Thoughts on Our First Buddhist/Marxist Retreat

In our recent two-person Buddhist/marxist “retreat,” Chaim Wigder (aka The Failed Buddhist) and I spent some time discussing Shin Buddhism and Marxist ideology theory.  Our hope is that by writing a bit about the outcome of this retreat, we can encourage others to participate in possible future attempts.  Many people we discussed this with were wary of a gathering in which there is no focus on meditation, and in which there is no leader, with each participant being responsible for choosing the focus of part of the discussion.  My thoughts on the results of this meeting are that it was quite helpful in clarifying some important issues, and also providing motivation for continued work.

We each chose a text to discuss, with no prior consideration of their relationship to one another, so I was surprised to find that there is a startling similarity in both the problem that the texts addressed and the impasse that they reached.  

My choice was an essay by Kaneko Daiei, originally published in the 1920s and reissued in 1966, called “Prolegomena to Shin Buddhist Studies.”  Kaneko advocates what was initially a minority and controversial understanding of Shin Buddhism, in which the pure land is understood as a myth, a useful fiction, and not a real place to which we might go when we die.  He also advocated the engagement with Western philosophy, particularly Kant, in order to think more critically about Buddhism, and argued that it is essential to historicize Buddhist texts in order to grasp their full meaning for us today.  Although he was removed from his teaching job after WWII because of his collaboration with the imperial government, he was later reinstated, and his position on the study of Shin Buddhism became more common.  His essay was republished as he worked, in the sixties, to defend the importance of his academic discipline.  He sees Shin Buddhist studies as a way to move forward to a society in which there is less necessary suffering, but it is clear enough that one could see this academic discipline as serving to promote the adjustment of the Japanese to the new capitalist world they were building.  

Chaim chose to read Henri Lefebvre’s The Sociology of Marx, published in 1966, and also largely a defense of an academic discipline.  But Lefebvre’s goal is to find a way to use the discipline of sociology to advance the cause of communism and resist the post-war triumph of capitalism.  

At first glance, then, it may seem that these two texts are diametrically opposed.  In order to demonstrate the helpfulness of the kind of retreat we engaged in, as a means of enabling dialectical thought, I want to briefly demonstrate the similarity I found in these two mid-twentieth-century attempts to engage with the juggernaut of global capitalism through academic disciplines.  I’m sure Chaim will have his own, somewhat different, conclusions to draw from our discussions—and this difference should also serve to illustrate the potential for this kind of short-term intensive discussion of challenging texts as a form of practice, which does not necessarily lead to a single “conclusion” as might be expected to occur in a retreat focused on a teacher.

What struck me was that both of these thinkers are trying to overcome the impasse of determinism, but fail to do so because of a hopelessly idealist conception of language. The result is that, in both cases, we need to rely on an optimistic hope that there is an inevitable progress toward liberation that simply must occur, but only once we stop trying to direct change through the oppressive and obfuscating medium of language.  

I’ll take each thinker in turn, and briefly outline the argument.

For Kaneko, it is important not to assume that the pure land is real. As he puts it, “Sakyamuni started from the position that there is neither a god nor a soul” (201).  What are we to make, then, of talk of an afterlife in the pure land?  His suggestion is that talk of the afterlife is meant to “reveal the contrast between the actual world and the ideal world”(177), sort of the way a utopian fiction might.  Our desire for a pure land should be understood as arising from the contradictions at the center of our existing world, a world which produces us as a kind of subject which is inherently dissatisfied with things as they are.  For Kaneko, we should not look to historical situations to account for the fantasy of a pure land, or a heaven after death.  Poverty and oppression may give rise to such fantasies, but so will any historical situation structured on contradictions.  Even if we are affluent and comfortable, in a world dependent on the poverty and oppression of others there will necessarily be, in the structure of our selves, a dissatisfaction which motivates us to undertake some spiritual practice.  

The dilemma, though, is in figuring what exactly we should do about this situation.  We cannot resort to analyzing it in language, Kaneko assumes, because we “fall into delusion through ‘perfuming though words’,” and “Sakyamuni’s true realization…is impossible to express in words”(183).  What is essential here is that he assumes that the goal, the ideal state realized by Sakyamuni, must be represented  in language in order for language to be of any use at all—since language fails at the task of objective representation, we need to abandon it completely.  The result is that we are left to hope that the contradiction structuring the subject will simply automatically motivate or produce the action necessary to its own resolution.  We cannot plan a response to our state of dissatisfaction, but must find one already indicated to us, through what Kaneko calls “reflecting inwardly.”  The problem, for me, is that there is no reason to assume that this contradiction will resolve itself into anything other than whatever the current social formation needs to perpetuate itself.  This is an extremely abstract point, I know, but I hope it will become clearer as I explain how Lefebvre faces the same fundamental problem.

For Lefebvre, the key concept it “praxis.”  Praxis, he tells us, “rests on a twofold foundation: the sensuous on the one hand, creative activity stimulated by a need it transforms on the other”(42). It is “first and foremost act, dialectical relation between man and nature, consciousness and things”(45).  Let’s take a crude hypothetical example to illustrate this. Imagine primitive humans having a sensuous need for food; our creative capacity enables us to develop agriculture, to prevent shortages and failure to meet the need; this creativity in turn produces a new transformed need, the need to produce plows and silos and fences, etc.  The dialectic of man and nature, then, produces an internal contradiction in the subject, who both wants freedom from the deprivation of sensuous needs but also freedom from the kind of increased necessary labor that agricultural production requires.  We are driven by a core contradiction, which leads to certain practices, like division of labor and class distinctions, enslaving and oppressing workers, etc.  These very practices maintain the core contradiction in the subject, leading to further dialectical progress and new creative activities.

The problem, for Lefebvre, comes in with the use of Language: “language—not only the language of ideologists (e.g., philosophers) but also of all those who speak—distorts practical reality”(73).  Ideology arises because it becomes possible to use language to distort reality in such a way as to stop the natural dialectic, which would have driven us toward resolution of the current contradiction.  “Praxis,” Lefebvre argues, “always looks forward to new possibilities,” (77), while ideologies reify existing conditions. Therefore, it is the goal of marxism to “do away with ideologies”(86).  The problem is that all language is ideological by nature, failing to represent reality accurately, and so we must also escape the trap of thinking in language, and return to pure praxis.  As with Kaneko, we are left with the need for an optimistic hope that the contradiction will, if we stop using concepts and language, lead to its own best resolution. 

But is there any reason to assume this will happen?  Isn’t it more likely that the dialectic will lead us only to more intense fantasies of escape to the pure land, or to more oppressive forms of production that exclude the unpleasant manual labor from the consciousness of the ruling class?  

What both approaches lead to here is the abandonment of the only kind of agency we can actually have.  And this is so because both assume a naive representationalist model of language.  

My position would be that we need not escape language or ideology, but make better use of them.  We can understand language as primarily functioning to produce shared intentions, and only secondarily as representative. In this way, we need not see the lack of objectivity as a failure of language, but as a strength.  Our goal, in using language, is to make explicit to one another our shared assumption and commitments, and the relationship between these two. Only once we understand this can we have the limited kind of agency humans are able to have.  We need no longer rely on the blind hope that contradictions will work themselves out in a way advantageous to us. 

Instead, we can begin to use language to make explicit the assumptions and intentions that are producing these contradictions.  But we can also use language to produce new and better assumptions and intentions, which we can understand as infinitely corrigible.  It is true that language, and ideology, often do obscure reality and naturalize current practices; but the only escape from that dilemma is a more thoroughly rigorous use of language.  Retreating from language will only rob us of our most powerful asset as the only symbolic species on Earth.

My experience on this “retreat,” then, has renewed my motivation to pursue the work I have been engaged in for many years now, at a point when my enthusiasm was fading.  But it has also helped clarify for me just how this core error manifests in multiple and very different twentieth-century discourses.  Both are defenses of particular academic disciplines, and I have come to wonder if perhaps this is part of the problem: if academic discourses of necessity are limited to obfuscations and reifying language practices (that is, it is required of academic disciplines that they avoid the making explicit of assumptions and commitments), and so the only apparent option within any academic field is retreat into purely paradoxical confidence in determinism to do the right thing for us.

I would not have thought this through without a retreat like this.  My own idea to revisit some particularly troubling Shin Buddhist texts would probably have been postponed indefinitely; and I doubt I would have read this particular text of Lefebvre, or even have revisited Lefebvre at all any time soon.  

At the moment, we have no specific plans for a second Buddhist/marxist retreat.  But I would hope to do another, with more participants.  If anyone is interested, get in touch with me or with Chaim, and perhaps we can plan another event.  It will have to be in person, and will NOT focus on meditation, but any topic of discussion related to Buddhism and/or marxism is possible.  

Works Cited

Kaneko Daiei, “Prolegomena to Shin Buddhist Studies”, trans. Robert F. Rhodes.  In Cultivating Spirituality: a modern Shin Buddhist anthology.  SUNY Press, 2011.

Lefebvre, Henri, The Sociology of Marx, trans. Norbert Guterman.  Columbia University Press, 1982.

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11 Comments

  1. Wow, this is super interesting, Tom! By “this” I mean all of it–the form of the retreat, the choice of texts and the result of reading them together, the idea to continue in the vein, the renewed energy it produced in you. Incite Seminars shares the spirit of your retreat. I am becoming more and more convinced that the needed “practice” for our moment in history is the kind of exchange that you and Chaim had. My fantasy/vision is that the Seminars happen regularly and have more continuity. The problem for me is how to generate force in the world via the kind of practice that you and Chaim engaged in. I feel that this is necessary if we want to go beyond a momentary stay of confusion and depression and isolation and lostness.

  2. Mitro

     /  August 30, 2019

    Thanks Tom. Indeed! This seems to be the only way to truly breakthrough the layers of our own habitual and ideological thinking patterns into the new. By tackling the difficult, obscure, abstruse and paradoxical objects of thought that exist in the world and engaging rigorously with them in a communal squirmish can potentially, through group intellectual digestion and purging, bring about the what otherwise could have never been conceived alone. The social mind at work??

    I am curious as to how ritual and meditation might enhance or maybe even disable this process if included in the gathering. Would sitting in silence before or after dialogue affect anything, or would a tribal drumming dance frenzy in between disrupt the standard train of thought and lead it into new directions? I agree with Glenn that ‘regularity, concentration, escalation, commitment, and ritualisation’ are states that must be embodied within the cohort of participants so how might more visceral practices, more gut less mind focus, in between the dense head work contribute to the result. These practices would not be intended in the transcendent, immanent of subscendent way, although clarifying how the possible different framework and contexts might be helpful, but rather as a what happens if we throw something atypical into the mix. What might emerge when certain thinking is given a chance to simmer, bubble or explode out of it being rested, suppressed, abused or undermined for a short period.

    I’m keen to hear more and am in the process of setting up some similar gatherings myself, so if anything uncanny is conjured, i’ll be sure to share.

  3. Glenn,
    Maybe next time you’ll be able to join us. I’m also interested in “generating force in the world”; but I still believe that we need to first decide what exactly we want to get done. As you put it in your response to this post on your blog, I would be wary of unfocused “power,” and would not consider such attempt to select and enforce one set of possibilities over others a bad thing—in fact, I would insist it is the only way to really generate any force that isn’t simply reproducing the hegemony while pretending to radicalism (i.e, that isn’t Romanticism all over again).

    Mitro,
    I thought it was clear from my post, and from everything I’ve written here since this blog was resumed, that I am trying as hard as I can to escape the “less head more gut” attitude, which is exactly why we cannot escape capitalist ideology. All your metaphors (the dense head work, “squirmish” [?], digesting and purging) suggest a real discomfort with rigorous critical thought. What I’m advocating here is that we drop the beating drums and silent meditation crap, and do a lot more “headwork.”

    As I’ve tried to explain for years now, when we think we are escaping ideological entrapment by getting down to the “gut”, by allowing each individual to do their own thing without the “harassment” of others, etc., we are just mistaking the hegemonic ideology for a state of nature. Our supposedly deepest, most individual, most authentic desires/intuitions/perceptions/etc are in fact socially produced in capitalist ideology. The only way to gain distance from them is in collective intellectual work. For that reason, it would be essential to initially drop all ritual, even rituals of proper classroom etiquette and qualifications, and simply focus on good, clear, rigorous, dialectic.

  4. Hi Tom. I was unclear about what I meant by “power.” It is indeed “a bad thing.” My edit: “power, or the status quo limiting forces that select, institutionalize, and enforce one set of possibilities and prevent others from emerging.” Power is precisely, as you say, the reproduction of established hegemony.

  5. Glenn,
    I don’t think you were unclear—I think perhaps my response was poorly worded. I did understand that you were suggesting that power is a bad thing, and that any limiting and selecting among possibilities is always negative. My position is that this is naive. We do need to limit and select among possibilities, and produce institutions to carry out the possibilities, or projects, we collectively choose to undertake. When we believe we are leaving the choice up to each individual, the choice is really being made for them by hegemonic ideology, instead of by open debate and rational argument.

    It ought to be our goal to prevent some kinds of possibilities from emerging. The debate needs to focus on which ones should be prevented, and which adopted. We certainly don’t want a return to slavery, or to the kind of gulf between the rich and poor that existed the early U.S., for instance—although that is clearly a real possibility that seems to be the intention of most of those in power today.

    And whenever we decide, collectively, what is acceptable and what is not, we need to create institutions which will ensure that those choices will be carried out. It is just naive to assume that humans can exist without an ideology and without practices in place to reproduce that ideology. The important thing is to allow the debate to include discussion of what our intentions are—not just, as it does now, discussion of who will get the most benefit, and who will pay the price, from intentions taken as givens.

  6. Patricia

     /  August 31, 2019

    I’ve been thinking about your retreat and your take on it. And it does seem to have had a rejuvenating effect on you. I’ve also been thinking about what seems central to it—reading and discussion—and how that can be an effective tool to the goals of collectivity. [And by the way, I always thought that thinking is mediating. Is that wrong?] I don’t think Tom would mind me mentioning that he and I have been reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Mind) for several months (though we took a little break over the summer because of other commitments). Reading Hegel had been something I had wanted to do for a long time. Though I read and write for a living, I really didn’t think I could get through the notoriously dense text by myself. So, I asked Tom if he would be willing to read with me, not because I thought he had the key that unlocked the Hegel door, but because I know him as a good reader, a person who understands a bit of philosophy and even a little German. Working though the ideas, and language, of the text has been fun, as well as enlightening (and I use that word specifically). Maybe because that’s the thing we like to do—maybe it would seem like “work” to someone who doesn’t like to read. But I’m not sure it was the “reading” that was fun. What was fun was the engagement with another person in discussion of ideas, of meaning and possibilities. This engagement with another’s mind—in active discussion, sometimes disagreement, sometimes that moment of insight—is really productive because it is communal. This is Tom’s point about the retreat that he organized. After our discussions on Hegel, I felt connected and satisfied that I’d learned something about how our culture operated that was meaningful. In other words, it produces a subjective shift in my way of thinking, and lessens the isolation I often feel. And thinking is necessary if one is to act with intention and purpose.

    It also helps to remember that our reading practices are ideological too; they are not “natural.” In other words, we read alone, we learn alone, we “meditate” on what we read alone; we produce writing alone which in turn we publish so that others can read alone. Our “normal” reading practice reproduces the notion of the individual “mind” in the ways that Tom has been discussing: isolated, alienated and disconnected. This reading practice produces the atomized “mind.” It reifies the “mind” as something that an individual possesses and can be “developed” and “improved” or “corrupted” but in the end is liminal. What if we read differently for a different purpose? And, we do not have to go so far back in history to understand that reading practices were once different. Think of the “salon” in the eighteenth century, or the Wordsworth circle tucked away at Grasmere. Because of my new awareness of this, I have started to tell my students to read assignments (often difficult for them) with each other, form study groups, get a “study buddy.” Discussion can happen in the classroom, but it can also be encouraged outside the classroom. What Tom is proposing is a different way of producing the “mind” (one that might be more in line with Hegel, for instance) and one that is not out of line with other reading practices throughout history.

  7. Eddie Dorfman

     /  September 1, 2019

    I found this consideration very helpful at an Intellectual level and look forward to how it is or can be inacted in a real situation: Say a con conflict within capitalist society or a so called individualist conflict where one feels depressed or over the top.

  8. Eddie,
    I really cannot understand you comment. What “consideration” do you want to “inact” exactly? What would it mean to “inact a consideration”? In what sense is what I discuss here not “real”? What would be a more “real” kind of situation, exactly? Are you asking, for instance, how we can reduce depression by making goals and assumptions more explicit? Or are you suggesting that the problem of agency is a merely “intellectual” problem, and retreats should deal with more “real” issues like depression? If you can expand and clarify you comment, I will try to respond to it.

  9. David Watson

     /  September 5, 2019

    I am skeptical, perhaps mostly because the alternative to skepticism would be figuring out how to participate. And productively at that.

    But why couldn’t it be the case that the ideal number of participants in such a retreat is two, with additions leading only to the diminishing returns of seeking a common theme among ever more diverse voices?

    For example, you suppose Glenn (clearly the most plausible addition) might make the next retreat even better. But clearly your project competes with Glenn’s own, and your differences over the question of “power” already suggest how his participation might only disrupt the synergy.

    Buddhism of course valorizes the Sangha. But isn’t it the text, more than the dialogue, that embodies the social mind and the goals of collectivity? Has it really been text and exchange that have transformed discourses, or rather just text and counter-text?

    Would text and presentation even be practical beyond say a maximum of three? At what point does it degenerate into a conference format?

    I resist, as I conceded above, at least in part because the potential as you describe it seems so great, and thus the resulting sense of obligation so terrifying.

  10. David,
    I’d agree that there’s probably a limit to the number of participants in a retreat like this. I remember Irving Yalom, in his book on group therapy, suggested that six to eight was the ideal group size—more than that just made it difficult for everyone to participate meaningfully. I expect a retreat like this would work fine with up to eight, but beyond that might become just another class or conference.

    I’m not sure that seeking a common theme is necessarily the goal. In this case, I was just surprised by the similarity in what would seem to be very different kinds of discourses. But that certainly doesn’t need to be the goal. And I expect that Chaim’s response to the reading and discussion will be somewhat different from mine.

    I also do believe that in-person discussion is essential to the use of any text. The response I get to this blog would suggest to me that the understanding of any written text is limited and widely divergent. Often, it is possible to make one’s position clear in an in-person discussion in a half hour or so, while years of reading texts just won’t do it. My experience with graduate programs in psychology, were most of the classwork is now done online to avoid in-person contact, has also demonstrated to me how dependence on texts only serves to avoid real comprehension of theoretical concepts (which, of course, is the goal in training psychologists—the same seems to be true, today, of most graduate business programs).

    I also think that, for example, the disagreement over “power” could be clarified in serious in-person discussion, while it cannot get anywhere in written texts that can talk past one another. To me, it is absurd to think power is always negative—but of course there is a negative and oppressive kind of power. For instance, it is an exercise of power to demand that drivers drive on the right side of the road, obey speed limits, stop at red lights, etc. Without this exercise of power, driving would be enormously difficult if not impossible. To forget that even simple things like this require the use of social power is a grave error (one that anarchists often make). On the other hand, power can be a bad thing, as when striking workers are beaten, jailed, and shot. We need to remember, though, that a strike is also an exercise of power. I think an in-person discussion could get to this point, while a text can always dodge the demanded response and continue in the same errors and misunderstandings.

    Of course, the sense of obligation is usually troubling in our culture. The general ideology of American society in part operates to make us dismissive of in-person contact with others, if not downright terrified of it. Last night, watching an episode of “The Good Place,” one character objects to another character coming to speak to her in person to ask her to do something, saying “I don’t like talking. I do best in one-on-one interaction…where I don’t know the other person…and we’re both on our phones texting” (or something like that). It is much easier to follow the demands of dominant ideology when you can avoid all actual contact with humans.

  1. Possibility, Potency, Power | Speculative Non-Buddhism

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