Towards An Expanded Image of Practice

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.


Notes

  1. 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/
  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.
  3. 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.
  4. Here I am referring to Owen Flanagan’s ‘Naturalised Buddhist’ reformulation of awakening via the Aristotealian notion of eudaimonia, as eudaimonia-buddha. 
  5. 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.” 
  6. 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.  
  7. 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.
  8. 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. 
  9. 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.
  10. Simply put subjectification is the process or processes by which subjects are formed. 

Reference List

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.

Advertisements

19 thoughts on “Towards An Expanded Image of Practice

  1. Reblogged this on Speculative Non-Buddhism and commented:
    Richard Keys has published a new essay at Darmic Détournement that will interest readers of our Trash Theory series. His piece, “Towards an Expanded Image of Practice,” helps advance our thinking about what form(s) x-buddhist practice might take going forward. I find it very productive that Keys grounds his thinking in premises such as (his words):

    • practice indicates an active relationship with the real;
    • practice proceeds from the “truth of suffering;”
    • meditative practice actively co-constitutes and mediates subjective experience; such that:
    • underlying theory of mind and maps of meditative experience are embodied in the meditative techniques themselves on a basic level;
    • discursive production is a central feature of Buddhism;
    • practice is always tied up with language and representation, with theory, that informs and frames it as a mode of intervention in the real;
    • practitioners must realise that the are actively participating in their own subjectification, determined relative to a socially constructed “plan of action” and conception of the real;
    • therefore, must actively seek to participate in shaping it.

    Three big takeaway points:
    “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.”

    “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.”

    “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.”

    Let’s have some discussion at Darmic Détournement!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. No argument here. Except I would add that it seems like Buddhists and Buddhism are even more afraid of culture and art than they are of intellect and scholarship (a few tantrikas excepted). Traditional Buddhism has no music other than monastic chanting. It has little other than religious art that is incredibly narrow and repetitive–millions of Buddhas that all look more or less the same. The biggest challenge to that has been recent Biennial art exhibits in Thailand. Why are Buddhists so afraid of material culture, when art itself is one of the greatest ‘practices’ that humans have developed? The combination of emptiness (beginning with nothing but an idea or impulse), creativity, flow and disciplined practice that goes into making art far exceeds anything done on the meditation cushion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed. Generally speaking where ‘creativity’ is encouraged in is generally, as you say on predetermined and highly formalized ends. From my experience in Western Zen, it strikes me that this is very much the case, and while some Zen schools do actively encourage creativity generally it is very much constrained to traditional mediums, and often simply reproduces (or simulates) the norms of ‘Zen’ aesthetics and logic. There is the occasional exception in terms of figures who seem to be established figures in Zen and the arts, who make work that operates meaningfully in both contexts, without simply reducing one to the logic of the other, someone like Ross Bolleter (an Australian Zen Roshi affiliated with the Diamond Sangha I think) comes to mind, whose work with free improvisation and found instruments (‘ruined pianos’) draws on Zen aesthetics and philosophy, integrating them into his artistic approach, while still making fairly compelling ‘free improv’ music.

      It strikes me that there seem to be many more example of Buddhist aesthetics and concepts be deployed in compelling ways by artists and musicians (first and foremost), within the domain of the arts, which is generally less constrained, and much more open to experimentation etc. A statement I heard (and will proceed to misquote) by a nameless scholar who studies Chinese and Japanese poetry comes to mind who emphasized that much classical Chan/Zen poetry was primarily religious in function and secondarily literary, despite the odd exception that rose above the religious function to make work that is compelling as literature. I think the challenge here, when someone is operating in both domains, is to ‘make work’ as it were that is not irreducible to the logic of Buddhism or art as such.

      Like

  3. Thanks for putting this out there Richard and for breaking down the key points Glenn.

    This essay really brings to the fore a lot of the questions and criticisms that many have thought about with relation to Buddhism, but have not voiced because of Sangha power dynamics and accepted terms of practice, behaviour and thought. Part of the issue for practitioners has been whether to allow these ideas to evolve and materialise in discussion within their Buddhist groups in most cases of which they are met with quiet derision and one is subtly manipulated, reprimanded and given the ultimatum to shut up or ship out, and perpetually be left out in the cold with no community, or to deliberately continue to buy in to the anti-intellectual ideology and effectively numb themselves from the inquiry which is funnily enough quite effective. What do we do from here? For most of us trawling through this blog as well as SNB, The Failed Buddhist, Post-traditional Buddhism etc. the seed of questioning has been planted and there is no stunting it’s growth.

    I am feeling that this piece is leaning towards reform by a continued push both individually and on some united front but I am quite doubtful that an attempt at ptolemization of Buddhist practice is possible or even desirable. The possibilities that arise from such and inquiry are likely to blow most of x-Buddhism out of that water leaving nothing but debris. It’s one thing to abandon the raft and know it’ s still there somewhere floating in the unpredictable ocean of existence and another to annihilate it all together. I’m totally for the latter, and actually believe it’s inevitable once you have had ‘stream entry’ into this type of thinking. But a community to tread water with is also important, and how to tread water in terms of new understandings, techniques, practices and dialogue happens within a social setting. Yes trash community is a valiant attempt at this, but really at the moment it is the only option. Do we need to sprout more groups with differing angles to these same questions or do we go off and join other existent groups, traditions, belief systems which most likely will lead to the same scenario because as established entities they will be subject to their own blind spots. All this to me calls for something new, something born of these trends towards an unashamed inquiry, questioning and criticism, but whether that is sustainable or viable through sporadic posts and forums online (and I’m all for technology and connective futures) is a question that we also need to investigate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your response Mitro. As a Marxist the reform (vs revolution, or maybe desertion is more in line with what you are advocating?) debate is one I am not unfamiliar with, albeit within a different context haha. I agree that the tone of this piece, on some level, may be read as somewhat naive in its advocacy of reformism at large. Just to clarify, my personal position as it stands is towards a kind of radical reformism as it were, not in the sense of trying to reform established Buddhist institutions so much (which I think as you say are fundamentally resistant to such), but rather to ‘co-opt’ Western Buddhism as it were. Such a co-option would function, I imagine, in part through discourse production (by providing an alternative reading of Buddhist materials), and in part through the production of new ‘sanghas’ that employ collectivist organisational structures, and are critically oriented and experimental in their mode/s of practice. From communicating with a variety of folks engaged in Western Buddhism in some capacity (especially solo practitioners), I suspect there is not an insignificant number of people, especially in the millennial demographic, that are critical of (or at least skeptical towards) Western Buddhist orthodoxy and would be interested in participating in alternative communities of practice should they be made accessible. Personally, I have had the luck of working with a number of teachers who aren’t dogmatic in orientation, and I hold affiliation to a small Zen sangha, neither of which I have found to be too constraining in terms of allowing me to develop my own line of thinking and mode of practice, and I will maintain these relationships as long as they remain generative. Ultimately though, I aim to experiment with trying to facilitate such a sangha/collective and to experiment with some of these ideas as it were. I think the hope here, for me at least, is that such ‘alternatives — such as the online community around SNB etc — continue to emerge and becoming increasingly ‘networked,’ such that they eventually create an alternative ecology, that intersects with but exceeds Western Buddhism as such, that can bring about new modes of practice, which may or may not bear a family resemblance to Western Buddhism as it stands.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Alright, interesting article.

    In pseudo-SNB-inspired style, I feel some urge, some desire, some passionate wish to kick the tires of the concept of “social conditioning”. Further, I was summoned to this post Twitter, which, as we all know, is a nearly irresistible invocation, and I see no proper banishings nor wards upon this site.

    Here’s a quote from the article: “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).”

    I mused a while upon this morsel, and proposed a little though experiment to help clarify exactly what is meant by this slippery concept, a non-Buddhofiction, if you will:

    Image that you are typing the above article when suddenly a group of x-Buddhist Primitives driven mad by absurd doctrine, swelled with the hubris of orthodoxy, and outranged by your questioning their fervent convictions burst into the room, hog tie you, carry you off to the jungle, tie you to a wooden post with Tibetan Prayer Flags, lay a fire of Bodhi Tree wood around you, douse you with the rendered fat of four deer from Deer Park, and light the fire with a fragrant stick of sandalwood incense, all while chanting something about emptiness and impermanence in Pali or Sanskrit, as you prefer, as, after all, it is your imagination, so please feel free to embellish as best helps set the mood.

    If your suffering as the raging pyre consumes you is socially conditioned, to which degree and for which reason(s) is it socially conditioned? Chose one:

    A) 100% socially conditioned, as it was clearly and straightforwardly a group of people that are burning you at the stake, so the conditions arose in a social context.

    B) 100% socially conditioned, as it was for arbitrary social and cultural reasons that this group of people is burning you at the stake.

    C) 100% socially conditioned, as the terms, concepts, ontological, philosophical, and epistemological frames you will use as you mull over your body burning to death, such as “Fire!”, “Ouch!”, “Hot!”, “Hey, whadda ya know, it does smell kinda’ like pork barbecue!”, “Why go to all the trouble to get Bodhi Tree wood and rendered Deer Park deer fat?”, “Darn those pesky Buddhists!”, and the like are all words and concepts that are socially conditioned, and, being a philosopher and intellectual, your experience is entirely processed through concepts and lacks any other aspects.

    D) Between 0% and 100% socially conditioned, depending on the degree to which there are physical or mental experiences constituting your experience in that moment.

    E) 100% socially conditioned, as you are prone to dissociation from things that arose in your socially conditioned traumatic past, so, as your mind dissociates in the face of that extreme “experience”, that will have been socially conditioned.

    F) 100% socially conditioned, as the word “dissociate” is socially conditioned, so, if you “dissociate” that was socially conditioned, as concepts and experiences are the same thing.

    G) 100% socially conditioned, as no experience of the “Real” can occur in a Buddhist context, as Buddhists and all things that occur in their lives and the lives of those around them are chronically and perfectly immunized against the “Real”.

    H) 0% socially conditioned, as an experience that extreme would certainly, at long last, give a taste of the “Real”, despite the fact that it was Buddhists, who are chronically immunized against the “Real”, produced such an experience.

    I) A and B

    J) A, B, and C

    K) A, B, C, E, F and G.

    L) Doesn’t apply, as you will neither burn to death nor suffer, as you are a Mahayanist who has properly chastened the lowly Hinayana and its self-centeredness, and so, as a reward, Bodhisattvas will certainly save you (and all beings) from suffering.

    M) Social conditioning is powerful enough that all you have to do is imagine some situation related to society that says you won’t have any suffering and so you won’t, so there is no suffering, as your experience is always 100% socially conditioned, in this case not to suffer, and you know the perfect skillful use of this perfectly powerful magic of social conditioning.

    N) Write in a response here: _____________________________________________________.

    Thanks for playing!

    Daniel

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Daniel, I am going to politely refuse to participate in your multi choice quiz haha. But a quick response, via iPhone, before I head off out of cell range for a week.

    1) My understanding of ‘suffering’ in a Buddhist context is that it is ostensibly a existential doubling of ‘pain.’ If we are to say that pain is a basic physiological or sensation experience etc, as per your being burned at the stake. Which is to say that isn’t Buddhism more concerned with addressing this existential doubling (as opposed to the basic experience of physiological pain) as it were?

    2) In regard to the Mahayana, – I really wasn’t trying to play the Hinayana card here haha, but maybe it came across that way? – my understanding here is that in this context as self (and other) is seen to be as essentially empty and interdependently constituted that in this since ‘suffering’ is seen to be inter-subjective, hence the emphasis on saving all sentient beings from suffering. In making reference to Peppers essay (which is worth a read if you haven’t read it), I was trying to draw emphasis to a social constructivist (as per critical theory, and much of the humanities discourses) reading of Mahayana ontology and ethics etc, as per my later points regarding processes of subjectification.

    3) In part this reading is tactical, as I am staging a discussion of the ethical dimension of practice, and a exploration of how to reimagine Buddhist ethics in a post-traditional framework, that I will explore in subsequent posts.

    Like

  6. Dear RBK,

    1) While it is common in contemporary stripped-down semi-Buddhist circles, such as those influenced by Jon Kabat-Zinn, to draw the circle around suffering as a concept very narrowly, that was clearly not how the Buddha did it or what you find in most traditional contexts, as birth, old age, sickness, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, as well as death, are all listed in the stock definition of suffering. If, by adopting that particular conceptualization of suffering, you wish to reach more that sort of mainstream Mindfulness Buddhism-Lite crowd, then I have clearly been invited to the wrong party and should simply bow out.

    2) I think a focus on the Mahayana in this way is ok so long as you realize that those ideals you espouse were generally occurring in an intensive practice context that presumed you would do the exercises that would get you deep, personal transformations even if you ostensively were doing this with the thought of all beings in mind and the goal of helping them. It is a counterbalance to a set of givens that are often not the case in contemporary philosophical and armchair Buddhist circles rather than inventive monastic ones.

    3) Ok, well if this is just all about philosophical ethics, that’s cool, but then be careful when you mix some of the practice stuff into it without really doing it justice, decontextualizing it, or reimagining it in lights both faux-traditional and contemporary in the same breath without the nuanced realization of the categorical tensions and problems those create.

    Like

  7. Daniel, now that I am back on the mainland, I just thought I’d try and clarify a couple of things as I think we may have got our wires crossed here a fair bit. Maybe I should have simply answered the implicit question in your first post more directly and this could have been avoided. I will endeavor to do that here.

    In saying that arguably our suffering was socially constituted in the OP, I was referring specifically to Tom Pepper’s argument in Taking Anatman Full Strength and Śāntideva’s Ethics of Truth (as per the footnote), wherein he argues, via his reading of Santideva, that suffering is fundamentally inter-subjective and social in nature. For example, in Pepper’s words:

    “The Sanskrit world for equal, samanya, also has the meaning “jointly or in common.” This sense of equality is quite different from ours, and assumes not a group in which each individual is identical, but a group working together in a common interest. This is what the metaphor of the body is meant to indicate: we would be foolish to be concerned about the health of the hands and ignore the health of the rest of the body, without which the hand is useless, and would also die. Once we understand this, it does not follow that the conventionally existent self is a mere illusion; it only follows that there is a different conventional “self” than we might have initially believed there to be. That self is a collectively produced symbolic/imaginary system, so that any suffering in one part of the system necessarily implicates and affects the system as a whole. Even more importantly, any such suffering prevents the system as a whole from achieving liberation.” (P. 37)

    For greater detail you can read Pepper’s essay here if you are interested – https://faithfulbuddhist.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/taking-anatman-full-strength.pdf. I will amend the OP to make this reference to Pepper’s essay clearer in the text.

    Nevertheless, I think your emphasis on the physiological dimension of suffering as a concept, is an important point, though I don’t think it necessarily negates the social constructivist position I understand Pepper, and myself, to be articulating, albeit in different forms. That said, in to go back to your initial response, MY (not Peppers) thoughts in brief, regarding how suffering is, at least *in part* socially constituted is are as follows:

    1) Our basic ignorance — the mistaken perception of an enduring and essential self, and by extension the craving and aversion that proceeds from it, as per the second noble truth, the “origin of suffering,” is clearly socially constructed, at least on some level, even if it has some kind of physiological or biological basis. In that, our basic metaphysical assumptions regarding ‘self and world’ are the product of social and culturally constructed narratives and beliefs etc. This is in part what I meant by ‘existential doubling’ (in my first response) in that, as I understand the four noble truths, ‘the origin of suffering’ is a rendering of our basic existential condition qua suffering, embodied in our misapprehension of self as enduring and essential, and subsequent pursuit of what is pleasurable (or self-affirming etc), and aversion of what is not etc. While you could argue that this basic impulse is biological on some level, clearly it unarguably mediated by social relations and culturally specific understandings.

    2) Much of the specific causes of our suffering, on a basic level, are social constituted, in that they are the product of both social and economic conditions that characterize our material existence, and our social interactions with others. Again, from a neo-Mahayanist perspective, and I think if we are to take seriously the notion of “saving all beings from suffering,” we need to attempt to address these social and economic conditions, here the various forms of socially engaged Buddhism could be seen as one such example. Alongside this social-political dimension, an ethics of interpersonal relation/s is also fundamental.

    3) As per Pepper’s reading of Santideva arguably the self is “a collectively produced symbolic/imaginary system” — which does not negate its biological dimension etc. Given this, we find ourselves always bound up with the social, with society on a fundamental level, and as such suffering and self-identity are in part always a collective affair as we are never wholly seperate or discrete individuals, but exist in social/symbolic relation to and in commonalty with other/s. This is what I was attempting to communicate in my first response in point 2.

    Hope that clarifies the OP and my basic position a bit more. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I feel that you may be making things too complicated. Live gently as one can, avoiding the extremes of excess desire, anger and the frictions and violence of divided thinking. Engage in some practice to allow one to transcend the self/other divide, and to experience beyond thoughts and the divisions of the mind (as a Soto fellow, that is Zazen and Dogen’s vision of ongoing “practice-enlightenment”). Go past the individual self, then get up from the sitting cushion and get busy in life as this individual self. Finally, do as one can to leave this world better (people will disagree on the content of that, but the world has problems that need solving. As Zen folks often point out, there is nothing lacking, not one things ultimately in need of fixing … but much lacking and much to fix, so grab a hammer and get to work.). Beyond that, do not over-complicate this path. Gassho, Jundo Cohen

    Like

    • Jundo, I am engaged in the practices to which you refer (I practice in a Sanbo Kyodan lineage etc), and very much engaged in the world. I understand your sentiment. Nevertheless, I am interested in engaging with Buddhism (“Buddhist materials”) on a philosophical level, and I am interested in experimentation and innovation, especially regarding how Buddhism may continue to evolve and develop in a contemporary cultural context in order to continue to meaningful speak to the concerns of the contemporary moment.

      I would put a couple of questions to you if I may…

      Why do you think it is inappropriate for those like myself to engaged in such speculation, critique, and debate (“over complication”) regarding Buddhism and Buddhist practice etc? and what would be the outcome for Western Buddhism at large if we were to refrain from such? What if those that were involved in speculation, critique, and debate, in philosophical argumentation, in innovation in theory and practice, within the lineage to which you adhere had followed this advice? If their was no Nagarjuna, no Vashubandu, no Fa-tsang, no Zhiyi, no Dongshan, no Dogen? (Not to put myself on par with these figures of course, but nevertheless you can imagine they were also engaged in discussion with many lesser interlocutors).

      Like

      • Hi. The speculation, critique and endless debate can obscure the quiet, wholeness and union that we so dearly need in this world, and between our ears. I don’t think the folks you named were actually intellectualizing, so much as presenting critiques of overly intellectualizing and forgetting the need to drop speculation, critique and debate in order to taste the fruits of this path.

        Personally, I also feel that this world, and Buddhism, need some tuning up for the future. I am big into the intersection of Zen with transhumanism/singularity as what is inevitably coming down the pike (I posted about that today on the Zizek essay https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2011/05/04/slavoj-zizek-heresy-western-buddhism-and-the-fetish/#comment-89935) However. even then, what the world basically needs is what it needs now: Live gently as one can, avoiding the extremes of excess desire, anger and the frictions and violence of divided thinking. Engage in some practice to allow one to transcend the self/other divide, and to experience beyond thoughts and the divisions of the mind. Go past the individual self, then get up from the sitting cushion and get busy in life as this individual self. Finally, do as one can to leave this world better (people will disagree on the content of that, but the world has problems that need solving. Don’t make it too complicated.

        I used to cook with my grandmother in her kitchen. Lovely woman. She made beautiful blintzes following a simple recipe, not too much this, a pinch of that. She did not need to speculate, critique or debate it very much, and the result was balanced and delicious. Gassho, Jundo

        Like

  9. Jundo, a couple of points…

    1) Respectfully, I think it is fairly reductive, and not overly useful, to claim that the variety of notable Buddhist thinkers are all simply presenting critiques of “over intellectualizing,” and to negate the practice of philosophical dialogue in Buddhism in this way. For example, while Nagarjuna is obviously concerned with the ‘limits to thought or knowledge’ he is clearly committed to a rigorous analytical argument as a means to explore and communicate his epistemology or theory of knowledge as it were. His method is one of critique, of the prevailing Abhidharmic schools of the day, and logical analysis. Or lets take Dogen, and his voluminous Shobogenzo where he elaborates a phenomenological theory of being-time, which is highly hermeneutic (and playfully inbtertextual), phenomenological, and poetic in approach. As I understand it, even his notion of practice-enlightenment as you refer to it, proceeds from a critique of what he saw as a contradiction between the notion of Buddha-nature in Zen of his time, as inherent to all beings, innate perfection as it were, with the emphasis on the need to practice in order to realize it. Here, he reconciles a seeming contradiction, with a theory of realization that is enactive or performative, a doing rather than a being. Within his schema, philosophy becomes a means of expressing or enacting Buddha-nature, rather than as a means of attempting to attain it as such. To quote Hee-Jin Kim:

    “…philosophy consisted predominantly of intellectual activities that were no less creative than those other activities of life, if and when intellect was purified and reinforced by the samadhi of self-fulfilling activity (jijuyÒ-zammai). Our philosophic and hermeneutical activities were no longer a means to enlightenment, but identical to enlightenment itself, for to be was to understand — one was what one understood. Thus the activity of philosophizing, like any other expressive activity, was restated in the context of our total participation in the self-creative process of Buddha-nature.”

    2) To take your analogy of cooking – your grandmothers blintzes sound great by the way — I enjoy cooking, and I am able to cook dishes that I have deep familiarity with in the spontaneous or improvised manner to which you refer, I can even experiment outside recipes that I know, based on my understanding of the concepts and aesthetics of culinary traditions, and my experience of the tastes and flavors of different ingredients. I also enjoy trying new cuisine, especially dishes and culinary traditions with which I am not familiar, I enjoy to learn about different culinary traditions; their dishes, traditions, ingredients, techniques etc. I will often attempt to cook new type of cuisines, new dishes, cook with ingredients that are new to me, and in doing so expand my repertoire. None of this prohibits my ability to cook, to taste, and to enjoy eating food, in fact quite the opposite.

    Like

    • Jundo. From your comments here and above, I think you will find the work of John Woods enlightening, particularly his book The Death of Argument. Briefly, he argues that just because an activity appears to be “easy” or “simple” or, in x-buddhist language, “uncomplicated,” does not entails its being, in fact, extraordinarily complex, involved, and difficult. He would characterize your position as an example of the “Easy-Easy Principle:” if it appears easy, or is given as easy/simple/uncomplicated within a particular ideological framework (such as Zen), them it must, in fact, be easy–no need to “over-complicate.” Woods shows that the only problem with this lovely idea is that it is demonstrably wrong. That is, even a brief analysis of the process that got your grandmother to produce those yummy blintzes will reveal the extraordinarily complex cultural, social, political, historical, psychological, not to mention, chemical, gustatory, olfactory, physiological, etc., etc., process that underlie her apparently simple act of baking. I use Woods argument to show that it applies as well to theoretical matters. That is, even though baking those blintzes looks easy, there are a deeply complex theoretical issues in play, involving, for instance, gender, ethnicity, the nature of the diaspora, and so forth. So, if you accept Woods’s basic premise about the insufficiency of the Easy-Easy Principle, at what cost do you (or anybody) persist in living by it?

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi RBK, If one takes as a premise and feels (I do) that there is some value to bringing quiet, wholeness and union beyond thoughts and judgments into this chaotic world of endless noise, divisions, thoughts and judgments (plus some freedom from excess desire, anger and violence and the like), then one must use the philosophizing lightly and delicately. It is rather like my grandmother, in cooking those blintzes, reached into the spice cabinet subtly to enhance the flavor, because pouring on whole bottle of thyme and oregano would simply cloud, obscure or ruin (not the good “ruin” Glenn points to) the dish. Likewise, too much or the wrong kinds of philosophizing merely add to the noise, divisions, thoughts and judgments. Where is the “too much” or “wrong kind?” Well it is hard to say, just as my grandmother knew from her taste and experience.

    As a side note, by way of disclosure, I am a big critic of the state of modern Buddhism, a student of history (the kind who tells some traditional folks, much to their chagrin, that many of our historical claims and legends are BS and someone’s creative religious imaginings), and a big fan of understanding what is going on in Buddhism today via any means from sociology to economic theory to brain scans. I am not anti-intellectual. But I do feel that we can also overly-intellectualize, thus obscuring that quiet, wholeness and “beyond thoughts and judgments” that is vital to preserve.

    As to the various Buddhist thinkers you listed, I will back off from categorizing all of them. I will only speak to Dogen as an example (plug: my book on “how to read Dogen” will be coming out from Wisdom Publications in 2020). In my book, I portray Dogen as less of a “philosopher,” and more of a “Jazz Man” who played around, riffed and syncopated what he “felt” about many “old standard” Mahayana/Zen teachings (although, yes, he also had some very philosophical ideas about time, Buddha Nature, practice and the like too). If you have time, here is a short sample of my take on Dogen, where I compare him to Coltrane. (https://www.treeleaf.org/forums/showthread.php?9332-SIT-A-LONG-with-JUNDO-Dogen-A-Love-Supreme) So, it is something of a mistake if one approaches Dogen as a philosopher, or purely by intellectual examination, rather than just listening and really digging the vibe and the sound, just as it would be a mistake to overly philosophize about Coltrane without really just jumping into the music (granted, some understanding of “music theory” does help in both cases. However, go lightly on the paper analysis, and pick up your horn and blow!) Folks like Dr. Kim walk a fine line, but I feel he uses words and analysis to express how Dogen was playing the music without just getting overly lost in the intellectual side (quite often he does too, and many other folks who approach Dogen fail in avoiding that trap too). As to Nagarjuna, a Zen fellow might say that he used logic to step beyond ordinary logic, so the point was not to philosophize, but to “ruin” abhidharma/philosophy in order to point up “Emptiness.”

    So, bottom like: Let’s not spoil the music, or smother the blintzes, by forgetting to put down the theory and thinking and just listen, just taste the goodness there. Gassho, Jundo

    Like

    • Thanks Jundo.

      I understand and appreciate the basic imperative you are asserting BUT I suppose the thing I am taking issue with here is a central assumption you seem to hold — that one is unable to engage in such ‘philosophical speculation,’ while still being open to the “non-discursive experience” (or however you term it). I also think here, implicitly you seem to be reproducing a whole range of oppositional assumptions about theory and practice, feeling/intuition and thinking etc etc, which I think are fairly tautological at best, and self-limiting at worst. Personally I really don’t hold to this either or logic, or experience this as a conflict or a binary. I am not engaging in philosophical speculation on a level of ontology here per se, which is to say I am not trying to represent or capture *the real* (emptiness etc) through analytic thought. My focus is much more on how critically analyzing how Western Buddhism functions, what its assumptions are, and to explore ways that it can continue to develop and evolve, both in theory and practice, to experiment with ‘Buddhist materials.’

      To use your jazz metaphor, and my aforementioned Dogen reference, my approach here isn’t to try and create an totalizing theory, to philosophize as a means to “know,” but to use critique, and philosophical speculation, as a departure point to open up new lines of experimentation — theory (and practice) as a creative act. New lines of improvisation, expressed across multiple mediums and contexts.

      P.S – You comments regarding “how to read Dogen” remind me a little of Brain Massumi’s words on how to read Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, from his translators introduction to the same, which you may appreciate:

      “Which returns to our opening question. How should A Thousand Pla- teaus be played? When you buy a record there are always cuts that leave you cold. You skip them. You don’t approach a record as a closed book that you have to take or leave. Other cuts you may listen to over and over again. They follow you. You find yourself humming them under your breath as you go about your daily business. A Thousand Plateaus is conceived as an open system.23 It does not pre- tend to have the final word. The authors’ hope, however, is that elements of it will stay with a certain number of its readers and will weave into the mel- ody of their everyday lives.”

      I will look forward to reading your book. 🙂

      Like

      • Hi RBK, You may be right, and I may have used too broad a brush. Certainly, there is so much deserving criticism about both traditional and modern formulations of Buddhism(s). I am with you on that. Also so much to cherish. I am with you on that too. Let me not jump to conclusions that you are over spicing the blintzes, and I will taste them again.

        Like

  11. Hi Glenn, Long time listener here. (On Imperfect Buddha and elsewhere) 🙂

    I certainly will look up John Woods, and I so much agree that my grandma’s cooking was not “simple” if one looks at it in any number of ways. First off, there is the physiological aspect, all the firings of nerves and neurons, muscle movements and eye-hand coordination, not to mention the entire course of evolution and earth history (and her personal history) that led to that point. There are economic factors to consider, and the oppression of minority groups. Politics plays a part in everything too, even her blintzes. Of course. But at some point, we just have to put that down and just taste the blintzes if we want to taste the blintzes. Buddhist practice is like that too. So is Jazz. In some ways, it really was simple for her, because she just cooked based on her taste, and knew only her fry pan, not the Big Bang or dendrites or class struggle aspects of it all. Let us not lose that simplicity in our Buddhist (Zen in my case) practice, because it is something vital to preserve, and is a beautiful thing.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s