this is not the end: this is america

This is not a call to arms.

Hat tip to Richard Payne for alerting me to a post (now nearly two months old) by Glenn Wallis regarding the Mindfulness Living Week and the “tipping point” of American Buddhism. You should read Wallis’ piece while listening to Childish Gambino’s “This is America.” As Payne reminds us, the Mindfulness Industry has been subsumed under the dominant capitalist struct of America because — why wouldn’t it be? Capitalism is so pervasive, is so deeply ingrained in the very fiber and being of American history and culture (America would not exist if it wasn’t for capitalism), that scarcely anything can escape its black-hole-like pull.

But I don’t want to talk abut mindfulness or capitalism. I want to shine the light elsewhere. And to do so, I’m going to be slightly critical of Wallis’ post on two points. First, audience and agents; and, second, nomenclature.

To paraphrase and oversimplify a complex argument, the mindfulness industry posits that modern people suffer because of, among other things, our disconnection from the natural world/our true natures, a disconnection caused by the modern condition of work and industrialization and a loss of awareness of how things “really are”; and that this disconnection can be “cured” via the tools of mindfulness applied liberally throughout one’s life, from home to work, from the board room to the bedroom. However, this particular kind of suffering is actually caused by the larger systems of global capitalism which means we’re never getting off this rollercoaster. We can be mindful all we want while responding to emails and processing TPS reports; but until we undermine the systems of capitalism that cause our particular malaise, nothing’s really going to change. Wallis notes that major universities in the U.S. and Europe are now developing contemplative studies programs, and that these programs are clearly in alignment with the objectives of the mindfulness industry. Therefore, academic institutions are “on the hook” (my words, not his) for replicating this system, rather than undermining it. He writes (underlined emphasis added):

…technologies of self-care, though arguably designed to enable the practitioner a means of resistance to dominant and unhealthy norms, currently function as ideological supplements to these norms. Here, it is important to state the matter in more active terms; for, doing so reminds us that we are dealing with real agents in the real world, agents capable of acting on, of illuminating and changing, subjugating structures: the current leaders of Buddhist (or whatever) thought and practice are aligning self-care with the interests of the very social formation that they, ostensibly, desire to counter.

Which leads me to question: do they? Do they (even ostensibly) desire to counter the norms? A specter of expectation rises up from time time in critiques of the mindfulness industry (or Buddhism for that matter), an expectation that mindfulness (Buddhist) programs and the people (Buddhists) leading them either should or are in fact countering the norms, are working against the system. Perhaps because we’re buying into the first part of the mindfulness ideology — that modern persons suffer because of modernity/capitalism — we assume that mindfulness teachers are, or should, be marching in the streets with the proletariate, or, at least, they should want to help start the revolution, join us in taking up arms against the consumerist-capitalist system. But, seriously, do they? Do they (even ostensibly) desire to counter the social formations of that system?

I do not ask this question because I think that the commodification of Buddhism/mindfulness is unproblematic; I do not ask this question because I think we should “give up,” that we shouldn’t critique both Buddhism/mindfulness and “the system” — we absolutely should; I do not ask this question because I think it’s perfectly okay to uncritically work in service of capitalism. I ask this question because I think it is important to take seriously the possibility that some folks — even Buddhist folks, even folks in academia — may really like capitalism, they may really like the status quo, and they may really have no desire whatsoever to challenge the norms. They may not want to counter anything but, instead, have either wholly pedestrian desires like earning enough to provide for their children and save some money for retirement, or grotesque desires like being a wildly rich and famous Buddhist “thought leader.” If, as Wallis says above, these are “real agents [people] in the real world” then let’s consider them as such — real people with complex motivations, complex lives, who make choices, many of which we’re going to disagree with. In sum, I ask this question not because we shouldn’t be critical of the “deep shit” we’re in (his words, not mine) but because we might be wasting our breath. These folks aren’t going to join us in the revolution.

I doubt that Wallis believes he is writing this piece to the actual “thought leaders” at the Mindfulness Whatever Week or the creators of the contemplative studies programs in various universities. But it does leave me wondering who he imagines his audience is. Who, exactly, is he calling to arms? And, to push this militaristic metaphor, if he is calling folks to arms, who are they supposed to arm themselves against? To what end? If the aim is to fight back, to #resit, the forces of global capitalism, to take down Google and Davos — how, exactly? Critique is important, of course (as I’ve written about before); but the, again, militaristic metaphor and the urgency of our times leaves me to wonder what role we’re supposed play to have now that we have arms. Again, real agents — real people — in the real world. I’ve armed myself against the forces of Buddhist thought leaders… now what?

In a lame attempt at summarizing my first point and transitioning to the second, above I’m concerned with clarifying Willis’ audience. If his post is a “call to arms,” if he hopes to “incite a collective that produces thinking, concepts, dialogue, texts, and practices” to disrupt “our current capitalist-corporate-consumerist World” — who is this collective? Who’s he talking to? And I think we might get closer to an answer to that question if we focus on nomenclature.

What follows will seem needlessly pedantic — and to those who’ve followed my various blog-iterations these many years, well, I can already hear the eye-rolls — but it’s important. And it’s buttressed by a comment in the very long comment thread to Wallis’ original post — “Is there anything else left of Buddhism in America besides this kind of crap?” In short, Wallis (et al) need to stop talking about “Buddhism in America” or “American Buddhism.” His argument, his call to arms, his collective, needs specificity. He is not arguing against American Buddhism but a specific variety of American Buddhism, and we should be clear on that.

I say this, in part, because of other attempts to use more specific language — and here I’m thinking, again, of Payne’s posts on “White Buddhism” — a specific sub-species of American Buddhism, in his case a particular ideology rather than a specific lineage. White Buddhism gets close to what Wallis’ is actually talking about, especially to the extent that whiteness as a racial category owes its genesis to capitalism as much as America does (again, “This is America”; whiteness reached its full flourishing in racial discourses regarding the enslavement of Africans and thus blackness; slaves literally built America, and slavery was propelled by the demands of capitalism). But I’m not sure if White Buddhism is the right term — both because I’m not sure that’s what Wallis is actually talking about nor do I think it is, really, the right term. Nevertheless, the particular intersection of a commercially grounded, meditation and/or mindfulness centric, retreat/resort based, secularized (in the sense of being repackaged and deployed in non-religious spaces) practice that can be taught and purchased, and an ideology of self-help/heroic quest/individual improvement that transcends any particular lineage, tradition, or community — this is what we’re on about, no? (Did I miss anything?) What should we call this?

Yes, this seems, it feels, totalizing, like this crap is all that’s left of Buddhism in America. But it isn’t. Not by a long shot.

To see how this — whatever it is that Wallis is taking up arms against — is not the totality of American Buddhism all one needs do is question the meaning of “American” and “Buddhism.” I’ll grant (I’m a big believer in the idea that) “America” is rooted in this “capitalist-corporate-consumerist World,” a pervasive ideology that, again, sucks everything in, possibly including All The Buddhists. But that aspect of “America” does not suck everything in evenly; pockets of resistance, diversity, alternate points of view and practice, and even Buddhists (yes, American Buddhists) who’ve never heard of mindfulness and have no idea what the fuck we’re talking about abound, left and right, all over the map. All you gotta do is look for them. Shift the gaze and focus for a moment elsewhere. Tear one’s eyes away from the shinny lights of the Mindfulness Self-Help Whatever and listen for the quieter voices. To deny that these quieter voices are a part of the complex tapestry of American Buddhism is to deny their Americanness (and their Buddhist-ness) and is to perpetuate the very thing — the this — that we’re being called to arms against in the first place.

For example, to toot my own institutional horn, I am the dean of an institution of Buddhist higher education. We don’t have a mindfulness program. We don’t have a contemplative studies program. And while I can’t say that our community — inclusive of the Board of Trustees, the full faculty, the administrative staff, all our students, and all the other agents (people) who make this place possible — is collectively engaged in the revolutionary work being called for, while I can’t say that all of us would be willing to take up arms or join the collective, I can say that most of us aren’t particularly interested in the this under Wallis’ critique, but are deeply interested in other types of thinking, concepts, dialogue, texts, and practices.

I’ll admit to bringing this up in part because of a vested interest I have in promoting my school (I think we’re doing good work, and I think you should come and study with us); but I also bring it up because I think we need to shed light on other parts of American Buddhism. Wallis is right. “The tiredness of it all.” It’s tired because we’ve been here before. And not just in our critiques of this (mindfulness) but on this rollercoaster. Buddhism wasn’t commodified by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It was commodified in Asia and sold to America in the nineteenth century in the form of incense burners with images of Buddha on them in the pages of Sears catalog with promises to make your home peaceful, back when your grandparents were in diapers. This is America. Corporate-consumerist Buddhism is a story that needs to be told, a story that needs to be critiqued. But it’s not the only story. Again, critique is necessary. But in the spirit of Matthew Pratt Guterl, let’s amplify other voices. This crap isn’t all that’s out there. I promise.

And, indeed, Wallis must be aware of this (not of me, and my institution, per se); he must be aware that there exist in American Buddhism counter-voices, people who are willing take up arms — otherwise, why issue the call in the first place? If this is all that’s left of American Buddhism, and if these agents (people) aren’t actually interested in taking up arms, then his call is a shout into the void. To continue to call this “American Buddhism” excludes those American Buddhists (present company included) who might want to join the collective, but assume the call is being made to someone else; and, again, it becomes a shout into the void. Therefore, specificity in nomenclature is in order, a specificity that will lead not only to inclusiveness but to an actual honest-to-god collective.

To put it bluntly, and, again, to return to that militaristic metaphor — if a line in the sand is being drawn, it’s being drawn across American Buddhism. Some are going to fall on the side of consumerist-capitalism; some aren’t. What do we call the two camps, the two opposing armies? Because they’re all “American Buddhists.”

I’ll end by sticking to my guns (pun intended) and highlighting, again, this militaristic metaphor. Metaphors, language, matters. A call to arms is exactly that — a call to take up arms and violently resist or defend a territory. So. Be careful what you wish for.

After all, this is America.

 

Photo credit:  three heads by telmo32.

19 thoughts on “this is not the end: this is america

  1. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for taking the time and trouble to write up a criticism of my post. A few points in response.

    You quote me: “…technologies of self-care, though arguably designed to enable the practitioner a means of resistance to dominant and unhealthy norms, currently function as ideological supplements to these norms…the current leaders of Buddhist (or whatever) thought and practice are aligning self-care with the interests of the very social formation that they, ostensibly, desire to counter.”

    And then you ask: “do they? Do they (even ostensibly) desire to counter the norms?”

    Yes, they do. They want to counter and resist the current social formation. The key term in my statement is “ostensibly.” It means that everything in the language and argumentation, everything in the rhetoric, of these Buddhist “thought leaders” points to that desire. They may not desire to counter it in the way that someone at the barricades does. They may only want to counter it in the way that Thatcher and Reagan suggested: realize that there is no alternative World on the horizon, recognize your political impotence, and find a refuge for yourself within yourself. This desire to counter the intolerable friction of the State was there at the beginning of Buddhism, and remains in its DNA. I challenge you to provide a single example of a contemporary Buddhist teacher who explicitly likes capitalism, likes the status quo, and has no desire whatsoever to challenge the norms, to paraphrase you. Again, we can’t mine their consciousness for this information; we can only analyze their rhetoric.

    When you say “These folks aren’t going to join us in the revolution,” I get the impression that you have a somewhat caricatured notion of “revolution.” Maybe my further reply will help clarify what I mean.

    You ask: “Who, exactly, is he calling to arms?…I’ve armed myself against the forces of Buddhist thought leaders… now what?”

    Have you? And you still don’t know “what now”? Is the Institute of Buddhist Studies in any robust sense of the term “armed against the forces of Buddhist thought leaders”? Does your role as dean and professor there really permit such a stance? Or do you mean that ironically? It’s not clear; but I will assume you mean it sincerely. If I may play the amateur psychoanalyst for a moment, I read volumes into your statement (on the IBS website) that “This [Jodo] denominational affiliation, however, is tempered by the American context.” Why tempered? What needs to be tempered? Having been around such organizations for several decades, I believe we are talking about, among other things: groupthink; subjugating identity formation; ideological allegiance; virtually unchallenged platitudinous language/discourse, and so on. To what extent are you genuinely able to “temper” those forces and not lose your job? For, from what I can tell for the website, you–institutional you–are caught under the punctilious gaze of Buddhist mastery. So, to answer your question: I am calling you to arms. Challenge the subjugating atmosphere that I am all but certain pervades your Institute. Meet it when and where it appears. You have ample “arms:” dialogue, text, language that is not caught in the ruts of Shin/Buddhist discourse. If you have truly and courageously “armed [yourself] against the forces of Buddhist thought leaders” and not lost your job, that is a marvel to me. I just published a piece at Incite Items (here: https://inciteseminars.com/2018/07/10/04-gabriel-rockhill-why-red-why-now/) that argues for the importance of people in higher education to enact what I think you are calling “the revolution” right where they stand–in the classroom, in the boardroom, in conversation with the aspiring minister.

    You write: “In short, Wallis (et al) need to stop talking about ‘Buddhism in America’ or ‘American Buddhism.’ His argument, his call to arms, his collective, needs specificity. He is not arguing against American Buddhism but a specific variety of American Buddhism, and we should be clear on that.”

    No. I don’t know how familiar you are with my overall critique of Buddhism, but a central premise is that we do not have to wring our hands figuring out what to call any given “specific sub-species of American Buddhism” or of Buddhism tout court. All Buddhisms possess the exact same identity. I mark this sameness in difference with an x. So, I stand at the polar opposite to your contention that the “this” that I am taking up arms against “is not the totality of American Buddhism” or of Buddhism generally. In short, the identity marked by the x is the dependency on the principle of sufficient Buddhism. Again, I challenge you to present me with a single Buddhist statement–from your institution’s materials, from some teacher, from your own writings if you write as a Buddhist–that does not uphold this principle.

    You write: “And, indeed, Wallis must be aware of this (not of me, and my institution, per se); he must be aware that there exist in American Buddhism counter-voices, people who are willing take up arms — otherwise, why issue the call in the first place?”

    Willing to, yes, but not as Buddhists. That just is not possible.

    About specificity of collectivity. My Incite Seminars (www.inciteseminars.com) is one of my concrete attempts to form a collective of people agitating for changes. The blog Speculative Non-Buddhism is another. My sitting/discussion group is another. My classroom work is another. My writing is another. I could name hundreds of actual material consequences ensuing from this overall collective–each with a person attached to it–not to mention the tales of psychological or subjective alteration ensuing from interacting with the ideas. I could also enumerate dozens of examples of where genuinely “revolutionary” dispositions like courage and integrity have risked and even cost people in this collective their livelihood, friends, and community.

    Finally, you write: “A call to arms is exactly that — a call to take up arms and violently resist or defend a territory. So. Be careful what you wish for.”

    Again, no. It is not “exactly that.” It is figurative language. Of course it plays on a violent image. Why? If you were familiar with my critique of Buddhism you would know that I consider “Buddhism” to be yet another variety of human capture. It captures desire, identity, language. When it is operating to the degree that its masters wish, it captures the subject in a hallucinated World of its own creation. I would bet the house that your institute is an agent of such capture. So, when you insist that you have armed yourself against the forces of Buddhist thought leaders, and ask “now what?”–yes, be careful.

    • Hi Glenn,

      My statement “I’ve armed myself against the forces of Buddhist thought leaders,” was meant neither ironically nor sincerely; it was meant rhetorically. In the context of that paragraph, where I was trying unpack audience and actions that follow from taking a stand, I was making a rhetorical statement, e.g., “I” (meaning “someone”, not necessarily “I” meaning “me, Scott”) who has taken up arms, what are they now being asked to do.

      And from this statement, you then “play the amateur psychoanalyst” — and I really wish you wouldn’t. And, if you did, I really wish you’d just psychoanalyze me instead of a whole institution which, unless I’m wrong, can’t be psychoanalyzed since it lacks a “psyche.” But maybe we’re speaking different languages here or understand the role of analyst — even the amateur analyst — differently. Nevertheless, I’ll not respond to this part of your response because, in part, I just simply disagree with your analysis and, also in part, whereas I do understand that you are calling me (specifically and/or institutionally me) to arms, to be frank, I’m not sure I want to take them up. Or, at least, not the arms you’re offering.

      I fear I may not have been wholly clear in my original post. Some of this lack of clarity comes from my own personal ambiguity, uncertainty, and agnosticism. And that’s really the point, for me anyway. Whereas, no, I am not familiar with the totality of your body of work (who could be?), but whereas I am generally in agreement with the parts of your work with which I am familiar, and whereas I am generally thrilled that you and others are making the critiques and doing the work you are doing, I am not sure that it is the only way to respond, to critique, or work against the forces of Buddhist thought leaders or whomever else you and I and other like-minded folks are working against (and I recognize that you are not saying that there is only one way). In short, again (if you choose to psychoanalyze something), I am filled with ambiguity, uncertainty, and agnosticism. My post was simply an exercise in wrestling with questions your post raised for me, wrestling with questions I think others may have, others who may want to “take up arms” (or whatever language we want to use) but aren’t sure of the way forward.

      Thank you for the dialogue.

  2. Scott,

    You say: “’I’ve armed myself against the forces of Buddhist thought leaders,’” was meant neither ironically nor sincerely; it was meant rhetorically.”

    Why? Why not mean it sincerely? My ensuing analysis still holds, as do my challenges.

    Yes, institutions do have psyches, and so can be psychoanalyzed. They have language, subjectivity, identity. They suffer repression, conflict, neurosis, psychosis. Etc., etc. “You” in my analysis is an institutional figure inscribed in the institutional materials open to view. I would wholly expect that some subjective “you” feels a degree of ambiguity, given your institutional role in the face of your professed sympathy with certain critiques of Buddhism. I am more familiar with Buddhist institutional culture than practically anyone you will ever meet. I understand the ambiguity you must feel.

    The key lies here: “I’m not sure I want to take them up. Or, at least, not the arms you’re offering.”

    You don’t want to take up–right there where you stand as dean and professor– critical dialogue, socially- illuminating texts, language that is not caught in the ruts of Shin/Buddhist discourse, courageous challenges to the subjugating culture of ideologically-inspired minister training? Why not?

    • I meant it rhetorically because I was writing something rhetorical. Why not mean it sincerely? Why should I? Maybe I do, maybe I don’t.

      Your analysis may still hold; and I’m still free to disagree with it. Just like I’m also free to disagree with the idea that institutions have psyches. But I suspect that what you call “psychoanalysis” I call something else if only because I prefer (or was trained in) a different methodology. Let’s leave it at that, shall we?

      You may indeed be more familiar with Buddhist institutional culture than practically anyone I’ll ever meet — but just because you’ve had lots of experiences doesn’t mean I should agree with you or your analysis.

      Yes, the key does lie in my (or anyone else for that matter) being ambiguous about whether or not I want to take up the arms you’re offering. But let’s be clear — “I am not sure” does not equal “I am not” nor does it equal “I do not want.” It means I am not sure. Is that clear? Therefore you cannot infer that I have not taken up, right where I am as dean and professor, critical dialogue, etc. You may have lots of familiarity with institutions and you may have read our school’s website, but you are still inferring from that things about me and my institution that may or may not be true. Rather than defending myself on this point, however (because I don’t think I owe you a defense), I’ll ask you this: at what point does my taking up the arms you’re offering become nothing more than my being subjugated to a different ideologically-inspired culture? Have you considered that my ambiguity and resistance to your challenge (in this conversation, right here, not in the vast corpus of either of our’s respective professional works, but right here because, frankly, you’re coming on rather strong, sir, and I usually like to have someone buy me a drink or two before making these kinds of decisions) is, frankly, stubbornness? Call it a generational affect whereby I don’t much feel like joining — anything. Neither the World you’re resisting nor the one you’re offering, your World. Have you considered that this stubbornness isn’t because I’m not already taking up (my own) arms, and and has nothing to do with whether or not I agree with you but because I’m just stubborn and don’t feel like it? Because, right now, I’d rather eat my lunch, edit this overdue essay, and not worry too much about whether or not I’m being subjugated (because I am, obviously).

  3. As a person with close personal ties to a couple of Buddhist leaders working at Google and another Silicon Valley organization, I feel really comfortable saying that there are leaders (some with books, probably many without) who do indeed support capitalism wholeheartedly. I cannot give examples; they intertwine too closely with friends and family for me to offer them up for critique, but I feel their loving embrace of corporate capitalism, and I’ve never heard a word of critique from these men on capitalism or the commodification of Buddhism (both of whom have benefited quite handsomely from capitalism). Besides, they need capitalism to sell mindfulness as the remedy to capitalism.

    What I’m wondering about is the non-convert voices of American Buddhism. Why are we ignoring them? Are they into mindfulness fluffy flowers retreat barfola? I’m sure some are. But I suspect many aren’t, and they are being ignored as we banter about “American Buddhism,” despite them statistically representing the majority of American Buddhists and Buddhism (the picture in Glenn’s original piece is 100% white, no?). When I was visiting my local vihara recently, they were too busy talking about the meaning of Vesak and doing a pageant to talk about retreats or “getting in touch” or whatever. I’ve never even encountered the word “mindfulness” there. Seriously: never.

    So I’ve gotta agree with Scott that the language we’re using, and who we are crowning “leaders” of “American Buddhism,” is problematic in that the leaders at, for example, Dharmapala Institute in Milpitas or Wat Buddhanusorn in Fremont, are not touting mindfulness nor focusing on retreats, etc. A lot of their practice is chanting for merit and focusing on following the precepts for laypeople, which feels a whole lot different to me than the Buddhist fluff that I think is being critiqued here.

    And this is where I think Scott has a really great point: Why would people benefiting from capitalism want to rebel against it? Maybe the call to arms would be better focused among these non-glossy magazine American Buddhists that are being ignored (’cause Thai American Buddhists and Japanese American Buddhists are “American Buddhists,” too) and aren’t getting in on the mindfulness cash cow, deliberately or otherwise.

    That said: I’m ready to fight against the form of reckless capitalism that has swallowed our country whole, so count me in for the revolution. But then I’m a voice on the margins. We’re all intertwined with these systems in way or another, including me. What would a protest look like?

    Loved reading both of these pieces, many thanks Scott and Glenn.

    • “Besides, they need capitalism to sell mindfulness as the remedy to capitalism“

      This is where I get confused. Because if they are claiming they have a “remedy” for capitalism, that it needs such a cure, doesn’t that exaclty prove Glenn’s point that “ostensibly” they oppose it…even while, as you say, the go on reproducing it because they “need” it? I took this to be the point Glenn was trying to make—that this kind of Buddha-Oil-Salesman was sort of like someone helping to administer a poison so that he can sell his purported antidote.

      Sure, they love capitalism, and practice it, and promote it…AND they claim they have the cure for all the suffering it produces…

      What am I missing, here?

  4. Hi Natalie,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments on our discussion. A few quick responses.

    You write: “I feel really comfortable saying that there are leaders (some with books, probably many without) who do indeed support capitalism wholeheartedly. I cannot give examples.”

    I assume you mention this in response to Scott’s question, in effect, “do Buddhist thought leaders really want to challenge the capitalist status quo” and my answer “yes, they do.” But we can only evaluate this matter in terms of public accounts, right? Can you find a single instance of a Buddhist figure explicitly endorsing our capitalism? I’d be very interested in seeing that.

    You write, “What I’m wondering about is the non-convert voices of American Buddhism. Why are we ignoring them? “

    I don’t ignore them in my critique at all. They just constitute another variety of the x in x-buddhism. Whether it’s Vesak celebrations, merit transfer, traditional anapanasatibhavana, westernized Vipassana, or Mindfulness, it is all subject to the same critique. The leaders at the Dharmapala Institute in Milpitas or Wat Buddhanusorn in Fremont may not be touting mindfulness or focusing on retreats, but they are operating under the principle of sufficient Buddhism; they are engaged in a form of subject formation akin to disciplinary biopolitics; they are inculcating an arguably hallucinated World, and all the rest. I don’t see it as any different, in terms of identity, from what you call the Mindfulness fluff. Not at all.

    You ask, “Why would people benefiting from capitalism want to rebel against it?” If they are Buddhist teachers, because they want to illuminate and counter the forces of suffering. At least according to the public record.

    You ask, “What would a protest look like?” I gave the beginning of my answer to that question in response to Scott, above. I don’t know you, but if you are an academic teaching Buddhism or a friend to Buddhist organizations, a protest might begin by functioning as a critic rather than a caretaker of tradition.

    Onward!

  5. ” Can you find a single instance of a Buddhist figure explicitly endorsing our capitalism? I’d be very interested in seeing that.”
    I don’t see anyone questioning capitalism, save a few radical socialists. It’s the air we breathe, so to speak, as enculturated members of American society. But I see capitalism tacitly endorsed all over the place. I think the participation of Buddhists in, say, DharmaCrafts or pay-for-retreat services, or Tricycle Magazine, are all tacitly endorsing capitalism. All of these could be done differently: free cushions could be offered through a nonprofit organization; retreats could occur on a voluntary model; free articles could be published on the web. The fact that they aren’t suggests to me that people calculated making money via Buddhism. So I am doubting your claim that Buddhist teachers oppose capitalism, since my experience suggests it’s not accurate. I think I’d need to see very specific examples of Buddhist leaders condemning capitalism to accept your claim. Right now I’m skeptical of your claim. In any event, is this sufficient to show you where I’m coming from?—-> https://books.google.com/books?id=Aumc-eV7C3IC&printsec=frontcover&dq=buddha+capitalism&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjeiNSM5JrcAhVFKKwKHQ9YBMsQ6AEIQTAE#v=onepage&q=buddha%20capitalism&f=false

    I admit to not entirely following you when you talk about “the principle of sufficient Buddhism” and “a form of subject formation akin to disciplinary biopolitics.” Could you say more about that?

    In terms of “inculcating an arguably hallucinated World,” I think that’s exactly what culture is, an overlay of meaning onto the world (a la Clifford Geertz, I suppose). In this sense, everyone is participating in one kind of illusion or another. Only a arahant or buddha would be free of that issue (according to tradition, anyway), but I’m not sure I’d grant that status to any Buddhist teacher I’ve met. Also, I’m an agnostic (let’s be honest, lol) and I’m not sure nibbana or buddhahood are real. So there’s that. :P

    “If they are Buddhist teachers, because they want to illuminate and counter the forces of suffering.” But if they don’t really see it as suffering, I don’t think they’d want to rebel against it. The very fact that they are participating in the commodification of Buddhism (a very old practice, to be sure) suggests to me that they don’t consider it a type of suffering. Or, if they’re Theravada, they might think the entire world is dukkha and it can’t be avoided (that’s the point of nirvana), or that we’re in the end times of the dhamma and the best we can do is to make merit in the world through good deeds. Or if they’re Pure Land, they might think fighting against suffering is a form of self-power that doesn’t work. Or, if they’re Thien/Zen/etc., they might think that it’s not inherently suffering, that it’s our clinging to it being different than it is that is the source of the suffering. I don’t mean to suggest that any of them are correct, just that there are multiple perspectives that likely do not coincide with my own lefty/socialist bent that tends toward critique of laissez-faire capitalism.

    An even more jaded perspective: Maybe they think capitalism is great because it makes them a lot of money and they don’t really care about Buddhist teachings at all. The latter is just a vehicle for the acquisition of wealth.

    I think scholarship is inherently a form of critique if it’s done from a position of self-reflexive ethics, so I guess I’m already doing that. What would a non-academic do?

    I enjoy thinking about this, thank you.

  6. Hi Natalie,

    I think I am seeing where the knot (the rub?) in this three-way discussion might be. Is it in the quote from my post that Scott’s piece opens with?

    “the current leaders of Buddhist (or whatever) thought and practice are aligning self-care with the interests of the very social formation that they, ostensibly, desire to counter.”

    I completely agree with you in your assessment that American Buddhist teachers are participating in the commodification of Buddhism, profiting off of it, and often even think that our culture of rabid spiritual consumerism is the ideal environment for their brand of Buddhist snakeoil. Many others are just unwitting naifs, flowing along with the times. In fact, I know this to be the case from firsthand encounters. I’m sure we could both name names. (I have done so in past SNB posts.) My point in the quote above is that taking their ameliorating suffering rhetoric at face value, we can safely extrapolate that they desire to counter noxious social formations. There is thus an intentional barb in that “ostensibly.”

    “In terms of ‘inculcating an arguably hallucinated World,’ I think that’s exactly what culture is.” I agree. This is a point that we make repeatedly at the SNB blog, namely that there is no outside to ideology. The problem with Buddhism is that it does posit an outside to ideology, available via some sort of cataclysmic shift in consciousness or something. It presents this outside precisely in ideological terms but is blind to the identity of its very presentation as ideological. In that way, it represents, to my mind, a particularly pernicious variety of hallucination.

    “I think scholarship is inherently a form of critique if it’s done from a position of self-reflexive ethics, so I guess I’m already doing that.”

    We’ll just have to disagree on this one. I think pretty much the opposite, at least where Buddhist studies scholarship is concerned. That is, most of it is inherently sympathetic to Buddhism. It is certainly not critical in the way I use the term, namely challenging the principle of sufficient Buddhism, buddhistic auto-donation, decision, and so on. David Loy is always presented to me as an example of a rigorous critic of Buddhism. But to my thinking, he never rises above apologetics. Stephen Batchelor is another name that comes up when discussing Buddhist criticism. To me, he reads like a buddhicized parson from the English countryside. Nothing against well-meaning apologists and good-natured parsons; they just don’t make effective critics. Which Buddhist studies scholars do you think are writing rigorous, informed, genuine critiques? (Other than Richard Payne!)

    “What would a non-academic do?”

    But you are an academic. You are in a great position to live your protest because you hold a position of social power (as professor, as author and speaker and expert) in an institution engaged in direct subject formation. The problem is that Buddhist institutions are deeply conservative, often even in a pre-European-Enlightenment fashion. So, even if you decided that you wanted to find ways to harness the institutional power toward fashioning a radicalized subject, for instance, you would then have to confront the reactionary forces of the institution. Where might that take you? I myself am doing what I can through writing (books, Incite Items, SNB) and creating educational communities (Incite Seminars, a sitting/dialogue group). I am also involved in the Radical Education Department, a group of anarcho-communists in Philadelphia. There’s more, but I’ll leave it at that.

    peace and thanks, Natalie.

  7. “And it’s buttressed by a comment in the very long comment thread to Wallis’ original post — “Is there anything else left of Buddhism in America besides this kind of crap?” In short, Wallis (et al) need to stop talking about “Buddhism in America” or “American Buddhism.””

    As the person who made the comment you quoted (above) I would just like to point out that you both misrepresented what I said, and haven’t answered the very real question. I did not suggest, in this comment, that there was an entity called “Buddhism in America.” What I suggested was that there is a place called America, and that in my particular part of it the only kind of Buddhism I can find is exaclty the kind of vague and fuzzy mindfulness-for-profit stuff under discussion. So, I asked if there is any other kind of Buddhism anywhere in America—becaue there is not here in Connecticut as far as I can tell (although there used to be, in years past). There is certainly no Shin Buddhist presence here, although as a Shin Buddhist I wish there were.

    If there is something more of Buddhism in other parts of American, I’m still not sure exactly what it would be, or where it is. The examples mentions, as Glenn says, seem not a whole lot different in teachings or intent than the Minfulness Week garbage from Shambhala. I assume there are less publicity-crazed, less for-profit, kinds of Buddhist practice somewhere still. Not all Christians are fans of Joel Osteen, although from the outside it may look like that is all that’s left of Christianity in America. (By this, I do not mean there is an entity “Christianity in America,” but a place called America in which many kinds of Christianity take place…)

    Hope there are more and better kinds of Buddhism in your part of the world,
    Sincerely,
    et al

    • Tom — apologies for misrepresenting what you wrote; clearly it is because I misunderstood the comment. This conversation has been very clarifying for me.

      I have never been to Connecticut, but a quick Google maps search reveals a scattering of Buddhist temples, many of which are Vietnamese, in the state. Since I’ve never been there, and since I can’t read Vietnamese, I can’t tell from these temple websites what they do at their temples. But I’m going to hazard a guess that they are not doing the same mindfulness stuff that Shmabhala is doing.

      Now, two things. First, the point Natalie was making (if I can be so bold as to speak for her) and the point I obfuscated in my original post is that these folks are American Buddhists, too. So to say that the only Buddhist thing happening in America is represented by the white folks in the meditation week whatever is not accurate.

      However, and on to point two, as I now understand from this discussion, the x-Buddhism critique and the principle of sufficient Buddhism applies equally to the mindfulness-capitalists as it does to the Vietnamese American Buddhists in your state (as well as the Shin Buddhists in mine) and, if we accept that point, then, yes, all of these things are of the same kind and therefore there’s not much more going on than this. I recognize that I’m grossly oversimplifying and may be misrepresenting again, so, apologies.

      I think, in light of the above, my original post was trying to highlight the distinctions between different forms of Buddhism in American (or x-Buddhisms) but that these distinctions aren’t really relevant in the terms of the x-Buddhism critique. (Do I have that right?) Therefore, we’re starting out from fundamentally different places, or, perhaps, we’re starting out with very different assumptions, and even though we’re speaking roughly the same language, we’re using it differently.

      That’s where I’m at today, anyway.

      • Two questions and a clarification.

        Scott, can you say more about being “filled with ambiguity, uncertainty, and agnosticism”? Concerning what, spefifically?

        Natalie, can you say what you mean by “a position of self-reflexive ethics,” and how taking that position necessarily makes scholarship critical?

        I have probably been unclear, maybe too precious concerning that “ostensibly.” When I say that our current Buddhist thought leaders, or whatever that appropriate term is, “want to counter and resist the current social formation” I am being snarky. Add an all uppercase, bold, italicized SHOULD–given there rhetoric, if follows that they SHOULD want to counter it. I am operating at the aporia, the contradiction, the conceptual parapraxis, the buddhistic misturning. Why? Because I believe that it is precisely there–immanent to the text/utterance/claim itself–that the coercive force of the practice is located. It then lies to us to take up arms to illuminate it and offer means of resistance to it as well as a counter-ideological/subject formation.

      • Thanks for your response. You are correct, and I should have been more specific about this. I am familiar with Korean and Vietnamese Buddhist groups in the area (not all of them, I’ve only personally encountered three)—but since they teach and conduct thier practices in those langauges, I have no idea at all whether they would fit under the general “x-buddhism critique”. I should have explained that I was thinking only of Buddhist teaching and practices in the English language, a far more limited group. So, sure, yes, I know, I’m a horrible racist for not pointing out that there are some Buddhists in the area who don’t speak much English and I don’t know what kind of Buddhism they practice, and it was terrible of me to unintentionally imply that they were not real “Americans.” My interest, though, is in Buddhist practices I could conceivably understand and participate in—I’m thinking not as a sociologist or scholar of Buddhism. So I was less interested in correctly repressing the true extent of Buddhism, than assessing the possibility of a foolish being like myself, limited to the English language, finding some Buddhist practice to engage in that was not, to use my own term for it, a lot of crap.

        As I’ve tried to argue on Glenn’s blog, I don’t necessarily think that all Shin Buddhism is more of the same, although perhaps some (much?) of it is. Shinran was clearly a bit of a radical in his time, and early on Jodo Shinshu did not exactly support the status quo in Japan…

        But sadly there are no other Shin Buddhists, to my knowledge, left in CT. (If there are, I’d love to hear from them!)

        • To Glenn’s question: I have ambiguity and uncertainty about most things and agnosticism about the religious truth claims of Buddhism.

          To be more specific. Various Buddhist traditions and teachers (including the Buddha himself) have made various truth claims (which I assume would fall under the “principle of sufficient Buddhism”?) and I am agnostic as to whether or not any of them are actually true. And by agnostic, I mean I want to hold open both the possibility that they (or at least some of them) are true, that there really is Pure Land or that nirvana is an actual state one can attain or that karma works the way they say it does, etc., etc., etc.; and I also hold open the possibility that it’s all hogwash. And, if I’m being honest, this is the same orientation I have toward most things, not just Buddhist truth claims, but claims more generally. (It’s entirely possible that the only thing I really believe in is gravity. [Yes. Sarcasm. (Sort of.)])

          Because of this general attitude, I have at times uncertainty about how to engage the world. Because of… other reasons? (this may be something only a trained professional could help me parse out)… I tend to fixate on the complexity of human behavior and cultures which leads to the ambiguity. I spend a lot of time time saying things like “Yes, but….” (e.g., yes, I agree with your argument/analysis/whatever, but how do we put that into practice?) I generally see the world as a pretty messy place not reducible to simple explanation and thus even complex theoretical analyses that try to explain the world often leave me wanting. Thus, ambiguity, uncertainty, and agnosticism. (This orientation causes me more trouble than it’s worth, probably.)

          To Tom’s comment: my pointing out that there are other kinds of Americans who aren’t white or English speaking is not my way of calling you a racist. The point of saying that there are other kinds of Buddhists in America than the white Buddha-Oil-Salesmen is to point out that there may be existing resources to draw from that we’re overlooking. This may be naive of me — worse, it may be wholly incorrect — but to my mind it’s still worth thinking about.

          To give you an example of what I mean (and I’m only focusing on one part of the following story for the purposes of this example, not the other problematic parts): over a decade ago, someone wrote an impassioned piece somewhere on the web (can’t recall now, it was on one of those “convert” Buddhist websites that probably doesn’t exist anymore) about how “American Zen” and other Buddhist groups were now wrestling with how to raise children. Since these communities were all started by converts, the author argued, they had no native sense of how to raise Buddhist children. So, he suggested, they should look to their Christian and Jewish co-religionists for programs, ideas, etc.

          This was astonishing to me! Not only did it imply that in the whole history of Buddhism in Asia there were never Buddhist children so we’d better look to other religions, it overlooked the century-plus history of Japanese American Buddhists who had been raising Buddhist children in America. If this author was serious about creating educational programs for Buddhist children, why look outside the tradition for those resources when they already exist within the tradition?

          Now, yes, one could say, “Hey, that guy’s a racist for not talking to Japanese Americans!” And maybe he is. I don’t know. I don’t care, frankly. The point I was making back then was simply that the thing he was looking for was already there in front him but he didn’t see it.

          Again, I really really doubt that the thing that’s going to counter the Buddha-Oil-Salesmen is already present in a Vietnamese temple in Connecticut. Also, obviously, if the “principle of sufficient Buddhism” is a problem, then the solution probably isn’t going to come from Buddhism. Also, I don’t actually know you’re looking for, if anything. All of the above was my lame attempt at explaining why I think it’s important to point out, when I get the chance, that there’s more out there than the mindfulness hucksters. May not be for me (or you), but perhaps someone. Can’t hurt to look.

          And I agree with your assessment of Shinran. Shinran and some Shin Buddhist philosophy has, to my mind, some really interesting things to say both to Buddhism generally and our current world — and I wish someone would bring that out more. I don’t think I’m the one to do that. But I’m sure someone is. Somewhere…

          • Actually, years ago, I was involved with a Shin Buddhist group and was asked to begin a sort of Buddhist Sunday school for the children of people who came to the regular weekly meeting—partly because I have children myself. The first thing we did was contact Japanese Shin Buddhist groups in America (in CA, actually) to see what they did. They were more than willing to share their course materials with us—but it turned out to be almost completely about teaching Japanese culture, and practically no mention of Buddhism at all, Shin or otherwise. So, we had to try to come up with our own course; what Christians do just didn’t seem to fit the goals of Buddhism at all.

            Interesting that you would pick gravity as the only thing you can commit to. I’m of the opinion that gravity, as a mysterious force operating at a distance, is probably not the best way to explain why two objects tend to move toward one another. I’ve read other explanations from theoretical physicists that seem more plausible. Maybe that’s one more thing it would be better to be agnostic about!

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