Insight through questioning: assumptions & buddhemes
To question is to disrupt. To challenge what is deemed as normal is to initiate dissention. Questioning pre-established positions, assumed knowledge and social constructs with questions that are both personally relevant and timely is one of the central elements of a fresh and independent engagement. Owen Flannigan in his The Bodhisattava’s Brain: Naturalising Buddhism has put together an insightful and refreshing take on Buddhism, which resonates in part with the Post-Traditional Buddhism experiment. Flannigan asks questions of Buddhism utilizing his background in naturalism that are not pro-Buddhist and that do not have the usual ‘loaded dice’ that Glenn Wallis speaks of over at his rambunctious blog. They take the form of the sorts of questions that I myself have posed, and they ask Buddhism to stand up to its own self-claims. That such an approach acts on Buddhism, rather than passively receive tradition as a river of prior knowing and expertise, is something that I believe needs to constitute a modern approach to any critical engagement with learning and knowledge, and in the case of Buddhism, practice. The notion of acting on and being acted on are central to a phenomenological reading of meditation as a radical technology and such an approach can be taken to Glenn Wallis’ rather revolutionary heuristic seeing it as a set of tools for ridding seasoned Buddhists of their shared assumptions through destabilising certainties and reintroducing them to the concept of impermanence as a reflection on existence, rather than as received wisdom.
To Peel Away
Destabilising questions can produce an immense number of responses from individuals. They can resonate, invoke dissonance, apathy, curiosity, fear, further questioning, doubt, conflict, friction, dismay, aggression, self-defence, stubborn adherence, and more. One of the most useful functions, when asked at the right moment, is to shake the individual out of stupor and force a confrontation and awareness of assumptions held: to peel away what is held as sacred as simply that way.
In reviewing Wallis’ heuristic, I was struck by how potent many of its elements are and how potentially disruptive they can be of the status quo, as established by the social interplay of many western Buddhist organisations. Because of this, I have decided to extrapolate and revisit some of them here, simplify to some degree their wording and expand on how they might be useful to a Buddhist who is seeking to see through the delusional, self-referential traps that plague all socially constructed and normalised institutional environments. It soon becomes obvious that they do not limit themselves to Buddhism, emerging instead as powerful thinking and questioning tools for penetrating our assumptions in any area, any field of activity and thought that seduces and moulds and that carrying a heavy, numbing, ideological charge.
In this initial post, I will explore two of the elements of the heuristic with the intent to come back to a further exploration of other elements in future posts. This is best seen as an initial, incomplete and creative exploration. Hopefully it will inspire some further consideration of the practical application and consequences of bringing insights to bear on one’s personal relationship with Buddhism. I will attempt to furnish pertinent questions out of the heuristic that could be useful to a modern day seeker of alternative perspectives.
One area that requires attention in laying out these steps is the attempt to name what they challenge and give form to; the often hidden gains made by those who invest in them. Buddhism’s recognition of the self, of the phantom-I, as at the root of our personal confusion and dissatisfaction is of paramount importance, but is wildly interpreted in Buddhism in a manner that has led to all sorts of delusional quests. To lose the self is often painted as the goal, but it is fallacious to believe it is possible and contemporary understanding of the nature of the self and personality indicate quite clearly that a strong sense of self is required for an individual to operate in the world. To understand the nature of the self, how we experience it, act on it and are imprisoned by it is a much more interesting invitation perhaps. As for Buddhism, what I have argued for elsewhere is that it does not eradicate the self, even when it claims to want to do so, but instead quite clearly creates a new self, a new ‘I’, a Buddhist self that needs to resist disruption and confrontation in order to stabilise and maintain itself.
In part we might see the application of the heuristic elements as concomitant with Tom Pepper’s work at the Non + X Journal on the collective self, the real, the symbolic and the imaginary, as championed by Lacan and Zizek. To address the self deeply and honestly is to address the collective nature of being, identity and our embeddedness in it and as far as I can tell, Buddhism fail to see clearly the implications of the collective dimension of self, often painting it in a very new-age manner, as the oneness, the inseparability, our true home. Often spiritual practitioners, not just Buddhists of course, are unable to recognise how we exist as pillars for existing ideological structures when we opt for such operational blindness. A warped view of oneness as bliss necessitates ignoring the immense injustice that is enacted daily all over the globe. To access that bliss as the goal of practice is to block out the reality of existence in its more complete manifestation. It is ultimately narcissistic. To take it as a step in the phenomenon of an exploration of shifting the boundaries between self and other would be wise, but what often happens instead is that the bliss, the oneness is painted as the goal and there people remain, sitting in shit as Adam Miller once wrote.
Taken as tools, Wallis’s heuristic may provide shearing insight into a person’s identification with any ideological structure that lends itself to manipulative self-referential and sustaining activity and its subsequent blindness. The question naturally emerges once more: what’s next?The best answer might be to think for yourself.
The Heuristic Elements
To new readers it would be worthwhile investigating the heuristic here. It is a model of sorts, a set of working tools for looking at Buddhism anew. He has drawn many conclusions of his own through its construction and application, but you can make up your own mind and pick and choose from the critical tools as you see fit. Although he calls for rack and ruin, I personally have less interest in such a charged attack. Although I appreciate his work and benefit from it, my approach to Buddhism is not at all aggressive. Possibly in great disagreement with is original intent, I take his work as providing a sort of framework for understanding a whole set of traps that a practitioner of Buddhism may fall into and as providing a means for peeling away their effect. What you do next, is up to you of course.
Let’s start with Buddhemes
Basically speaking, a meme is a word that has immense currency in popular culture. It often expresses key cultural information, primarily through excessive repetition and adoption by key figures. Memes can also be utilised as symbolically charged rhetorical devises. They usually invoke a special, or distinctive feeling. Within Buddhism there are Buddhemes of course, which are a pretty darned good topic to begin with for anyone breaking from the ranks of Buddhism as sole answer to life’s troubles.
Such a person would do well to begin with a thorough examination of Buddhism’s buzz words and how they have been transmitted to the individual by the school of Buddhism followed and the extra charge they carry. Such words, when received through the river of the all-knowing tradition often act as anchoring points for the Buddhist display of self. The words are coated in a special power that functions to evoke a certain feeling, often coupled with self-satisfaction and a sense of conclusiveness that cements a sense of belonging to the group of ‘those who know’. To recognise such ideologically charged linguistic symbols and their tendency to entrap is essential in order to break through to independent thought and gain enough distance from the Buddha sphere to see what is taking place. Our association with such symbols should ideally be picked apart in order to uncover the hidden gain, which inevitably serves as the driving force for our continued reliance on buzz words to cement our position. Examples of such gains include the buzz itself, a sense of certainty, the assuredness of position and a cementing of a Buddhist identity. Buddhemes of note include; meditation, compassion, wisdom, suffering, dharma, lama, roshi, guru, master, practice, vajrayana, and the names of traditions and the prominent figures in them. These act as charged symbols which are shared amongst fellow Buddhists as key identity triggers that solidify and strengthen the collective, shared dimensions of self identity. They also act as social markers and often work to illustrate social standing within a Buddhist social club (sangha). What’s wrong with that you might ask. Honestly, if you are happy, who am I to judge. If you are dissatisfied though, if you have a nagging sense that something is amiss, if you are an independent thinker who believes in such qualities as autonomy and the freedom to question, you may find that dissonance accompanies your association into the network of buddhemes.
As stated, phenomenologically speaking, we might question what our experience in stating such terms is: How do they resonate within me? How do they solidify feelings of allegiance? How do they affirm my position? How do they stabilise a given set of feelings? Since feeling is often reciprocal, what distinction can be observed between the resounding affirmation that emerges in sharing buddhemes with those in the know, and then those who are hostile, unsympathetic, or simply disinterested?
Disruption would demand that we recognise consistencies in these answers and then work to undermine such stability by further questioning, perhaps asking,: What if what I have been told were not so? What is this feeling really pointing to? What is the underlying meaning? What personal need is being met by casting these buddhemes into social spaces? How do I use them in my self-talk to solidify my conceptual view of the world?
Another approach would be to find alternatives that do not rely on Buddhist terminology, or assumptions about preconditioned knowing. Rephrasing is useful, finding English language alternatives to usually exotic and charged Asian terminology is helpful too, and essential to the intelligent individual, but I honestly consider it more powerful to explore how such buddhemes, such charged terminology, can erect and sustain a new construct of self and keep us from touching the void that exist at the edge of our knowing, being and experiencing, which is in a sense the most useful ideological possibility within Buddhism concerning knowledge: emptiness, voidness, nothingness, meaninglessness, the edge of being.
Charisma and Charism
With the same root as charisma, charism refers to the possession of extraordinary powers. To devitalise is to weaken or rob of strength and these two concepts combine for the second heuristic element considered here. The devitalisation of charism clearly relates to buddhemes and through them it is commonly manifested and stabilised as they have that function of invoking feelings and special categories of being. To undermine the superlative nature of Buddhist terminology ought to lead to the same process taking place with Buddhism’s claims, and Buddhism’s teachers, but this would require sufficient confidence and intellectual autonomy in the individual. The lack of critical mental skills and the ever continuous need to belong convinces even the seemingly stoic individual to hand over their autonomy for the comfort of certainty. The charism of leaders, teachers, founders and the Buddha himself, act on individuals and convince them that there is hidden power and magic bestowed upon the rarefied individuals that lead the flock. The all to fallible human is lost in the blinding light of specialness and followers are expected to offer their sacrifices up to the sun god or goddess. This may seem a hyperbolic description, but the ritual nature of interaction between leader and follower cannot help but carry on the long line of hero worship that has been part of human culture for millennia. It is more subdued, constrained, distorted and less obvious, but the essence of the game is the same whenever it is unconscious and driven by impulsive attraction, need and desire for the mystical and powerful other to provide what is missing for the individual.
To work on what seduces is to be break down the original appeal of Buddhism and this is often where the real problem really lies. This obviously undermines many folks original reason for coming to Buddhism, which far from being the search for freedom and the loss of the phantom-I, is often about belonging and feeling better in a world of immense instability and frustration. To join the Buddhist club is to find an answer to the questions of being. In a way, we are confronted with the question of what is left when you take away Buddhism’s lustre? This is the great process of disillusionment. Some might describe this as a necessary step in the maturation process of the adult, who seeks certainty from someone, somewhere, and yet will inevitably be confronted with the need to stand alone, think for himself and find his own answers, even if they echo, which they most likely will, the insights gained by other brave people throughout time.
To remain with the carcass of Buddhism, washed up on the shore of the western intellectual tradition may be disappointing for most. At some point it has to end, to be passed over for a better project. To this end I will attempt in the next post to explore further aspects of the heuristic and offer up a reflection on the nature of being shaken by experience and the use of meditative practice and insight driven questions to continue with the work that Buddhism seems to have promised, but more often than not, failed to deliver on: to question our existence, to find greater presence and autonomy in the experiences of our lives. To step foot outside the door of sufficiency and remain open, curious and amazed by the world is an attractive plan B for those fed up with chasing the dream of happy-ever-after that all religions, Buddhism included, sell.