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Latest posts by Matthew O'Connell (see all)
- Modernity, Identity, and Contemporary (Non-) Buddhism - September 27, 2018
Moderator’s note: Many practitioners of Asian medicine and Asian-based health modalities are grappling with questions concerning the historical roots and cultural status of their disciplines today as never before. In response, Asian Medicine Zone is launching a new series of practitioner essays exploring how changing conceptions of “tradition” and “modernity” are impacting their practice and field in the 21st century (these are organized under the tag “tradition/modernity”). If you’re interested in contributing to this series, please email a short description of your proposed essay to the moderators. Here, we’re pleased to share our second offering in the series, which focuses on a reassessment of the therapeutic practices of mindfulness meditation and lifestyle coaching in light of recent scholarship and critiques of Buddhism.
I grew up firmly attached to my mother, a hippie and follower of the White Eagle Lodge, a self-described “Wisdom School for the New Age,” in the UK during the 1980s. By the time I reached adolescence, I had mediated, journeyed to power spots, been healed energetically and blessed by Indian Gurus, and taught all manner of transcendental spiritual truth.
Buddhism caught my interest in my early teens. After several exploratory years, I joined a Tibetan Buddhist group just after turning 19. Like many other young Brits in the 1990s, my relationship with Buddhism was informed by New Age ideals, unreflective romantic orientalism, a desire to experience mysticism and escape from materialism, and a warped view of Asian Buddhists as being in possession of something inherently special. Although I didn’t recognize it then, I was clearly a product of the historical and cultural influences of the time.
Coming to understand the significance my own cultural formation as a modern Buddhist-based practitioner, psychological counselor, and life coach – and then deciding how best to respond to this – has been a lengthy process. Over time, it has revolutionized how I understand, experience, and engage with my self, my work, and my practice, both personally and professionally.
The shift began when I first started to seriously question the cultural direction that the Western Buddhist world was heading. When I found that such inquiry was mostly met with resistance within Buddhist circles, I turned toward a wide range of scholarly and critical literatures – religious studies, Buddhist studies, cultural history, and postmodern theory – for answers. As I explored these materials, I found myself most powerfully drawn to the question of how subjectivity and selfhood in contemporary Western Buddhism is developed and maintained.
Diving deeper into this inquiry eventually led to the conclusion that the ideas and practices that dominate Western convert Buddhist communities help shape and support identities that conform to the ideological super-structure of the larger society. Seeing this process of socially conformist identity formation more clearly shifted my personal identity as a Buddhist-based spiritual practitioner. At the same time, it generated ethical tensions for me in my professional work as a counselor and life coach who utilizes Buddhist-based to including mindfulness and meditation. As I came to see such practices as embedded in a cultural matrix that I found problematic, the question of how to resituate the therapeutic encounter in an alternative framework of meaning became paramount.
Currently, I am exploring whether a “metamodern turn” might help resolve the philosophical and practical tensions that run between more traditional Buddhism, modern Buddhism, and the relatively unexplored terrain of post-modern Buddhism. Most pivotally, I am interested in whether some sort of metamodern reframing might serve to reinvigorate the second purpose that Buddhism has historically served: that is, the alleviation of suffering through the reduction of ignorance.
During my teens and early 20s, it was perfectly normal for me and my companions to carry out traditional deity practice in a Gompa one weekend and study with a New Age teacher from the States the next. We got high on the positive vibes in the process. Powerful feelings were sought, as well as mystical insights and revelatory truths.
Although I would spend time with other Buddhist traditions such as Goenka’s Vispassana and Soto Zen, Tibetan Buddhism held the greatest appeal. I spent 15 years following the Gelugpa and Kagyu traditions intensely, as well as a neo-Shamanic group from the States on the side. During that period, I also trained as a Person-Centered Counselor, Life Coach, and Core Shamanic Counselor. All of these activities were connected by a sense of meaning and purpose that would be best defined as spiritual and salvational.
The cracks that would eventually emerge in this identity came from my father’s influence. He was a Marxist, an intellectual and history buff, and an avowed atheist. My parents had divorced when I was one. Weekend visits to Dad’s home involved him taking me along to political protests whilst boring me with the truths of anti-capitalism. But his imprinting had an important, if delayed effect.
As Tibetan Buddhist groups began to grow in the UK and the States, many appeared to be moving towards commercialization. At the same time, many New Age teachers were appropriating aspects of Buddhism. Fake Lamas and Gurus were discrediting themselves and their groups through inappropriate behavior. Their money-making was becoming grosser and more evident. My paternal history meant that I could not help but notice this emerging alignment with capitalist goals.
These observations began to chip away at my romantic readings of Buddhism and the New Age. Eventually, I realized that the spiritual practices and groups I had been engaged with were not separate from the wider society, as I had believed. It seems ridiculous to say now, but I had previously seen the meditation cushion, sweat lodge, or retreat center as direct routes for escaping from the illusory material world and entering into something authentic, powerful, and more real.
By the early 2000s, I had stopped frequenting New Age teachers entirely. As the decade rolled on, I began to slowly withdraw from Tibetan Buddhist groups, while only intermittently engaging with others. Eventually, I began working with a European Shingon teacher who I discovered via the “Buddhist Geeks” podcast.
With the benefit of hindsight, I realized that I had come to Buddhism for a variety of reasons, many of which were simply romantic. Some, however, were less problematic. In particular, I was fascinated by the possibility of learning to better understand and address my own ignorance, and its general role in creating suffering. My pursuit of this foundationally Buddhist aspiration, however, took a nontraditional route.
Modernism, Texts and Disruption
The first years I spent within traditional Buddhist convert groups in the UK (mainly Tibetan but also Southeast Asian and Japanese) had been marked by a lack of access to other voices that resonated with my personal concerns. I searched for, but failed to find some sort of informed, intelligent, and critical engagement with Buddhism as it was developing in the West. It seemed that my intuitions and observations were mine alone. This increasingly distanced me from Buddhist groups, as well as the materials they relied on to validate their practices.
Were it not for the Internet, which enabled me to engage with Buddhism more critically, I would likely have abandoned it all together. Instead, I started exploring relevant academic literatures and related work online. Initially, I focused on academic books that crossed over to a general audience. Notable titles included Donald S. Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La; David Loy’s The Great Awakening: a Social Theory and Non-Duality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy; Geofffrey Samuel’s Civilised Shaman; and Sam Van Sheik’s, Tibet: A History. I also perused books, articles, and podcasts by religious studies scholars such as Rita Gross and John D. Dunne, as well as non-academic writers and thinkers including Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock.
Scholarly works that contextualized modern Buddhism, neo-shamanism, and other spiritual practices in an overarching cultural-historical framework enabled me to see how my own private, personal practice was actually, in great part, the product of Western history and the forces of modernity. David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism was particularly pivotal in this regard. For me, reading this and other texts was a form of practice, as enlightening as any experience I’d had sitting on a meditation cushion or in retreat. Engaging with them burst my ideological bubble and challenged many of my remaining beliefs about Buddhism. It disrupted my sense of what it meant to be a Buddhist and spiritual person, and changed my clinical practice.
By and large, I felt quite alone in this process. As far as I could see, there were no Buddhist teachers offering signposts for where to go next. All were firmly committed to the narratives of their traditions, or uncritically embedded in Buddhist Modernism. The prioritization of unreflectively visceral “experience” from teachers and practitioners alike seemed to be part of a more general anti-intellectualism in Dharma centers. Among those who had engaged with works detailing the historical particularity of modern Buddhism, the dominant reactions were either: 1) defending their own particular tradition, which was seen as not having fallen for such delusion; 2) rejecting Buddhism as a whole; or 3) searching for a more “authentic” form of Buddhism.
For me, no such options were available. I wanted to engage critically with contemporary Buddhism, but not abandon it altogether.
At this point, I wondered if a further possibility existed: Perhaps some sort of Buddhist postmodern turn? I had found the work of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and other precursors of postmodern philosophy helpful in attempting to make sense of being and embodied practice from a non-Buddhist viewpoint. Now, I was motivated to explore postmodern theory more thoroughly in light of my shifting understanding of contemporary Western Buddhism and its relationship to modernity, identity, and culture.
Here again, having access to the Internet proved invaluable in terms of researching and accessing relevant materials. That said, finding direct connections between Buddhism and postmodern thought was not easy. By and large, I continued to grapple with the implications of my ongoing intellectual explorations for my Buddhist-based identity, thought, work, and practice on my own.
Gaining an understanding of the historical formation of Western Buddhism led me to radically rethink my relationship with contemporary Western spirituality as a whole. I also became deeply uncomfortable with how I used to understand therapy and my role as a therapist. I realized that I had long held a salvational vision of therapy, and had been transmitting the myths of the Buddhist modernist project unwittingly.
I recognized that Buddhist groups have a tendency to form particular types of identities whilst inculcating specific codes of behavior, linguistic habits, and taboo areas of discussion. I also saw that these directives were almost never made explicit. If brought up in discussion, they evoked defensiveness and avoidance on the part of students and teachers alike. I came to view this phenomenon as intimately related to the creation of an ideologically shaped Buddhist identity.
I began to frame meditation within different conceptual and perceptual frames. I stopped using Western Buddhist jargon and spiritual tropes. I came to believe that recognizing the role of modernity in forming Western Buddhism and shaping the experiences, beliefs, practices, and concepts of its practitioners was itself a powerful form of practice. Moreover, I now saw it as necessary one if Western Buddhism is to act as a genuinely liberating force.
Western Buddhist, being blind to its own influences, does not see that the language and practices of Buddhist modernism are part of an ideological apparatus that creates subjects within a discourse of pseudo-liberation. In fact, Buddhism is incapable of providing an adequate response to the complexities and implications of modernity on its own. This should not be surprising, as Buddhism was never designed for such a purpose. Tools from the Western intellectual tradition are required to respond to the challenges that Buddhist modernism presents, both for individuals and for those groups committed to a therapeutic approach to practice.
Uncovering the historical roots and cultural formation of modern Buddhism within one’s own work, life, and practice can be liberating and transformative. It can also be highly disruptive and difficult to navigate. Within Buddhist discourse, concepts such as Enlightenment, the Bodhisattva, and the Four Noble Truths act as grand narratives. In contradiction to the Buddhist notion of no-self, they provide a solid foundation for the creation of religious or spiritual identities.
Challenging the solidity of such perceived final truths by means of cultural history and postmodern theory destabilizes sustaining ideological norms. This undermines not only the certainty of dependable, pre-existing identities, but also the pay-offs that are implicit in the promise of an end to suffering, awakening, or whatever else is currently on offer in Dharma halls or therapeutic encounters.
The problem is that while subjectivity comes under attack in the work of postmodern thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault, postmodern theory offers no real replacement for the modernist subject. The resulting lacuna is particularly problematic for the spiritually inclined, who are drawn to practices such as Buddhism. Postmodernism provides no clear basis for new models of selfhood that are sufficiently robust to sustain any sort of meaningful practice.
It’s no surprise that many Buddhists resist exploring the more potent insights of postmodernism. They rightly intuit that it conflicts the therapeutic, religious, and/or mystical aspirations that most commonly motivate engagement with Buddhism in the first place. Glynn (2002) goes as far as saying that subjectivity is “denatured” by postmodern thought and thus incapable of “self-actualization.” To the extent this is true (and I think it essentially is), it also undercuts the commonly made marriage between Buddhism and self-help/self-development.
As a therapist utilizing Buddhist tools and concepts, this necessarily presents a challenge. I don’t want to encourage salvational fantasies by directing clients deeper into a culture that promulgates them via the language of True Nature, Buddha Nature, Awakened One, and so on. On the other hand, if the carrot of enlightenment is not held out, whether explicitly or implicitly, what final vision of the individual is to be held? What is the purpose of engaging in this, or any other sort of therapeutic and/or spiritual practice?
Undermining the modernist project presents a profound challenge to Buddhist-based clinical practice. It raises questions about the use of meditation to bolster well-being, and as a tool for the development of a psychologically robust individual. Ethically, it raises questions about the purposes that Buddhist practices are being put, and their true compatibility with the liberationist aims found in much traditional Buddhism.
I continued to explore relevant work on the Internet as such questions simmered. Eventually, I discovered the Speculative non-Buddhism (SNB) website, which had been founded in 2011 by Glenn Wallis, a former professor of religion at the University of Georgia. SNB provided precisely the sort of critical engagement with Western Buddhism, informed by a vast array of modern and postmodern theory, that I’d long been looking for. My discovery of this online hub of critical thought was extremely important for my developing relationship with Buddhism. It also further disrupted whatever certainties I had formerly held around the role of therapist.
My initial encounter with SNB was marked by reading Tom Pepper’s 2001 essay, Buddhist Anti-Intellectualism, which hit me like an intellectual bomb. Pepper’s critique of Buddhism went well beyond anything I had heard before. His description of how Dharma centers in the West resisted Western philosophy and engaged in “spiritual snobbery” captured my own sentiments, and reinvigorated my relationship with Buddhism as a site of critique.
Pepper argues that Western Buddhism’s anti-intellectualism is rooted in and nourished by its over-focus on “experience,” which effectively serves as a retreat from thought. While this is an understandable “reaction to the desolate landscape of post-modern thought,” Pepper argues “a more useful . . . response is to escape up, into the limits of philosophical rigor.”
Wallis’s experimental text, Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism (2013), leveraged another pivotal turn in my evolving relationship with Buddhism and clinical practice. This work develops a heuristic that combines a variety of thinking tools, many of which come from Continental philosophy. Here, Wallis’s core influence is the work of François Laurelle and his concept of “non-philosophy.” By adapting it to create the concept of “non-Buddhism,” Wallis generated what is perhaps the most intriguing critique of Buddhism to emerge in this century.
Non-philosophy is not a postmodernist concept per se. Rather, it emerges from an attempt to rethink philosophy, drawing on ideas found in Derrida and Heidegger. Laruelle posits a number of relatively simple concepts, but presents them in very complex ways. In part, this is because he is attempting to build a conversation about philosophy that does not fall into the “decisional matrix” that he identifies as being at the heart of all philosophical theory and practice.
Laurelle’s foundational concept is what he defines as decision: an unconditional, non-reflexive commitment to an ideology or thought-world. Laurelle notes that out of decision the world becomes the subject of philosophy, in the sense that the world is remade in the image of said philosophy through a dialectical splitting of the world, with the philosopher confusing the philosophizing image of the world for the world itself.
In transferring this concept to Buddhism, Wallis defines decision as a commitment to Buddhism as the source of truth. Buddhism provides a totalizing means of understanding the world and our selves in it, one that encompasses the whole person and their most intimate spaces of selfhood. Buddhist metaphysics provides a lens through which the world is seen and experienced. Despite Buddhist teachers’ claims to the contrary, it provides a perceptual filer. This is an important insight as it means that descriptions of experience within Buddhism are in part ideological and not pure, perfect reflections of reality.
While drawing on postmodern thought and evidencing an acute awareness of the limits of modernity, Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism does not embrace postmodern irony. True, it is playful and creative in its style, mirroring much of the rhetorical strategy of postmodern thinkers. But hidden within this ostensibly destructive prose is an aspiration for Buddhism to do more. There is a clear desire, dare I say hope, to find a way forward that incorporates relevant insights across ideational and geographical boundaries, and historical and cultural phases. Wallis describes today’s unprecedented opportunity to draw from this vast array as “the great feast of knowledge.”
Just as non-philosophy drags philosophy out of its own rarified sphere, robbing it of its specialness in the process, so does non-Buddhism demand that Buddhism test out its axiomatic claims in the world, beyond the gates of Buddhist ideology. This requires a meeting of minds across intellectual boundaries, a cross-cultural, cross-discipline explorative endeavor.
Both Laruelle’s and Wallis’ work is radically democratic in that it seeks to liberate the subject from its dependency upon any totalizing system. Adapting non-philosophy to the practice of non-Buddhism supplies a creative ground for a democratized exploration of practices and thought beyond the rules, taboos and persuasive rhetoric of lineage holders and orthodoxy.
I want to make clear that I am not arguing for the superiority of such an approach. I would simply argue that Wallis provides a novel Dharma door through his work on Buddhism by means of Laurellian thought. Seeing Buddhism as culture through the lens of non-philosophy, which itself is informed by and in conversation with the Western intellectual tradition, enables the development of form of meta-knowledge that remains tethered to Buddhist insights while dismantling Buddhist orthodoxies.
Speculative non-Buddhism provided a vast array of conceptual tools for thinking about my coaching business and how it might best serve people who found mainstream Buddhism problematic and didn’t want to suspend their critical thinking skills at the Gompa door, but had no sense of where to go next. Increasingly, my clinical work specialized in critically engaging with Buddhist materials in conjunction with a similarly critical utilization concepts and practices associated with self-help, change work, maturation, personal development, waking up, gaining insight, training the mind, working with the body, and becoming more intellectually capable.
Rather than seeing meditation as a means of connecting to the true nature of things, I viewed it one tool among others for grappling with the fact that ideological filters and decisional matrices necessarily structure and influence our understanding and experience. This perspective allowed me to reframe the therapeutic relationship as a creative dialog that allowed for a conceptual reframing not only of Buddhism, but also of the person engaging with practices such as mindfulness.
In this sense, the Buddhist-based tool of mindfulness practice becomes a means of synergistically exploring and addressing the shared nature of subjectivity and the ideological currents that run through all spiritual practices. Therapy provides a dynamic space for thinking and experiencing beyond the decisional matrix of a given Buddhist tradition, as well as the overall cultural climate and its ideological thrust. If well realized, this process is not a means of liberation per se, but rather an act of liberation from the delusion of transcendence: In other words, a practice of immanence.
Any system of thought and practice can steer its practitioners into a decisional matrix, and prescriptive forms of being and perceiving. From this perspective, a counseling intervention can be put into the service of liberating a client from the decisional matrix (e.g., traditional Tibetan Buddhism), whilst rendering the materials of Buddhism available as democratized resources that cease to hail the practitioner into conformist identities. This supports the client/practitioner in exiting the modernist-self and moving towards thought and insight that draw from the wider knowledge community. It offers an alternative to the more common subjective frames that encourage either retreating into pre-modernist desires and irrationality, or spinning off into postmodern cynicism and fragmentation.
Recently, I’ve begun exploring the emerging body of work on “metamodernism” as a means of further developing and articulating my understanding of Western Buddhism(s), the purposes that meditation and mindfulness can serve, and the therapeutic act.
Metamodernism is one among many labels that attempt to describe emergent cultural shifts that are moving beyond postmodernity in the arts and culture more widely. Vermeulen & Van den Akker and Abramson characterized it as capturing the desire to resolve the conflict between modernity and postmodernity. As a term, it has begun to appear tentatively in academic discourse, but is very much in its infancy and may never truly take off as a new marker for the current cultural zeitgeist. Nonetheless, its emergence is evidence of the need to respond to the diminished cultural status of postmodern theory, which is increasingly understood to have a very limited ability to respond helpfully to either our current cultural and artistic climate, or the religious and therapeutic landscape we inhabit.
Metamodernism can be understood in a variety of ways. Vermeulen & Van den Akker describe it as a structure of feeling incorporating principles of multiplicity and paradox, as well as the loss of distance. Abramson sees metamodernism as the cultural milieu of the internet age, with characteristics such as collaboration and simultaneity that mirror aspects of internet culture.
In terms of the individual, metamodernism offers a creative response to the certainties of modernity, which are no longer psychologically compelling, and the fragmented postmodern self, which undercuts purpose and meaning. Metamodernism recognizes that if the nature of the self is fluid, it still requires stable foundations in history. In contrast to postmodernism, there is a preference for the reconstruction and realignment of cultural resources, rather than purely deconstructive relationship with them.
I believe that a metamodern paradigm might provide a means for religions to refind themselves in an appropriate relationship with the contemporary world due to its embrace of multiplicity and paradox. This is the framework that I have adopted in my therapeutic role with regard to both teaching meditation and reconfiguring spiritual concepts in interrelationship with a larger ecology of ideas, theories, and practices. Resources and relationships that I am particularly drawn to include Western psychotherapy and self-actualization, Shamanistic worldviews and their compatibility with process-relational ontology, and Buddhist concepts of emptiness, Buddha nature, and interdependence.
All these concepts and many more can be explored critically within different systems of thought, and applied as practices within each framework for different ends. This encompassing of possibilities rooted in the material world of historic contingency and finitude reinvigorates the field of spirituality in terms of thought and practice without leaving aside intellectual engagement.
In this context, a practice like meditation can serve multiple ends. Many people who come to my coaching practice would like to be able to embrace the irrational aspects of ceremony or deeper meditational insight without having to sign on to a preset belief system or identity. Exploring the complexity of selfhood within the context of the therapeutic relationship enables us to better understand and experience how we are individuals and collectively formed beings that are finite and rooted in history. We also gain better insight into how we are enmeshed in both individual and collective forms of ignorance, suffering and selfhood. Together, we unpack each line of inquiry that arises while drawing on a wide variety of materials and practices.
Many of my clients might be loosely defined as a new category of practitioner, one that comes after that of “spiritual-but-not-religious.” They are basically secular. Yet, they find the rationalism, empiricism, and scientism of both atheism and secular Buddhism to be less than satisfying. And, they understand that all of these “-isms” are products of modernity. They desire a spiritual path of sorts. But, they want to remain fully aware of the problems of both religion and spirituality. They recognize that an affective practice is needed and that the term “spirituality” serves signify something of value. At the same time, they recognize that it is bogged down by a great deal of baggage.
It could be said that we carry within us the seeds and consequences of both premodernity, modernity and postmodernity. Banishing the cultural legacy associated with one or more of these epochs can be seen as a form of denial, or an ostracism in which part of our shared selfhood is bypassed or alienated. The macro-cultural, historical phases that each of these terms designates is part of our shared human selves and history. They reference the diverse array of ideas, practices, and opportunities available as our identities and experiences of self become more fluid, yet necessarily remain rooted in our material existence and indebted to our collective past.
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Wallis, Glenn. “16. On non-Buddhism.” Interview by Matthew O’Connell on September 16, 2016. Imperfect Buddha Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/post-traditional-buddhism/92-imperfect-buddha-podcast-glenn-wallis-on-non-buddhismpart-1
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