OK, admitted: my previous post about a Speculative Non-Buddhism essay was pretty damn intellectually intense for summer reading.
I thought of writing about something lighter today, but decided to make another attempt at conveying what I like about what little I know about what those guys at Speculative Non-Buddhism seem to be up to.
(Hope that last sentence conveys my uncertainty about what their goal is; these are the most articulate, deep, philosophically-sophisticated Buddhists-who-aren't-really- Buddhists I've ever come across; hard to fathom them after just a little reading.)
First, a note about my own split personality toward Buddhism. Part of me loves it; part of me hates it. Sometimes I think Buddhism is the best non-religious religion there is. Other times, it strikes me as just as supernaturally deluded as other religions are.
I've put up numerous posts here concerning how unlikely it is that something like "pure awareness" exists. The brain is a highly sophisticated collection of 100 billion or so neurons, all connected in vastly complex ways.
Out of this, almost certainly, human consciousness emerges. Where and how the notion of "pure awareness" fits into neuroscientific reality is beyond me.
Though I used to believe that it was possible for consciousness (or soul) to be a detached observer from above, so to speak, this now strikes me as religious dogma. So I resonate with another Speculative Non-Buddhism post, "The Myth of the Witnessing Mind, Or: It's Thinking all the Way Down."
This is an easier to understand take on the same general subject addressed in my previous post: there is no getting outside socially, culturally, and I guess, genetically conditioned ways of looking at the world.
What we see is what we've learned to see; been guided to see; evolved to see from among countless alternative ways of seeing. There is no absolute vision; no objective perception of reality; no mountaintop of consciousness from which the varying slopes of awareness can be discerned at a glance.
Before sharing some excerpts from "The Myth of the Witnessing Mind," here's an explanation of x-Buddhism:
“Buddhism” suggests an abstract, and abstractly static, One. A study of this One would show it to be of the (abstract) type of cultural-doctrinal systems (religion, philosophy, mythology) that claim grand authority concerning human knowledge. “X-buddhism” means to capture a crucial fact about “Buddhism,” the abstract One: it loops incessantly.
We could study the x. Such a study would be historical and comparative.
We could compile a descriptive catalogue of Buddhist schools from a (atheist) through m (Mahayana) to z (Zen), graphing their relations and tracing their divergences. In so doing, we would discover differences concerning, for instance, each x‘s version of the means and end of the One’s grand authority. From such a study we would begin to see that the One, Buddhism, breeds infinite interpretation not only of the world, but of itself. Hence, Buddhism splinters into unending modifiers, x.
With that background, here's the excerpts -- which actually amount to most of the essay. Or, jump to the full essay.
I want to present a comment that Tom Pepper made in response to questions posed by Matthias Steingass. I think that both the questions and the response constitute a brilliant crystallization of recurring, and quite stubborn, issues in contemporary x-buddhism. The issues hover around the interplay of self, no-self, person-formation, ideology, and meditation. But first, some background.
Perhaps the gravest criticism of contemporary x-buddhism we make on this blog is that its proponents refuse to adequately think through the very postulates that comprise their x-buddhism. Sometimes this refusal manifests as blatant hypocrisy.
Patricia Ivan’s previous post on the shunning practices of x-buddhist figures is a good example of this. The people she mentions there are typical x-buddhist examples in that they preach values such as compassionate engagement, the wisdom of doubting, and having the courage to be proven wrong, yet routinely shut down dialogue that genuinely and robustly tests their commitment to those values.
While such hypocrisy is unconscionable, it is at least correctable. Even darker consequences follow from the x-buddhists’ refusal to think through their premises. I am speaking of the x-buddhist penchant for reacting against and obscuring the very teachings they aim to disseminate.
One such teaching is the sine qua non Buddhist principle of anatman. This principle holds that there exist no self-entity over and above the socially-linguistically-constructed networks of discourse within which we are embedded. This principle has extraordinary and far-reaching implications for the ways “Buddhism” might contribute to a clear-eyed assessment of what it is to be human.
And yet, as many essays on this blog and at non + x have shown, x-buddhists refuse to dispense with atman, positing at every turn some version of a transcendent self. These essays have typically been met with (i) confused, convoluted, and desperate “arguments” to the contrary, (ii) hostility, or (iii) silence (see above). You can see for yourself that the beating heart of atman is being well-preserved by x-buddhist figures.
It’s all over the place–as mindfulness, non-judgemental awareness, the silent observer, the witnessing mind, pure awareness, Buddha mind, not to mention the traditional formulations of rig pa, tathagathagarba, mahamudra, and so on ad nauseum. It’s one of the places where the conservative-traditional forms of x-buddhism join at the hip of the liberal-secular varieties.
...Tom Pepper. Matthias: I’ll offer my thoughts on this problem. When you say “I know that I think,” you are reproducing the error that produces belief in the atman. If you think you are attending to the content of your thoughts, you are, of course, attending to some of them, but not to the thoughts about that content.
These thoughts – the belief that I can passively “watch” my thoughts arise and dissolve – is just another set of thoughts produced in a discourse, socially produced, but which we are taught to mistake for an unproduced “true self.” In the “mindfulness” practice of watching your thoughts with detachment, you are actually participating in a socially produced discourse of “mindfulness” and not realizing it.
The mind always and only thinks, and consciousness is always and only in socially produced symbolic systems produced between multiple individuals.
Can the body act without thought? Sure it can – have you ever seen a chicken with its head cut off? Sometimes they can walk about and respond to stimuli for hours. But there is no mind there. Even a brain-dead body can be stimulated to orgasm, but there is not mind that “has” the orgasm, except in a symbolic system which gives the bodily response meaning.
...My original understanding of Vipassana meditation, years ago, was that it was an attempt to recognize exactly this – the real causes and conditions of all the thoughts we believe “we” are having. We then realize, like Hume when he “looks within,” that there is no self, only another discourse (not the term Hume would use, but..) which is always produced socially.
Even the “looking within” is just a socially produced discourse. Then we lose the need to find the directing “will” deep within. Instead, we see that the “self” is socially constructed, and we can begin, also in “sati” meditation, to examine the causes and the effects of this particular construction of conventional self, and determine (again, in a collectively produced discourse) what actions might produce a better “self.”
Of course, Vipassana as I’ve encountered it over the last couple of years has become the opposite of this – it is now an attempt to produce a discourse in which we are fooled into believing we DO have a core transcendent mind that is undetermined by discourse and social formations, and this is what they now call “anatman”: the mistaken belief that this “witnessing mind” is NOT created by the discourse/practice of retreat buddhism.