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Archive for the ‘Zen’ Category

Buddhism and Abstraction

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Extending a thought I started in a comment at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt I add:

G.W.F. Hegel’s “Who Thinks Abstractly?” and his critique of common-sense abstraction (Nietzsche’s “herd mentality”) are kind of at the heart of it, and I think the originality of Buddha’s everywhere in terms of both compassion and wisdom.’

‘Common-sense’ abstraction as opposed to the more conventional attribution of abstraction to academic and otherwise educated people. Hegel’s response to the question ‘who thinks abstractly?’ is ‘the uneducated, not the educated.’

We have to remember that with the exception of Hui Neng and some other figures in the Pali canon, most of the prominent figures of Zen and Buddhism in general were either directly from or just outside the aristocracy of their time and place, the Siddharta Gotama especially. However, I think we are led astray if we chase after some hitherto repressed ‘householder/everyday buddhism’ as something very different from what does appear in the written and orally transmitted teachings/stories. There is no authentically ‘everyday’ form of Buddhism, and it would be absurd not to view the already given teachings as speaking to and from everyday life. Kings and Queens and Masters and Buddhas are just ordinary people.

We should recognize a form of this ‘talk in plain speak’ attitude in the appeals many conservatives and hicks make to the common-sense appeal of creationism and intelligent design (or the common-sense appeal many liberals feel comfortable making to ‘the market’). Mind you, those two bits in particular are beside the point. The point is in the way that ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ rhetoric appears even when we seem to be talking about universality and equality and the close ties it has with other forms of reductive thinking.

Written by Joe

August 23, 2009 at 9:35 am

Notes on Therapeutic Buddhism

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This was apparently too long for blogger’s comments, so I’m posting it here. It’s another comment from that Progressive Buddhism post on mindfulness-based therapy and Buddhism.



I’m glad you bring up ENDS and RESULTS, because we have to make a distinction. If Buddhist practice aims at the liberation of all beings, then therapy is at best a result experienced along the way as a side-effect, and hardly a necessary one. Slavoj Zizek introduces a wonderful distinction between therapeutic and critical religion in the introduction to his “The Puppet and the Dward,” one which I think he unfairly develops on the side of Christianity. He does well to highlight the passive tendencies of therapeutic Buddhism, but he misses the psychoanalytic import of his own terms and the subsequent abuse he makes on them. To put it bluntly, what we have here is a distinction between the pleasure principle and the death drive, and it is a misnomer to oppose the “life-drives” (Eros) to the death-drive (Thanatos). To this end, Lacan argues that all drives have a little death-drive in them. Buddhism is not an inherently therapeutic religion, nor is Christianity the sole bastion of critical religion. A survey of American forms of Christianity shows that the therapeutic mode dominates, arguably with less pernicious results than that ethico-spiritual disposition that in triumphal bad faith throws its hands up in the air for the sake of “pragmatism” and getting “beyond politics.”

I also want to dispel the mind-closing connotations of “critical” as judgmental. The best way to think of this distinction between therapeutic and critical religion is along the lines that Emerson, in his essay “Intellect,” distinguishes between “repose” (i.e. comfort and resignation) and “truth.”

“God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, — you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets, — most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.”

Another useful touching-point is Patrick Kearney’s essay, “Still Crazy After All These Years: Why Meditation isn’t Psychotherapy,” which is is both perspicacious and near-sighted. As the title suggests, he wishes to dispel the connection between what Kyle Lovett calls “traditional psychotherapy” and Buddhist practice (particularly meditation). The problem is when we conflate the history of psychotherapy, particularly psychoanalysis, with this image of “traditional psychotherapy,” with its parent-blaming, ego-worshiping escapism.

That is why earlier I brought up Lacan’s departure from the therapeutic mind-set of his contemporaries, who unfortunately did better than him to saturate the popular perception of psychoanalysis. Strictly speaking, for Lacan, psychoanalysis is not a program of therapy. Psychoanalysis does not proceed by labeling from some distance these or that problems, which are dealt with in the voyeuristic privacy of one’s own ego. Rather, psychoanalysis is an experiment in our painful habits themselves, though in the relative safety of the clinical situation, which in many ways we can expand to the student-teacher relation.

Is this not what happens when, for us Zen adepts, we are sitting? We do not escape from our busy minds or the world changing around us; our quietude is a noisy one, because karma is ALWAYS coming up for us. What we find and what the masters report to us is not a stillness of mind (as if they were somehow opposed in the sense of some reality behind illusion), but the revelation of that stillness in mind – that de-centered I of the storm. The transformations this brings to the practitioner are too great to be sub-ordinated to the therapeutic impulse.

Written by Joe

July 2, 2009 at 7:23 am

Notes on Lacan and Zen

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In a comment to a comment on a post at Progressive Buddhism, “Mindfulness Based Therapy and Buddhism.”

‘Buddhism, in a general sense discusses anatta and most psychologist would probably say a stronger sense of self, not weaker one may be more beneficial to the patient.’

This is also Jacques Lacan’s core departure from much post-Freudian psychoanalysis, particularly its American analog, ‘Ego Psychology,’ which taught (with much influence) that the goal of psycho-therapy is the identification of the patient with the therapist’s ‘strong ego.’ The distinction between normality and liberation beyond normality is relevant here too, because for Lacan and his students Freud’s insights pointed away from the ego, like the finger pointing at the moon. To that end, Lacan’s insistence on a ‘return to Freud,’ another more intimate and concrete engagement with Freud’s writing, is not unlike the Zen practice of sitting and returning to the breath.

Written by Joe

June 28, 2009 at 10:15 pm

Leaping Clear of the Many of the One

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In another conversation with Jon, I broach the subject of polyamory.

Me: I wonder how many polyamorist are open not only to their partners having other partners, but to having partners who only have them (the polyamorist) as their partner.

Jon: ??

Me: Do you know what polyamory is?

Jon: yup

Me: Recent interest in polyamory in the wake of my breakup. Josh and I had a lengthy conversation about it, which I reproduced on my blog.

Jon: ahh

Me: I go back and forth between which I am comfortable with, and it has slowly dawned on me that polyamory taken to its logical, ethical ends is not about having multiple partners or just one.

I think people approach it this way, and they get caught in the same game of possessiveness that is usually the exact thing polys claim to avoid.

Jon: agreed

Me: This way being: either monogamy or not, either one person or many – no in between.

From Dogen’s “Genjo-koan,” or “Actualizing the Fundamental Point.”

The buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many of the one; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas.

Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.

To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.

“The One” what? A possible answer is the ideal couple. The ideal couple is the mOther and child, who form the ideal-ego. Their unity is a torn one, and their independence really a co-dependence. “The many of the one” would thus be the world qua imaginary identifications, the world of drifting clouds: in a word, fantasy. Does this mean that Dogen anticipated Lacan’s “traversing the fantasy” and Freud’s “working through”?

Written by Joe

June 13, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Posted in Buddhism, Fantasy, Lacan, Love, Zen

Left Behind

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The Master left it behind—
a turd
In the toilet.

Written by Joe

May 20, 2009 at 6:36 pm

Posted in Buddhism, Uncategorized, Zen

Acting, Political Theatre and Enjoyment as Political Factor

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[From an exchange between Derek and I, where I start out asking:]

Me: Isn’t it funny how theatrical a term “jobless” is?
Derek: How so?

Me: It sounds like a title you’d give to an actor. It has a very different connotation from “unemployed,” which still retained this a sense of a larger function (“you are being unemployed by the Market,” which is the dirty secret of the more popular notion that you are “employed by the Market”) and the more pagan notion of being a functional part of everything else, whose peak form of art is the ritual. Theatre has a deep connection to modern politics in this sense, and gives rise to a sense of collectivity that is essentially Marxist before Marx.

A play is a collective endeavor by a bunch of individuals, whose places are not pre-determined by and yet some how fixed according to the narrative. The narrative is is not a higher sort of function that pulls the strings and makes the actors perform the play. The actors come together of their own (of course, through a rigorous, almost religious training period before hand – i.e. study and rehearsal) and perform the play.

The play can seem like a constraining superfluity (the sort implied by deriding ideology as naivety) or as what the actors themselves put on and make for/of/by themselves. This is effectively art for no one though; how does it, like Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” be for everyone too? Theatre can be enjoyed by any and, in the digital era, everyone. An audience at the Globe Theatre of Shakespeare’s plays, in his time, is at once radically egalitarian communal enjoyment and a scene of obscene enjoyment of the court).

This is why Zizek says, in his “Arcitectural Parallax” essay he says Mozart is on the side of the poor! Everyone is there minimally for the sake of enjoying the performance, which is itself a kind of self-enjoyment (i.e. for no one) of the actors putting on and yet working together to accomplish “the play,” but the upper classes are their to enjoy their very presence, which is ob-scene (as Dr. Clark was always fond of explaining: literally “off or out of the scene”).

This other scene, in the fully Freudian sense, stages a distraction from the real enjoyment at hand. The performance is not a re-duplication of class-relations and social conditions, for that would suppose that one set was the original and one was not (c.f. the zen koan about what your original face looked like before you were born), but social life and class-relations are themselves performative, which is to say we all put on “a play” called everyday life wherein our our relationship as actors and the performance as a whole is of a class-nature.

In this universe of political theatre, God is a machine (Science and its support in power), and one isn’t unemployed by society, but is nonetheless acting out a jobless role in its infinitely possible flavors. Makes you think about how Keanu Reeves gets picked on for being such a one-dimensional actor, and how in a way he embodies a certain kind of ideological critique of celebrity, which he certainly has some of himself—as if his various characters, and the celebrity they gained for him, screamed out the secret of many or even most great actors: you’re really, actually boring. Could any other actor had pulled “Neo” off as well as Reeves did?

This is what Jesus meant by turning the other cheek: you (my abuser) cannot but give me equality, for it is what your own law compels you to do when I “turn the other cheek” (which given the impropriety (a very different sense of “bad” from the bad sort of thing that you could do to someone without being dishonored by it yourself) of things to do with the Left hand means striking them as an equal with an open palm or fist. To us today, it may seem that it would make more sense, from the angle of wanting to demean and degrade someone, to use the left-hand: that’s what you use to wipe your ass, after all.

Propriety and honor point towards this social commitment that we make as a kind of self-positing, where we oblige ourselves to honorability as such. Acting done well is a similar self-positing.

The link here is what Hegel called “the sensuous expression of freedom,” which strikes most of us as an expression you’d intuitively apply to something like a painting, a poem or book, or a musical performance or a gourmet dish— but not a a theatrical performance. It is here though, and the danger is always that the freedom experienced on the stage will be mis-recognized. Through this mis-recognition on a mass scale, along with other forms of mass theatrics (television shows, especially) we are more likely to relate to our own roles in a democracy as if it were a show being watched. This is why enjoyment is a political factor.

Written by Joe

May 2, 2009 at 11:59 pm

Repeating A Lesson in Emptiness: Making Your Cake and Eating It Too

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Joshu, a novice monk in a Zen monastery, was feeling hungry for some cake. He went to the abbott to ask for permission. Normally, the abbott wouldn’t allow such indulgence, but instead he said to Joshu that he could, if he followed the abbott’s recipe. Joshu agreed to this term, and went with the abbott to retrieve the recipe.

When the abbott gave Joshu the recipe, he quickly scanned it to get a feel for what kind of cake it would be. It had all the standard ingredients for a white cake of some sort, except one of the ingredients was listed as “cake.” Joshu respectfully pointed out the strange ingredient, and asked how this could be. The abbott cheerfully replied that it must have been a mistake, and crossed it out. “You can make it now,” he said.

Joshu thanked the abbott and proceeded to the kitchen, still confused as to how cake could appear on the recipe. When he went through the recipe, mentally checking off the ingredients as he used them, he finally got to the crossed-out “cake,” and it occurred to him again what the abbott said before he left: you can make it now; cake is possible only without “cake.”

Written by Joe

April 28, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Posted in Buddhism, Lack, Zen