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Changing Positions: An Exchange on Buddhist Practice and Psychological Decolonization

Changing Positions: An Exchange on Buddhist Practice and Psychological Decolonization

By Josh Korda and Joshua Stephens

Taken as set of interventions conducted on the self against conditioned, habitual ways of being, the correspondences between the Buddha’s teaching, and practices accounted for in the literature of decolonization – both as a political project and a psychological process (particularly for those of us who are of the colonizer) – are manifold. Engaged dhamma practice is not – indeed, cannot be – restricted to actions informed or influenced by insights cultivated in the meditation hall; it must be the deliberate, moment to moment cultivation of new ways of being, off the cushion. The teachings offer a variety of tools, as well as cohesive body of practice, for navigating what are often earnest intellectual commitments pressed (uncomfortably) against the gritty, contradictory texture of experience in struggle; the cognitive and the somatic. The following dialogue attempts a brief exploration of this intersection.

Josh Korda has been the dhamma teacher with Dharma Punx NYC‘s Manhattan and Brooklyn communities since 2005. For the last four years Josh has been a visiting teacher at Zen Care, a non-profit organization that trains hospice volunteers, and teaches Buddhist retreats at Against the Stream. He received his initial teacher training with Noah Levine, and has had the honor to study with countless other spiritual practitioners, including Ajahns Geoff, Sucitto, Amaro, Brahm, Vajiro and Tara Brach. All of Josh’s dharma talks can be found here.

Joshua Stephens is a board member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies and a dedicated practitioner with Dharma Punx NYC. A longtime participant in anticapitalist and solidarity movements, he’s spent much of the last year writing on recent global uprisings, contributing to outlets like Jadaliyya, NOW Lebanon, Truth-Out, Upping the Anti, and blogging for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship from Occupy Wall Street. He’s the author of Self and Determination (forthcoming, AK Press) and blogs here.

Joshua Stephens: Whether I’m involved in organizing here in New York, or doing solidarity work on the other side of the world, I find myself grappling with certain recurring questions, on the order of: What does agency look like, when we take others’ agency as seriously as we take our own? Even the term buddhism has its origins in orientalism, and suggests an orientation none of its initial practitioners likely identified with. What does it demand of us — in the present, in our bodies, even — to meet that practice of allowing a spaciousness conducive to the self-determination of others? How does that re-cast subjectivity or agency?

Josh Korda: The question of agency from my perspective is truly a complex one. Is anyone free to make clear choices, free from compulsion and/or delusional misperception produced and induced by power and other forces that influence our discerning faculties?

From a Buddhist perspective, the choices we make create the karma that plants the seeds for our future mind states. Our actions, skillful and unskillful, are seeds we plant; they will flower into future mind states. If we want to cultivate peaceful emotional states, it’s best to plant seeds that present the greatest likelihood of flourishing into serenity: acts of compassion, kindness, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, generosity.

Of course, we all have our past karma, but there’s new karma we’re planting right in every moment. We can choose to act skillfully right here, right now. So agency is more than simply about free will, it’s also about the possibility of securing any peace of mind amidst a world of inequity and suffering. Yet, our ability to choose skillful actions is compromised by the dominant ideology we’re exposed to, justifying abuses of power; note how prevalent the memes and epistemes that influence us are, naturalizing hierarchy, exclusion, elitism, ableism, fetishizing youth and beauty, and so on.

And outside of the realm of hegemony, the mind itself is structured in a way to sabotage clear thinking: we’re set up to survive at all costs, to chose what’s immediately safe and rewarded in the short term, rather than to affirm unpopular truths and experiences. Given the role of the amygdala, much of our decisions are propelled by emotional reactions based on self-preservation and pleasure at all cost, without regard to how skillful, harmful or lasting are the results.

On a moment by moment basis such fear driven acts might feel like free will, do they really qualify as agency?

JS: Exactly. I think this is actually precisely the intervention that practice makes; what makes it distinct from (say…) intellectually ticking off boxes of things to which we subscribe ethically or politically, or what we aspire to or endorse. When we look at the precepts, the language is right there: “I undertake the training…” — a training is radically distinct from an subscription to a set of ideas or aspirations.

There’s real substance to the collision of the physiological and social forces, and I think activists often miss half of it, and practitioners often miss the other half. When Foucault was lecturing at the College de France, he spent a good deal of time on the shift from power exercised in the form of discipline — in which the subjects were confined in prisons, barracks, factories, and so on, induced to internalize normative behaviors performed on them — to the management of populations, which was a whole other sport.

For starters, acting on populations involved determining what made one population distinct from another – just simply determining what made a population a population. Those engaged in the practice of governing at that point in history observed that the most useful way to construct populations was to look at the things they were exposed to, in common; water sources, pathogens, viruses and the like were often the common denominator. So, these became the points of intervention for the exercise of power. Hygiene and pre-natal care campaigns, etc. In other words, things we don’t tend to understand as terribly political, because they’re anchored to what we understand to be objective, material facets of life. On the surface, that seems really clinical. But any of us can look around us and find any number of seemingly innocuous things we share in common with a broad array of people – language, just for starters – that serve as vectors for the creep of insidious narratives.

When we talk about things like white-supremacy or heteronormativity as narrative frameworks that shape who we are and how we show up to the world (without our even noticing), I think this is largely what we’re talking about, and what you’re drawing out. It’s not simply a matter of intellectually deciding we reject a given narrative; it’s something we do in our bodies. We’re talking about social forces that colonize and mobilize anxieties and impulses that are effectively our evolutionary residue; drives we have around scarcity, survival, intelligibility and belonging, etc. These things aren’t going away, and they’re vulnerable to any number of social forces. Forging a critical, accountable relationship with those parts of ourselves is a training. Absolutely. Even if that training is simply coming back to “Nothing whatsoever should be clung to as I or mine” — including our socialization, our attachment to comfort, or our impulse to be intelligible to systems of real violence.

I think the task is shedding light on the “how”. What tools are at our disposal for intervening on ourselves and the forces that construct us as “selves”? And further, what tools do we have for meeting others in ways conducive to self-determination? It’s something I hear you get really deep with, often — even when addressing questions about workplace dynamics (in which capitalism and its top-down arrangements are always central), and romantic themes (in which power expresses itself through our relationships to gender and sexuality). But I just as often wonder if I’m the only one in the room reading that so politically.

JK: Of course, there are a wide variety of ways to interpret the core insights of Buddhist practice; the tools and insights can be used towards essentially therapeutic ends (note the development of mindfulness based therapies such as MBSR, MBCT, DBT and on), there are many philosophical implications (which have been explored by Stephen Batchelor amongst others), and certainly there’re wide ranging political implications. I certainly hope you’re not the only one in the room picking up on its significance.

The political is certainly not a paradigm placed ‘on top’ of Buddhist practice, it was very much a core constituent of the dharma from the start. For example, The Buddha condemned the caste system that was established in India, for such a social organization firmly contradicts the causal role that karma, and its resultant emphasis on harmlessness—plays in determining our future mind states and release from suffering.

Clearly capitalism, which emphasizes material gain as a motivation for human engagement, deserves condemnation, for it is little better than the caste system. Our present social organization rewards the endless competition for dwindling resources at the expense of core spiritual principles that provide us with a sense of well being: kindness (metta), compassion (karuna) and appreciation of the happiness of others (mudita).

As you put it so eloquently, “social forces… colonize and mobilize anxieties and impulses that are effectively our evolutionary residue,” our largely outdated fear and survival impulses (those provided by ancient regions of the brain, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus) are inflated, rather than properly regulated, by our social and economic formations. (Note that the need for proper regulation is not only prevalent externally but internally as well.) This is clearly not in our long term interest. We are presently the dominant species on the planet, with generally inflated lifespans and few natural predators (excluding, of course, social predators and various CEOs), yet we’re constantly reinforcing survival based dispositions that disconnect us from meaningful connection with others and leave us agitated and needlessly anxious.

Alas, peace of mind and competition—the foundation of our social organization—are largely antithetical. I think the Buddha put it well in the wonderful Attadanda Sutta, in which he easily could be referring to the way things are right now, not only 2,500 years ago:

I looked around and saw people floundering about
like fish in little puddles, competing with each other.
Seeing this I became frightened and aware that
the world was entirely without a worthwhile foundation.
All sense of direction was knocked out of line.
Wanting to find a sense of security for myself,
I found that nothing wasn’t already claimed by others.
And as there nothing in the end but competition,
I felt discontent with the way things are.

So we can put aside the question ‘Should I take these tools and insights politically?’ and replace it with ‘How do I engage in social practice, infused by spiritual insights, without attaching to results that are beyond my control? (For many of the abominations of violence, racism, homophobia, sexism and on will no doubt outlive us.)’ Or: ‘Knowing that abusive social forces are so easily appended to ingrained survival based tendencies, how do I effectively direct my internal, meditation-based practice in a way that makes me more effective on the social level, and vice versa (how do I interact with others in ways that reinforce what I’m investigating internally)?’

JS: So, two practices come to mind, here — neither of which are drawn from the dhamma, though I think they both lend a good deal to living it, and vindicate its political potentialities. The first is the notion of equality proposed by the political philosopher, Jacques Ranciere. For Ranciere, equality is not a condition preserved or ensured by a State. Rather, it’s a moment to moment practice of beginning from the assumption that everyone — regardless of position, experience, education, and so on — is just as capable as we are of making meaningful decisions about their lives. He argues that this will, no doubt, be a counter-factual assumption at some or another juncture; we can think here, perhaps, of someone living amidst the worst of addiction. The point, for Ranciere is not that this is always true, but that it’s the only ethically defensible starting point, and any modification we might make to it unfolds after that.

If one looks at what set someone like Malcolm X apart from his contemporaries in the Civil Rights movement, according to the accounts of his peers, one encounters some version of this. His dexterity in connecting and striking up deeply horizontal encounters with people left behind by mainstream Civil Rights discourse — sex workers, hustlers, ex-cons — reflects this embodied refusal of dominant narratives, and this refusal to strip others of their agency. And what’s more, for Ranciere, this isn’t simply an ethical practice. For him, no authentic, participatory politics can begin without it. So, we’re right back to the Buddha’s teachings on causation, and the seeds we plant.

The other practice that comes to mind sort of comes out of Audre Lorde’s articulation of the erotic. I think it forges a really interesting correspondence between our bodies, the activities we engage in with others, and the texture of how we bring passion to those. For Lorde, confining the erotic to a strictly romantic or sexual quality denies how we’re animated and fulfilled by each other, even just in conversation. In some of bell hooks’ work on pedagogy (herself no stranger to the dhamma), she talks about what gets stripped out of learning by cleaving the body off from it, as though it’s a strictly cognitive exercise. How we learn, the process of selection through which we organize and metabolize information is, undoubtedly, an effect of how we experience that in our bodies. If we feel threatened or discomforted by information or a particular perspective or experience, that’s all going to go down much differently. And if one looks at efforts to combat institutionalized forms of oppression within social movements, one can’t help but encounter recommendations to folks in disproportionate positions of power or privilege to pause, listen, not react, etc. The tightness we feel in our chests or throats, the tension in the gut, the burning we feel here or there – these are sensations; not calls for us to stop listening, shut some experience down, or run away.

It’s been a while since I’ve read her, but I feel like I read something in Gloria Anzaldua’s work, in which she proposes something along the lines of bringing the erotic to all that we do. Much as with Ranciere’s prescription, I don’t think it’s intended as a rigid, universal proposition; it seems a sort of call to reset our starting point. What, for instance, would an organizing meeting look like if we showed up as (even an approximation of) the selves we bring to erotic encounters? The trust, the vulnerability, the willingness to be flawed and unvarnished, the intention to be present to the vulnerability of others and tend to them responsively. Even if confined to just a thought-experiment, it’s suggestive of pretty radical possibilities; what James Baldwin was getting at when he said “Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without, and know we cannot live within.”

You’d probably be able to correct me on this, but I think it was Ajahn Chah who said that, when we get up off the cushion, we’re not ending the meditation – we’re just changing positions. It’s always struck me as profoundly political approach to practice. I come back to it constantly.

JK: These are two interesting propositions. From my spiritual perspective they both offer interesting concepts worth incorporating into our engaged practice.

First addressing the views you attribute to Jacques Ranciere (I’m unfamiliar with his work): It brings to mind The Buddha’s instructions for “Metta/Goodwill” practice: “All living beings, no matter who they are, no matter what they have done in the past, may they find the sources of true, lasting happiness and act on them.” For our own piece of mind we must act as if others are worthy of attention and respect. As a foundation for engaged practice and political activism, I’m comfortable with this formulation as a rich soil to plant actions for repairing social inequality.

I’m familiar with Audre Lorde’s poetry and theory; I especially like her work breaking down the oppositional/ dualistic view of masculine-feminine via her theories of difference. Her concept of the “erotic” is very similar to the Buddha’s teaching on the bliss and joy experienced in spiritual practice:

Lorde says “[the erotic] is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.”

The Buddha taught that the fourth enlightenment factor is rapture or happiness (“Piti” in Pali). This is a quality which fills the body and mind with ease, uniting the two. If we are lacking in this experience of satisfaction, it will be difficult to continue on the spiritual path, which ask us to renounce so many harmful, short term sensual pleasures. Finding sources of happiness that do not exploit other beings is a difficult endeavor, and we’ll fail without locating a sense of reward within. If our path is entirely intellectual, made up of thoughts “step aside, I’m doing the right thing here, fella” that won’t sustain us for times of deprivation and setbacks in the world.

So developing a form of kinesthetic, somatic satisfaction would definitely form a secure foundation for one’s external struggles. Indeed, the mindfulness of the body we maintain allows us to establish equanimity, the balancing factor that lets us know when we’ve become too attached to our external endeavors and have sacrificed inner peace.

Comments (76)

  • Glenn Wallis

    Someone posted the following juxtaposed statements on my blog post. It’s an interesting and very important contrast. I wonder if you’d care to respond to him, either here or at http://www.speculativenonbuddhism.com.

    “Clearly capitalism, which emphasizes material gain as a motivation for human engagement, deserves condemnation, for it is little better than the caste system. Our present social organization rewards the endless competition for dwindling resources at the expense of core spiritual principles that provide us with a sense of well being: kindness (metta), compassion (karuna) and appreciation of the happiness of others (mudita). … Alas, peace of mind and competition—the foundation of our social organization—are largely antithetical.” –Josh Korda, Changing Positions: An Exchange on Buddhist Practice and Psychological Decolonization

    “The only “critical” lesson to be drawn from Buddhism’s perspective on virtual capitalism is that one should be aware that we are dealing with a mere theater of shadows, with no substantial existence. Thus we need not fully engage ourselves in the capitalist game, but play it with an inner distance. Virtual capitalism could thus act as a first step toward “liberation.” It confronts us with the fact that the cause of our suffering is not objective reality–there is no such thing–but rather our Desire, our craving for material things. All one has to do then, after ridding oneself of the false notion of a substantial reality, is simply renounce desire itself and adopt an attitude of inner peace and distance. No wonder Buddhism can function as the perfect ideological supplement to virtual capitalism: It allows us to participate in it with an inner distance, keeping our fingers crossed, and our hands clean, as it were.” –Slavoj Žižek, Revenge of Global Finance

  • Craig

    This kind of ‘agency’ of ‘being nice’ might help in dealing with neighbors and co-workers, but it’s not going to change the world. Most capitalists are nice, yet their practice is insidious. Ironically, there is not agency and to think that we can have some idea of what action is going to seed and lead to a predictable result is naive at best.

    Also, making happiness the main requirement for ‘following the spiritual path’ is, well, I don’t know how to respond to that. Anyone who’s lived a few years of like KNOWS that happiness is fleeting. And, to outright reject thinking as a stumbling block to ‘enlightenment’ is absolutely dangerous. Indeed, this post as well as my experience in buddhism has shown me that it’s only creating non-thinking drones working to be at ease in late capitalism, being nice, not thinking and blabbering on and on about the ‘holy dharma’. I can’t help but wonder what buddhism would look like in the West if immanent critique, thinking and anatman were the focus.

    More later.

  • Glenn Wallis

    Why does no one from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship respond to comments here? Where are Korda and Stephens? A major aspect of the BPF mission “is to serve as a catalyst for socially engaged Buddhism.” Are our questions and responses to your conversations too miniscule to merit your engagement with us? Maybe what you say will serve as a catalyst for further action on our part. So, what’s up? Too busy? What?

  • Craig

    It seems to me that any real serious discussion of ending human suffering absolutely must look at the problems inherent in individualism and capitalism. Engaged buddhism seems to be just about ‘engaging’ with the world as is rather than changing the world.

  • Danny

    Thanks for this article. Some valuable points are made, and Stephens, who clearly uses his head for more than just a hat rack, makes good company for the rigid dogma of Josh Korda, whom I believe is sincere in his practice, but quite deluded.
    Of course the ‘elephant in the room’, that we are merely effects of an oppressive social structure, is only tossed around and the only action we can take, our ‘engaged practice’, is simply karmic gardening; planting seeds, “a rich soil to plant actions for social inequality”.
    How precious!
    True (full-strength) anatman, arguably one of the most important concepts in Buddhism, is completely at odds with our individual, atomistic, cut throat, capitalist social structure, so almost ALWAYS misunderstood. I don’t think Buddhist philosophy will ever be of much good without its correct understanding.

    ” No wonder Buddhism can function as the perfect ideological supplement to virtual capitalism: It allows us to participate in it with an inner distance, keeping our fingers crossed, and our hands clean, as it were.”
    Looking forward to some good dialogue here. Thanks.

  • Craig

    Danny,

    We also get to participate with hands in mudra :-)

    Great post. Helped me get a little bit closer to understanding the issues with this ‘individual’ practice and it’s complete immersion and reification of capitalism.

    As far as Korda goes, to me it just sounds like ventriloquism.

  • Joshua Stephens

    I hope folks can forgive any lag in response, here. For the record, Korda has been on the West Coast since the day before this piece went live, apparently in some sort of retreat with Noah and Vinnie. I doubt he’s been online, much. Frankly, given LA’s weather and his present company, I’m inclined to allow him this minor trespass.

    As for me, I spent much of yesterday in face to face conversation with people about this piece, here in Brooklyn. Happily, at that. I have a rule about internet comments, generally: Don’t read them. That whole letting go of praise and blame thing, you know? A little over a year ago, I heard a friend lost to cancer remembered by someone saying she’d taught them that critique is an act of intimacy (and further, that a fear of critique is a fear of intimacy). Given the economy of time, it underscored for me that as my resources go, those willing to undertake some modicum of intimacy with me are going to take priority. I think that vulnerability is necessary in fostering meaningful conversation or debate. Whatever people want to say on the internet is going to be said on the internet, with or without my acknowledgment or participation. And usually with very little interest in humility or precision.

    There’s, rather plainly, a license people allow themselves in this sort of vector that undermines reflexivity and intellectual seriousness — and, let’s be honest, accountability. Glenn, for instance, uses his blog to blast Korda for name-calling and polemicizing, while (in the same breath) denouncing and dismissing him as a “publicity hound”. Setting aside how this nukes any footing from which to lob accusations about name-calling, it left me wanting to text Korda the following: “A publicity hound, eh? Holding down four nights a week for Dharma Punx, a marriage, whatever it is you do to afford this town’s lunatic rent, and what I’m guessing is just as substantive personal interaction with who-knows-how-many-others as you afford me (unless I’m the prettiest girl at the proverbial dance)… WHERE DO YOU FIND THE TIME, MAN?!”.

    The brilliant irony, here, is that *I’m* the one who has cultivated a relationship with the BPF such that my face appears on their website, and *I’m* the one who proposed this dialogue to Korda. I’ve been at this practice in one way or another for the better part of two decades, and have *never* encountered a teacher less interested in self-promotion than Josh. This, alongside the fact that I’ve never encountered a more dynamic, intellectually rigorous, or sophisticated teacher, either. The coexistence of those two observations, alone, has been deeply humbling and instructive for me. One needn’t inhabit my particular relationship with the guy to glean this; listen to one of his talks, and then try to look at the NYC Dharma Punx website design for more than 30 seconds without gouging out your own eyes. Clearly, self-presentation is not a priority for him. Meanwhile, a number of celebrated dhamma teachers spout Hallmark-worthy pablum on the regular, and have culled rather lucrative, high-profile careers writing the same book every year and more or less stumping for Rumi as the poet-laurete of buddhism — and somehow their full-page ads in Tricycle don’t ruffle anyone’s feathers or signal any alarming contradiction. What’s Korda got? Oh right. One article in a major buddhist publication in the last year — on the oh-so-unsexy topic of addiction.

    The fact that anyone would emphatically declare their impatience over a lack of response to such spiritually and factually bankrupt nonsense, for me, underscores the lack of embarrassment cultivated by the culture of internet debates. The fact that anyone assumes they know everything about what or how Korda thinks, from a fairly modest dialogue, is similarly absurd. Yes, his participation in it tends toward keeping things in some proximity to the teachings, and how the teachings speak to points I raised. I sensed he was holding himself responsible for being a teacher of the tradition in this particular exchange, and one can’t make the teachings do or say things that they don’t (no matter how much certain Western teachers seem to want to). Are these the only things to be said? Of course not. But it’s perfectly acceptable for someone to stake out certain parameters for themselves in a discussion, and work within them. Such constraints are a necessary condition for intelligible meaning.

    Quoting Zizek hardly improves things. As one philosopher under whom I’ve studied replied, when asked whether we ought include Zizek in a flow chart of Continental figures: “Really? Must we?”

    There’s, in my view, a critical error in reading the Buddha in the ways people here seem to want to. The Buddha was quite clear about the parameters of his project: The eradication of greed, hatred, and delusion. The Pali Canon is rife with instances of people posing questions to him that he scoffed at, ignored, to deemed “imponderable”. It’s not that these were necessarily uninteresting, or meaningless; they were simply outside the scope of his preoccupation. There are a number of folks who’ve attempted, for instance, to chart some correspondence between the dhamma and anarchism. And in so doing, they’ve often tried to read the Four Noble Truths as though they’re a blueprint for social organization. This misses the point entirely. If we look at something like the Sutta about the two acrobats, who ultimately arrive at the conclusion that if they each care for themselves, they will be best suited to care for each other and collaborate in their stunt, and prosper from its effective execution — we see this rather clearly.

    The dhamma is not a blueprint for social organization; it’s what Foucault called a technology of the self. What you or I fail to do with ourselves after taking it up (say… dismantle white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy) is not on the Buddha. That’s on us. The dhamma is a training, a discipline — and I would argue it’s a beautifully-tailored discipline for cultivating keenly dynamic, self-critical, and candid agents in collective liberation. I’m less inclined to dismiss the Buddha for having failed to hand off some rigid, determinist social blueprint (hell, we’ve already got Marxism) — I’m more inclined toward a deep appreciation for the fact that he stopped where he did, and dialed in on the particularities of our internal experience.

    And here’s why: My full-on return to the dhamma (after having shelved it for a number of years) came during a moment I experienced in Palestine. I found myself standing with a number of other internationals, between teenagers lobbing rocks, and Israeli soldiers with rifles trained on said teenagers. And in that moment, two things crystalized for me: 1] I wasn’t in control; it wasn’t for me to instruct these kids in how they resisted, and the soldiers were certainly not going to hear anything from me, and 2] I was probably in the most immediate danger of death that I’d ever encountered. I could’ve taken myself out of the situation, in which case 14yr olds very likely would’ve been gunned down, the same way they’re being gunned down this second in the West Bank. But that was really the only agency available to me, and it was deeply unsatisfactory (to put it mildly).

    Then it hit me: This is dukkha. How I feel about this experience — pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral — is irrelevant. It’s not going to yield any tools for managing what’s happening. So, what do I do? Stay put, even with my own fear of bodily harm, and rest in the knowledge that this is impermanent; it will change, and when it does, I can re-evaluate my options for acting.

    This idea that what the Buddha taught with regard to acceptance is some passive resignation to the intolerable is absolute bullshit, and I’ll be the first to agree that I think this is far too prevalent, even in “engaged” Buddhist discourse. I nearly burst into flames when a woman in my former sangha asked a teacher (a colleague of Tara Brach, no less) how she might most skillfully and effectively deal with racist treatment she was experiencing in her workplace, and the teacher responded with “Well, do you think you can find a way to just *be* with it?”. Acceptance isn’t rolling over for that sort of thing. Acceptance is an unvarnished assessment of what’s actually happening, so that we can devise effective means of acting on it. To be unwilling to grapple with and metabolize what’s *actually* happening in any situation is to deny ourselves the ability to challenge and resist, out of petty aversion and denial. What the Buddha taught was a technology for opening to experience, so as to acquire the most detailed and precise understanding of our conditions — whether we’re talking about dismantling capitalism, or exploring sexual boundaries with a lover.

    All of which is to say: I agree that there’s plenty of inadequacy to go around, as goes buddhist discourse on these matters (which is precisely why I find the BPF’s work, of late, so deeply encouraging and necessary). I think projecting those inadequacies onto Korda — a guy who put in years with CISPES, doing solidarity work with Salvadorans up against US-backed death squads — assumes one knows things one does not. Further, this ranking of the two of us against each other intellectually is absurd; the guy’s got 16 years on me — he’d been reading for a decade when I was born. Game. Set. Match.

  • Glenn Wallis

    Joshua,

    I appreciate that you responded. And I agree with your friend’s friend that “critique is an act of intimacy (and further, that a fear of critique is a fear of intimacy).” But you still haven’t even touched on, yet responded to, the quite substantive comments by Craig, Danny, and the person for whom I proxied. In other words, while you were quite personal in your response, you evaded the intimacy of the critique.

    Much of what you wrote was simply a defense of the apparently virtuous Josh Korda. That defense doesn’t interest me at all. (By the way, if you look more carefully, you’ll see that I did not write the post on your dialogue. But that’s also neither here nor there.) I’d like to address a couple of points that do interest me.

    You say, “Quoting Zizek hardly improves things. As one philosopher under whom I’ve studied replied, when asked whether we ought include Zizek in a flow chart of Continental figures: ‘Really? Must we?’”

    First, why do you tell me what a “philosopher” with whom you studied said? What relevance does that have to the issue at hand? Second, to answer the “philosopher’s” question: yes, we must; who counts as a “Continental figure” is not a popularity contest. And since Zizek is cited here in direct contradiction to Korda’s juxtaposed comment, you, as responder and defender, must respond to the thought. Forget that it’s Zizek. What about the thought itself? This is the important matter, the one that interests me. Korda’s rhetoric of internal (equanimous, peaceful, mindful, balanced, etc.) distancing from the external capitalist maelstrom is precisely that which is condemned by Zizek. What makes the two juxtaposed statements significant is that the former is the common, automatic, and unquestioned x-buddhist response, while the latter is a faint glimmer of the emerging critique of that response. It is crucial to work this distinction as hard as we can.

    Another important point. When you say things like “The Buddha was quite clear about,” you exhibit a feature of x-buddhist discourse that disqualifies it as a serious partner in conversation. “The Buddha”—the teaching figure in the Pali texts—was not clear about anything at all. Or he was clear about something, only to muddle the waters about it elsewhere. And there are certain pervasive teachings that throw the entire edifice of selective “clarities” into chaos (rebirth, cosmology, karma). Of course, we can make all sorts of contradictory things out of these teachings. Just place the interpretations of someone like Thanissaro Bhikkhu next to those of a secularist like Stephen Batchelor. But in so doing, you have proven that the Buddha’s clarity is not a quality of his teachings; it is, rather a quality of your desire. This may seem like a tangential and even trivial point. But I think it is neither. I think one of the issues at hand in your dialogue with Korda is the injurious effects that reflective acceptance of certain x-buddhist structuring devices has on our thinking. I imagine that such a device is behind Craig’s reference to “ventriloquism.” “The Buddha” did not inhabit our world. So, unless you believe in eternal, transcendent values, values that are independent of any given contingent social-symbolic system, you will have to re-consider your concept of “the Buddha.”

    By the way: “If we look at something like the Sutta about the two acrobats, who ultimately arrive at the conclusion that if they each care for themselves, they will be best suited to care for each other and collaborate in their stunt, and prosper from its effective execution”—Ayn Rand couldn’t agree more, I’m sure.

    What you describe about your return to “the dhamma” is interesting, but it doesn’t explain anything, including why you returned to “the dhamma.” Those same experiences and insights could just as realistically led you to a devotion to Kant. It leaves the “why the dhamma” question unanswered.

    You write: “This idea that what the Buddha taught with regard to acceptance is some passive resignation to the intolerable is absolute bullshit, and I’ll be the first to agree that I think this is far too prevalent, even in ‘engaged’ Buddhist discourse.” Well, I am glad you said so. I obviously agree. That’s why I am here. But I also see Korda as perpetuating—spreading—precisely this x-buddhist bullshit. You may not agree, but I still don’t know why not. Asking about that—that’s also why I’m here.

    I would really appreciate it if you would respond to the post on Speculative Non-Buddhism.

    I also find some of the pieces of the BPF site encouraging. I find it encouraging, too, that an obviously thoughtful person like you is involved in x-buddhism. But there is still an almost inconceivable amount of work to be done in separating the x-buddhist shite from its might.

    Peace and thanks.

    Glenn

  • Glenn Wallis

    Correction to my comment:

    “reflective acceptance” should read “reflexive acceptance.”

  • josh korda

    I just returned from a buddhist conference on the west coast with Noah Levine and other buddhist teachers, where I was without a laptop, hence the delayed response.

    I see that I’ve been labelled ‘rigid’ ‘deluded’ a ‘ventriloquist’ and ‘apparently virtuous’ amongst other comments. Glenn proclaims that my lack of a response was due to some form of haughty disdain: ‘conversations too miniscule to merit your engagement with us?’ All of this projected at me after one short conversation, despite the decade of volunteer work with addicts in recovery, hospice training, working with ex-convicts and war vets with PTSD, not to mention the thousands of classes teaching meditation, free of cost, to lower income practitioners. If this is the manner in which you engage in dialogue it hardly encourages participation.

    But I will offer a responses before taking leave.

    It’s remarkable to read that someone views Buddhism as “creating non-thinking drones working to be at ease in late capitalism” despite the amount of work we’re putting in turning around the lives of convicts, addicts, hospice work, et al. Apparently helping people relieve the trauma they’ve experienced at the hands of the institutions of power doesn’t count; only some form of black bloc activism, I gather, is allowable. (Sadly, this reminds me of volunteering with the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the 70s and CISPES in the 80s; the fund raising work and marches were often counter demonstrated by Trotskyists, who picketed with the rebuttal that alleviating suffering doesn’t count; only actions that directly focused on permanent revolution mattered.)

    Danny writes that “we are merely effects of an oppressive social structure, is only tossed around and the only action we can take, our ‘engaged practice’, is simply karmic gardening; planting seeds, “a rich soil to plant actions for social inequality”.How precious!” Sigh. ‘Planting seeds’ is called an analogy. People refer to ‘planting the seeds of revolution’ all the time without the snarky disapproval. Secondly, kamma (pali) is entirely part of the process of confronting social injustice and suffering; its not easy to relieve the pain of the dying, the tortured souls of addicts, the derailed lives of convicts, etc. Sometimes its helpful to know that one’s efforts will be rewarded with feelings of well being down the line. Such a concept is far from precious or piddling; I doubt that any useful work is done without it.

    Glenn Wallis understanding of the the dhamma is simply at odds with my mine (which I’ve been studying for 35 years now, which i started in the 1970s). He writes: “unless you believe in eternal, transcendent values, values that are independent of any given contingent social-symbolic system, you will have to re-consider your concept of “the Buddha.” The entire point of the four noble truths, and the dhamma, is that they are transcultural and transhistorical. That’s exactly why The Buddha referred to them timeless. (“The Dhamma visible here and now is timeless” is the way the Buddha introduced it.) Believing that the core of the dhamma requires updating for every new historical period and culture, is entirely antithetical to the dhamma. In essence, The Buddha was similar to the structuralists in his teaching that the way the mind causes suffering is systemically timeless. If my being in agreement is rigid, fine, i’m guilty.

    Metta, j

  • Joshua Stephens

    Yeah, again. I just don’t take Zizek seriously as perspectives on the dhamma go, anymore than I take Fred Phelps seriously on the matter of moralizing the flavor of friction one requires for orgasm. So, I’m disinclined toward encouraging anyone else taking him seriously; better uses of one’s time abound.

    Ayn Rand would not, in fact, have endorsed the acrobat sutta; it explicitly suggests something beyond self-interest. Reading it otherwise puts one’s grasp of the teachings in league with Zizek’s.

    And on, and on, and on….

    (It’s sunny out).

  • Glenn Wallis

    So, Josh admits to being a rigid buddhaholic, but attempts to rationalize his habit by pointing to his virtuous works. In the meantime, the mode of his thinking that is being criticized is eluded. What is that mode? As he put it elsewhere: “Everything we experience, we are experiencing inside of the mind. There is no outside of the mind.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyqadtJEOuY

    How Josh can still have such a view after 35 years of Buddhist practice and study would be inconceivable to me if it were not, in fact, so commonplace among x-buddhists.

    And Joshua again refuses to engage the serious thought that wants to challenge Korda’s view. Why? Because it was expressed by Zizek. That’s a lame evasion, too. And, yes, Ayn Rand would approve of the quoted passage.. The point is that the passage preaches the primacy of self-interest. That some good might follow is not a Randian objection.

    I’ll repeat a point that you both will, I hope, give further thought: Unless you believe in eternal, transcendent values, values that are independent of any given contingent social-symbolic system, you will have to re-consider your concept of “the Buddha” and “his teachings.” You particularly have to do so since you seek present world applications to x-buddhist materials. And, yes, where there is real thought, it goes on, and on, and on.

    Re: “it’s sunny out.” That reminded me of the 1960s German poster with Marx, Lenin, and Engels: Alle reden von Wetter: Wir nicht.

  • Craig

    Claiming the dhamma as timeless and transhistorical is a slippery slope. Who’s interpretation of the dhamma? What sutras? Who’s buddha? Teachers would be a lot more genuine if they put their cards on the table and explain their version of ‘the truth’ and how it’s not The Truth.

    Also, what’s your point in listing all the ‘suffering folks’ you’ve helped? Is that supposed to make me quit critiquing your article? Lots and lots of people who are not buddhist help other people. These addicts and convicts and dying are people and part of the collective mind. If we are going to take seriously what ‘the buddha’ said then we have to look at the source of suffering as well as aid those who suffer. We still have absolutely no idea how to do either of these, despite ‘buddha’s’ timeless wisdom. However, we can carry around a terra bite of music on our phones. How far we’ve come.

    Finally, I have to ask,could it be possible that buddhism is causing harm? As a person who takes ‘buddhism’ quite seriously, this question must be asked…especially of teachers.

  • Katie Loncke

    Hi, everyone — Katie here. I’ve been watching this thread grow, but have felt hesitant to chime in… it feels like I’m stepping into the middle of somebody else’s beef, which stretches back, perhaps, to origins of which I know not.

    Frankly, the conversation, to me, feels pretty “dudely.” More specifically, formally educated white dudes. Which isn’t to speculate on anyone’s life experiences or identities. But I’m trying to understand why, in a conversation that actually brings up SO MANY rich questions to explore together (does Buddhism these days tend to support the capitalist status quo? When and why? Can we change that? Do we want to? Is the dhamma ‘timeless,’ and how can we know, given that our experiences always take place in a certain historical context?), what emerges is basically, like, snark and lightweight polemics. If that’s the mode in which folks want to explore this article, that’s your choice, but I want to put it out there that for me, in the way I approach conversation, I was kind of surprised and put off by the way the conversation (needlessly?) escalated in tension.

    For example, I personally see the tension between Josh’s and Žižek’s quotes as incredibly fruitful and worthy of exploration. Why did it turn into weird passive-aggression toward both people? Beats me.

    Here’s my reading on those juxtaposed quotes, for whatever it’s worth.

    I think that Josh is pointing to the ways in which capitalism (a set of social relations institutionalized primarily through the economy and the state, etc.) creates material realities that malform our spiritual experiences, if our spiritual aspirations are to liberate ourselves (and maybe others) from suffering. This isn’t a vulgar argument that what happens ‘externally’ forces us to feel certain ways (and I think most of us who practice Buddhist trainings have probably experienced for ourselves the relief of this untethering! like, i don’t HAVE to dwell in irritation for so long about x, y, and z and eff up the rest of my day needlessly!), but that our embodied, psycho-somatic experience of undertaking the trainings is conditioned by our material circumstances. So on a basic level, because we live in a society based on scarcity and competition, where people’s basic needs are not being met, even though they could be, this distorts our ability to practice the Parami of generosity. It engenders very deep-rooted habits of self-centeredness and fear in the mind. (Along with tons of other social / material / historical factors, right?) And I say “distorts our ability” only because I believe there *have been,* and could be again, someday, on a mass level, societies in which the material framework better emphasized co-operation and abundance. These material conditions, I believe, more easily give rise to behaviors that engender wholesome mental states. I’ve experienced this myself, on small scales, in certain co-operatives where modest yet plentiful resources were managed with group accountability. Doesn’t make for a wholly drama-free experience, obviously, and the people in it still had that deep conditioning of capitalism, but they were also critically aware of that conditioning and trying to change it. Trying, in certain respects, and some more than others, to show up to the group work as erotic participants. (I love that Joshua made that connection. Yes, I want more of the erotic in my organizing meetings!!! :)

    Žižek, meanwhile, I believe is pointing to something that is *also* true, which is that Buddhism as a practice is, of course, vulnerable to co-optation. What is The True Buddhism? I don’t know. But I have heard the sentiment from enough teachers I respect, and studied some on my own, and have enough of my own ideological stubbornness, to agree with Danny and Craig (if I’m getting this right) that an overly individualistic practice of Buddhism can actually reify capitalism. I don’t actually see this in contradiction to what Josh wrote, I just think he frames his interpretation and practice of Buddhism differently from this individualistic, semi-pacifying approach.

    If it’s true that certain practices taught by Buddhists and dharma practitioners, historically, can help us achieve a certain critical distance from our own mental conditioning, that’s one thing. So far, individualistic Buddhists — even capitalist Buddhists! — and socialist / Marxist Buddhists like me are kinda on the same page. But when Žižek says “All one has to do then, after ridding oneself of the false notion of a substantial reality, is simply renounce desire itself and adopt an attitude of inner peace and distance,” I think he must be speaking to a very superficial practice, right? “*All one has to do* is simply renounce desire itself”???? LOL!!! If it were only that simple!

    So in my eyes, Josh’s point still stands, that capitalism and class society frameworks erect certain roadblocks to the practice of freeing ourselves from desire, or practicing the Eightfold Path. And Žižek is also correct that a superficial practice of the Eightfold Path (or maybe even a deep and sophisticated one, who knows) poses absolutely no threat to capitalist ethics, and may even reinforce them. The Zen of making profits! Mindfulness and military surveillance! Inner peace for more efficiency! “Inner peace and distance,” to me, seems very disconnected to the central Buddhist teaching of compassion. The more Buddhists pointing this out, and developing alternative articulations of the dharma in our own political and social contexts, the better, in my mind. BPF-wise, these days we’re playing with notions of “compassionate confrontation,” “inspiring alternatives,” and of course, examining harm and liberation at a systemic level. Which for me, is super exciting.

    I’ve already said more than I hoped to, but I want to leave with a question that I would love to hear people’s thoughts about. Feminists have argued (persuasively, for me) that “the personal is political.” For me, Joshua and Josh’s conversation raises the question: Is the spiritual political?

    One personal story as a partial response, and then I’m out.

    Early on, when I first started studying dhamma at an almost-all-white meditation center in Massachusetts, one of the white teachers gave a talk on letting go, which he framed as giving up resistance. The entire talk, about not resisting, he never once qualified his teaching with the acknowledgement of the political meaning of “resistance.” Resistance to oppression. I thought: This is a pretty white talk. And part of my mind kind of shut down to the rest of what the teacher was saying.

    Over the years, having experienced similar dynamics in various Buddhist spaces, I have also noticed that I am more receptive to hearing dhamma teachings from people of color. My body and mind are more open. This is disadvantageous to me in a way, since many white teachers have a lot of valuable wisdom and teachings to share. But it also has benefits, too, since I notice meaningful dynamics that may be less apparent to others. It’s not to say that I can never learn anything from white teachers: I often learn a lot! It’s also not to say that I automatically love all teachers of color. But on average, my upbringing as a mixed-race, sometimes-passing-for-white person in a white-supremacist society, where almost all of my teachers were white until college when I could actively choose, and where whiteness is often synonymous with certain materially reinforced arrogance… it just takes extra effort and energy for me to be open to white teachers. In a sense, the cumulative effect of my racial political context hinders my development of sutamayā paññā, or the wisdom of study (and probably also the wisdom of reflection, and maybe even of direct experience or meditation).

    This is what I am working with. It is political. It relates to power. It’s part of what I think about when I think of the pool of resources our population shares, as you put it, Joshua. The historical factors that have posed whiteness as synonymous with authority, with valuable knowledge and theory, with what is right and wholesome. This is disturbing. I don’t feel bad for being disturbed by it. I try my best to notice and, as Joshua quoted Sulak as saying, just keep meditating in a different position. Only it’s a different *mental* position, of simultaneously receiving dhamma teachings, and being aware of the racial, gender, class, language, and other dynamics of those teachings.

    My response to white supremacy is not to try to meditate it out of existence, beginning with my own mind. I don’t subscribe to an idealist strategy, that changing our minds will somehow lead to changes in the world. I believe in strategizing on a material level, to create a world in which white people no longer have material advantages and domination over others. But I do also want to show up to those strategizing meetings in an ‘erotic,’ whole, and wholesome way. To be of benefit to all beings, as much as I can. My experience leads me to agree with Josh’s perspective that training in the dhamma teachings (as they come to me, perhaps imperfectly) can help me be a wiser and more compassionate person, in my political life. Hopefully at least some of my co-organizers would agree with that. :)

    Thanks to all for your time on this thread, and I really would love to hear whether you think the spiritual is political.

    Take good care, everyone,

    katie

  • Katie Loncke

    Ooh, one last thing. Talking about my experiences around race and Buddhist teachings also reminded me of this piece that Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote last year, on material / political conditions affecting the ways we can follow the Eightfold Path:

    “The great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca once said: “The day that hunger is eradicated from the earth, there will be the greatest spiritual explosion the world has ever known. Humanity cannot imagine the joy that will burst into the world on the day of that great revolution.”

    Although, as a Buddhist, I consider the Buddha’s enlightenment and his “turning the wheel of Dharma” to be the greatest spiritual events in history, I believe Lorca’s statement harmonizes well with the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings.

    “Not only is it hard to meditate with an emaciated body, but it’s hard to do much of anything except wait intently for the next meal.” “

  • Jeff

    Yes, I agree, the spiritual/material dialectic is mind-boggling! Our California group is trying to organize for universal health care. Ethics and empathy persuade many intellectuals of the imperative for change. Those who need that change the most are fighting daily battles on the job and on the streets just to survive exploitation. We’re learning as we go, but building a united mass movement for any progressive cause is tough, huh? Great patience, conviction, and compassion are needed. We do appreciate the concrete examples from your engaged struggles — they inspire and teach us. Thanks & keep up the Right Action!

  • patrick jennings

    Hi joshua,

    Thanks for an interesting post. Can I say at the outset that if I concentrate on the areas that I have difficulty with its only because time and space are in short supply and I would like to explore some points that may further dialogue. And it goes without saying that the form of activism you advocate and in which you are engaged have my support and admiration. I am coming then from a position of solidarity and agreement based on a conviction that as you say:

    ‘Acceptance is an unvarnished assessment of what’s actually happening, so that we can devise effective means of acting on it. To be unwilling to grapple with and metabolize what’s *actually* happening in any situation is to deny ourselves the ability to challenge and resist, out of petty aversion and denial.’

    I take it that you are here talking about an assessment that involves at least three elements: an interior engagement with ones bodily experience via some sort of basic mindfulness, a complimentary conceptual analysis that would articulate the insights gained and allow dialogue, and an assessment of how such insights ‘fit’ with our understanding of the exterior situation…in other words a comprehensive and ‘unvarnished’ engagement in what is ‘actually’ happening ,with a view to action…in short mindfulness, thinking, action. Would that be a fair assessment of what you would term ‘engaged’ practice?

    Reading the above dialogue I was aware of two reactions… agreement, more or less, with the content ,and an underlying sense of dissatisfaction with the way you situate engagement visa vie capitalism and the prospects of radical change. At root it is a disagreement about philosophy.

    From my own point of view I think that something needs to be said about what we bring to this situation of being ‘fully engaged’ . We do not come to it as a blank slate…that is we are always and already immersed within the situation and our feelings, ideas, and impulses necessarily reflect that reality. That is we are not in some way transcendently neutral and then come to engage ( or fail to engage) Our very state as thinking,/feeling beings is a state of engagement from the very beginning….each and every one of our experiences from the moment of birth is ‘full immersion in the world’ and all of our responses in terms of emotion, feeling, and thought are consequent upon that engagement and not anterior to it.
    From this point of view the very question of whether to engage or not (in for instance overt political action in contrast to charitable work) is itself a consequence of our actual immersion in the world, a function of our already engaged state. The question of engagement arises within a conceptual context pre-formed by particular intellectual and ideological parameters, and the already existing complex of social relations in which we find ourselves. Our very capacity to frame the question is made possible by a socially constructed linguistic system and all of the ‘meanings’ embedded within it.

    In that context the question ‘What is an engaged Buddhism’ is an indication of an already pre-formed ideological position. It is premised on two unstated assumptions 1) that anything other then full engagement is possible , and 2) that we are transcendently free from the situation and therefore free to choose.

    An explicit affirmation of these very assumptions is provided by Josh when he contends:

    ‘The entire point of the four noble truths, and the dhamma, is that they are transcultural and transhistorical. That’s exactly why The Buddha referred to them timeless. (“The Dhamma visible here and now is timeless” is the way the Buddha introduced it.) Believing that the core of the dhamma requires updating for every new historical period and culture, is entirely antithetical to the dhamma. In essence, The Buddha was similar to the structuralists in his teaching that the way the mind causes suffering is systemically timeless. If my being in agreement is rigid, fine, i’m guilty.’

    The point is not that Josh is being rigid when he speaks thus but that he is explicating not from any radical position but from a philosophical position at the root of a conservatism, a position that, at its worst ,equates freedom with the insane instability of the ‘free market ‘and a process of unbridled globalization and armed interventionism. (including extermination by means of drone attack)

    Since Josh is committed to ‘engaged Buddhism’ I think it is fair to raise this question of philosophical position, since one’s philosophical position is a determining factor in how one conceives of engagement and engaged practice. The pertinent question is how we choose to be engaged…that is do we choose a form of engagement that seeks actively or by omission to leave the capitalist system intact (more or less, and that will do for those who benefit from it) or do we engage from a radical or revolutionary position that seeks an overturning of the present situation.

    Josh, it seems to me , takes a position that leaves the capitalist system intact and , judging by his commitment to activism, does this by omission rather than by intent. And this is the very position referred to by Zizek in the above quote…a position that leaves one’s hands clean but that is ethically indefensible. It is the philosophical position that posits a transcendental space from which to ‘view’ the situation that allows such a position in the first place… a space of withdrawal, political quietism, and Dharmic bliss. In my view such a transcendental space is an illusion and the view promulgated from there is simply the very ordinary view of a twentieth century American who, in the age of unbridled free market economics and imperial empire, explicates a liberal and reformist agenda. I contend that in the present situation of economic and environmental meltdown the reformist agenda is simply ‘fiddling while rome burns’

    This assertion will not be welcomed by most , since it is an attack on a view of human freedom equally shared by conservatives and liberals (both engaged and unengaged) and is a corner stone of the ‘Dharma’ as originally ‘transmitted’ to the west, beginning in the eighteenth century.

    Two things need to be said here
    The political, moral, and ethical consensus concerning Human freedom explicated by modern (and especially American) conservatism and liberalism is not the only way of looking at Human freedom .
    Modern western Buddhism is not a pristine version of the Dharma’ but a new construction introduced into western society by individuals who themselves espoused a conservative/liberal view of human freedom. Modern Buddhism is in many ways tailor made for such individuals, since it involves the exercise of that transcendental freedom beloved of (especially American )conservatives and liberals)

    There is another view of freedom. It can be approached via buddhism if one is prepared to perform a sort of evisceration of classical buddhism in order to reveal the jewel hidden beneath layers of cultural, historical encrustation..what could be termed Buddhism’s religious and cultural excess.
    This is a view that promulgates the principle of pratityasamutpada or ‘full strength anatmann’…a view that can be found in the various Buddhisms of Asia and in all historical periods…a view of the self as dependently originated and quintessentially expressed by the Buddha figure as that famous reduction of the Dharma

    This is, because that is.
    This is not, because that is not.
    This ceases to be, because that ceases to be

    The ‘this’ and ‘that’ here refer to all that goes to make up the Human… a matrix of biological, environmental,social,economic,political,psychological,and conceptual elements… all interdependently arising as that Immanence often referred to as ‘suchness’ and articulated in all its complexity as the philosophy of the madhyamā-pratipad , the jewel par excellence.

    Here there is no concept of transcendental freedom but a freedom exercised as the paradoxical expression of our full immersion in the world and as the world… a freedom from within the situation.. a freedom grappled with in full flight as it were and without the luxury of a transcendental overview…in other words a notion of freedom as risk, a balancing act that belies faith in either pre-determined or absolutely open-ended out-comes.
    Central to the exercise of this freedom is an awareness of the ways in which we are conditioned by the already existing philosophical and ideological parameters in which we conceive of and exercise freedom. You express as much and very well in the following

    ‘What the Buddha taught was a technology for opening to experience, so as to acquire the most detailed and precise understanding of our conditions — whether we’re talking about dismantling capitalism, or exploring sexual boundaries with a lover.’

    I prefer to use the term ‘heuristic’ to describe the most effective ways of approaching this ‘art of opening’. And to keep in mind that this very heuristic is itself included in the ‘this’ and ‘that’ of dependent arising….that our understanding of the its nature and the injunctions to action that flow from it are subject to conditioning and to a dynamic evolution.

    In this context I am surprised at your offhanded dismissal of Marxism and Zizek.
    For one thing there are many Marxisms and not all of them are deterministic or ideologically straight-jacketed in the way you imply. Marxism has in many of its forms dominated Modern discourse and profoundly changed both our view of ourselves and our social practice… this is true even if only because the opposition to Marxist critiques has determined the nature of conservative and liberal politics to a great extent
    And more importantly an idea of the Human and of Human freedom comparable to the idea of dependent origination is at the root of all Marxist critique. Of course getting at it requires the same sort of conceptual effort I referred to in describing the ‘evisceration ‘ of classical Buddhism but the effort is worth it.

    In my view the most fruitful context for the exploration of the possibility for radical change is just that very intersection between modern and postmodern thought, including the various Marxisms, and the various Buddhisms, classical and modern.

  • Tom Pepper

    Katie,

    I think the core of this “beef” (which doesn’t stretch back very far, really) is summed up in your statement that “This isn’t a vulgar argument that what happens ‘externally’ forces us to feel certain ways”: the point is, for some of us, this is exactly the truth of Buddhism, and the “vulgar” argument is the belief that we can “experience for ourselves the relief of untethering.” This reproduces the illusion that there is some “true self,” some atman or soul, which can escape the world—and misses the point that the discourse and practice of Buddhism is exactly something “external” which “forces us to feel certain ways.” Buddhist meditation is a practice that the Western Buddhist forgets is a social practice, and mistakes for an “escape” from being socially constructed. So the practice Zizek describes is not some “superficial” practice, but exactly the one you describe, the most common understanding of Buddhism in the West (also, the idea of “mindfulness” that is promoted by William George and criticized by David Loy on this site). When you say that Buddhism can be “coopted,” you fall into the most “vulgar” analysis of all; you assume it is only “coopted” when it is used, like William George wants to use it, to more efficiently oppress and exploit the majority of the world’s population. Instead, we should see that it is already “coopted” when make the mistake of seeing Buddhist practice as a training technique to give us strength to go into the “real, material world” and help people individually, in person, instead of making changes at the level of thought. This enables the system to run a bit longer, serving as a pressure valve to prevent the misery of capitalism from leading to an explosion. I reinforces the capitalist ideology that the “virtual” or the “idea” is unimportant and not real, that it has no causal power at all—so that we can continue to be thoroughly controlled by exactly those ideas (which are real, and exist in real concrete practices) that function to reproduce capitalism. When you focus on the “whiteness” of an argument, instead of its function in reproducing the existing relations of production, you are doing what capitalist ideology demands of you: you feel a real contradiction in the social system, and attribute it to a supposedly “natural” difference (race), and so change you focus to race relations and stop noticing that these very race relations are the construct of capitalist social formations—they aren’t “deep truths” but exactly the “theories and ideas” you don’t want to engage in changing, while you focus on the “material” strategy, which exactly keeps in place what you think you want to get rid of.

    Capitalism doesn’t “erect certain roadblocks to the practice of freeing ourselves from desire.” It produces “desire” as something we think we want to be freed of—and then markets to us ways to free ourselves of it which really only serve to reproduce it. Desire as a translation of “raga” is a perfect example of how Buddhism has already been coopted into reproducing this capitalist desire-machine. What if we translated it as “reification” instead?

    You’re right that the debate stays superficial, but it stays superficial because of a refusal to face this argument—to take the idea of anatman seriously and realize that the illusion that we can “free ourselves” from the social formation we are engaged in is exactly the most powerful form of “raga” of all. Joshua and Josh will dismiss Zizek as not worth discussing, because what he says is a truth they cannot allow themselves to see. And so, the debate falls into personal nonsense, as a way to avoid the argument—just a different form of the same attempt to retreat from truth that is the goal of most “mindfulness” practices.

    And of course the spiritual is political. The first Buddhist sangha was a political rejection of the “spiritualism” of the atman; even Hegel knew that “spiritual” was a political strategy to prevent real social change—a way to prop up the social system riddled with contradiction. Maybe the first step in making real systemic change, instead of making individual interventions that mitigate the threat of systemic change, is to drop the very word “spiritual” from Buddhist discourse—the founding truth of Buddhism is that there is no such thing as a “spiritual” realm!

  • Katie Loncke

    Hi Jeff, Patrick, Tom. Good mornin’.

    Jeff, I always love your enthusiasm, and appreciate the work you do. Patience, conviction, and compassion, indeed! I would love to chat sometime about your organizing group… I’m curious whether “universal health care” as y’all are conceiving of it extends to undocumented people living in California? My organizing right now is merging more and more with undocumented communities, and it would be so amazing to extend the idea of “universal” to all residents regardless of status — let alone to the whole literal universe, hehe. Anyway, I’m sure we’ll get to talk sometime soon.

    patrick, thanks for bringing up your disagreements and arguments in a kind way. It’s amazing how far even a “compliment sandwich” can go in changing the tone of a debate! (smile) I appreciate your point about immanence rather than transcendance, and I agree it’s tricky when ideas like “evolutionary residue” imply some sort of ‘pure’ state underneath that. My sense, though maybe Joshua thinks differently, is that the argument of this article is less about escape and transcendance, and more about finding a different shape. There is this certain shape now, based on complex cause and effect, and in order to bring about a different shape with less suffering, we need to use what we have to bring about different causes and different effects. (Knowing that much of this will be out of our control, and/or opaque to our understanding of causality, which is already shaped in a certain way, i.e. for me as a Western-educated person it’s very linear.) Is that in the ballpark of what you’re arguing for?

    Similarly, I feel you on the ways in which all practice is engaged because we are fully immersed in the world, not outside of it. Complicity is a certain type of engagement, as is, maybe ignorance? (For me, that’s where it gets to be a bit of a stretch, though I see how ignorance and lack of information is part of the fabric of total ‘engagement’.) Still, the term “engaged Buddhism” has meant something to a lot of people, has provided a kind of rallying point that’s lasted a long time, (reminds me, in a way, of the term “people of color,” which has specific origins in the U.S. in groups of non-white women organizers showing political solidarity with Black women’s radical political agendas; the term has always made certain political dynamics clearer while obfuscating others). I’m about to go to a gathering of “Engaged Buddhists and Liberation Theologians,” and I’m curious to see how people are relating to the term these days, especially in contexts outside the U.S.

    Tom, hi, just a couple responses and clarifications. When I talk about “untethering,” I don’t mean somehow untethering from cause and effect, in order to be some transcendent solitary untouched self, but “untethering” from habit-patterns that produce unwholesomeness and suffering. This might happen on an ‘individual’ level, within a group dynamic, or maybe even within a community dynamic. And it might just lead to more ‘tethering’ to other unwholesome habit-patterns, or back to the same ones eventually, or to more wholesome ones (and I know the wholesome / unwholesome thing is oversimplified, but hopefully I’m being clear). But here, in my experience is the opening for ‘relief’ (which may sometimes feel quite scary, rather than soothing). To me it seems like the basis of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction practices, etc.

    On the co-optation tip, I’m not sure why you assume that I’m only talking about the William George type? What I said was: “overly individualistic practice of Buddhism can actually reify capitalism.” This can be just as strong in the non-profit and philanthropy world, mindfulness in education, and various kinds of reformism. Co-optation, to me, means powerful and materially resourced agents watering down revolutionary theory and practice to fit better with the status quo. Those agents (the state, marketing industries, education institutions, giant nonprofits) can be liberal, moderate, conservative, even ‘radical.’

    And when I say ‘refiy capitalism,’ I basically mean naturalize it, make it seem normal or reformable into something ‘nice.’

    On the part about race, you write:

    “When you focus on the “whiteness” of an argument, instead of its function in reproducing the existing relations of production, you are doing what capitalist ideology demands of you: you feel a real contradiction in the social system, and attribute it to a supposedly “natural” difference (race), and so change you focus to race relations and stop noticing that these very race relations are the construct of capitalist social formations—they aren’t “deep truths” but exactly the “theories and ideas” you don’t want to engage in changing, while you focus on the “material” strategy, which exactly keeps in place what you think you want to get rid of.”

    This was probably my bad for not specifying what I mean when I talk about whiteness, though I tried to give some examples of the material construction of white supremacy, like almost all of the teachers in my (huge, public, Sacramento, supposedly most-integrated-city-in-the-country) schools being white. I agree with you that race is not “natural” or a “deep truth.” Not sure where you’re seeing that in what I said. I also agree with you that racism is part and parcel of the historically conditioned social and economic structures of this society, though I don’t believe that dismantling capitalism will somehow automatically get rid of racism. But that’s a whole other thread!

    To bring it back to the original themes of Josh and Joshua’s piece, I’m curious to hear from more people how you experience cultural / political conditioning in your practice (spiritual, political, maybe one in the same!) and why this is important to you, if it is. This conversation is getting pretty abstract and analytical, separate from our experiences, and I for one would love to hear more about how folks are experiencing and applying this stuff. How does the intersection between modern and postmodern thought, as you put it, patrick, show up in our personal / political work? I’d be fascinated to hear examples of that…

  • Jeff

    Katie, absolutely “universal” health care means for every resident of California, no matter what their documentation status is. Just like compassion extends to all sentient beings and more than ever, our Mother Earth. Politically, this compassion will somehow need to be integrated with righteous anger at The System and the real-life struggle to change it. Although I am not familiar with all the philosophers cited in this thread, I am glad smarter people than me are thinking about synthesis. Thanks for seconding my call for more practical stuff as well. As you point out, we’re still not a truly multiracial movement despite good intentions. The baggage we carry! Maybe the sharing of hard knocks should be in the Econ tab or a new one (“Organizing” ?). Will follow your lead on further chats. Cheers…

  • Danny

    patrick jennings,

    Acting on a pure whim, I applied the Hegelian dialectic to your comment, and came up with the Gettysburg address. Incredible.

    kind regrds

  • Anonymous

    What are the practical applications of this mental masturbation? A bunch of white dudes self importantly citing Zizek is not engaged Buddhism. Name dropping Malcolm X and throwing in an Audre Lorde quote about the erotic doesn’t help. This article and the comment section are basically just a celebration of your own abilities to compete academically (which in this form just as authoritarian and autocratic as capitalism) by citing popular theory.

    This thread is painfully inaccessible to anyone without a background in the boys club of Western Philosophy. Joshua starts out critiquing the westernization of Buddhism and then promptly forces the Buddhist texts out of context and into the realm of Western philosophy! This article is blatantly using the language of self and agency in ways that the Buddha suggested against. Being self referential about it makes it worse. When you examine Buddhism through the lens of Rancière you are westernizing Buddhism.

    The Buddha talked about Karma being immensely complicated. He didn’t say “study Marx and then you’ll be aware of the ways you cause harm”. He suggested examining yourself and watching closely to limit your own perpetuation of violence. Maybe the reason that there are aren’t 5 Foundations of mindfulness is that you don’t know enough to assess your impact in social context.

    Some things to examine: How does your presence in a space perpetuate oppression? How does your language include or exclude people? Do you talk endlessly instead of sharing the air with other people? Based on this article and it’s responses, I’m guessing that YES, you do. Check your own privilege. What about the ownership, authority, and the resources in your own Sangha? Are they as democratically available as you would like? Or is capital in Dharma Punx distributed similarly to the way it is in the rest of the world? Who empowers people to speak? Who’s on the board? Who’s dominating the space and time in your reading and in your Sangha? Who has ownership over the “branding” of your form of Western Buddhism? Is it white dudes who operate within a traditional structure of authority? Do they prove themselves by showing the feathers of their traditionally and culturally valued skills? If so… what are you doing about it?

  • Anonymous

    No Glenn Wallis, I am not anti-intellectual. I’m into intellectual pluralism. I think Buddhism is most valuable for it’s intrapersonal insights. The focus of the early texts (which can be critiqued for it’s limits) was on a methodology of examining one’s own experience of the world in relation to one’s own thoughts/actions/words in the world. In this way, Buddhism has been successful in it’s aims and this is supported by it’s usefulness according to neuroscientists and modern psychologists. If you find Josh Korda’s knowledge of the brain inadequate, you’re welcome to lookup Jim Hopper (Harvard consultant in neuroscience).

  • Anonymous

    Also, assuming that experiential knowledge does not exist or is invalid in relationship to other forms of understanding is anti-intellectual. So much of the most valuable science and theory would not exist if every intellectual rejected intuition by assuming without further question that logic was incompatible.

  • Anonymous

    I guess the ultimate question Glenn, is how are you helping? How is your website helping? How are your responses helping? Do you think if you ultimately prove that every Buddhist is an asshole or that Buddhism is incompatible with logic you will win the game? What does it look like if you win? What if we just say it now:

    “You win. The game is over. No one will every meditate or read the Canon again. Obviously intellectualism is the way to go. You are the ultimate authority in what the best way is to direct the intellect. We will all stop using the word Buddhism, because it’s problematic (like all other words). You are supremely logical. Harvard, Yale, Columbia and all small liberal arts colleges will start teaching The Hegelian Dialect (Oh wait… they already have been) and stop teaching about The Buddha (Oh wait… they weren’t anyway). Forget about trusting your experience, do what you’re told. Examine everything in the same way.”

    Have we now succeeded in ending harm done to each other and the planet? What is the goal in all of this?

  • Dawn Haney

    I think dismissing Anonymous as “anti-intellectual” for naming that, “This thread is painfully inaccessible to anyone without a background in the boys club of Western Philosophy” dismisses an important critique they’ve made about *which* intellectual traditions are being engaged with here and *who* is comfortable engaging with them. Why in the comments are we grappling with Žižek and not Lorde? Or Spivak, Mohanty, Fanon, Said, Narayan, or Naber? Or why not a more concrete reference to Gloria Anzaldua in the original post?

    I find the direction of this conversation thread curious, given that it started with these questions: “What does agency look like, when we take others’ agency as seriously as we take our own? … What does it demand of us — in the present, in our bodies, even — to meet that practice of allowing a spaciousness conducive to the self-determination of others?” In talking with Joshua about this piece as he was preparing it, I told him about a conference talk on agency that I gave about a research project I designed but never completed.

    A newly minted feminist, I was interested in things like “empowerment” and “giving voice to the voiceless,” particularly in my graduate program on health promotion that was absent conversation about health issues outside a US context. My project “giving voice to third world women” (a web-based curriculum on women’s health issues in the Global South, for U.S. health promotion students) was born, but quickly died as I found myself in the position (paraphrasing Spivak) of being a “white woman saving brown women from white and brown men.”

    My (perhaps anti-intellectual) conference presentation about this failed project included a bunch of crudely drawn stick figures on transparencies (10 years ago, we were still lo-fi back then). What did I think I was doing in a project of “giving voice to third world women” in an effort to educate my white Western peers in health promotion? Was it a present I was giving people, wrapped up in a bow? Did I hope to gather up people’s voices, or capture them in a net? Did I imagine I would uncover women’s mouths that had been taped shut? Could I share these voices in a way that wasn’t just a filtered reinterpretation, or entirely a creation out of my own head? Or, in the context of this month’s theme on “theft” or “not taking what is not freely given” – wasn’t my attempt to “give voice” actually an entitled taking of other people’s stories, to be used for my own purposes?

    I’m noticing how I’m feeling nervous, worried that I’m opening myself up for attack here in this thread that has tended toward more sparring than is usual around here. While part of me would like to just delete it and move on to my mountain of other tasks, I’ll offer it up as my own version of this practice that Joshua suggests for us: “What, for instance, would an organizing meeting [or a Turning Wheel Media comment thread] look like if we showed up as (even an approximation of) the selves we bring to erotic encounters? The trust, the vulnerability, the willingness to be flawed and unvarnished, the intention to be present to the vulnerability of others and tend to them responsively.”

    How does this thread look different if we’re all willing to be a bit more vulnerable in our intellectual discussions? And how does that allow us to take others’ agency and self-determination as seriously as we take our own?

  • Glenn Wallis

    “Anonymous.”

    I am helping by exposing an all-too common feature of contemporary western x-buddhism:the inability–or is it a refusal?–to think through the very premises and postulates of x-buddhism. X-buddhism is so run-through with sloppy, facile thinking and platitudinous claims that it is on the brink of collapse. Our project at Speculative Non-Buddhism is to consider what might be done about that fact. So, to answer your question, we are helping by offering a critique. From a post on the blog:

    Briefly put, it is about critique. What we are critiquing is, of course, Buddhist material. By “material,” we mean the forms that make up Buddhist thought and practice: practice groups, retreat centers, rituals, protocols, websites, blogs, forums, popular and academic books and magazines, concepts, canonical literature, and beyond. In a recent conference on art criticism, Lydia Goehr said this about the practice of critique:

    “To Adorno critique is not the promise of happiness, nor the promise of freedom. It is always immanent critique, the turning of thought back upon itself… This is the way that some of the so-called “social truth content” comes out of critique: It exposes the authority that concepts have over us. My suggestion is that one way to think about critique is in terms of looking for ways in our thinking to break the authority our thinking has over us. In that sense, there is nowhere to go outside of our own capacity to think.”

    So, “Anonymous,” it has nothing to do with “logic” or “winning.” It has everything to do with exposure. So, for example, I came over here in the first place because someone sent me the link. What I saw was that, yet again, some x-buddhist teacher–in this case Josh Korda–was thinking in ways and making claims that needed to be exposed for their reactionary shoddiness.

    You write, “What are the practical applications of this mental masturbation?” That’s a good question. But answering it requires that you overcome your particular intellectual insecurities and really get down to the work.

    Dawn. You write: “Why in the comments are we grappling with Žižek and not Lorde? Or Spivak, Mohanty, Fanon, Said, Narayan, or Naber?”

    The reason is simple: the original question was framed by a remark made by Zizek. Annoyingly, though not surprisingly to anyone who observes x-buddhists in action, Joshua refuses to engage the question because it has the letters Z I Z E and K in it. I don’t know about Josh. The reason Zizek was cited is because, in this case at least, he astutely identifies a commonplace and oft-repeated trope of x-buddhism. As I already said:

    Forget that it’s Zizek. What about the thought itself? This is the important matter, the one that interests me. Korda’s rhetoric of internal (equanimous, peaceful, mindful, balanced, etc.) distancing from the external capitalist maelstrom is precisely that which is condemned by Zizek. What makes the two juxtaposed statements significant is that the former is the common, automatic, and unquestioned x-buddhist response, while the latter is a faint glimmer of the emerging critique of that response. It is crucial to work this distinction as hard as we can.

  • Tom Pepper

    Dawn Haney: I’m curious what YOU think that Spivak, Lorde, ect. can add to this problem? Instead of complaining that nobody else is grappling with them, why not tell us why we should? Frankly I stopped paying any attention to Lorde and Spivak ten or fifteen years ago, because they both seemed to me to be caught in a kind of Cartesian dualism, an essentialist notion that there is in each person a “true” self or “true” voice or “true” agency that is suppressed by the dominant Other. While it is clearly the case that the Other allows some discourses and not others, it is naive to assume that those others exist in some kind of deep “true” self that is oppressed. My point is, that I saw both of these thinkers as doing exactly what Korda does, seeking a solution to the capitalist world system in retreat into (creation of) some illusory atman we are supposed to believe transcends the system. Now, as I said, I haven’t read either of them in years, so if I’m wrong, if you think they can help us break free of this illusion of a “true self,” then why not say how? There’s no point in complaining that nobody else is saying it–say it yourself! The rhetoric of the silenced victim is no substitute for actual argument.

    What is the use of all this “intellectual” stuff? Well, clearly, NOT thinking well about these problems hasn’t worked so far, right? Maybe thinking clearly about what the real problem is would make it easier to begin to solve it, instead of retreating into our inner sanctum of equanimity for a couple hours a day then heading back out to do the same stupid capitalist thing again?

  • nathan

    I want to call a few things out here. First off, gender. A handful of men are dominating this conversation, and in a very patriarchal manner. Abstractions. Intellectualizing. Fighting about concepts and “big names.” Downplaying personal experience. Emotion. Embodied action. Privileging the absolute over the relative. Attempting to prove there’s a single truth and that all else in wrong, false.

    Two: privileging argument and debate over other forms of interaction and inquiry. Which in my view, goes back to my first point. Men aren’t – on the whole – very good at being vulnerable, playing (outside of scripted space, like sports), asking questions without attached assumptions and/or some kind of competition energy attached, and entertaining possibilities without instantly wanting to rank them and/or critique them. I don’t get the sense that much will come of this conversation if it remains a debate and series of arguments pitted against each other.

    Three … race. This feels like a very “white” conversation. In particular, a white, university educated male conversation. I completely echo Anonymous’ concerns about accessibility and language. I get the sense I have walked into a gated community where I’m going to be required to demonstrate a wealth of knowledge (of a certain kind), repeatedly, in order to maintain good standing.

    In the meantime, suffering goes on. Capitalism and it’s structures burn on. And Buddha’s teachings could be skillful means. Our intellects could be skillful means. Our emotions, experiences, bodies, hearts, minds could be skillful means. But I don’t see a hell of a lot of that here. More like errant cats pissing and sparring. And I love cats, but also know from experience how much energy they can waste, and how cruel they can be to each other for no good reason.

  • Tom Pepper

    What’s all the complaining about difficulty and abstraction and education? So far as I can see, there was only one argument made, and it isn’t so hard to understand. The argument was that Korda’s idea of Buddhism is just a retreat into some illusory “inner sanctum” where we can somehow escape the effects of our social system for a while and “recharge” to go and participate in exactly the same social system more effectively. This illusory “true self” that can separate from the world (the atman) is the common response to social problems in Western Buddhism. That’s not so abstract or difficult, is it? It doesn’t require any other education at all to understand, beyond what is said right here!

    And then the response is the tired old claim that since this critique is made by white men, it can’t be valid, and must be ignored–and then lots of assertions of being oppressed, silenced, whatever, but no response at all to the only argument that’s actually been made. Is this how engaged Buddhism works here–we can avoid actually ever understanding the problem if we just call anyone who points to the problem an oppressor? Is “engaged” going to be limited to a pathetic laying claim to the victim position, but never doing anything to make changes?

    The whole point was that in order to make change, we first have to give up on this illusory atman we think can retreat to an inner place of equanimity, untouched by causes and conditions. That language should be easy enough to understand for anyone at all familiar with Buddhism. This attempt to avoid making progress with absurd assertions about the evil white educate man isn’t ever going to do anyone any good–although, like Korda’s version of Buddhism, it may make you feel better about yourself for a while, it won’t change the world, or reduce the cause of suffering.

  • Jeff

    It’s fine with me that the heavy thinkers are debating in this thread. Nonetheless, we should be keeping it real as well, i.e. how does theory work out in practice? Hypothetical constructs need to be tested. Who’s sangha is getting out there to connect with left movements? How’s that going for you? How have you dealt with racism, sexism, religious bias, etc. in organizing? Or are we not even there yet? Our interactions seem pretty sharp so far — we will need to find common ground if we are to challenge the power of our rulers. Splitting intellectual hairs has its place (if based to some degree on actual experience), but maybe it should not be our primary focus at this infantile point in our development.

    Although a Buddhist at heart, I am coming into BPF more as an activist. I do believe that the struggle against capitalism will require both determination and loving kindness to overcome the frustration and isolation that plague progressive efforts, whether political or spiritual. I hope to learn lessons from you all for my work in health care reform. Thanks.

  • Katie Loncke

    Tom, it seems like you’re unable to hear the feedback people are offering, which is unfortunate. Dawn, Anonymous and nathan are offering observations, critiques, and perspectives. They are neither “complaining” nor “laying claim to the victim position [while] never doing anything to make changes.” (What?) To accuse them of that is to make huge and unfounded assumptions about them, and how they spend their time and energy. Which is pretty messed up. You’re also straw-manning their arguments by reducing them to “absurd assertions about the evil white educated man.” Not okay. If you disagree with their assertions, you need to explain why, in a RESPECTFUL way.

    I don’t have a problem with your arguments, but I do have a problem with the dismissive, arrogant, and closed-minded way you’re advancing them, so as one of the site moderators I’m gonna issue you one warning before going ahead and marking your comments as needing approval before posting. Doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to dialogues here, but does mean you need to do it in a way that respects where others are coming from, even when you disagree. If you can’t see the difference, and feel that you are doing your best to be respectful, please either ask someone else to help you out, or find other ways of continuing to engage with these conversations on your own sites, if you want to.

    Thanks,

    Katie

  • Tom Pepper

    Thanks Kate. I think I’m done here. I’m not interested in discussions where it is “not okay” to think or criticize. In thirty-years as a communist, I’ve seen the kind of idiotic waste of time that leads to. I’ll unsubscribe, and discontinue my support of the BPF.

  • Katie Loncke

    Sorry to hear that, Tom. As someone who loves and tries to practice many aspects of communist traditions, minus the Stalinism, it’s really sad and frustrating to me the number of times I’ve seen similar breakdowns and disagreements over which / whose type of thinking and criticism is valuable.

    Good luck in your work,

    Katie

  • Jeff

    As Nelly says, it’s gettin’ “hot in herre”…

  • Shodo

    I just tuned in here and want to add one thing: communicating over the Internet is really hard. Perfectly reasonable people, when they can’t pick up body language or tone of voice, hear the worst of everything. I have found myself becoming paranoid and feeling criticized, and have thought others were doing the same – until we picked up the phone.
    Just to notice this – without commenting at all on the content, which I hadn’t read yet.

  • Dawn Haney

    Since I left the academic world 10 years ago, I’ve been less interested in abstract discussions of theory, and more interested in finding out what happens when theory gets applied in the messiness of the real world. I’ve written on Turning Wheel about my experiences working at a rape crisis center, but also have been engaged in organizing around immigrant rights, LGBTQ visibility in rural communities, and even state fiscal policy. So it’s interesting to be accused of being part of an engaged Buddhism “laying claim to the victim position, but never doing anything to make changes.” I’d be curious to hear about the organizing experiences of other folks in this conversation, how they see their theoretical positions being more helpful in fostering change.

    I think one of the questions we’re struggling with together here is the ways that identity politics of the Left (and the reification of a “true self” that Tom talks about) clash with Buddhist understandings of non-self. This is a question I’m very interested in exploring with other folks, but am finding it challenging to engage in the discussion for many of the reasons that Nathan pointed out. Noticing that I’ve gotten very used to having these conversations in explicitly feminist spaces, and my body finds it jarring to be in a very different style of conversation!

    Despite my discomfort, I’m trying to find ways to stick around in it, because of my belief that we all lose when we shut out those close to us when we try to discuss the differences in how we understand the world. It’s painful and messy, and I know I didn’t learn a lot of skills about how to do this. Sad to see others checking out – since I believe that your liberation is tied up with mine, I don’t feel like I have that option. Or at least, I don’t feel like that’s my best option.

  • Dawn Haney

    OMG, I just died and was immediately transported to one of the heavenly realms – Nelly is officially quoted on Turning Wheel Media! And yes, I just linked to the video. ROTFL.

    Thanks for injecting a bit o’ humor in here, Jeff. And Shodo, for a reminder of the difficulties of online communication. Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming …

  • Glenn Wallis

    Katie, you write, ” Dawn, Anonymous and nathan are offering observations, critiques, and perspectives.”

    Yes, they are. But not about the actual question that began this thread. The question addresses an important issue for contemporary western x-buddhists to consider, one, moreover, that is at the heart of Korda’s take on x-buddhist social engagement in the post. You yourself addressed the question. Thank you. Do you really think that questions of race, gender, and level of education are necessary to bring up? Those are the matters at the heart of Dawn, Anonymous and nathan’s comments. It the same with Josua, actually, who refused to engage the point that Zizek makes because, well, Zizek makes it. Pretty silly, don’t you think? Not silly? Then what?

    I’ll try once more. Maybe if I point out the fact that Anonymous’s, Nathan’s, and Josh’s comments give yet more bulk to Zizek’s claims, the juxtaposed quotes will take on a new aspect.:

    Someone posted the following juxtaposed statements on my blog post. It’s an interesting and very important contrast. I wonder if you’d care to respond to him, either here or at http://www.speculativenonbuddhism.com.

    “Clearly capitalism, which emphasizes material gain as a motivation for human engagement, deserves condemnation, for it is little better than the caste system. Our present social organization rewards the endless competition for dwindling resources at the expense of core spiritual principles that provide us with a sense of well being: kindness (metta), compassion (karuna) and appreciation of the happiness of others (mudita). … Alas, peace of mind and competition—the foundation of our social organization—are largely antithetical.” –Josh Korda, Changing Positions: An Exchange on Buddhist Practice and Psychological Decolonization

    “The only “critical” lesson to be drawn from Buddhism’s perspective on virtual capitalism is that one should be aware that we are dealing with a mere theater of shadows, with no substantial existence. Thus we need not fully engage ourselves in the capitalist game, but play it with an inner distance. Virtual capitalism could thus act as a first step toward “liberation.” It confronts us with the fact that the cause of our suffering is not objective reality–there is no such thing–but rather our Desire, our craving for material things. All one has to do then, after ridding oneself of the false notion of a substantial reality, is simply renounce desire itself and adopt an attitude of inner peace and distance. No wonder Buddhism can function as the perfect ideological supplement to virtual capitalism: It allows us to participate in it with an inner distance, keeping our fingers crossed, and our hands clean, as it were.” –Slavoj Žižek, Revenge of Global Finance

  • nathan

    Glen, I don’t know what you mean by x-Buddhism, which makes it a little hard for me to follow what you are saying.

    As for bringing up race, class, and other relative-world markers, they are relevant. If you want to talk about suffering and liberation from suffering, you have to be clear about the conditions we live in. Even if these markers are empty in an absolute sense.

    My comments were not about the original question, but about the dynamicss of the thread. That was how I saw best to use my voice at that time. I didn’t really see a place for speaking to the issues in the original piece. Correction: I felt it unskillful to add more abstract argument onto the pile.

    I will say that if Korda and others are advocating that we should retreat to an inner refuge in the manner Tom speaks of above, then I would agree with him that this is a problem. In general, I see a lot of this kind of thing in mainstream Western Buddhist circles, but I am not sure where exactly folks are getting it from the post above.

    One thing I do know is that white men on the whole hate being called out on anything and struggle mightily to accept that they are one voice amongst many. And also that they have -as a group – been privileged for generations, with their views centralized, and respected be default. I say this as a white male. I called that out Tom and anyone else who feel offended because it’s time for us to stop acting like crown princes. To stop stomping off the moment we get challenged or our identity gets called out and checked. I am sick of loud, dominant, heady privileged talk getting privileged.

    That’s all I have for now.

  • Glenn Wallis

    Nathan,

    “if Korda and others are advocating that we should retreat to an inner refuge in the manner Tom speaks of above, then I would agree with him that this is a problem. In general, I see a lot of this kind of thing in mainstream Western Buddhist circles, but I am not sure where exactly folks are getting it from the post above.”

    What you say here is the crux of it the criticism being put forward. It is the crux, too, of that Zizek statement. The only reason I have pushed it here is that the tension between the persistent x-buddhist rhetoric of, and belief in, an atomistic self and the realities of social-symbolic formations cannot be sustained. Trying to think change in the latter while maintaining the former leads to the kind of confused thinking and misinformed solutions that is rampant throughout western x-buddhism. It is so rampant and predictable, in fact, that we already know what is coming from an x-buddhist teachers mouth even before s/he says it. And it almost invariably has to do with creating a pleasant mental state.This kind of facile usage of x-buddhist truths has rendered x-buddhist a nearly useless partner in real dialogue for change. Here’s an example from the about dialogue. Note that it is a rhetoric of the sufficiency of the mental. The mental state is the determining factor here, not the material conditions. There are many such comments, but their atomistic import is rarely floating on the surface. Part of what we’re advocating for at the speculative non-buddhism blog is for committed x-buddhists to engage x-buddhist teachers and postulates much more rigorously than they’ve ever done. X-buddhism may have a role to play in social change, but not in its current form. Here’s Korda:

    Korda: From a Buddhist perspective, the choices we make create the karma that plants the seeds for our future mind states. Our actions, skillful and unskillful, are seeds we plant; they will flower into future mind states. If we want to cultivate peaceful emotional states, it’s best to plant seeds that present the greatest likelihood of flourishing into serenity: acts of compassion, kindness, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, generosity…So agency is more than simply about free will, it’s also about the possibility of securing any peace of mind amidst a world of inequity and suffering.

  • nathan

    Glenn, thank you for the example. I see a couple of ways it could be taken. The first being what you are pointing towards, and which clearly doesn’t get at a full or accurate representation of Budhha’s teachings. Another way I can read it is that Korda is speaking of the calm and equanimity of the bodhisattva. That a person can cultivate a peaceful presence, while also acting in the world. That it’s an active, engaged practice, as opposed to something like seeking inner peace regardless of the world around us.

    I just went and read the post again. It’s a muddy back and forth to me. In places, including the ending, I feel like your take is accurate. In other places, I get the sense they’re speaking of the bodhisattva in action.

    Perhaps they’ve mixed the two and that’s one reason why there’s been a lot of kickback here. I’m not sure, but I understand now what you were seeing and responding to there.

  • Craig

    Glad to see this is still going. I’m catching up.

    I’m still waiting for one of the authors to respond to a question I brought up way at the top…this notion of happiness being a prerequisite for enlightenment. I thought enlightenment was hard, but happiness is absolutely impossible. This doesn’t even fit with the current x-buddhist slant on accepting things as they are. I really don’t know where Korda gets this. I’m reminded of Barry Magdid and Joko Beck’s assertion that joy is at the bottom of a life long practice. Really? There’s joy for the prisoners, the vets, the addicts and the terminally ill? Ironically, this is completely antithetical to ‘sitting with’…if that is even possible. I always thought the true test of these assertions would be the torture chamber.

    Also, having been in situations in the last few weeks where I’ve been able to do nothing more than show up for a friend and a family member dealing with potentially terminal illnesses, ‘specializing’ this basic human response to the sick is absolutely infuriating. The zen helpers, like korda, could learn much from the field of pastoral care where practitioners merely show up and learn the very very hard work of getting out of the way. no shaved heads. no tattoos. no brand or marketing. just good old being with other humans who are scared shitless. the buddha has absolutely no corner on that.

  • Craig

    Jeff (April 24)

    This is the real practice man!

  • Craig

    Nathan,

    I too am still learning how to do this non-buddhist critique. As far as the article above, the whole notion of a peaceful, engaged bodhisattva is precisely what Tom and Glenn are referring to in relation to atman. The notion that one can be some sort of ‘special’ spiritual wise person ‘transcending’ the system and somehow engaging with it is anathema to dependent origination and full strength anatman. To me it’s all marketing and branding leading to essentialism of non existent ‘things’ and reifying the capitalist status quo. In other words, WE have to address the suffering capitalism is causing and has caused if we’re serious about ending suffering.

  • Jeff

    Craig, great insight! I’m with sick and terminally ill folks all day as well. Still not sure what an x-buddhist is, but I agree with you that listening to and empathizing with those who suffer comes first. Help with healing and what guidance we can offer comes next.

    Anyone who has really been with enough sick children, prisoners, wounded veterans, or “addicts” (aren’t we all) knows that their suffering flows not only from their attachments but also from material conditions beyond the influence of spiritual practice. The stinky System we’re caught in, ever bent on accumulating profits, breeds disease and intrudes mercilessly on its prevention and treatment.

    Of course we are actors as well as victims, and these discussions are certainly helping me learn how to integrate knowing and doing, meditating and fighting. Venceremos, hombre.

  • Craig

    Jeff,

    Thanks for the response. As far as x-buddhist goes, the X stands for whatever flavor you want…Zen, Tibetan, Nichiren. It’s antithesis is non-buddhism which is essentially a heuristic for deflating and rigorously critiquing x-buddhist materials. As I said above, I’m still getting the hang of it. Not sure there is an end game, other than buddhism is absolutely an ideology of the worst kind…an ideology that claims not to be one. In fact, as we’ve seen above, it claims to be transhistorical, transcendental etc. Well, that’s a conversation stopper and can lead to reification of systematic suffering. Capitalism. There’s no such thing as a Zen Hospice Worker. It’s a myth…part of our collective symbolic mind. It is this mind that can theoretically changed, with thinking and discussion, to being more flesh and blood human rather than consumption, death denying drudgery of capitalism.

    Peace,
    Craig

  • nathan

    Craig,

    “The notion that one can be some sort of ‘special’ spiritual wise person ‘transcending’ the system and somehow engaging with it is anathema to dependent origination and full strength anatman.” I’d love to hear from one of the authors on this. Because it seems like many of us have brought this up, but are speaking at each other with various interpretations.

    One thing I do know is that most of us struggle with the relationship between the absolute and the relative. And tend to lean hard to one side or the other. Transcendence is leaning hard towards the absolute, and seems to be the flavor of privileged folks who can “afford” such thoughts. At the same time, I’d say that most practitioners that stick around long enough, and/or push their practice enough, end up at some point hanging out in a sense of transcendence.

    Also, about joy. I actually think it’s possible for folks in really lousy conditions, dealing with some of the worst of the worst, to experience a joy not controlled by those conditions. I say this because I’ve seen it myself in others. You’re totally on the right path to question the whole happiness project, as well as the seemingly easy statements some “Western” Buddhist teachers make about joy. There’s something off with all of that. Not integrated. Too fluffy feeling.

    I actually think that in order to continue over the long haul doing the kinds of social activism and challenging of the system called for, that we need to tap more of these qualities. Deep joy. Equanimity. Kindness. Compassion. The Four Divine Abodes. It’s hard to keep going without a bit of these integrated into whatever work you’re doing.

    Capitalism seems to thrive off of separation, compartmentalization, and specialization. It makes it easy for people to think they can transcend everything, and that such a goal is the main focus of Buddhist practice. It also makes it easy to sell ideas like happiness, or acceptance of the moment, as being complete teachings.

  • Craig

    Nathan,

    Transcendence is a slippery slope as far as I’m concerned. At the sam time, I see where you are coming from in learning ways to ‘sit with’ life’s suffering. Transcendence seems to assume an eternal self that is outside the world and some how able to critique the world from a special standpoint. Not to mention, reification of all things transcendent leaves us thinking we’re engaging with the world, but maybe we’re just reifying all the abstract stuff that causes so much suffering. As mentioned above, one of the main tenants we can pull from buddhism is the notion of no spiritual realm. Let’s stick with that and stay away from all this holier than though stuff.

    As far as using buddhist techniques to help, I think they can at most refresh us and soothe us. No more. And these are just basic things humans have done forever. Taking a breath, talking to ourselves, crying. If anything, we would do well to focus on dealing with the reality of our existence in ways that create less suffering rather than coming up with new band-aids.

    Any faithful project of ending suffering absolutely must look at all ideological awareness in general and specifically the insidiousness of capitalism. The discussion here has shown that BPF is not interested in this. It’s more interested in discussion between patronizing bodhisattvas using racism and misogyny as red herrings.

    A former zen teacher of mine used to say that everyone just needed to stop thinking and sit zazen, then we’d have world peace. I used to think that was true. Now I’m of the mind that rigorous critical thinking strengthened by meditative attention practice along with along with taking anatman seriously is the only way things can change. It’s all made up…we made it up…we can change it. But we have to converse though. Unfortunately, this is what gets shut down all the time. The thread here is just one of many, many examples I’ve seen in real like and on the web. The tone police are not doing us any favors and many of these dharma folks need to get past their hurt feelings (whatever that means :)

    Peace,
    Craig

  • nathan

    Craig, I’m not sure why you are so hostile towards discussions about racism, sexism, and the like. They’re all intimately tied to what capitalism is, and how it functions to create pervasive suffering in my opinion. I really don’t see how you can focus on economic suffering, and suggest that other forms of suffering being expressed are mere hurt feelings? There’s something way off about that. And I don’t see how we’ll get anywhere on this issue of capitalism and colonialism as long as folks diminish and dismiss each others’ issues in the manner I’ve seen in this discussion.

  • Glenn Wallis

    Nathan,

    The notion that one can be some sort of ‘special’ spiritual wise person ‘transcending’ the system and somehow engaging with it is anathema to dependent origination and full strength anatman.” I’d love to hear from one of the authors on this. Because it seems like many of us have brought this up, but are speaking at each other with various interpretations.

    That would indeed be great. But Katie Loncke has banned him (or just threatened to?) from this engaged Buddhist site! Tom Pepper wrote that article for non + x. You can find his contact information at http://speculativenonbuddhism.com/authors-2/

  • Glenn Wallis

    I don’t know why HTML didn’t work, but the first para of my last comment is supposed to be a block quote of Nathan’s previous comment.

  • Dawn Haney

    Moderator’s note: No one’s been banned from discussion here. I think it’s pretty clear from the discussion above that Tom chose to exit the conversation, and both Katie’s and my responses as moderators was to respectfully express disappointment that he’s choosing to disengage.

    To be clear, banning was never threatened. Katie’s words from above: “as one of the site moderators I’m gonna issue you one warning before going ahead and marking your comments as needing approval before posting. Doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to dialogues here, but does mean you need to do it in a way that respects where others are coming from, even when you disagree.”

    I feel disappointed, Glenn, that you would jump to the conclusion that we’d banned Tom, when I feel like we were pretty transparent about our process above. I understand that different corners of the internet don’t always operate with an intention toward transparency, but we do our best to strive for that here. Here’s more info about our commenting policy, for those who might be interested: http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/commenting-guidelines/

    (Sorry that I’m unable to comment further on the content of the conversation – haven’t been able to do more than skim. All my attention is focused on our next study guide on Stolen Land, Stolen Culture, Stolen Time, getting published later today!)

  • Juliana Essen

    Hi there,
    Just wanted to refocus on what seemed to me to be one of the main questions of the dialogue, re: agency, i.e., how can we truly have agency given the power of social forces (and our survival instincts)? It is important to remember that agency and social structure exist in dialectic relation–we do have the power to negotiate, resist, and reinvent those social forces. But first, we must be aware of the social forces and how they affect us. For this, I really like the work of Paolo Freire, a Brazilian educator who was exiled for shaking things up too much. He emphasized “conscientization,: The process of developing a critical awareness of one’s social reality through reflection and action,” and he developed concrete methods for doing so through his literacy programs. So the result was more of a social literacy that prompted people to exert effort on their social structure to change their lives for the better. Double decolonization. I think in our efforts to be engaged Buddhists, this kind of praxis approach is really important…for ourselves and others.
    cheers,
    juliana

  • Craig

    Nathan,

    I am absolutely not hostile or dismissive of race, sex, gender, economic status issues. What I am disturbed by is the insistence that because white males are discussing things here (the authors are white too) critique must stop. This is dangerous. Dismissing Zizek because he’s white! His critique is much more radical and engaged than anything the new comic book hero TNH has ever said.

    You missed my point. I said it’s all made up, based on the myth of individuality. The consequences have been complete and utter suffering based on the most arbitrary things…sex orientation, race, economic status, exploited labor. All this shit is part of the shared symbolic mind that does have real causal effects. We must change this shared mind beginning with radical critique of capitalism. Can buddhism help with this? I’m not sure yet.

    Craig

  • Glenn Wallis

    Dawn: Putting it like Loncke did is just another form of right-speechified x-buddhist coercion. I can’t find a single word in Tom Pepper’s comments that require rectification. Can you?

    Juliana: I’m off to red some Paolo Freire. Thanks.

  • Craig

    Dawn,

    We’re calling out the ridiculous admonishment of Pepper. He was being critical and y’all didn’t like that so he got moderated. Your commenting rules might be transparent, but the moderation here is definitely not open. You have an agenda and will maintain that illusion at all costs, even rigorous critique. It’s not surprising. It’s happening all over with buddhism. Accounts being inactivated, whole threads being deleted, inability to comment on twitter feeds, admonishments, moderation. It’s the antithesis of ‘right speech’ and quite patronizing. It’s not like Pepper, Glenn or me are coming on here spouting KKK propaganda. We’re pushing for real, logical argumentation. When that is stifled, then this becomes the focus on critique.

    How about a study guide on the lack of rigorous critical debate in buddhism and how to do it?

  • Craig

    Juliana,

    Thanks for the reading recommendation. Will check it out soon. One point, I don’t think there is any special engagement. We’re all engaged by default. Calling it something special is disingenuous. Not really sure about agency, but we can become aware of our ideologies, use them intentionally and stop reifying the evils of capitalism…or we can just continue to be drones convincing ourselves that we’re some sort of wise, socially engaged buddhist brining wisdom to the un-enlightened.

    Craig

  • patrick jennings

    What’s all the complaining about difficulty and abstraction and education? So far as I can see, there was only one argument made, and it isn’t so hard to understand. The argument was that Korda’s idea of Buddhism is just a retreat into some illusory “inner sanctum” where we can somehow escape the effects of our social system for a while and “recharge” to go and participate in exactly the same social system more effectively. This illusory “true self” that can separate from the world (the atman) is the common response to social problems in Western Buddhism. That’s not so abstract or difficult, is it? It doesn’t require any other education at all to understand, beyond what is said right here!
    And then the response is the tired old claim that since this critique is made by white men, it can’t be valid, and must be ignored–and then lots of assertions of being oppressed, silenced, whatever, but no response at all to the only argument that’s actually been made. Is this how engaged Buddhism works here–we can avoid actually ever understanding the problem if we just call anyone who points to the problem an oppressor? Is “engaged” going to be limited to a pathetic laying claim to the victim position, but never doing anything to make changes?
    The whole point was that in order to make change, we first have to give up on this illusory atman we think can retreat to an inner place of equanimity, untouched by causes and conditions. That language should be easy enough to understand for anyone at all familiar with Buddhism. This attempt to avoid making progress with absurd assertions about the evil white educate man isn’t ever going to do anyone any good–although, like Korda’s version of Buddhism, it may make you feel better about yourself for a while, it won’t change the world, or reduce the cause of suffering.

    Tom, it seems like you’re unable to hear the feedback people are offering, which is unfortunate. Dawn, Anonymous and nathan are offering observations, critiques, and perspectives. They are neither “complaining” nor “laying claim to the victim position [while] never doing anything to make changes.” (What?) To accuse them of that is to make huge and unfounded assumptions about them, and how they spend their time and energy. Which is pretty messed up. You’re also straw-manning their arguments by reducing them to “absurd assertions about the evil white educated man.” Not okay. If you disagree with their assertions, you need to explain why, in a RESPECTFUL way.
    I don’t have a problem with your arguments, but I do have a problem with the dismissive, arrogant, and closed-minded way you’re advancing them, so as one of the site moderators I’m gonna issue you one warning before going ahead and marking your comments as needing approval before posting. Doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to dialogues here, but does mean you need to do it in a way that respects where others are coming from, even when you disagree. If you can’t see the difference, and feel that you are doing your best to be respectful, please either ask someone else to help you out, or find other ways of continuing to engage with these conversations on your own sites, if you want to.
    Thanks,
    Katie

    Hello Katie,
    Ive put both Toms comment and your response together the better to understand where you are coming from with ‘respectful’ …by the way isn’t putting that word in large type itself a form of aggression akin to shouting in print?
    Really I can’t see where Tom is deserving of sanction.
    Unless ‘a pathetic laying claim to the victim position, but never doing anything to make changes? ‘ or ‘absurd assertions about the evil white educate man isn’t ever going to do anyone any good’ deserves it.

    Reading what came before I think any unbiased reader would come to the conclusion that while Toms response was on the sharp side (’pathetic ‘absurd’) it was a response to the use of a form of passive sniping that could just as equally be objected to (by someone not used to the cut and trust of normal polemic)
    For instance ‘white conversation’ ‘university educated male conversation’ ‘patriarchal’ ‘boys club’ ‘white dudes’ ‘mental masturbation’ ‘ privilege’ ‘big names.’
    The point is that while feelings were running a bit high (whats wrong with that? ) no one but you came to the conclusion that a sanction was necessary. I would be interested in knowing why you came to that conclusion..perhaps your own feelings got the better of you? I’m referring to your use of the words ‘dismissive, arrogant, and closed-minded’ which sound very ‘heated’ to my mind. Which is puzzling since you contend that you have no problem with Tom’s argument.
    Your follow up to the sanction ‘please either ask someone else to help you out’ seems to me to be both passively aggressive and patronizing.
    Don’t get me wrong I’m not objecting to anything you or anyone else said on this tread.. I think its mild in comparison to ‘real world’ political dialogue. I think it raises a very serious issue about the relationship of ‘right speech’ to ‘speaking the truth’. And an even more interesting question about the relationship between both and the exercise of power… that is to say that what transpired on this tread is a micro example of the broader issue of how the xbuddhist trope of ‘right speech’ dovetails with the suppression of a vocal, sustained and effective critique of capitalism by those within the xbuddhist camp who actually support the free market economy and much else. That is to say how can the struggle against the capitalist system be advanced within Buddhism itself…isn’t it true that the fault lines between the ideologies of the oppressor and the oppressed run straight true the Buddhist community and that the sense of maintaining a peace through the application of ‘right speech’ is simply a form of facilitating the disguised aggression of those who actually support capitalism and have no problem with it? ‘Facilitating’ and ‘aggression’ because those who support capitalism only need to maintain the status-quo and this under the cover of ‘right speech’. Isn’t right speech in this instance simply a ‘can of worms’ hiding all forms of suppressive abuse?

    By the way thanks for your response to my comments above…Ive only just had a chance to read here again.. It seems incredible to me that Josh Korda or Joshua Stephens have not seen fit to participate given the quality of the discussion so far. How do you explain their reticence? It seems to me that they are shying away from any sort of sustained and rigorous interaction, the very thing necessary to advance critical thought visa vie capitalism and the prospects for a socially engaged Buddhism that gets down to the nitty gritty of trying to formulate a Buddhist response to capitalist oppression ( and even whether it is wise or possible to do so . Wouldn’t it be more straight forward, for instance, to use the many existing ‘western’ critiques and methodologies… what concretely has Buddhism got to offer that is not already there ready to hand?)

  • Katie Loncke

    Julianna, love your description of the Freirian approach to praxis — thank you for adding that. It’s part of what motivates our work with The System Stinks, trying to bring to bear a Buddhist ethical framework and critical reflection on some of the social suffering we see these days. It would be awesome if we could have a more cohesive team of Buddhist practitioners to reflect *and* act together, since so much of “conscientization” comes from the practice part, and is where agency really begins to feel real. Maybe someday! :)

    Small, related note: a group of undocumented workers here in Oakland was recently fired from Dobake, an industrial bakery, through an I-9 audit or “silent raid.” Some of them had been working for the company for 20 years, still making only $9.40 an hour. The mass firing (125 people) left many of the workers in financial crisis, and they were repeatedly told they have no rights in the situation. The union, to which they had been paying dues, did absolutely nothing — zero — to protect them; didn’t even warn them that the firings were coming. But a group of the workers has formed a committee, and it’s been wonderful to watch their political consciousness change and grow — taking their fight public, naming hyper-exploitation, denouncing racism, calling for an end all I-9 audits (which have spiked in number in the past few years) and “papeles para todos”… supported by humble, organized Leftist immigrant workers, they have discovered agency in a place where none seemed to exist. Yesterday they formed a contingent at Oakland’s May Day march and were super pumped-up to continue their campaign. I love examples like this, of re-working the political material handed down to us. That’s part of where I see possibilities for decolonization. Imperfect, of course, but still possible and a necessary effort!

    Nathan, you write,

    “I actually think that in order to continue over the long haul doing the kinds of social activism and challenging of the system called for, that we need to tap more of these qualities. Deep joy. Equanimity. Kindness. Compassion. The Four Divine Abodes. It’s hard to keep going without a bit of these integrated into whatever work you’re doing.”

    YES. :) Amen. Over the longer term I think these can also act as useful antidotes to dogmatism, or the need to be right in order to feel secure and motivated. When we have generosity, kindness, and joy, we can come to disagreements with hopes of learning and nurturing *everyone’s* wisdom, rather than mainly hopes of proving ourselves correct. Political people who adopt this approach are the kind of political people I adore working with.

    Hi patrick,

    I think I agree with where you’re coming from, in the sense that a dogmatic style of “right speech” or “nonviolent communication” can often shut down productive conversations or confrontations with power for the sake of politeness, or basically because people are conflict-avoidant. I’ve seen that happen, and it’s frustrating. Is that the spirit of the concern you’re raising in the sentence below?

    “what transpired on this tread is a micro example of the broader issue of how the xbuddhist trope of ‘right speech’ dovetails with the suppression of a vocal, sustained and effective critique of capitalism by those within the xbuddhist camp who actually support the free market economy and much else.”

    I agree with you that this type of “right speech” which really means “I Don’t Like Your Tone, Angry Marginalized Person” is often deployed in unhelpful ways. To me, this is exacerbated when exercised by people who have more than your average amount of social power: i.e. people with white or other racial privilege, highly educated, middle-class, a boss or manager, male-privileged, non-disabled.

    But that’s not what I see happening here. I think there are many ways that an “unbiased” person could read those side-by-side comments by Tom and me, and one of those ways is to recognize a common trope, on Tom’s part, of accusing people who are raising issues of power dynamics within conversations as “complaining” or “attacking” (i.e. “evil white men”). As I said, I don’t necessarily have a problem with Tom’s arguments (or similar arguments by many of the people on the thread, who I haven’t warned about their language), but given the situation of an educated, white-standard-English-using man reducing people’s critiques to “complaints” in a disrespectful, dismissive, and condescending way (he writes, “it isn’t so hard to understand”… Can you see why I would find this a loaded phrase, in this context?), I want to point out that from my perspective, we are repeating a tired pattern that reinforces marginalization, and I *believe* we can do better.

    The reason I don’t see language like “mental masturbation” on par with language like “complaining” in this case is that there is a history of institutionalized power conferring actual material benefits to certain groups who deal in academic abstractions, and a simultaneous, linked history of disrespecting, infantilizing, and dismissing people who challenge the dominant intellectual academic culture.

    If you feel that my moderator’s note was too heavy-handed, I can respect that opinion, though I disagree. I tried to be very transparent and specific about the ways I saw disrespect playing out, but maybe I could have been even more explicit. Frankly, I don’t relish spending tons of time getting into the power dynamics of online conversations, though I can see the merit and even need for those analyses. I would rather spend a lot of time organizing with working-class and oppressed people to challenge power in its material forms, which is what I do. (And perhaps what Joshua was trying to get at, when he mentioned discussing this piece with people offline.) Still, as one of the site moderators I want to be accountable to the conversation.

    Sharing your hopes for rigorous and sustained interaction, even if we may have different ideas of what that looks like? I see nathan, Dawn, and Anonymous as all contributing to rigor, rather than undermining it.

  • Craig

    So nobody is going to argue here? Be curious and question? Patrick, you dismiss Pepper’s remarks at your peril. He hasn’t even been back and he’s being admonished in absentia. You say you are okay with his arguments, I’d love to hear more about this

    Imagine how this site could change the x-buddhist landscape if it was absolutely open to taking buddhist ideas to their logical conclusion, not flinching from and pushing forth truth.

    Peace,
    Craig

  • nathan

    Craig, perhaps I misread one of your comments. I apologize if I did because it sounds like on the point of the “shared symbolic mind” and the myth of “individuality,” we’re on the same page.

    Have to say a few things about this “white male dismissal” nonsense being spread about here. And yes, it’s nonsense. First off, Katie and I both engaged with the Zizek quote. Neither of us dismissed him, nor said he had nothing to offer because he’s a white guy. In fact, I tend to think that Zizek has some brilliant insight into some of the major problems with spiritual practice like Buddhism under capitalist conditions. Second of all, Tom’s comments were directly responded to and engaged with – treated as important enough to do so – until Tom decided to bring up the white guys getting bashed narrative, which spun everything in the direction we’re now in. I say this as another white male. One that has seen this dynamic destroy conversations and social action opportunities amongst diverse folks over and over again. I’m saying this as someone who feels it’s an absolute must that white men step the fuck down from their high horses and learn to listen better and share the stage with everyone else. If you believe I’m being oppressive or politically correct in saying so, that’s your prerogative. But this is coming from nearly two decades of activist experience, and seeing entirely too many of the same bullshit narratives from privileged folks take over and implode situations that could have sparked beneficial actions, great and small.

    The joke is that I have spent much of the past 5 years blogging some of the same criticisms you and Glenn and Tom and others have about what Glenn is calling x-Buddhism. But I would add that one of the major underpinnings of x-Buddhism in North America is that it’s riddled with privileged white folks who can’t stand having that privilege called out and checked. The majority operate from a “we’re nice, kind good people” framework, but there’s a small minority of outspoken, mostly white male folks who will outright scream defenses to the roof tops, using all the kind of things I’ve seen in this conversation to maintain their position at the center. And their position as “right.”

    On a different note, when I spoke above of diversifying the approaches to dialogue and engagement, I also deliberately chose – myself – to write in a more plain style manner. Both because I wanted to undermine reliance on abstraction, and also because I’m acutely aware of the possible impacts of my own words – as a white male in American society – on everyone else. Specifically, there’s a two pronged impact of speaking publicly as a highly educated white man. On the one hand, when I throw around too much academic language and abstractions – especially amongst a very mixed group of folks, such as at a protest rally – it’s easy to alienate some folks, and marginalize others. On the other hand, I’ve noticed an opposite effect occurring. Namely, that some people instantly deem me credible and reliable simply because I’m an educated white guy. I recall one particular moment during the Occupy movement when a TV reporter arrived amongst a group of us to interview folks and multiple members of the group (diverse racially, class, and gender-wise) deferred to me to speak after the camera guy had already set the camera in my direction. Perhaps other factors were going on there, but I was the only white male in the group, and some of those who deferred to me didn’t even know me.

    One point here is that assumptions of anti-intellectualism are dangerous if you don’t know enough about the dynamics or motives of the people involved. Different folks frame intellect and critical thinking skills differently. I noticed Freire was brought up above. I have long loved his work, and yet he was also rightly criticized by some indigenous leaders/scholars for using a predominantly Western frame of intellectual knowledge and critical intelligence in his education theory – and in practice in Latin American countries. Along those lines, I had the privilege recently of marching with Grand Elder Ray Robinson, a man who has been on multiple hunger strikes to protest the horrid policies of the Harper administration in Canada. This is a man with deep insight and courage, and yet his speech is highly plain, even a bit timid sounding at times. He stuttered multiple times while standing before the Canadian consulate here in Minneapolis, probably in part because of how emotional it’s all become. The stakes being so high, especially for indigenous folks. Anyway, I’m bringing up that story because the lens of wisdom and intellectually rigor must be shifted to recognize the brilliance of someone like Mr. Robinson. Because he mostly comes off as a humble, unassuming man – both in person and in writing. http://raymondrobinson.org/

    As I said earlier, in some ways, it would be really helpful if Korda or Stevens came back to address some of the issues that have been raised. Because I actually think that most of the participants in this conversation wonder about the message being offered in their discussion. Whether what they’re saying is skillful means for practitioner/activist/service folks, or whether they’re offering something that’s more escapist and not really accurate in a Buddhist sense.

  • Craig

    Patrick!

    I misread your earlier post. Sorry to call you out on something you’re not doing! I didn’t get that you were quoting. Sorry buddy. I guess everyone can just ignore the whole goddamn comment. Sorry again /\ :-)

    Craig

  • Craig

    Katie,

    Racism, sexism etc. is all part of Tom’s critique. Get radical with it and you see that capitalism is at the root of all of this. Dismissing this claim and staying focused on ‘helping the marginalized’ is an absolute reification of the status quo. Take racism to it’s roots and don’t flinch.

    Craig

  • Craig

    Nathan,

    Tom was not complaining about white men being bashed. Read his comment again. He was highlighting the use of it as a red herring. See what I wrote to Katie above. Do you really think I, someone who is seriously commenting on a Buddhist Peace group board isn’t aware and concerned with white male hegemony? I absolutely am. I am one and I’ve learned to shut up. I’ve also learned that when I get caught up in that ideology, I miss out on good critique and reify the system creating this hegemony. It is precisely these privileged narratives that are reified by refusing to think outside the box a bit. You are correct, all these dharma teachers are white men perpetuating their hegemony through out buddhism. Most of the time, they’re the ones shutting down conversation. Katie just took over for them in this case. It’s absolutely insidious!

    As far as your ‘right speech’ as a white male, well, people don’t’ give a shit about us, so what you say really isn’t that important. The oppressed will liberate themselves. And to think that you have to ‘talk down’ to the downtrodden is quite patronizing. I’ve been there and still get caught up in this shit. Just because we’re white men doesn’t mean we have to play stupid. We are educated, let’s use it. Dialectical thinking is the way to go. White men have fucked up this world, at the same time I can listen to Tom’s input and see his point. You’re doing the same with the Freire example.

    BTW, Tom’s being intentional about his speech too. He’s being very Rinzai, no?

  • patrick jennings

    So many productive lines of thought are being brought up here: To do justice to the effort people are putting in requires time and a lot of thought but just a few comments on general issues

    Race: Racism and discrimination on grounds of color, race ethnicity are integral elements of the oppressive economic and social structures of American capitalism. It needs to be confronted, struggled against and defeated. At a fundamental level this is an integral element in the struggle against capitalism

    White educational supremacy: Absolutely a fact: to be struggled against and confronted wherever it rears its ugly head

    Critical thinking : Does this mean that those who have received the benefit of an education should shut up, tone down, or in any other way reduce the force of their hard won capacity for critical thought? Never
    Who will liberate black people: Black people: who will think for black people: black people: should a black person shut up, tone down, or in any other way reduce the hard won capacity for critical thought?: never
    What will best serve all oppressed people of all color, more critical thinking or less? more
    What is liberation in the last analysis, on a personal and collective level:critical thinking pushed to the limit and used as a weapon against oppression .

    Just an example : Try reading capital. Very difficult to say the least: Who was it written for, aimed at, and eventually used by? mostly illiterate workers…should it have been simplified, toned down,or in any other way had its force reduced for the benefit of the illiterate masses? no. why? because Marx knewa few things… complicated argument and critique are necessary corollary to a complicated world: the oppressed have a thirst for knowledge about their situation : they can raise themselves up by their own effort: they need no patronage from anyone.

    Really, if you find something difficult to understand try harder to understand: only effort, determination and clear thinking will liberate: ignorance suffocates! Am I being patronizing, offensive, or discriminatory in saying this? No. To put it bluntly. fuck political correctness, good manners, and ‘right speech’ (as used especially in much contemporary, American, middle-class pseudo-buddhism) its a weapon fashioned by the powerful against the oppressed in an effort to shut people up. Simple as that!

    Craig: Ha ! Brother I was more impressed by the passion and percipience (ups… oh well.. may all oppressed children be born clutching a dictionary!) of you comments than by your oversight.

  • patrick jennings

    Katie:
    Thanks for the effort and thought you are putting into this discussion. I will get back to the points you raise after more thought.
    Re:
    ‘As I said earlier, in some ways, it would be really helpful if Korda or Stevens came back to address some of the issues that have been raised. Because I actually think that most of the participants in this conversation wonder about the message being offered in their discussion. Whether what they’re saying is skillful means for practitioner/activist/service folks, or whether they’re offering something that’s more escapist and not really accurate in a Buddhist sense.’

    Couldn’t agree more: your commitment to engagement is starting to make them look very shoddy! Ha! sorry if thats mischievous!

  • nathan

    Patrick,

    “Really, if you find something difficult to understand try harder to understand: only effort, determination and clear thinking will liberate: ignorance suffocates!” I agree with this. Actually, it sounds like how meditation practice is. However, it’s also the case that how people arrive at wisdom, and what actually is wise and liberating, looks different for everyone. One person might struggle mightily through Capital and find the way, while another might live a life that teaches them similar things. Note, that level of education isn’t at all the only variable here. What is critical thought? It is “one” set of things, or multiple? How do you know for sure?

    Furthermore, with this whole academic language – privileged white guy positioning thing – I remember bell hooks writing about writing, and saying that she often mixes “high” and “low” language. Because she’s interested in the intersection of theory and practice. Of academic and vernacular. Of intersections in general. And that this mixing expands access, familiarity, connectivity, etc. In addition, it can also expand the ways in which wisdom and knowledge are expressed, and thus create more flexibility in how we view the world.That’s really what I was speaking about above. Having a recognition that if you sincerely want to connect with others, and perhaps want to be heard in a certain way, that you need to make an effort to learn and “speak their language.” Usually not literally and obviously not anywhere near completely, but what I’m talking about is that listening for a place of strength, skill, or understanding in someone and then, eventually, offering your ideas from there as best you can. This isn’t dumbing down by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I’d argue that it’s a much higher form of critical thinking and emotional intelligence than all the intellectual screaming back and forth.

    You’re absolutely right that the complications and challenges posed by a piece like Capital are necessary. At the same time, Marx, Engels and others wrote many other pieces of various lengths, I’m guessing in part to address the “connectivity” and access issue. Odds are, the vast majority of folks never read the volumes of Capital. And even fewer understood it in whole. But something like the Communist Manifesto got around. Numerous folks struggled to “get” that. And many others still never read much of any of it, but learned enough of the concepts to have a working understanding that radicalized them. Reading is only one access point to knowledge and wisdom.

    The problem with much of this conversation is the underlying attitude of wanting to be right, as opposed to wanting to connect, understand, share, and perhaps teach. (Although, any good teacher is also a good student.) I’ll admit that even I have had some of this attitude because my frustration and disappointment got the best of me. Somehow, the need to be right needs to be overcome – and I’m talking about on a large scale here. There will be no revolution amongst folks competing to be the most right, that is one thing I am sure of.

  • Patrick Jennings

    Hello Nathan,
    Thanks for your response.
    Of course as part of a sustained effort and in particular situations of struggle you are perfectly right in what you say about there being a multiple of perspectives and many ways to communicate. And of course out of respect and in practical terms it is always right to take into account the situation of those you are addressing, And its definitely not the case that ‘wisdom’ or plain knowledge is a monopoly of the educated, formal or otherwise.
    But it is also true that those who are oppressed, marginalized or excluded need to take measures to empower themselves, and not only at a superficial level…it is the worst sort of condescending patronization to give anyone in a situation of powerlessness the impression that their situation can be remedied without a great deal of effort on their own part…indeed they already know that from bitter experience.
    No. They need and want something deeper, more comprehensive… something that encompasses a broad vision about the possibility of there being an alternative to the present situation. Of course there are those who have been so wounded, disheartened and demoralized by years of oppression and neglect that they have little energy for anything other than survival, but for most it is a question of there being no believable, consistent and accessible critique of the present state of things.
    That critique can only be delivered in a very general way… as a theory about how things are and about how things can be made to change…the rest, the very particularities of a set of human circumstances…all of that can be addressed by those in that particular situation. But the generality, the broad critique of the present state of things has to be investigated, fought over, and passionately perused in order that it be known that there is an alternative that is viable.. a critique of the present rooted in a proud and rich tradition of radical thought and action , but one that has learned the lessons of the last century and will not repeat them.
    This idea is a philosophical idea encompassing a theory that is in the process of coming into being, a theory about how to proceed and a vision of where exactly it is possible to go. It has to be be discussed at the proper level and without condescending worries about ‘political correctness or ‘right speech.’ If we take care to openly speak the truth than how can that be anything other than ‘politically correct’ or ‘right speech’? And if you say yes but there are many perspectives on the truth and the truth is contested well then shouldn’t we contest these perspectives; and come eventually to a conclusion about the general shape of what a humane and just society would look like.
    And isn’t that what people truly need…that overall guiding vision against which they can measure their very particular victories and defeats. Do you really think that any of the varieties of Buddhism now proliferating can contribute to such a vision. I don’t think so The tree, I’m afraid, needs to the vigorously shook in order for the fruit to fall, and soon! That means that the various xbuddhisms need to be brought into proximity with critical thought and made to stand or fall on the veracity of their understanding of what it means to be a human being faced with an impending ecological cataclysm, brought about in large part by the greed and lust for power of a unheeding minority.

  • Craig

    Patrick,

    Thanks for your undrstanding. It was a good lesson for me. I was reminded yet again that I need to read carefully and then chill before responding. You’re right, everyone here is putting in some serious work in their comments. Thanks to you and others.

    Craig

    Non-vegans units!

  • BlahBlahBlah

    This is an intellectual circle jerk. The audience is too narrow. Go out and do some service. Take an inventory of how well you apply spiritual principles when it’s not convenient or easy. Pledging allegiance to academia and dogma is lame.

  • patrick jennings

    Hello Blah BlahBlah,
    Pity you can’t put in the hard work of thinking and really try to articulate your anti-intellectualist position. But then you would have to overcome being habitually lazy when it comes to trying to discover what you are actually trying to say and what the other person means…and then there’s the annoying philosophical parodox you would find yourself in…oh sorry I’m stretching it for you….trot off now and do some ‘service’

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