Is Buddhism True: Slouching toward a review, 2: Scholastic as spirit medium

In attempting to resolve the puzzle (or is it muddle) of whether “not-self means no self” (ch. 5) Wright engages in the scholastic bad faith so common in religion. Like any good nineteenth century spiritual medium, he not only makes the dead speak, but makes them answer our questions. (“Uncle Wally, now that you’ve crossed over to the other side, please tell us where you hid the box of Krugerrands?”) And often the spirits of the dead give answers so ambiguous as to be unfalsifiable.

Wright largely ignores the realities of the history of the textual tradition, talking instead about “what the Buddha said.”

In many casual usages, such expressions are simply convenient shorthand for “I was told by my teacher that what s/he says is backed up by the authority of the Awakened One.” Depending on how the teacher deploys the power of his/her authority that follows from such a claim, this may be relatively harmless—though while some/many teachers are well-intended, there have been abuses in Buddhism as in any other religious tradition. In most cases, however, such assertions are simply ordinary, daily, run of the mill instances of religious bad faith—deferring responsibility for what one is saying by claiming it comes from a source which not only should not be questioned, but cannot be questioned because absent.

And indeed many people have been taught that to think and question in terms of sources is oh so tiresome, and not for the ordinary person. (Aside for religious studies wonks: One of the truly revolutionary aspects of Luther is the insistence that ordinary believers grapple with the issues of textuality—a revolution betrayed by the Biblical literalism fostered by fundamentalists in defense of their power and authority from “the Higher Criticism.”) Or perhaps it is simply a matter of not being rude and asking awkward questions like “How do you know that this meditation is effective? And what do you mean by effective anyway?”

Since the “historical” Buddha has been dead for two and a half millennia, and we are making up an image of the figure of the Buddha to talk about for our own purposes, we should perhaps refer not to “the Buddha” but to “the Ghost” (capitalizing out of pious respect). The historical process, speaking very loosely and only for the purposes of our critique here, looks something like this:

• (we imagine that) the Ghost said something (probably actually in Magadhi, not Pāli)

• (we imagine that) followers repeated what they’d heard to each other, some of them claiming to have directly heard and claiming the consequent authority and power of that “direct transmission” (itself of course a social construct)

• after a couple of centuries or so, these stories began to be written down, and somewhere along the way these recollections got expressed in other vernaculars as well

• after probably several more centuries, these writings began to be systematically collected and edited (nota bene: to edit also means to revise), and at this point rendered into “church languages” of (Buddhist Hybrid) Sanskrit and Pāli

• after many more centuries, those writings are “discovered” by Europeans, who with varying levels of skill and resources set about (re-)editing and (re-)translating them (nota bene: to translate also means to reconfigure in relation to one’s existing ideas, such as nineteenth century religious and psychological preconceptions in our case here)

• today we have a vast array of texts, some in multiple translations, to read and ponder over, and if we think that those texts might answer questions that we have, even ones arising from reading those texts, then there are three possible strategies (maybe more, but I can only think of three right now):

strategy one: declare one text (like maybe the Satipatṭhāna sutta) , or maybe one canon (like maybe the Pāli) as true/authoritative/original/authentic/pure, and that all others are to be ignored, discounted, considered lies and later creations (later than what?), and maybe burnt if you can get the patronage of some king or despot

strategy two: apply one’s present skills, preconceptions, and reasoning in order to determine “what the Ghost really said”; this allows you to claim the authority of the Ghost for what you have yourself constructed

strategy three: apply one’s present skills, preconceptions, and reasoning to determine what various texts say that is relevant to the question one is asking; this however only allows one to say this text says this, that text says that, this other text says this other thing; this one and that one make sense to me, but the other one doesn’t, so what I now think in light of all that is…

Note the centrality of “the question one is asking” in all of this—it is what is motivating, and needs to be seen as implicating a vast number of presumptions and preconceptions. Decent scholarship requires reflection on the presumptions and preconceptions, and how they are influencing one’s answers. Hence the importance of a clear question.

In lieu of a citation: the idea of the Ghost derives from Glenn Wallis’s unpublished thoughts on the Buddha as a literary trope, or convenient fall guy–my words, not Glenn’s.




Is Buddhism True? Slouching toward a review, 1: Subtraction & Bad Faith

Started this batch of notes just when Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment (Simon and Schuster, 2017) arrived in the mail—and now suddenly it’s more than halfway through 2018. Other stuff, like Language in the Buddhist Tantra of Japan, got in the way, but I’m now continuing to make notes…. Wright’s work seems to be an almost archetypal instance of secular Buddhism, and therefore reflecting on it seems to be a useful exercise.

Let me first therefore say that I am sympathetic when the author expresses the goal of his argument, saying “Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important” (xii). It is the urgent importance of Buddhist thought as a potential solvent that also makes critiquing Wright’s formulations a useful exercise.

Subtraction as bad faith

Even before describing his goal, however, he provides a brief summary of his “subtractive” method:

I’m not talking about the “supernatural” or more exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism–reincarnation, for example–but rather about the naturalistic parts: ideas that fall squarely within modern psychology and philosophy (xi).

This demonstrates a substractive strategy something like:

Buddhism as a whole – superstition/cultural accretions/exotic metaphysics = core/true/essential/denatured/original/pure Buddhism

Such a strategy is all too often convincing because the remainder matches so neatly the understandings of the audience. However, it is an act of bad faith for two reasons:

first, the pristine appearance of the remainder conceals the fact that it is just as much a cultural construct as any other version of Buddhism, despite now claiming the authority of being what the Buddha really meant—this is the deferral of authority that is central to bad faith, turning what the author thinks into what the Buddha says

second, it is a decision as to what is superstition, exotic metaphysics, or merely cultural accretion–these are not neutral categories, but rather ones that have their own cultural history and content, often unconsciously imperial and informed by white privilege (what we believe is religion, what they believe is superstition); naturalizing those contents as unproblematically superstition or mere cultural accretion obscures the role of the author in determining what should be deleted

thus these categories allow the author to take what he wants, and leave behind what he doesn’t, and the formula should therefore be written as:

Buddhism as a whole – what I don’t like = Buddhism I do like.

But the rhetoric cloaking the decisions involved give the authority of true/original/pure/authentic to what remains after the subtraction.

We should note that the process is no different from those subtractive practices of those who claim that the remainder has the status of being “the direct expression of an awakened being.”

So much bad faith, so little time.

Note: the idea of a subtractive method is borrowed/adapted from Charles Taylor who uses it in his A Secular Age.


Language in the Buddhist Tantra of Japan: Indic Roots of Mantra


I’m very happy to announce that Language in the Buddhist Tantra of Japan is now a thing. Published by Bloomsbury Academic (here). This is a project that has stretched across three decades, from the early 90s to last year. My thanks to my friends and colleagues who have encouraged me during that time, and to all those who made it possible for me to devote time to reworking all that material into this present form.

From the website:

About Language in the Buddhist Tantra of Japan

Language in the Buddhist Tantra of Japan dismantles the preconception that Buddhism is a religion of mystical silence, arguing that language is in fact central to the Buddhist tradition. By examining the use of ‘extraordinary language’—evocations calling on the power of the Buddha—in Japanese Buddhist Tantra, Richard K. Payne shows that such language was not simply cultural baggage carried by Buddhist practitioners from South to East Asia. Rather, such language was a key element in the propagation of new forms of belief and practice.In contrast to Western approaches to the philosophy of language, which are grounded in viewing language as a form of communication, this book argues that it is the Indian and East Asian philosophies of language that shed light on the use of language in meditative and ritual practices in Japan. It also illuminates why language was conceived as an effective means of progress on the path from delusion to awakening.

Table of contents

1. Extraordinary Language Use
2. Is Language Communication?: Extraordinary Language in the face of Philosophy of Language
3. Indic Understandings of Language-from Vedas to Tantra
4. East Asian Understandings of Language
5. Emptiness and Cosmogenesis in the Tantric Buddhism of Japan
6. The Clear Light Mantra Homa- Religious Agency in Medieval Japanese Buddhist Ritual
7. The Authority of the Speech of the Buddha: Aural Dimensions of Epistemology
8. Dharaṇi in the Lotus Sutra: Indic Context for the Power of Words
9. Ajikan: Visualizing the Syllable A
10. Concluding Reflections


“This is a magisterial work that brilliantly distils and presents decades of exploring and encountering the nuances and profundity of the “extraordinary language” of Japanese Buddhism. Beautifully and clearly written, this book leads us through a sophisticated and innovative methodology that demonstrates the many dimensions and, above all, uses, of religious language. Richard Payne has provided us with a landmark contribution to Tantric Studies, Buddhist Studies, and Japanese Religion.” –  Glen Alexander Hayes, Professor of Religion, Bloomfield College, USA“This volume on ‘extraordinary language’ in different traditions of East Asian Buddhism, with its richly textured case-studies and its theoretical depth, is a brilliant contribution to the study of Buddhist philosophy and practice of language.” –  Fabio Rambelli, Professor of Japanese Religions and ISF Endowed Chair in Shinto Studies, University of California, USA

“Payne’s project is an extended meditation on “the transmission of certain ways of thinking about language from India through China to Japan.” Examining mantra, dharaṇi, Daimoku, Komyō shingon, and ajikan in light of European and Asian theories of language, Payne rejects simplistic reductions of such “extraordinary language” to an apophatic rejection of language and argues that linguistic efficacy is “central to the Buddhist tradition transmitted from South to East Asia.” –  Charles D. Orzech, Professor of Religious Studies, Colby College, USA

Buddhism under Capitalism: understanding “neoliberalism”

One of the terms used in talking about the ways that Buddhism is being transformed in modern society is “neoliberalism.” A quick glance at Wikipedia explains that it is used to identify a radical version of laissez-faire capitalism—meaning capitalism unconstrained by governmental regulations. We see in the mania for deregulation dating at least from the Reagan–Thatcher era up to the present efforts by the current administration. As expressed  by Adam Tooze in a column in the New York Times <here>: “If neoliberalism is about anything, it has been about creating the largest possible economic space for competition.” Actions such as those of Scott Pruitt and of his successor, Andrew Wheeler, as director of the Environmental Protection Agency are instances of this meaning of neoliberalism. Likewise the active program to undermine the rights of labor and actively undermine the legal status and credibility of unions is motivated by neoliberal conceptions. Similarly, this attitude is implicit in arguments against the Affordable Care Act: If you can’t afford your own health insurance, then why should anyone else help you out? The same is true of the standard conservative trope noted by David Roberts that “liberals are the real racists, because they keep calling attention to race and dividing people up by race, while conservatives are just trying to be individuals and judge people by the content of their character” <here>.

What this economic definition of neoliberalism does not include is the social philosophy of radical autonomy. This “social neoliberalism” is the dimension of neoliberalism that more clearly influences the ongoing development of Buddhism in the US. This is evident in attitudes that deny the role of society and culture, claiming instead that the individual is entirely free and therefore entirely self-responsible. (The spectre of Ayn Rand walks the land.)

A revelatory example of social neoliberalism at work is discussed in an essay in Scientific American. “More recycling won’t solve plastic pollution,” by Matt Wilkins <here>. The subtitle is particularly telling: “It’s a lie that wasteful consumers cause the problem and that changing our individual habits can fix it.” Although Wilkins doesn’t use the the term neoliberal, he highlights the way in which individual responsibility is deployed in the service of corporate capitalism. “Encouraging individuals to recycle more will never solve the problem of a massive production of single-use plastic that should have been avoided in the first place.”

He highlights the role of “Keep America Beautiful,” an industry advertising group that gave us the word “litterbug.” But Keep America Beautiful has not only an historical role in increasing awareness of individual actions, for example with its anti-litter and recycling campaigns, but also for actively resisting political solutions. Keep America Beautiful “has helped shift the public focus to consumer recycling behavior and actively thwarted legislation that would increase extended producer responsibility for waste management.” This is, then, an example of the neoliberal emphasis on individual action, individual responsibility being presented as the only acceptable answer to the societal problems created by laissez-faire capitalism—the production of single-use plastics.

So what does this have to do with Buddhism? It is this aspect of neoliberalism as a social philosophy of radical self-autonomy that informs much of the present-day rationale for Buddhist practice and mindfulness. The wide range of issues that meditation is supposed to be good for are represented as individual issues. The almost deliberately hazy term “happiness” covers a lot, but is often used to both give primacy of value to one’s emotional state, and to place responsibility for that with the individual.

Just as both economic values and social attitudes align with one another, they both also align with religious values prevalent in American popular religious culture. Daniel Dubuisson (“Exporting the Local: Recent Perspectives on ‘Religion’ as a Cultural Category” Religion Compass 1.6, 787–800) explains that as the present-day conception of religion developed under “Protestant influence…it evolved toward an increasingly austere conception in which religion becomes an individual phenomenon linked to the individual interior conscience and to the personal relationship of the individual with the divinity” (789). In other words, (1) economic individualism (the measure of each corporation being its ability to profit individually in the marketplace unconstrained by government regulation), (2) the radical self-autonomy of neoliberalism as a social philosophy, and (3) religious individualism of an isolated interiority all coincide, and all mutually reinforce one another.

During the writing of this post, Matthew O’Connell at Post-Traditional Buddhism posted a podcast of an Imperfect Buddha conversation with Ron Purser (31.IBP) titled “Neo-liberal Mindfulness, Neo-liberal Buddhism.” (inside joke: does listening to IBP podcasts make one a śravaka?) The interview makes a valuable contribution to understanding this topic.

It is worth pointing out that a conclusion from this reflection is that social action is not simply the sum total of individual actions. The idea that social is nothing more than the sum total of individual actions would be based on the neoliberal notion of radical autonomy—that each person’s action is only their own action rather than being interconnected with the actions of others. A Buddhist modernist version of this is the view that there is only personal karma, an interpretation of karma that makes it fit with neoliberal preconceptions. However, social factors affect individual actions. that is, there are varying degrees of individual autonomy, or what might be called relative autonomy. Or, in yet other words, one is also responsible for one’s own actions as well. But from a perspective of the self as a conditioned existent, the debate over whether there is such a thing as social karma becomes a pseudo-problem—of course there is social karma, it is called history.

Neoliberal conceptions underlie claims that mindfulness training programs, and also contemplative education programs, will transform society. Such wholly unsubstantiated claims regarding social transformation by means of individual transformation (both kinds of “transformation” usually being very ill-defined, emotively powerful, empty signifiers) are given in support of the establishment of such programs. These claims form part of the siren’s song enticing people to jump on the bandwagon. Sitting quietly attending to one’s thoughts/experiences/breath/body for twenty minutes a day is presented as a bold, and even heroic act. Encouraging others to do so is presented as key to replacing the current viciously competitive order with one that is supportive of all society’s members, while ignoring the massively entrenched power of capitalist institutions in favor of a mystical notion of all wisdom being inside oneself.

Glenn Wallis summarizes this neoliberal strategy in his forthcoming and very important (very soon, hold your breath) A Critique of Western Buddhism (here). In the first chapter’s section on “well-being” he points to the adoption of programs of well-being by corporations as a response to the approximately $500 billion in losses attributable to “a dissatisfied workforce” and “a brutally competitive work environment staffed by a fundamentally insecure, unequal, underpaid, yet enthusiastically materialistic, populace.” The response is to inject “the ideology of the happiness industry into the workplace.”

“The key message of that ideology is that workers’ unhappiness lies inside themselves.”

In other words, that corporate response to worker dissatisfaction (a nice euphemistic understatement of conditions that lead to such extremes as suicide and drug addiction) is exactly like making plastic pollution the responsibility of the individual. I can dutifully recycle every week, as I have done for decades, and it will not change the profit motivations driving a system that continues to pollute. I can dutifully spend 20 minutes twice a day (of my own time) attending to my breath, and it will not change the profit motivations driving a system that continues to make workers insecure, unequal, and underpaid. The conditions of the system remain an accepted constant, unquestioned and therefore unchanging. The individual is treated as responsible for his/her own happiness, despite the conditions of the system.

There is a subtle but critical difference between accepting that there are things I can’t change (true), and that the only thing I can change is myself (false).

on not capitalizing (on) the dharma

In both popular and academic usage it now seems normal if not normative to see “Dharma.” This pious orthography has dysfunctions both in the popular and academic realms, while also allowing self-help usages to propagate a social-norm, commodified spirituality, one that fits in without providing any alternative to that spirituality.

Popularly, “the dharma” has effectively become a synonym for God, or Universe, and is usually rendered as “the Dharma.” The pervasive suppression of difference created by Perennialism extends its effects in this fashion. After all, we are told (explicitly in some Perennialist writings or it is simply taken implicitly as true),

• there is only one Truth, and

• all religions are pointing to that singularity,

• so these are just different words for the same Reality.

In conversational usage it becomes a marker, a self-branding of a certain way of being spiritual without being religious. The term effectively becomes meaningless (an empty signifier) other than as a conversational affectation, a marker of self-identity by affiliation.

On the other hand one frequently encounters academics distinguishing between “the Dharma” as the teachings of the Buddha, usually implicitly Śākyamuni, and “dharmas” as the ultimate psycho-ontological constituents of existence. Oh, shades of Max Müller’s disease of language lurk dangerously close. English allows us to be way more precise in certain ways than other languages, including Sanskrit, which doesn’t have capitals (see Steve Collins on this), and this despite the commonplace that Sanskrit (or Tibetan) is more precise, a characterization that may be true of the psychological terminology available, but not necessarily generalizable.

But to distinguish between “Dharma” as the teachings, and “dharmas” as psycho-ontological elementals is to create an obscuring distinction. Both are rooted in the same semantic range (which is quite large, see Alf Hiltebeitel, Dharma: Its Early History in Law, Religion and Narrative, Oxford, 2011, which runs to about 750 pp.), but which I understand (as someone who thinks about Buddhist thought, and admittedly not as a Sanskritist) to be rooted in a common significance of what is actual. The claims based on this fundamental significance then are that: the Buddha spoke what is actual, the elemental constituents of psycho-ontology are actual, and so the significance is—prior to the obscuring distinction—fundamentally the same. The Buddha does not talk about “the Dharma” in the sense of some transcendent reality to which he had privileged access. He simply talked about what is actually the case. Indeed, this allows us to question whether what we are told the Buddha said is actually the case for us.

In the grey borderlands between popular and academic is the self-help usage, where Buddhist identity is often more pronounced, or more loudly announced. Here “the Dharma” as transcendent absolute becomes part of the rhetoric of the culture, but cloaks the same (tired) “spiritual” teachings that have been reworked for a century and a half. Ira P. Helderman (“Drawing the Boundaries between ‘Religion’ and ‘Secular’ in Psychotherapists’ Approaches to Buddhist Traditions in the United States,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 2016) has noted that kind of usage on the part of psychotherapeutic clinicians involved in the promotion of mindfulness. In response to a conference theme that asked “Rooting Ourselves or Uprooting Our Traditions?: Critical Conflicts in the Interface between Buddhist and Western Psychology,” one participant

answered the conference title’s question by concluding that it is not possible to fully “uproot [Buddhist] traditions.” He stated that there is indeed an essence to Buddhist teachings, what he called “the dharma,” the awareness of which will always be achieved if mindfulness is diligently practiced, regardless of the theoretical terms in which it is couched:

When we speak about the dharma as the sort of nature of things, the truth of how things happen, I’m not so concerned because it will remain untouched. We can’t do it any harm; it is durable; it is beyond form. (Helderman, 951–952)

Although there is a superficial similarity between the first part of the embedded quotation and the description of dharma as what is actual given above, the balance of the embedded quotation reveals the interpretation of “the dharma” as a transcendent, ahistorical ultimate, in other words as “the Dharma.” This usage identifies the dharma, in the phrase I created to get this idea across to my students, as something that is “absolute, eternal, permanent, unchanging.” (These are not four distinct characteristics, but fourfold rhetorical mashup intended to be understood as cumulatively expressing an attitude—which is why there is no “and.”) The participant quoted above evidences a kind of anti-intellectual Buddhism which, to adopt a now passé phrase, believes that “everything I needed to know about Buddhism I learned on my meditation cushion.”

The struggle to pay attention to one’s breath, the pain in one’s knees, the worry about a friend’s health, paying attention to one’s breath—these are all dharma. The imaginal absolute, “experience” of which the ego can claim as evidence of superiority, well, yes, is as itself an empty, impermanent, ephemeral, conditional concept also dharma.

This is America, not the end

Scott Mitchell has commented at length on the reblog of Glenn Wallis’ call to arms with a very valuable reflection providing perspective on both what is “America” and what is “Buddhism,”

Worth reading and further reflecting on and if I could figure out how to reblog it I would, but instead you’ll have to go <here>