As discussed in my previous post, arguably Western Buddhism at large holds to a reductive image of practice, centered around an instrumentalist conception of meditation practice. Borrowing from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the image of thought, Glenn Wallis coined the phrase image of practice as a means of critiquing the orthodox conception of dharma practice in Western Buddhism and the various ideological postulates that inform it (1). In this post, taking a step back from the concerns discussed in my first post, I will attempt to analyse the basic assumptions about what constitutes practice in a Western Buddhist context. Towards these ends, I draw primarily on Louis Althusser’s definition of practice, as defined in his 1975 essay What is Practice?, in order to isolate a number of components of practice in general — which is to say practice as a basic form of human activity. These components will then be used as a framework to discuss Western Buddhist practice in specific, analysing the given assumptions Western Buddhism holds in regard to what constitutes dharma practice as such. These points of critique will then serve as departure points to introduce lines of discussion that attempt to critique and reorient how we understand the notion of practice qua dharma practice.
Practice indicates an active relationship with the real.
As Wallis has pointed out, throughout its history, Buddhism has employed a host of ‘first names’ for the real, from suffering to emptiness, and otherwise (Wallis, 2019). In a context of Western Buddhism it strikes me that the prevailing first name, rather than being one extrapolated from the classical Buddhist canon is in fact that of ‘experience’ (2). If we are to take this rendering as a working assumption here (despite its obvious problems, which are outside of the scope of the specific discussion), we can understand dharma practice as operating on or in the grounds of one’s experience, where experience is turn in understood to imply the relation of self and world, or self and other. In this sense, practice is understood to engender a shift in the grounds of experience, and the overcoming of, or more modestly, a decrease in, suffering, understood in subjective or inter-subjective/social terms, as we will discuss in the next section.
Implied in the notion of practice, is the intention to act, and a plan of action that precedes and informs act.
Proceeding on from the previous point, the intention to act, more or less universally across Buddhism historically, and here Western Buddhism seems to be no exception, proceeds from “the truth of suffering” as per the four noble truths. In a sense all of Buddhism proceeds from this basic assumption, albeit conceived of in different terms; for example in early Buddhism and the Theravada, suffering seems to be framed as a subjective existential matter to be resolved individually albeit with the support of others, whereas in the Mahayana it comes to be seen more in inter-subjective or social terms, as the Mahayanist vows to save all sentient beings from suffering. From these different conceptions of suffering, different paths or ‘plans of action,’ are elaborated which direct practice, in an attempt to intervene in experience to resolve what is understood to be the fundamental condition of suffering. Within a Western Buddhist context the tendency has generally been to conceive of suffering as a subjective existential matter, and as such to conceive of a plan of action that is inherently orientated towards ‘personal salvation’ from suffering as it were. While this project is not of course ignoble in an of itself, nevertheless, it is problematic and limited in that, for one, arguably both our subjectivity and our suffering are socially constituted (3).
Is it enough to seek to overcome or more commonly simply reduce our experience of individual suffering as seems to be the aim of the dominant forms of Western Buddhism? The aspiration towards awakening that was once so central to Buddhist practice seems to be seen as fairly optional as a belief or aspiration in Western Buddhism, and it is increasingly contested as to what exactly it initials. Thinkers such as the Buddhist studies scholar Dale S. Wright have proposed that we need to fundamentally reimagine the nature of enlightenment within a contemporary context (Wright, 2016). While others, such as the philosopher and advocate of Buddhist naturalism, Owen Flanagan, have suggested that we should replace it with the notion of ‘human flourishing’ or ‘eudaimonia’ (4). While I am not interested in making a prescriptive statement towards these ends here, nevertheless, I think it is paramount that we continue to critically interrogate how the goal of practice is conceived (as well as the axiomatic conditions from which it proceeds), and by extension what form the plan of action that proceeds from this assumed ends will necessarily take, rather than simply taking them as given.
Practice is always tied up with language and representation, with theory, that informs and frames it as a mode of intervention in the real.
In the context of Western Buddhism theory tends to be conceived of as separate and distinct from practice. In the most reductive sense practice comes to be framed as simply seated meditation practice, which is often seen to be a ‘value free’ technique or technology. Meditative experience, is understood to not be produced, constructed, or mediated as such by technique, but rather given or innate, and is often universalised. This view strikes me as fundamentally problematic, and I think we need to accept at minimum, a soft form of constructivism wherein practice is seen to actively co-constitute and mediate subjective experience. Indeed this requires moving from a perspective wherein the theories of mind, and ‘maps of experience,’ that are always already implicit in practice, are seen to be, not simply descriptive, but rather prescriptive in that they come to co-constitutive or co-produce our experience as such (5). This co-constitution should be seen as fairly explicit given that clearly the underlying theory of mind and maps of meditative experience are embodied in the meditative techniques themselves on a basic level — coding on a micro level how one mediates ones attention and awareness, defining what they focus on, the degree and scope of that focus, if they have an explicit object of focus at all or hold a more open awareness, or even simply ‘do nothing.’ Furthermore, the phenomena experienced in meditation are understood to be meaningful (or not) as determined by the map of meditative experience to which the practitioner prescribes (Sharf, 1995). As such, these theories, maps, and models, should be understood as making normative statements regarding which aspects of phenomenological experience both meditative and otherwise are intelligible or meaningful within a tradition or community of practice and which are not, rather than being seen as descriptive of some kind of innate (and hence universal) experience.
At the same time, theory itself is a form of practice, of thinking, of writing.
Different modes of engagement with theory have always been central to Buddhism throughout its history, despite the occasional exhortation to leave conceptual or discursive thinking behind. From the rigorous scholastic environment of Nalanda that produced a number of influential thinkers and schools, to the sometimes heated doctrinal debates of Tibetan Buddhism, and the voluminous koan collections of Chan and Zen (a tradition that is said to operate “outside scriptures” and not “depend upon words”), discursive production is generally speaking a central feature of Buddhism at large. Indeed, Western Buddhism can itself be credited with a fairly voluminous amount of discursive production, from literature, to dharma talks, blogs, and podcasts, much of it of a less rigorous and generally less artful tone than that of its Asian predecessors. Nevertheless, the point I wish to convey here is that theory and discursive production — religious, philosophical, and literary — is central to Buddhist practice at large, and Western Buddhists would do well to acknowledge this and try to foster a more rigorous, critical, and creative engagement with the theoretical dimensions of practice than as stands. While this is complicated by the hierarchical power relations of Western Buddhism, which tend to see discursive production, or even critical or creative thinking sometimes reserved for the teacher (see discussion of hierarchy and power relations below), nevertheless a critical and creative engagement with Buddhist theory by practitioners at large must be seen as a necessary step in the maturation of Western Buddhism. Though greater collective engagement, both critically and creatively with theory, both Buddhist and otherwise, Western Buddhism would go some way to overcoming the anti-intellectualism and reductive understanding of discursive thinking, that generally characterises it, and come to develop a more rich and robust body of discourse than stands.
Practices are inherently social, existing, and operating in and informed by a broad set of social, political, economic, and technological relations by which a practice is enacted or performed, and understood as meaningful.
As every good Western Buddhist knows sangha, is one of the pillars or jewels, or Buddhist life, as we are told to take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. While Sangha is typically understood as a community of practice organised around a single teacher or teachers, or as some form of institutionalised organisation, in a contemporary context it may often undertake more diffuse and distributed forms. Indeed, many contemporary ‘solo practitioner’s’ experience of a community of practice is largely facilitated through online forums (or practice groups), and occasional contact with teachers. In each instance though there is some form of community of practice, however diffuse or intangible, that the practitioner operates within. Beyond the horizon of the sangha, the various traditions in turn are larger social institutions which define the norms of practice of the sanghas and individual practitioners that constitute them. From the sangha to the tradition, Buddhist practice is inherently socially constructed, through various hierarchies, norms, conceptual schemas, and prescribed practices, which delineate what aspects of experience are intelligible and meaningful, and what actions and experiences are permissible for the adherent. Our practice is never simply our own, and as such we must collectively negotiate these social relations as part of our practice. The good news as it were, is that these social relations, hierarchies, norms, and otherwise are not given, but themselves are constructed and as such they can be re co-constituted. This is not simply to imply that they can be changed simply through will, but rather than through critique, power struggles, reforms, and otherwise that they can be reconstituted (6). New social formations, new sanghas, and traditions, with new approaches and values must be formed, beyond the current horizons of Western Buddhism in order for us to construct a new image of practice (7).
It should be noted here, that of course Western Buddhism operates within the broader social context of Western society. Western Buddhism is in a sense an attempt to transcribe Buddhism, an essentially Asian religious-philosophical tradition (8), into a Western social, cultural, and political-economic context. This has often seen it framed in ‘secular’ (and ‘pragmatic’) terms, often with the assumption that practices and ‘core teachings’ can simply be stripped of their original social contexts are re-contextualised simply as practices. This approach is I think fundamentally misguided and problematic on a number of levels, and has led among other things to Buddhist practice often being re-contextualised within the prevailing hegemonic discourses of Western society at large — as Ron Purser has articulated in regard to Mindfulness, and its deployment as a neo-liberal technology of the self (Purser, 2019). In this sense Western Buddhism must interrogate not only its relationship to Asian Buddhisms, but also to Western society and its prevailing ideological discourses, and critically consider which discourses, values, and norms, it has reproduced without sufficient questioning. It is in part through such a process that a mature Western Buddhism will develop.
(Social) Practices form subjects.
The (social) practices that we participate in (or have forced upon us), in turn produce or form us as subjects (9). Which is to say that Buddhist practice implicitly aims to produce a good Buddhist subject, as the subject comes to identify with and naturalise Western Buddhism’s ideology, through practices of subjectification (10). As Glenn Wallis puts it:
He sees the world through its categories and narratives; and, in participating in the community, he is implicated in reproducing its forms. He learns the rituals and protocols, and ascribes to them the values claimed by the community leaders. He accepts the social hierarchies of the community, and knows and takes his place therein.(Wallis, n.d.)
In the case of Western Buddhism, while we all willfully and actively participate in these processes of subjectification, it is important to note that they are not neutral practices, and that they come to enact or (re)produce our subjectivity whether we are aware of it or not — alongside the other sets of practices we engage in throughout our social life at large. In this sense it is important for practitioners to realise that the are actively participating in their own subjectification, determined relative to a socially constructed ‘plan of action’ and conception of the real. Here, I think the proper response rather than seeing this as an intractable problem, is rather to not take the given ‘plan of action’ and conception of the real as unquestioned, and rather to actively seek to participate in shaping it. Indeed Western Buddhism is very much still fluid and emergent, despite the various patterns that have coalesced into prevailing norms, and as practitioners we would do well to collectively participate in shaping the image of practice as it were, which in turn inevitably shapes us, rather than leaving it to inherited authority and the dogma of tradition.
- While my project here is informed and indebted to Wallis and co’s at Speculative Non-Buddhism, one may see it as running in parallel to and at points intersecting with, rather than coextensive with SNB’s per se. See Image of Thought: Trash Theory #2, https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2019/04/08/trash-theory-preliminary-materials-for-an-image-of-practice-2/.
- For a discussion of the role the notion of ‘experience’ plays in Western Buddhism see Robert Sharf’s 1995 essay Buddhist Modernism and The Rhetoric of Meditative Experience, https://www.academia.edu/27246035/Buddhist_Modernism_and_the_Rhetoric_of_Meditative_Experience.
- Indeed Tom Pepper has argued that one way of interpreting Santideva’s ethics is as a kind of radical social constructivism. See Taking Anatman Full Strength and Santideva’s Ethics of Truth, https://faithfulbuddhist.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/taking-anatman-full-strength.pdf.
- Here I am referring to Owen Flanagan’s ‘Naturalised Buddhist’ reformulation of awakening via the Aristotealian notion of eudaimonia, as eudaimonia-buddha.
- Jason Siff demonstrates an example of this kind of ‘soft constructivism’ in his book Unlearning Meditation, where he elaborates an approach to meditation that sees specific techniques to be co-constitutive of experience. He also acknowledges that metaphysical beliefs are embodied in the techniques themselves. Specifically see the section “Behind the Instructions.”
- Such shifts have been fairly apparent in recent years as various communities have undergone fundamental reforms as a result of abuse scandals involving former teachers. These reforms have taken various forms, from simply creating new systems of oversight into student-teacher relationships, to fundamental structural reimagining as in the case of the San Francisco Dharma Collective, which established itself as a collective run by students as opposed to teachers, in the wake of the demise of its predecessor Against the Stream.
- Central to this I would argue is a move towards collectivism and collegiality, and away from the hierarchical social relations, of the guru and lineage transmission etc, that Western Buddhism appropriated and re-imagined from Asian Buddhisms.
- I do not mean to essentialize Buddhism here but simply point to its historical and cultural origins, which define the majority of the context in which it has been practiced historically.
- A topic which the likes of thinkers such as the aforementioned Althusser as well as the likes of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler have shed no small amount of ink over.
- Simply put subjectification is the process or processes by which subjects are formed.
Althusser, L. (1975). What is Practice? Retrieved from https://bolshevikpunk.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/althusser-what_is_practice-libre.pdf.
Flanagan, O. (2011). The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalised. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Pepper, T. (2013). Taking Anatman Full Strength and Santideva’s Ethics of Truth. Non + x, 8, 26-41.
Purser, R. (2019) McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. London: Watkins Media Limited.
Sharf, R. (1995). Buddhist Modernism and The Rhetoric of Meditative Experience. Retrived from https://www.academia.edu/27246035/Buddhist_Modernism_and_the_Rhetoric_of_Meditative_Experience.
Siff, J. (2010). Unlearning Meditation. Boulder, Colorado: Shambala.
Wallis, G. (n.d.) Image of Thought: Trash Theory #2. Retrieved from https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2019/04/08/trash-theory-preliminary-materials-for-an-image-of-practice-2/.
Wallis, G. (n.d.). X-Buddhist Disidentification. Retrived from https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2018/12/31/x-buddhist-disidentification/.
Wallis, G. (2018). A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real. New York: Bloomsbury.
Wright, D. S. (2016). What is Buddhist Enlightenment? Oxford: Oxford University Press.