understanding things to make any sense. By bypassing the rational mind, poetry can get at meaning that’s richer and vaster than the sum total of the actual words on the page at face value.

        Apparently, some people are able to access that meaning. Admittedly, I can’t most of the time. I can only get bits and pieces here and there. I don’t think he’s doing it because he’s pretentious or an intellectual elitist, but rather he feels like he has to overcompensate to shake up the tone of discourse which has such a huge amount of force and momentum behind it. I agree, though, that he’s probably alienating a lot of people. But he may succeed in annoying just enough people with his astringency to shake the larger community out of autopilot. I think that actually may be his plan: get under Buddhists’ skin just enough to make a discrete, but unignorable dent.

        BTW, my taste in music actually sounds pretty similar to yours. I’m a classically trained [avocational] opera singer who loves a lot of the 1960s folk revival and roots music. My taste in contemporary music is a mixed bag, and does include some punk, but it was froma different generation than mine.

        • This is great folks: “I don’t understand a word of what he writes much of the time either. But I think I can kind of understand why he might be writing that way.” That‘s real fun.

          Now, because you, Rainer, seem to like so much what you think is contemporary poetry you might like this one from Ernst Jandl (a ‘european’)– and nevermind, having a bypassed rational mind isn‘t so bad at all, it let‘s you forget even that you forgot the denial. The stupid will entertain you:

          lichtung

          manche meinen
          lechts und rinks
          kann man nicht velwechsern
          werch ein illtum

          • Hi Matthias. I hope I didn’t give the impression that Glenn’s writing is devoid of any rational meaning or that it was of no consequence if one does not understand him. Certainly not. I meant only that he’s writing in a conceptual world and in a language very far removed from that which most Buddhists operate, and one probably has to step out of that realm to understand much of what he’s saying… in the same way that the poetry of, say, Jorie Graham or Lyn Hejinian requires you to ( at least partially) step out of your ideas of what language is.

            Some of his writing (the one on “mindfulness”) are more recognizable than others, but a lot of it is quite beyond my own reach. That’s not any fault of his, but a reflection of how far apart we are conceptually. When I make an effort to step out of my operant realm of how I think about Buddhism, I can get some of it, but not all of it. A lot of what he’s saying is still very far away from where I am.

  29. Hallo Rainer,

    yes it might not be easy-reading with Glenn. The point then would be to say – ok, to mind-boggling, I move on. But as one could see from reactions here and elsewhere, people sense that there is something which could topple their believe-system. Why should one be in fear of loosing a believe-system being buddhist?

    I have written above, and I gave not so unimportant examples, that there are topics which one should not address as a good buddhist believer. The reaction more or less is, that everybody declares everything ok at their home-base. Problems are always elsewhere.

    No, as it goes, we just have a very nice example for a buddhist believe which two days ago has been declared buddhist dogma by “His Holiness the Dalai Lama”: Reincarnation.

    The Dalai Lama simply says: “As long as you are a Buddhist, it is necessary to accept past and future rebirth.“

    I know that there are a lot of buddhist who aren‘t any longer now. I wonder what they say? Now everybody in the american buddhist community who doesn‘t believe in reincarnation has a problem. You are declared heretic!

    Guess what? I bet there are lots of buddhists who are now under pressure because they now have a topic they can not address freely anywhere – other people might get angry in fear of seeing their believe-system crushed. So better shut up.

    Mr. Lama‘s statement => http://dalailama.com/messages/tibet/reincarnation-statement

    My comment => http://derunbuddhist.wordpress.com/2011/09/26/the-dalai-lama-buddhist-dogma/

    And nevermind my nirvanic reaction above, it has been 20 years now and it still smells like teen spirit ;-)

    May all your undertakings be blessed!

    • Matthew,

      The Dalai Lama simply says: “As long as you are a Buddhist, it is necessary to accept past and future rebirth.” Now everybody in the american buddhist community who doesn‘t believe in reincarnation has a problem. You are declared heretic! Guess what? I bet there are lots of buddhists who are now under pressure because they now have a topic they can not address freely anywhere – other people might get angry in fear of seeing their believe-system crushed. So better shut up.

      Mathew, I keep wondering what alternative universe you live in? Most Western Buddhists like the His Holiness the Dalai Lama a lot — he is an inspirational figure in so many ways — his daring escape from Tibet, his role in establishing the diaspora community in Dharamsala, his commitment to non-violence, his broadening of Tibetan monks’ educations, his scholarship, his ongoing dialogue with the scientific community, his warm and kind personality, his disciplined life given over to service to others. He’s pretty amazing! But he isn’t the Pope. We don’t have one in Buddhism. He’s not infallible. (Even the Pope, by the way, didn’t become infallible until 1870!) No one is getting excommunicated. There isn’t any inquisition. No discussions are geting stifled. No one’s belief systems are getting crushed. His Holiness has opinions about lots of things many Buddhists disagree with — from rebirth to homosexuality. He is entitled to them. Get over it!

    • Hi Matthias.

      I don’t know what formatting code it used for these comments (does HTML code work here?), so forgive the somewhat clumsy way ‘ve organized it. I just quote your text and then respond below it:

      <>

      I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying here. Are you saying that, if one finds Glenn’s writing difficult, one should just move on? Or that they should stay in order to see what challenges his writings might posit for their belief systems? I think (not sure) that you’re saying the latter? If that’s so, I agree with you. I don’t see why anyone should be afraid of having their belief systems exposed to criticism. That’s a part of a mature practice, in my opinion. As Karl von Durkheim says: “Only to the point where a person exposes himself again and again to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found within him.”

      I should probably say that I don’t consider myself a Buddhist. I fell in love with Buddhism in college and still like a lot of Buddhist teaching, but ultimately came to the conclusion that I wasn’t really interested in the goals of Buddhist practice, that nirvana wasn’t my thing. So I have no qualms with exposing yourself to something potentially toppling, and I hope I didn’t come across as dismissive. I do find his writing difficult, but I understand enough of it (or can clarify enough of it by using the dictionary/Wikipedia) to get SOME of what he’s saying. But, I often find that what he’s saying can be conveyed in easier terms than he is using. Glenn is fully capable of expressing himself in a way a more general audience can grasp what he’s saying. He does it in his books and in other places on the internet. But he’s not doing that on his blog. That indicates to me that it’s a conscious choice on his part. And I was trying to figure out why he made that decision. Again, I may be totally wrong and just pulling stuff out of my ass.

      <>

      I’m a bit confused about the link between this and the first part of your post? At any rate, here’s my two cents: Yes, I believe that quote was probably close-minded on the Dalai Lama’s part. To say that anyone who considers him/herself a Buddhist should believe what he believes. However, I always thought it was understood that the Dalai Lama is the head of his own particular school of Tibetan Buddhism, is he not? If I were a Buddhist (which, again, I’m not) who happened to disagree with him (which, I do), I would probably (1) not have chosen to follow his particular school to begin with, and (2) just ignored that particular quote as his own opinion (dogma), peculiar to his own tradition (and maybe not even shared by everyone in that tradition).

      I’m not saying “get over it” (and I don’t think Seth was, either). But, your experience seems very different from my own. It may well be quite different where you are or among the Buddhists you know. Most American Buddhists that I know personally tend to choose a particular center to attend from a particular tradition — say, Amaravati in England from the Thai Forest tradition, or the San Francisco Zen Center from the tradition of Shunryu Suzuki, or the Bhavana Society from Bhante Gunaratana’s Sri Lankan Theravada, or the Shambhala Centers of Chogyam Trungpa. And they’re aware that different schools may have widely different ideas from their own. They may even disagree with what’s being taught in their own centers. But they aren’t really bothered if someone says they’re not a “true Buddhist” if they don’t believe such and such. They don’t feel like heretics if the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh or whomever says something they don’t agree with.

      Is it different in your experience? If so, maybe describe what you’re seeing. I don’t think it’s helpful to tell people they are in denial if they genuinely have no experience with the problem you’re facing. We all operate in different social circles and have experiences with different centers. I think you’re in Europe? Maybe make a blog post describing specific instances you see of Buddhists you’ve met who have felt like they cannot speak out against dogma. It would go a long way in clarifying things and prevent misunderstanding.

      • Oops, the quotes didn’t show up. This is what it should have looked like:

        Hi Matthias.

        I don’t know what formatting code it used for these comments (does HTML code work here?), so forgive the somewhat clumsy way ‘ve organized it. I just quote your text and then respond below it:

        “yes it might not be easy-reading with Glenn. The point then would be to say – ok, to mind-boggling, I move on. But as one could see from reactions here and elsewhere, people sense that there is something which could topple their believe-system. Why should one be in fear of loosing a believe-system being buddhist? ”

        I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying here. Are you saying that, if one finds Glenn’s writing difficult, one should just move on? Or that they should stay in order to see what challenges his writings might posit for their belief systems? I think (not sure) that you’re saying the latter? If that’s so, I agree with you. I don’t see why anyone should be afraid of having their belief systems exposed to criticism. That’s a part of a mature practice, in my opinion. As Karl von Durkheim says: “Only to the point where a person exposes himself again and again to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found within him.”

        I should probably say that I don’t consider myself a Buddhist. I fell in love with Buddhism in college and still like a lot of Buddhist teaching, but ultimately came to the conclusion that I wasn’t really interested in the goals of Buddhist practice, that nirvana wasn’t my thing. So I have no qualms with exposing yourself to something potentially toppling, and I hope I didn’t come across as dismissive. I do find his writing difficult, but I understand enough of it (or can clarify enough of it by using the dictionary/Wikipedia) to get SOME of what he’s saying. But, I often find that what he’s saying can be conveyed in easier terms than he is using. Glenn is fully capable of expressing himself in a way a more general audience can grasp what he’s saying. He does it in his books and in other places on the internet. But he’s not doing that on his blog. That indicates to me that it’s a conscious choice on his part. And I was trying to figure out why he made that decision. Again, I may be totally wrong and just pulling stuff out of my ass.

        “I have written above, and I gave not so unimportant examples, that there are topics which one should not address as a good buddhist believer. The reaction more or less is, that everybody declares everything ok at their home-base. Problems are always elsewhere.

        No, as it goes, we just have a very nice example for a buddhist believe which two days ago has been declared buddhist dogma by “His Holiness the Dalai Lama”: Reincarnation.

        The Dalai Lama simply says: “As long as you are a Buddhist, it is necessary to accept past and future rebirth.“

        I know that there are a lot of buddhist who aren‘t any longer now. I wonder what they say? Now everybody in the american buddhist community who doesn‘t believe in reincarnation has a problem. You are declared heretic!”

        I’m a bit confused about the link between this and the first part of your post? At any rate, here’s my two cents: Yes, I believe that quote was probably close-minded on the Dalai Lama’s part. To say that anyone who considers him/herself a Buddhist should believe what he believes. However, I always thought it was understood that the Dalai Lama is the head of his own particular school of Tibetan Buddhism, is he not? If I were a Buddhist (which, again, I’m not) who happened to disagree with him (which, I do), I would probably (1) not have chosen to follow his particular school to begin with, and (2) just ignored that particular quote as his own opinion (dogma), peculiar to his own tradition (and maybe not even shared by everyone in that tradition).

        I’m not saying “get over it” (and I don’t think Seth was, either). But, your experience seems very different from my own. It may well be quite different where you are or among the Buddhists you know. Most American Buddhists that I know personally tend to choose a particular center to attend from a particular tradition — say, Amaravati in England from the Thai Forest tradition, or the San Francisco Zen Center from the tradition of Shunryu Suzuki, or the Bhavana Society from Bhante Gunaratana’s Sri Lankan Theravada, or the Shambhala Centers of Chogyam Trungpa. And they’re aware that different schools may have widely different ideas from their own. They may even disagree with what’s being taught in their own centers. But they aren’t really bothered if someone says they’re not a “true Buddhist” if they don’t believe such and such. They don’t feel like heretics if the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh or whomever says something they don’t agree with.

        Is it different in your experience? If so, maybe describe what you’re seeing. I don’t think it’s helpful to tell people they are in denial if they genuinely have no experience with the problem you’re facing. We all operate in different social circles and have experiences with different centers. I think you’re in Europe? Maybe make a blog post describing specific instances you see of Buddhists you’ve met who have felt like they cannot speak out against dogma. It would go a long way in clarifying things and prevent misunderstanding.

        • Hallo Rainer

          Regarding Glenn‘s style on speculative non-buddhism, I understand it that he takes there the freedom of experimenting and playing – in spiritu ludi – while at the same time looking at something which isn‘t so ease to grasp – the syntax of x-buddhism. This, as I see it, has to do with „believe systems“ and while you say „I don’t see why anyone should be afraid of having their belief systems exposed to criticism“, this is the problem: it is always a painful thing to have one‘s believe system scrutinized.

          This is because believe systems come with this build in I-know-this-is-not-a-believe-system feature. To identify this auto-immunizing sub-system, which renders the whole system invisible to the user so that it feels like a natural given, is, as I see it, the task of real buddhism and it is maybe also the undertaking of Glenn. Now, at once, if somebody talks about „real buddhism“, all alarms should go off: how should one know that this is not just another believe system? To get out of this catch-22 seems impossible, after all this is something which is ,defined‘ as inescapable!

          I think one must have this certain leaning to annihilation, to „get over it“, to get out of the ,definition‘. But personally I am not so sure if there is to find something indestructible: perhaps one has to go to this decisive situation, the possible annihilation, with the clear view that nothing indestructible might be found. That is real buddhism which is in the moment of naming it is rendered impossible.

          Personally I really think that is that what buddhism is all about – didn‘t someone say „kill the buddha if you meet him!“? – but this is not the contemporary buddhism of our times which is defined as being impossible to pull the trigger of the ejection seat to get out of this tailspinning, overloaded, not so highflying buddha bomber.

          That contemporary buddhism is unable to take a look into the mirror to see that it wears nothing but the emperor‘s new clothes is the overarching theme which is discussed here and elsewhere. This is also the link between the two parts which isn‘t clear to you, (I admit, I write not always in a way to explicate every link between thoughts). The flinching-post of Glenn, Seth‘s flinching reaction, my three hints above to other flinchings, this whole thread and now the Dalai Lama‘s statement have in common that it is all about „X-Buddhistic Hallucination“ (1). This means it is all about a believe system which believes it is none.

          I doubt if my personal experiences are very useful to clarify the thing. Instead of this bottom-up approach I prefer it top-down. The Dalai Lama-statement right now is a good example. There are lots of other examples in the Tibetan buddhist area how dogma is reigning. I am quite sure about my critical position in this area. It might be different in different buddhist clubs…

          But at last, for me it isn‘t about telling the emperor that he is a naked ape, neither it is about proselyting, it is about knowledge. If everybody else is clutching to the raft, they might carry it with them through the jungle, over the hills, to the mountains and down again, with the result, as in Herzog‘s Fitzcarraldo, in the end it goes down the rapids and ends as useless scrap.

          Thanks anyway for your patience, and nevermind nirvana ;-)

          (1) http://speculativenonbuddhism.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/x-buddhistic-hallucination/

          • Matthias,

            Here is an example of how Western Buddhists’s are reacting to the Dalai Lama’s statement:

            http://buddhism.about.com/b/2011/09/28/the-dalai-lama-and-the-golden-urn.htm

            Regarding your belief that Buddhism is a belief system that doesn’t believe it is a belief system, and that it’s beliefs are “invisible” and need to be made explicit by some deconstructive process, I can only express bafflement. Buddhism clearly is a self-admitted belief system, and it’s beliefs are quite explicit: Impermanence, emptiness, the unsatisfactoriness of all experiencing, non-self, karma, non-harming, etc. Some of these are empirically testable, some are non-empirical but are suceptible to logical analysis, and some are untestable by any public means. Buddhism never claims not to be a belief system. It’s our job as practitioners to sort these through and see which seem true to us and which do not.

            I also fail to see what’s wrong with having a belief system. You have your own which (probably) includes beliefs in some form of naturalism, monism, empiricism, etc. It is impossible to function without all sorts of beliefs. I personally believe the sun will rise tomorrow (at least at this latitude), and that it’s better to have some money than none at all. I believe in taking insulin for my diabetes. I believe democratic systems are better than autocratic ones. We need to understand our beliefs and the arguments and evidence for and against them — but we don’t need to free ourselves from beliefs.

  30. Seth,

    Your “get over it” reply to Matthias (not Matthew! and Rainer, not Ryan! Pay attention, Seth!) speaks shit loads.

    I perceive in your posts, comments, and responses to comments a stubborn refusal to engage all but the most trivial critiques of Buddhism/mindfulness. Several people, in this post and in the one on David Chapman, have carefully and intelligently articulated very serious critical points related to the reception of Buddhism in the contemporary West. (And they have obviously taken a good deal of time and trouble to do so.) Your response is always some version of “get over it.” Surely, you realize that that comment is patronizing and arrogant, don’t you? You create a strange image of yourself in your texts, Seth: at once pollyannish and self-righteously mean-spirited. I am not saying that you as a man fit this description; I am saying that the author of your texts does–to this reader’s eyes, at least.

    I would be the last person to criticize spirited discourse and combustible language. My issue with the “get over it” rhetoric of your entire blog is that it is reflexively dismissive of anything that challenges your understanding of Buddhism and mindfulness. Your responses to Matthias’s comments in this post are perfect examples of this. You do not, I assume, want to be perceived as being precious, do you? So, I have to ask: can you honestly not see the larger points that Matthias (and Sabio; and Chapman and others at the “Niceness” post) are making? Are you really content with dismissing them all with some version of “get over it”?

    In the language of my own critical theory, your writings here are a prime example of “ventriloquism:” Buddhism speaks; you just mouth the words. The words, moreover, are “buddhemes:” they are constructed from a borrowed vocabulary of someone else’s devising.

    It’s hard to have satisfying dialogue under such conditions.

    • Seth,
      I may have plenty of problems with Glenn’s writing (personally, given how clearly he enunciates his problem with your writing in the above comment, I am doubly perplexed at his seeming willfulness in being obscurant at his blog), but I must say I wholeheartedly agree with him here.

      Such a statement, made by someone held in such high esteem (warranted or not; I know plenty of folk who simply think he’s a pretty sharp politician, basically a good guy, but not “amazing.”) as the Dalai Lama can (and most likely will) fuel the flames of controversy.

      Had he expressed such a statement as a matter of opinion, no problem. But he doesn’t! Don’t you see how arrogant and dismissive he is when he says “if you are a buddhist it is NECESSARY to believe in past and future rebirth”?! As far as I am concerned, this is even worse than the “off the table, no questions allowed” I heard from Thich Nhat Hanh around his interpretation of one precept!

      When Bodihidharma was asked by Wu, for the “holy teaching of the buddha,” Bodhidharma responded: “Nothing holy; vast emptiness.” That is a challenge to all thinking people wishing to live authentically, to question what dogmas, perceptions, opinions, etc. we hold as “holy,” so sacrosanct as to be accepted uncritically.

      If I was so concerned about identifying as buddhist, I’d feel dishonored, disavowed and dismissed by this callous statement of the dalai lama’s. As well as your facile dismissal of anyone critical of it. “Get over it” indeed!

    • Just an aside in Seth’s defense, the email address I used here has the name Ryan in it. (That’s my real name. Rainer is just my online pseudonym and a tribute to my favorite poet (Rilke).)

    • Glenn,

      My writing is a pretty good reflection of who I am. Maybe a bit more polished than my everyday persona, but basically me, and I make no apologies for it. My “Get over it!” quip to Matthias was perhaps unfortunate, but it was intended as a humorous coda to a reply that addressed Matthias’s concerns directly. Matthias worries a good deal about thought control and psychological coercion in Buddhism. I am perhaps fortunate in that none of my many Buddhist teachers over the years have ever indulged in it. I have always felt free to experiment with the teachings and draw my own conclusions. And no one has ever cared all that much what conclusions I drew. I don’t deny that others have had different experiences with different teachers and different traditions. I just don’t think that their experiences should characterize the whole spectrum of Buddhisms — especially my corner of the Buddhist world where openness, debate, and discussion is the norm.

      Almost all our ideas come from somewhere else. (Was it Minsky or Dennett who first called the human mind a “nest of memes?”) Outside the fields of science and technology there are very few new ideas in the world. This is especially true when it comes to ethics and wisdom. We haven’t been able to improve all that much on the sages of Jasper’s Axial Age (Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Hebrew prophets, the Buddha, Lao-Tse, and Confucius). There isn’t any aspect of Buddhism I’m espousing, however, that hasn’t been thought through, tested, struggled with, and chewed over many years. If, in the end, I’ve adopted a fair number of Buddhist memes as my own, I again make no apologies.

      I try to address most differences with commenters with sincerity and respect — albeit, sometimes with a bit of humor when I think that people could benefit from “lightening up.” Most commenters keep coming back, so I assume they derive something of value from the exchange.

  31. Hey Wallis, Mathias, Matthew, Rainer, Ryan, et al – As Seth said, the Dalai Lama is not the Pope. The Dalai Lama is merely expressing his opinion. He has a right to his own opinion, doesn’t he? I mean you folks are claiming that discussion in Buddhism is being stifled, and yet you seem to want to stifle the Dalai Lama. Jeez, get over it indeed. Not only that, he is a qualified teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, and that’s the perspective he’s speaking from, and since, he is not infallible, he could be wrong. In fact, Tibetan Buddhism could be wrong about a point or two. Technically speaking, Buddhism does not teach “reincarnation.” It teaches “rebirth.” There’s a difference.

    You people seem to feel that the Dalai Lama is taking it upon himself to speak for all Buddhists. But aren’t you doing the same thing? You are pushing certain issues as if they are based on universal experiences. “Now everybody in the american buddhist community who doesn‘t believe in reincarnation has a problem.” I’m in the American Buddhist community. I don’t believe in reincarnation. I don’t have a problem. You have no right to speak for me. Speak for yourself only. It is hypocritical for you to criticize the Dalai Lama for doing the exact same thing you are doing.

    Where you guys get the idea that discussion in Buddhism is being stifled beats me. You must have fertile imaginations (that’s putting it kindly) because that’s the only place I can guess your phony issues spring from . . . unless, you got them from the King of Siam, after all, according to David Chapman, he invented Western Buddhism.

  32. David,

    Did you READ the comments above?

    As I wrote, if he had framed his statement AS an opinion, there’d be no debate about this. But what he said was: “Therefore, as long as you are a Buddhist, it is necessary to accept past and future rebirth.”

    If I had said, “As long as you are a buddhist, you MUST ACCEPT….” (fill in the blank), I’m guessing you’d take an offense if it were something you didn’t accept.

    But, being non-dogmatic (I have students who do accept rebirth, while I do not; no one has to accept my beliefs to study with me) I would never say such a thing. I happily share my opinion and even my reasons for my opinions and beliefs, but I do not insist you must hold them as well in order for me to consider you a buddhist (if that’s indeed how you self-identify).

    Over and over I have heard teachers profess that buddhism is non-dogmatic, and not a matter of belief or philosophy AND then spout exactly beliefs and philosophy! I’ve been taught that buddhism requires a questioning mind — as long as you don’t question the particular teacher or lineage that is being espouse. To deny that this occurs, you either have been living in denial or in a cave.

    • Frank, no one is saying that you can’t criticize the Dalai Lama. All I’m saying is do it fairly. You are taking the statement completely out of context (as I see it). Have you read the Dalai Lama’s entire statement? His is talking about his own “reincarnation” and the subject of rebirth within the context of Tibetan Buddhism. I think it is understood among most reasonable persons who are somewhat familiar with the Dalai Lama that he is not speaking for or to all Buddhists. He is not representing the view of Zen, Tendai, Nichiren, Theravada etc. He would also be the first to acknowledge that.

      Perhaps the sentence could have been worded differently, but keep in mind this is a formal statement by the issued by the head of the Gelug sect of Tibet, which begins with these words: “My fellow Tibetans, both in and outside Tibet, all those who follow the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and everyone who has a connection to Tibet and Tibetans” . . . So, he is not necessarily speaking to you or me, and certainly not for us.

      On one hand, you are being critical because you perceive him as acting in the role of a Pope, but then on the other hand, you’re putting him in that role. Furthermore, here you are, seeming to insist that Buddhism be non-dogmatic, with no beliefs. Who decreed that? Don’t get me wrong, I am not a big fan of dogma either. While I might disagree with someone even about being dogmatic, I recognize that they have a right to see things how they wish.

      • @Matthias, David, Frank & Ryan

        First, of all, my apologies to Matthias for mistakenly referring to you as Matthew! Mea Culpa!

        Secondly, re: the Dalai Lama’s recent statement. The quote in question is part of a larger discussion of the Tulku system, and how/whether to identify the next Dalai Lama. I have bolded the part of the text in question — it was not bolded in the original.

        “In order to accept reincarnation or the reality of Tulkus, we need to accept the existence of past and future lives. Sentient beings come to this present life from their previous lives and take rebirth again after death. This kind of continuous rebirth is accepted by all the ancient Indian spiritual traditions and schools of philosophy, except the Charvakas, who were a materialist movement. Some modern thinkers deny past and future lives on the premise that we cannot see them. Others do not draw such clear cut conclusions on this basis.

        Although many religious traditions accept rebirth, they differ in their views of what it is that is reborn, how it is reborn, and how it passes through the transitional period between two lives. Some religious traditions accept the prospect of future life, but reject the idea of past lives.

        Generally, Buddhists believe that there is no beginning to birth and that once we achieve liberation from the cycle of existence by overcoming our karma and destructive emotions, we will not be reborn under the sway of these conditions. Therefore, Buddhists believe that there is an end to being reborn as a result of karma and destructive emotions, but most Buddhist philosophical schools do not accept that the mind-stream comes to an end. To reject past and future rebirth would contradict the Buddhist concept of the ground, path and result, which must be explained on the basis of the disciplined or undisciplined mind. If we accept this argument, logically, we would also have to accept that the world and its inhabitants come about without causes and conditions. Therefore, as long as you are a Buddhist, it is necessary to accept past and future rebirth.”

        The way I parse this, the Dalai Lama is referring to a belief in rebirth as being a “logical necessity,” a logical consequence of other Buddhist beliefs necessary to achieve logical consistency within his belief system. It’s not intended as a litmus test to determine who is a “real” Buddhist or not.

        To restate, I don’t find this statement to be particularly coercive or insulting. His Holiness is making the best case he can for his beliefs — ones I happen not to believe myself, but that’s neither here nor there. I can understand how the wording might be construed otherwise and set off alarm bells, especially for those who feel victimized by psychological coercion in the past, and I think that’s unfortunate. But the way I read it, that is not the underlying intention.

  33. I am also sorely disappointed both with Seth’s dismissive responses and his evaluation of what is being said. Then to hear him say he has absolutely no intent to apologize was icing on the cake.

    I agree wholeheartedly with both the 1:01 PM 9/26 response by Glenn Wallis and with the 1:34 PM 9/26 response by Frank Jude. I think Seth would do well to read them over once more.

    But I imagine Seth and David “Endless”, busy with self-congratulatory five-highs, are not surprised that I would agree with their evaluations.

    PS, Seth,
    After a day of reading the nice orderly e-mails of responses to your post that showed up in chronological order on my smart phone, I come to your site to respond but those orderly responses are scattered all over and the time line is destroyed by your hierarchy of posts.
    Let me guess, you “make no apologies” – that is the way you like it.

    • @Sabio. Disappointed that I am not offended by the Dalai Lama’s statement on rebirth? Disappointed that I disagree with Matthias’s evaluation of the state of free thought in the Buddhaverse? Disappointed that I think Western Buddhism is healthy and well, and that “Consensus Buddhism” is a caricature? Disappointed that I find Glenn’s theorizing often uninterpretable and that I disagree with many of his key points to the extent that I can interpret them? All of the above? They are what I happen to unapologetically believe.

      Sabio, I wrote my last two posts with you specifically in mind because you had asked what I thought of David’s and Glenn’s websites in comments to my previous posts. I thought I owed you a more in depth answer than my short answers in the comments sections allowed. I know of your admiration for David and Glenn and am not surprised that you disagree with my posts. I hope they have been sufficiently clear so that you can understand in what ways I disagree with them and why. I knew we would not see eye to eye, but I thought it worthwhile to explain myself.

      I also prefer the current comment hierarchy structure to chronological order. I appreciate that you don’t like it, but I have given it some thought and prefer it this way. I am not doing it to aggravate you.

  34. Some of you have been rather unfair to Seth here. He has posted some very detailed, reasonable responses to most of the comments. You take 3 words (Get over it) out of a 234 word response, manufacture an issue with it, and then when Seth offers a thoughtful explanation, in which he admits that the 3 words “was perhaps unfortunate”, that is still not good enough. Pretty damn cheeky, if you ask me.

    I don’t feel that Seth has been dismissive at all, in fact I think he has been extremely patient. The problem is that he disagrees, as he has a right to, and that is what you guys can’t handle. How arrogant it is to come to someone’s blog and insist that they see things your way. Not to mention criticize the blog owner for the way he arranges comments, the photos he uses, and all the other little gripes I’ve read in this thread over past few weeks.

    1:01 PM 9/26 response by Glenn Wallis: ad hominem attack. Little more need be said about that.

    1:34 PM 9/26 response by Frank Jude: I think Seth pointed out that he was taking the Dalai Lama’s comment out of context. Now if anyone thinks that is wrong, fine. But to imply that Seth didn’t understand the issue and needs to read it again, as has been suggested several times, is insulting.

    Why should anyone have to apologize for stating his or her opinion? If you folks don’t like words like “mindfulness”, “Buddhism”, “joy” etc., then don’t use them. Why do you feel compelled to criticize others because they do? What makes you think that everyone who uses the word mindfulness has a shallow understanding of it? How you know that one remark from the Dalai Lama causes problems for all American Buddhists? Where is your proof that discussion in Western Buddhism is being stifled? It’s one thing to make outrageous claims based on gross generalizations, and quite another to provide reasoned arguments that another person should take seriously.

    I thought Seth’s response to Frank Jude was very good. Better than mine. I thought I would say so. But even this is a crime. You want to tell me what I can say? How I can respond? That’s certainly the upshot of your criticism. There is an apt analogy from history here but it might be bit too provocative, so let’s just say that I am thinking of a certain character in an episode of Seinfeld and . . . soup.

      • A beer together would be good. That was what I was thinking when I saw lining up the posts in my e-mail late last night.

        Let me say only two or three words to clarify my perspective. And please understand that this is „in a nutshell“ and grossly simplified. I am writing in a blog here and am not doing an essay.

        First. When I say „Dalai Lama“, I mean a pop-star. I mean his picture via the media. Through the media he is multiplied thousandfold and he is becoming more and more the one great exemplar of buddhism. In this perspective his words have a different significance than when he would speak as a local leader of a buddhist community.

        Second. The „Statement of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, on the Issue of His Reincarnation“ as I read it now is a mixture of three aspects. The Dalai Lama is speaking a) about the Tibetan tulku-system, which is rather special in the buddhist world. He is even referring to the Mani Kumbum the earliest known tibetan text in which reincarnation is mentioned. b) He is referring to „the buddhist“ who has to believe in reincarnation and not to „the tibetan buddhist“. c) He is obviously addressing a political problem here: „his reincarnation“ visa-vie chinese politics.

        Third. The last point, politics, could be the reason why he is speaking about „the buddhist“ and not about „the tibetan buddhist“. If he would use the latter term, chinese politics could easily dismiss his statement as just one more instance of „the perverted tibetan way of buddhism“. To avoid this Tenzin Gyatso, or his whispering advisors, have to speak about „the buddhist“.

        Fourth. The political phrasing is understandable but it gets complicated together with the media aspect. Surely Tenzin Gyatso would not regard himself as infallible I think, but his followers, a lot but not all Tibetans and a lot of people in the west, often see him as such. When he says „buddhists have to believe in reincarnation“ and this is multiplied via the media, then this is the law now.

        Fifth. I don‘t think Tenzin Gyatso is doing his case a favor at all. The chinese will laugh at him. It is clearly visible that he is ,talking his position‘ and by doing this he and/or his advisors aren‘t very clever. Look at this sentence: „In order to accept reincarnation or the reality of Tulkus, we need to accept the existence of past and future lives.“ It states an apparent empirical reality and then goes on to formulate the metaphysical necessities to prove it. This is what one calls an ad-hoc theory. So whole argumentation in favor of reincarnation he unfolds is serving the case but it is not necessarily true. This, by the way, I think, is a great example of x-buddhism in the working.

        Sixth. Is this a problem for all buddhists or for anybody here? Maybe not but as I see it, it serves as an example for what Glenn is pointing out. It is not about Dalai Lama-bashing but it is about how buddhism is perceived, developed, re- and deconstructed… and the latter is the main point because one can read, I think, buddhism as the question: What do I perceive and what can I say about the status of this?

        To put it short, let‘s go drink a beer.

        • Matthias,

          We agree that His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s statement was essentially a political statement designed to make it more difficult for any potential Chinese-designated successor to have legitimacy with the Tibetan people. We also agree that the Dalai Lama’s words have more “importance” than mine or yours because he is 1) the religious head of the Gelugpa school, 2) the head (at least for now) of a government in exile, and 3) a media icon (although we might legitimately ask, “an icon of what?” A recent Pew poll on religious literacy showed the majority of Americans — 53% — don’t know the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist!)

          What will be the effect of this statement on freedom of thought about rebirth?

          I suspect very little.

          Firstly, as most Tibetans already believe in rebirth, the Dalai Lama’s reassertion of it is a case of bringing coal to Newcastle.

          Secondly, my guess (I could be wrong here) is that media attention to the Dalai Lama’s statement outside the Tibetan community will focus on its political content vis a vis China, and not even allude to the sentence that you find offensive. Most people, most Buddhists, will never come across it unless they go looking for it.

          Third, as I stated in my previous post, the statement you are objecting to is really a statement of logical necessity (“If you believe in X, Y, and Z, you must logically also believe in Q,” in other words, {X,Y, and Z} imply Q)) rather than a statement that a belief in rebirth is a sin qua non of being a Buddhist. It’s not intended as a litmus test, or a fatwa on Buddhists who don’t believe in rebirth.

          Fourth, most of the non-Tibetan Buddhist community really couldn’t care less whether the Dalai Lama thinks believing in rebirth is a logical necessity for Buddhists. They already know he believes in it, and have already formed their own opinion about whether they believe in it or not.

          Fifth, I agree some Western Buddhists (especially those studying within the Gelugpa tradition) will give this statement more weight simply because it was said by the Dalai Lama. We all have sources we regard as more compelling than other sources because of our prior beliefs. I am more likely to believe something said by Paul Krugman, for example, than something said by Rush Limbaugh. The world is filled with people who are opinion makers and influencers. There is nothing necessarily evil about this process. We all are swayed by famous people we admire and identify with in some way as being “one of us.” Illogical, but true. Could this cause an intellectual crisis for some vulnerable person who now feels he must give up his former skepticism about rebirth? It’s possible. This is very far from you concerns, however, that “all” Buddhists or “most” Buddhists, or even “many” Buddhists will be put in a quandry by this statement, or that Buddhists can now not openly discuss certain things.

          ‘Nuf said. School’s out. Beer is on the house.

  35. Seth,

    I wanted to respond to a comment of yours above, but there’s no “Reply” at the end of that particular comment, so here’s what I am particularly responding to:

    “Regarding your belief that Buddhism is a belief system that doesn’t believe it is a belief system, and that it’s beliefs are “invisible” and need to be made explicit by some deconstructive process, I can only express bafflement. Buddhism clearly is a self-admitted belief system, and it’s beliefs are quite explicit: Impermanence, emptiness, the unsatisfactoriness of all experiencing, non-self, karma, non-harming, etc. Some of these are empirically testable, some are non-empirical but are suceptible to logical analysis, and some are untestable by any public means. Buddhism never claims not to be a belief system. It’s our job as practitioners to sort these through and see which seem true to us and which do not.”

    I think I understand where Matthias is coming from, and I find it hard to believe you’ve not experienced what I have — most recently at Spirit Rock where I co-taught a retreat with five other teachers. I was invited to offer one Dharma Talk, and after hearing each and everyone of the others begin their talks by saying “Buddhism/Dharma is not a philosophy and doesn’t offer beliefs or doctrines… etc. etc.”

    So, I began my talk by saying that what I was about to offer was philosophy, and that despite what my colleagues had said, so was what they spoke about after their disclaimers!

    Have you really never heard any western teachers deny that buddhism has a philosophy/metaphysics/doctrines/beliefs?

    I hear that you personally are ‘above-board’ about buddhism involving belief systems — and I, like you, find no problem with that — as long as they are made visible and conscious. One of my philosophy teachers was often heard to say that the most dangerous metaphysics are unconscious metaphysics.

    Again, your position seems to be mine as well. I am just commenting here on what seems your belief that all other buddhists are as above board about having beliefs as you are. And again, that is most certainly NOT my experience, sadly.

    • Thanks, Frank, for your clarifying anecdote about your recent experience at Spirit Rock! Wow! I can honestly say that I have never heard anyone say that before — but you have heard it at least five times. Matthias’s criticism is right on the money as far as those statements are concerned.

      The only sense I can make of what those teachers were (charitably) trying to say is this: People often want to know what Buddhism is. Is it a religion? Is it a philosophy? Is it a psychology? My answer usually is that it contains elements of all of the above. For some people (most self-identified Buddhists) it is a religion, it certainly contains a great deal of philosophizing, and it also contains a proto-psychology (and some interesting parallels to “therapy”). But for me its none-of-the-above — it’s a “way-of-life.” In that sense, and only that sense, Buddhism isn’t a philosophy. In ancient Greece philosophy was both a belief system and something to be lived, but in the contemporary West philosophy has come to be stripped of its sense of being a way-of-life to be practiced, and tends to mean only a system of tenets — to that extent, calling it a “philosophy” can be a little misleading to listeners. But it certainly has explicit tenets of belief!

      • Yes, I’ve experienced the same thing at an IMS “Insight” retreat, where a protege of Goldstein gave a whole talk on belief being a necessary “part of the path”. Belief in the Buddha’s “enlightenment”, (whatever that is to be (seems more of an entrance into fantasy and delusion)). Belief in your teacher (just another entrance into projection of one’s fantasies than anything else). It is all so fundamentally the basis of religion. So this is what all these teachers are promoting all down the line here in the states. Seems like the majority of striving teachers all want to believe and follow along lockstep in the promoting of the beliefs and fantasies of Buddhism. As it is being taught by the Spirit Rock/IMS franchise it is a religion.

        • Having to believe in the Buddha’s Enlightenment or the attainment and wisdom of one’s own teacher before one begins is a non-starter for people of our temperament. We need to go through life doubting and struggling with everything.

          It’s enough, for me, to begin with, to hear the Dharma, have parts of it resonate deeply with what one already believes, have the curiosity to want to learn more for oneself, and to put provisional trust in the teacher, to the extent that they make an initial promising impression, which then gets tested over time through experience. Once one finds a good teacher, that doesn’t mean one believes everything they believe. They are only human. But an ongoing relationship with a teacher who you “get” and who “gets” you is an important part of the path.

          You have to start somewhere, with at least interest, and with a provisional trust (hope?) that there might be something there. In my own experience, IMS teachers suggested a kind of provisional faith (saddha) that got verified (or not) over time through one’s own experience — not dogmatic belief.

          I suspect we disagree about Buddhism, however. As a Zen practitioner, I have no problem with the religious aspects of Buddhism. The term “religion” isn’t (at least for me) an offensive term of derision or abuse. I find some of the accoutrements of religious practice helpful as long as they aren’t taken too literally. I enjoy the chanting and ritual and bowing and incense. I also understand that they are not everyone’s cup of tea.
          But as Dogen suggests in one koan, one can read sutras, etc. wearing blinders so that one does not end up clinging to them.

          • The problem is these same lay teachers say Buddhism isn’t a religion. I’ve seen this duplicitous stance many times.

            This ploy of bait and switch tactics goes up the chain of origination, from the lay teachers to the monks.
            I saw Ajahnn Sumedho give a talk on his way to retirement in Thailand where he pronounced the good news that there is more than this life! So I asked him what experience he had that he based this knowledge on, and did it occur in a meditative state. He ignored the question, like a slick lying politician, and gave me a basic dharma instruction. This is one example of that duplicity in action.

            I began learning about Buddhism based on the presentation of it being not a religion and that I could know for myself. Only later did it become all too clear that under the teachers’ layers of denial there is that layer of belief in Jack Kornfield’s words of “magic happening.”

          • I am actually responding to David’s comment/response to you, Seth, but there was no “Reply” button at the end of his comment!

            David: “Bait and Switch” is exactly the way I describe it, and interestingly, I looked over my complete collection of Tricycle and found that indeed, in the earlier editions, the “rationality,” “pragmatism” is emphasized and “religiosity” tends to be downplayed. That was similar as well to all I heard from buddhist teachers in the 70s and 80s.

            THEN, a shift began to happen. Now, pick up a Tricycle and there is a subtle (and often blatant) put-down of secular buddhism. Yeah, they interview Stephen Batchelor in one recent issue, but the whole rest of the articles speak to how arrogant ‘we’ contemporary/westerners are to think we can ‘cherry-pick’ and deny what the buddhist tradition has held “true” and sacred!

          • Welcome back, Frank! I think at least part of the problem here is that Buddhism occupies an ambiguous place when it comes to categories of religion, philosophy, and way of life. It shares aspects of all three, yet doesn’t fit neatly into any. You can choose to emphasize one side of the tradition or another, depending on your mood and the day of the week. You can select out parts of the tradition and naturalize others and turn it into a non-religion, or you can accept it as a religion, and then decide whether you are orthodox or reform. Every point of view will have its adherents, and every point of view will have its critics who will explain why it is illegitimate. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

            I had the pleasure of running into Ted Meissner at the CFM conference last month, and we got to discussing my own ambivalence about Secular Buddhism. While we share an inability to believe in reincarnation and un-naturalized karma, and I lean towards materialism, I am less certain that the materialist conception of reality is fully true because I don’t think we fully understand materiality. I also value a sense of the sacred — akin to Schweitzer’s “reverence for life”– that I feel is somehow missing from more rationalist takes on Buddhism. That subjective sense of the sacred — and by sacred I don’t mean a realm separate from the material realm — but that all beings and things participate in the sacred and are deserving or care and respect — that sense is existential ground-rock for me. Sitting puts me in contact with that awareness of the sacred, and I don’t know how to put that into purely rationalist terms.

            I can’t really comment on Tricycle’s changing tilt, I haven’t really kept up with the magazine in recent years.

          • Seth, I agree that buddhist teachings in and of themselves needn’t be taken as a “religion.” To be accurate, that’s actually an anachronism, as the concept “religion” wasn’t even operative at the time of the buddha. What I am criticizing is what I see as the intellectual dishonesty in those teachers who downplay THEIR OWN religious perspective to appeal to potential students AND THEN they spring the religion on them. THAT I’ve seen over and over again in contemporary western buddhism.

            As you know, I reject “literal” rebirth/reincarnation and take a naturalist perspective (thus a form of materialism) AND of course, the concept of “material” itself is quite a koan!

            However, I think the following quote from Ann Druyan about Carl Sagan shows how what I think you may mean by “sacred” (though, as you point out, the literal meaning does imply something ‘set apart’ which I DO reject) and “reverence” which is a big part of my understanding, practice and orientation:

            “He never understood why anyone would want to separate science, which is just a way of searching for what is true, from what we hold sacred, which are those truths that inspire and awe. His argument was not with God but with those who believed that our understanding of the sacred had been completed. Sciences’s permanently revolutionary conviction that the search for truth never ends seemed to him the only approach with sufficient humility to be worthy of the universe it revealed. The methodology of science, with its error-correcting mechanism for keeping us honest in spite of our chronic tendencies to project, to misunderstand, to deceive ourselves and others, seemed to him the height of spiritual discipline. If you are searching for sacred knowledge and not just a palliative for your fears, then you will train yourself to be a good sceptic.”

            I think it a sad commentary on our culture that this noble word has become something of a pejorative. It simply means “thoughtful” from the Greek skepscepticus and its Latin derivative, scepticus means “inquiring” and “reflective.”

            You may be interested in this very first post I made (it was a letter I wrote to Shambhala Sun that they chose not to publish) to my Zen Naturalism blog which I ended with the following quote from Carl Sagan’s Gifford Lectures, where he succinctly states the position of scientific materialism:

            “I think this search does not lead to complacent satisfaction that we know the answer, not an arrogant sense that the answer is before us and we need do only one more experiment to find it out. It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us.”

            This is the kind of Dharma I can fully accept and practice with integrity.

            http://zennaturalism.blogspot.com/2008/01/as-both-yoga-teacher-and-dharma-teacher.html

          • Frank, thanks for the quotes regarding Carl Sagan, and for clarifying your comments. You are an ardent proponent of your point of view, and you present it well. My problem with the New Atheism isn’t its substantiative points, but that the questions that absorb and animate the New Atheists — the debunking of all religious and psi phenomena and the championing of the scientific method as the sole route to understanding — are part of a crusade that just doesn’t engage or interest me. I feel no anti-religious animus, am open to the possibility of some phi phenomena as being valid, and am open to the validity of non-scientific approaches to knowledge, especially in areas such as mathematics, logic, ethics, and aesthetics. There is a kind of scientific imperialism afoot that is just not my cup of tea.

            I understand that you have a deep appreciation for “don’t know mind” and aren’t among the arrogant, and I’m glad Carl Sagan wasn’t either. And of course scientists have a deep and wonderful capacity for awe and wonder in the face of the natural world. I’m not sure that “awe and wonder” are the same thing as reverence, however. If so, they could never dissect a lab rat without some accompanying sense of regret and grief.

          • Yes Frank, that is part of the intellectual climate at work here. Also there is the grasping onto science to both uphold Buddhist beliefs and at the same time a denial of sciences’ concepts.

            I had a rupture around this with my own teacher. Seems that to understand oneself as an emergent phenomena with consciousness based upon the brain/body isn’t Buddhist. Within his understanding it is clear he believes consciousness is universal and endless. But he hides from actually stating this of course. Atman buried below!

            Given neurosciences understandings on consciousness it becomes very clear that what can be known about consciousness first hand in meditation and in life are its effects, and is limited by how consciousness “knows”. Buddhism is a phenomenal study of effects, but much can never be known through such firsthand investigations. Reading on people with neurological difficulties reveals much more about the construction of consciousness than any “insight” could ever attain. But these understandings are threatening to the religious aims of Buddhism.

            Look at how Buddhists are co-opting and validating Buddhism using science, with all the referencing to quantum physics, where believers try to validate the mind/consciousness as universal and primary to the external world. From my reading on this subject, this mistaken notion comes from various physicists themselves using the word “observation”, which implies a human consciousness, in descriptions where inference of physical events is what is happening, at levels below where any possible human observation can take place. A sloppy use of description revealing the desire to place humanity at the center. All this just because the results did not fit the current understanding of the physical environment. Once again there is the tendency to reinsert humans as being central and necessary when understandings fall short. Bada-bing! Buddhism is right!!! Yet nothing changed from a consciousness in these experiments.

            Then comes the blaming of scientific thinking for creating destructive knowledge… look at all the problems we face in our technological world. Never considering humans made choices on how to utilize the knowledge. Why is the knowledge itself to blame? Oh woe such logic.

  36. I see this is a pretty old post, but I wanted to chip in and say that I agree with your analysis of ‘speculative non-Buddhism’. I discovered it too around the time this was written but after perusing some of the articles, decided not to subscribe to it. There is something vital missing from that analysis.

    • Jonathan, I’ve continued to return to Glenn Wallis’s site to read each new post. Unfortunately, my opinion remains largely unchanged. My main reaction continues to be one of disappointment. I keep hoping for something genuinely interesting, but the material seems mostly repetitive, jargony, self-congratulatory, and even worse, vacuous — there’s no real “there” there. The site recently listed me as one of the “most egregious” reviewers who either “did not read the basic material describing the project, or read it but didn’t understand,” stating that I “could only bewail the un-buddhisty (hence, necessarily wrong) tone of my language.” Well I understood it as best I could — some of the jargon was impenetrable, I’m afraid, and I did find the tone offensive, but I also disagreed with what seemed Wallis’s main point — that one had to destroy Buddhism if one was going to rediscover whether there was anything of value in it, and that anyone standing within the Buddhist tent, anyone in love with Buddhism, was incapable of seeing its faults or thinking clearly about it, and that Buddhism itself was an impediment to finding one’s own way to intimately touching the real. Well yes, if you find the Buddha on the road, kill him. But we Buddhists already know that.

      • The most problematic part of the Wallis discourse is the fact that he proposes to critique Buddhism through the use of the term x-buddhism whereby everyone else falls into this category but himself and his blogger buddies, yet they themselves have clearly not left Buddhism behind, and thus are themselves promoting x-buddhism itself. Ah, but he controls the term (having created it) and its signifier, and will exclude himself from its reference. Disingenuous tactics and illogical at its base.

        • It does seem a bit sad that folks who see nothing worthwhile in Buddhism devote so much of their energy to still talking about it. One might hope they might spend more time and energy talking about what they do believe — to offer an alternative vision — to describe what their own practice of sitting and inquiry reveals for them. Glenn has hinted in a recent post that he might just move on at some point. Of course that would mean letting go of all the years he spent developing and cultivating his knowledge and expertise about the Buddhist tradition, not an easy thing to do. Right now that past is still clung to, if only as the basis of a critique. I don’t see that as his being disingenuous. You have to start where you are, and right now he’s preoccupied with disillusionment and a need to shake others up in consequence.

          Practice, it seems to me, is a continual letting go, dropping off and letting come to be. I hope he finds a way to cultivate and promulgate a more positive vision, even if it turns out to be one I largely disagree with.

          • I subscribed to the comments of this post, so these things keep coming into my in-box and I can’t help but add my two cents worth. Well, I suppose I could help it, but that wouldn’t be any fun.

            I am in agreement with parts of what everyone (Seth, Frank, David S.) have written. Buddhism is a religion, a discipline, a way of life, a form of yoga, a state of mind – it embraces all these things, and then goes beyond. I believe it exists in a category that we haven’t fully considered: a marga, a path, a Tao, a “Do” (Japanese). And it is important to point out that, as Frank mentioned, there was not religion as we understand that word in the Buddha’s time, nor was the Buddha a “religious” figure. On the other hand, having some “religious” elements is just fine in moderation.

            I believe it was Emile Durkheim who coined “sense of the sacred.” He defined Buddhism as a non-theistic religion and also as a system of beliefs centered around a community. What was “sacred” was the individual and by extension, society. We can enlarge that a bit to say that life itself is sacred.

            My beef with “speculative non-buddhism” is that it’s just the ramblings of some folks infatuated with their own intellect who have nothing constructive to offer. My beef with Batchelor is that I see nothing wrong with beliefs. You don’t have to believe in everything Buddhism offers, and what you do believe doesn’t have to fall in line exactly with how others believe – dharma is broad enough for that. At the same time, to have a closed mind and the attitude of “I will accept this, but not that” will not get you very far. It’s better to have an open mind and give what you are uncomfortable with some consideration in the beginning, which I suspect few of folks who latch onto Secular Buddhism are willing to do.

            In general, I am sympathetic with much of the Secular Buddhist point of view, but I don’t see a need to create another “ism” or faction around it. Buddhism is fractured enough.

          • Thanks David for your suggestion regarding marga and tao. It’s what I had meant to say when I used the term “way of life,” but you made it much clearer, and “way of life” can sound weak, like a synonym for “lifestyle,” rather than the Way. Thanks also for your referencing Durkheim in regard to the “sacred.” We are in accord.

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