Mindfulness or Meditation?

The following was a comment made on another post on this blog: my review of Ron Purser’s book on mindfulness.  
Matthias emailed me about that post the other day, and at my request posted his query on the blog.  I thought I’d move it to a new post, because it seems to me to raise an important question and also to be relevant my interest in addiction treatment (as almost all current treatments for addiction require practicing mindfulness to some extent).  I will save my response to Matthias for the comments on this post.  The following is Matthias’s comment:

After some months of terrible ruminations, I have quite recently resumed my meditation practice. It consists in a Rinzai style practice, focussing solely on the syllable ‘mu’.

In a comment to Jack Forrest on the article mentioned above, Tom Pepper says the following:

“I don’t really know what you mean by ‚secular meditation.‘ Meditation is kind of a loose term, and can mean a host of different things. I don’t have much critical to say about most kinds of religious meditation, much less ‚secular.‘ I simply think that ‚mindfulness‘ is absurd and not helpful at producing anything but poor thinking and delusion.

My position would be that mindfulness would be the worst thing to subject an anxious person to, and probably just as bad for someone who tends to ruminate excessively. Fortunately, they will rarely continue to do it, so it doesn’t do much harm.

Just within the last month I was told by three people that they used to do meditation, by which they meant mindfulness, and it was very helpful—but they stopped doing it and would never consider doing it again, not even for five minutes, not matter what benefit it might have. I tried to get them to tell me why they would never consider doing something they found so helpful, and they couldn’t answer. Personally, I suspect that they were at some level aware of the detrimental effects of this ridiculous practice.”

After having read this, I thought to myself: “Matthias, do you practice mindfulness or meditation?” I assume I practice meditation, but I have to say that I am not sure.

Tom Pepper writes that he has not much critical to say about most kinds of meditation (religious and secular), but thinks that mindfulness is absurd.

So where‘s the difference between meditation (religious/secular) and mindfulness? More to the point, looking at the explanation of my practice above, is that what I am doing meditation? Or is it mindfulness which on the quiet guides me on a slippery slope towards poor thinking and delusion?

I had a very short exchange with Tom Pepper on this recently. He told me briefly „…that the difference between meditation and mindfulness depends largely on the goal. To meditate is to try to think rigorously about a problem, to think more correctly and so work toward a solution. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is an attempt to convince people that they have an atman of some kind—a true ‚self‘ that is eternal and not dependently arisen, that is beyond the causes and conditions that give rise to your body and your thoughts. Mindfulness then prevents meditation, because it begins from a fundamental error about the nature of reality—it is impossible to think in disciplined ways to solve real problems when we need to begin with a false assumptions about reality we will not abandon.“

Having read this, let‘s start thinking about my practice, my goal of practicing. The goal of my practice clearly is not to convince myself that I have a self beyond the causes and conditions that give rise to my body, my thoughts.

I think we have to realize that both mindfulness and meditation extend beyond the simple practice of executing a certain action. As an example, sitting meditation is not restricted to the cushion. It is backed up both by an ideology and by our intentions behind implementing this practice in our life. The same goes for mindfulness.

Now I will try to answer those points as related to my practice described at the beginning. And individual answers are always build upon a personal story. Some time ago, I made the acquaintance with a now 85 years old man from Germany. He translated all the three Koan anthologies from Chinese to German and has around the age of 60 began to practice in the Rinzai tradition. In one of his translations, he gives his personal account of what the Chan practice can mean today and his words resonated immediately with me.

In a nutshell, the goal of practice as described by him is a kind of schooling oneself in vanishing – maybe we can say some kind of experiencing the dissolution of atman. This dissolution is a symbol for the fact that there is no eternal essence behind the things we experience, ourselves included. It is the experience of a radical embeddedness of everything, of the collctive of things of which we are part. And this is just one part of the story. By having this embeddedness in our focus, we see that our actions hang together with the whole collective. By having broken the alienation between us and others we see that „…we are obliged to be concerned about the suffering and capacity for thought of all those individuals who make up the collective subject to which we belong“. (Tom Pepper, Taking Anatman Full Strength and Śāntideva’s Ethics of Truth)

To cut a long story short, my practice is by no means restricted to sitting. There is a bunch of deep headwork involved. And the results of practice clearly are deeply intertwined with my goals and intentions.

Having said all of this, in the end I have to confess that headwork often is a torture for me. Many people experience some kind of pleasure in thinking. For me, it often is a ping-pong game out of my control, a torture, as I said.

So I think I do my best to live my life as best as I can among others with the tools described above.

I look forward to your thoughts on my story.

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  1. Matthias,
    I think you’ve located the crux of the problem when you say that it is important to remember that there is an ideology and and intention behind the practice of either mindfulness or meditation of any kind. Meditation can be good or bad—depending on the assumption from which one begins. If you are meditating in order to try to isolate your unexamined assumptions and intentions, then this is unlikely to lead to bad results. Unfortunately, many people have difficulty doing this alone, and so wind up perseverating on apparent paradoxes instead of getting clear about their own assumptions. In this case, meditation can be useless at best, dangerous at worst.

    Mindfulness, as it is defined in the American mindfulness industry, requires that one begin from a false assumption…and then stay there, never wavering until you are able to convince yourself that this falsehood is correct. Sort of like the prisoner in the novel “Darkness at Noon” required to stare at the three lights until he actually sees four.

    Certainly, mindfulness may mean many different things. Sometimes it just means something like “don’t forget about this,” and when we say “be mindful of the traffic” to our kids. My objection is only to the specific use of the term in mindfulness meditation of the kind forced on suffering and vulnerable people undergoing treatment for addiction (or a host of other suffering and vulnerable populations, many of which Purser describes in his book—a book everyone who forces mindfulness on others should be made to read!).

    On the matter of finding thought often painful…that is not an unfamiliar problem. My own explanation of this is that thought always and only occurs in a discourse, and is painful when the discourse in which one is thinking is riddled with error and contradiction. I would advise not abandoning thought, but seeking out a new discourse to participate in!

    Personally, I’m not a fan of “vanishing.” I think I will vanish from existence soon enough, whatever I do. My own approach is not the elimination of the (conventionally real) self, but the construction of a better one. Of course, to do that one must first eliminate the illusion that one has an essential “true self”—and it is exactly that illusion which mindfulness practice is meant to strengthen.

    When you medicate on “mu”, what exactly are you doing? Clearly, the choice of that particular term to focus on is not ideologically innocent, right? If it is a form of calming meditation, meant to focus the mind prior to rigorous thought, then it isn’t exactly mindfulness in the sense someone like Kabat-Zinn means the term.

  2. Matthias: I’m not sure I quite grasp what the purpose of this kind of meditation is. Do you think you can try to explain it in more detail? I’m basically curious what Tom asks–that is, “what exactly are you doing” when mediating?

    It seems to me that simply asserting and re-asserting that there is no atman, or trying to “dissolve” the belief in an atman, is a pointless exercise. Once you’ve accepted rationally that there is no atman, the only thing left to do is to find and/or create new ideologies that fulfil our nature as humans while not requiring this delusion to function. Otherwise nothing will actually change, and we will simply continue to reproduce a deluded subjectivity while believing that we’ve somehow gotten “free” of some atman which has never actually existed in the first place. And this finding/creating new ideologies, of course, must be done collectively. So meditation seems to me to be entirely redundant (if not harmful), unless by meditation we mean something like reading, thinking rigorously, and discussing our positions with others.

  3. I will add quickly that I spent a very long time attempting to “salvage” some form of “meditation,” trying to convince myself that there’s a there there. But in reality this was just my attempt at holding onto delusion. I’m not at all saying that this is what you are doing, but that is most definitely what I was doing, and so I would argue that this is at least a possibility to consider.

  4. I’m not so much opposed to meditation, although I would agree that if we understand that term to mean what it seems to mean in the mindfulness culture then it is much worse than a waste of time. I would say we need to recover meditation as an act of thinking rigorously to solve a problem, often by examining where our assumptions or commitments may be suspect. Of course, what is usually meant by “meditation” is achieving a state free of all thought—a kind of mental state of pure and thought-free experience. This is something we should discourage.

    Anthony Kenny, in his book “The Metaphysics of Mind”, tries to argue that the mistaken belief in the capacity to do exactly this is the single greatest error of philosophers and of the common-sense understanding of mind. He describes this error as the “the self…is essentially a perspectiveless subject of experiences,” that while we usually “view the world from a certain vantage point,” it is possible for the “true self” to “take an objective view of its owner as merely one item among the contents of the world,” observing our own thoughts as mere phenomena from an objective distance. Kenny argues that this mistake prevents us from solving all kinds of problems. I would say that being convinced one can do this is what leads to the kind of terribly unpleasant experience of thinking that Matthias refers to above. We then become subjects resigning to mindlessly doing what is expected of us, afraid to even attempt to think seriously about whether this is the best thing to do.

    On my definition, I would say that my book “Indispensable Goods” is a thoroughly Buddhist meditative text, attempting to challenge the reader to think rigorously about assumptions we don’t ordinarily question. Matthias’s comment mentions koans, and I would say that this was the goal of koans at one point as well. Now, of course, they are merely one more instance of the troubling orientalism that presents anything Asian as wise, mysterious and inscrutable. The goal become to find an ever more preciously paradoxical answer—or, just as often, to find that the real meaning of the koan is some trite platitude. We need to drop those and come up with our own form of mediations to challenge our assumptions.

    One further concern for me is the idea that once we have arrived at the insight that we have no essence but are dependently arisen we are done. My belief is that this is the very beginning. We then need to figure our exactly how we are socially constructed/dependently arisen, and determine if there are ways that we can be better constructed. The idea that this insight is the endpoint is essentially the same as the goal of mindfulness—it subtly assumes that anything so constructed is less than “really real,” and so is unimportant; we then don’t need to bother improving our conditions, once we see that we are constructed by them, because our goal is to detach our “true self” from these impermanent conditions. In this sense, American vipassana meditation is just another version of mindfulness.

  5. Matthias

     /  May 2, 2020

    Great comments so far. I just want to let you know that I am currently working on an answer. I experience difficulties in finding the right words for the chaos in my head. And I want to be as clear as possible. This will take some time. But be sure I will chime in, hopefully clarifying some of the things I said above.

  6. Matthias

     /  May 4, 2020

    In my view, there are several layers one needs to consider when talking about the issue at hand. I hope those layers and their relation will become clear in the course of my comment.

    So why the focus on ‚mu‘? The root of this syllable is the koan 1 from the Gateless Gate. It goes like this:

    A monk asked Joshu, a Chinese Zen master: “Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?”
    Joshu answered: “Mu.”

    What today often is degraded or presented as mysterious and inscrutable, as Tom points out, has a serious and notable content. What Joshu intends with this ‚Mu‘ is the following: ‚There is no permanent ground behind the world. There even is no impermanent ground behind the world. There is this impermanent world we experience, nothing else. Therefore Mu.‘

    So far very briefly the theoretical thinking background of ‚Mu‘. Why do I mention this? Because for me, there is another layer, which I will describe as an experience that gives a certain quality to a background of theoretical thinking.

    I will make an example to illustrate what I intend by creating this differentiation. There have been made studies which suggest that an intake of two doses of psilocybin may have an enduring effect on our human fear of death. The effect is described as a decreasing of this fear. The participants in these studies have undergone an altering experience. Here we have the experience layer mentioned above. We could also tackle the fear of death through theoretical thinking. In the case of mortal fear, Epicurus has done this for example.

    The comparison may be a little bit flawed, but it serves my intention. It helps to illustrate that a question can be approached with complementary tools. One of this tools is theoretical thinking, the other one is an experience giving the theoretical thinking a certain quality. And both of these tools are practices of approaching a question. I‘d like to emphasize at this point that both theoretical thinking and experiences are able to generate a shift in perspective. So different tools may serve the same goals.

    Tom writes that „…what is usually meant by ‚meditation‘ is achieving a state free of all thought—a kind of mental state of pure and thought-free experience. This is something we should discourage.“ I would add that if we discourage such a kind of practice or not is dependent on our intention and iedology and if it serves them. Here we can see crystal-clear that our intentions and ideologies are of utmost importance for a practice like meditation.

    Having said this, I would not discourage the practice described by Tom above at the drop of a hat. I for example have an interest in altered states of consciousness. And a practice like the one at issue may be able to generate such an experience. So for serving this intention, I see no ponderous reason to discourage such a practice. To make this clear, let‘s look at another example. Since last September, I am learning to play the drums. My intention is that I will be able to play the songs of my favourite rock bands or play something by myself. I see nothing wrong with my intention and my practice.

    To not become lost in my chaotic thinking, I will continue with a great quote by Chaim Widger from a contribution at Speculative Non-Buddhism (Pragmatic Dharma and Unexamined Ends):

    „From this brief examination of pleasant states—or for that matter any reduction of suffering that is not brought about by material, social engagement with the world and with other humans, but rather only by individual practice and a focus on immediate experience—from this examination we can add one final postulate. […] There is no way to truly act in accordance with the bodhisattva vows, to act with agency to address the real causes of suffering, unless one is committed to talking only about the material forces of suffering, which are determinant, in the last instance, of the realm of ideology and of ‚the mind.‘“

    It is evident that generating altered states or learning to play the drums does not necessarily ‚address the real causes of suffering‘. If a practice like sitting meditation can serve the Bodhisattva path is inevitably dependent on our intentions and ideologies.

    We have to look again at what Tom said: „What is usually meant by ‚meditation‘ is achieving a state free of all thought—a kind of mental state of pure and thought-free experience. This is something we should discourage.“ Why do we have to look again? For now we can see how an ideology and an intention can change this practice into one we really should discourage. We should ask ‚why‘ a person is practicing this kind of meditation. If she is practicing it to reach a state of equanimity, a state in which one encounters everything – pain and pleasure – with a blissful calmness and has furthermore the intention to extend this state over and above the daily meditation time, this person is on a dangerous path to entrench conditions in our world that are diametrically opposed to the Bodhisattva vows.

    Having said all of this in a kind of fragmentary way, as a conclusion we can say that intention and ideology inform practice which in turn informs action. This sentence entails for me all of importance here. So if our intention is to liberate all sentient beings (I am not megalomaniac. The phrase is borrowed form the Bodhisattva vows.), then our practice (e.g. sitting meditation, critical thinking) should be informed by this intention. And now comes a crucial point. If here our way ends, then we won‘t bring about change. This especially counts for my practice of sitting meditation. But it also counts for the practice of critical thinking, for such a kind of thinking does not necessarily lead to change, even if it is a preconditon of course. We clearly see again the importance of the formula intention and ideology inform practice which in turn informs action.

    And here I will end with a very brief reflection of my practice, or let us better say with one tiny part of my practice, for the whole of practice is much bigger than sitting on a cushion, as should have become clear from what I‘ve written thus far. The aim of my practice surely is not to attain pleasant states through individual experiences. The aim reaches far beyond the individual practice performed. So by experiencing individually that there is no permanent ground behind the world, that there even is no impermanent ground behind the world, we realize with the help of a subjective experience that all aspects of our experience are deeply saturated with change. Some of those aspects are open to influence (mind-dependent) while others, like death, are not (mind-independent).

    So my sitting with ‚Mu‘ is intended to foster an experience that in turn clearly should motivate a mediocrity like me to change the world (which also includes my children, my family, my neighborhood). Of course, I am not irrational. No individual practice alone will change something of importance. That‘s the reason I am engaging in critical thinking, for example on this blog. The formula from above entails a multifaceted conglomerate of different practices. And in my case, one of these numerous practices is my sitting with ‚Mu‘. It may also be a matter of character and of our personal history which practices fit to different persons.

    But I am convinced that my sitting practice can at least be for me one part that helps me to „…act in accordance with the bodhisattva vows, to act with agency to address the real causes of suffering“ (Chaim Widger, Pragmatic Dharma and Unexamined Ends).

    I will end with words inspired by my 85 years old friend who motivated me to sit with the Koan ‚Mu‘:

    „If our aspirations aim towards the experience that that there is no permanent ground behind the world, that there even is no impermanent ground behind the world, that all aspects of our experience are deeply saturated with change, that we are not permanent, the veil of permanent illusion dissolves. There is not even a paper-thin seperation between us and the world. In effect we realize that we have to work hard to stop this mundicidious economic and capital system prevalent in our society, which is heading to destroy us, our world.“

    We attune in Rainer Maria Rilke‘s credo: „You have to change your life.“

  7. Two brief points here:

    One concerns the reason I WOULD discourage the practice of mindfulness. This is that, like Anthony Kenny and many others, I would argue that the achievement of “thought-free experience” is not possible. The idea of a “non-judgmental perception” so central to mindfulness is not something we can do—so the idea that one has achieved this state is a delusion. That is, one can only believe one has achieved this when one has reached as state of being deluded about reality.

    Now, clearly, having a distorted or deluded conception of reality can certainly reduce one’s anxiety—as the evidence from use of hallucinogens demonstrates. However, this strategy is quite limited. It depends on the existence of many others who do NOT have similarly distorted perceptions of reality. It’s all very well to drop acid and be happy, so long as you have enough money in the bank, and enough people in the world NOT dropping acid to keep the power plant in working order and the food and water supply running smoothly. We can’t have someone using acid designing our power plants or driving the trucks that deliver our food, right?

    Mindfulness is much like acid trips. Fine for spoiled people who have someone else to do the real work of engaging with reality—but not ideal if everyone does it.

    Back in the 70s, there were a number of gurus trying to convince people they could teach them to levitate. Really, this was a bit a fad. One could supposedly enter a deep meditative state in which one could defy the laws of physics. I actually knew a few people when I was a teenager who were convinced that they could reach this state, and could levitate. Mindfulness is a bit like this: convincing people they are doing something that is not possible. It may give them a bit of a rush for a while, but eventually they need to come back to reality and stop deluding themselves.

    So, sure, we can all be happier if we are sufficiently deluded—for a while, and only so long as there are enough others who aren’t.

    Secondly, I would suggest that meditation does in part depend on our intentions. We do it for some reason. However, part of the goal of meditation as I understand it—rigorous thought about a problem—is that it should be an effort to arrive at an intention! That is, the goal of thinking is to decide what it is we ought to want to do! I know this is horrifying to most people today, who believe their desires and intentions are part of their deep “true self” and the only goal of thinking is to figure ought how to fulfill these desires. I think this way of thinking about the source of our desires is partly the reason we have reduced meditation to the attempt to stop all thought. This is a terrible mistake, though. Our “deepest” desires are socially produced, and one of the goals of rigorous thought is to determine how and why they were produced and decide whether we in fact ought to pursue them.

  8. Matthias

     /  May 5, 2020


    I totally agree with your point that the “…idea of a ‘non-judgmental perception’ so central to mindfulness is not something we can do—so the idea that one has achieved this state is a delusion. That is, one can only believe one has achieved this when one has reached as state of being deluded about reality.”

    You write: “Mindfulness is much like acid trips. Fine for spoiled people who have someone else to do the real work of engaging with reality—but not ideal if everyone does it.”

    Using the example of acid trips, one of the points I made above was that one who takes acid trips could also be one who does real work and engage with reality. For sure, one who does nothing else but taking acid trips would simply have no time any more to engage. So it is not an all-or-nothing game.

    So someone who participates in a study with magic mushrooms looking if they can reduce the fear of one’s imminent death or eats them for other reasons could very well also drive a truck to deliver food.

    I love your following statement: “The goal of thinking is to decide what it is we ought to want to do! I know this is horrifying to most people today, who believe their desires and intentions are part of their deep ‘true self’ and the only goal of thinking is to figure ought how to fulfill these desires. […] Our ‘deepest’ desires are socially produced, and one of the goals of rigorous thought is to determine how and why they were produced and decide whether we in fact ought to pursue them.”

    Clearly our desires and intentions are dependently arisen like everything else we encounter. And it is very important to examine if we should follow our intentions. I am doing this concerning my own practice and will keep going this attitude.

    With regard to practices which aim to generate personal experiences, I think the yardstick of their worth should be how these practices influence our social behavior. If, for example, we do nothing else but eating magic mushrooms in our garden, we would, if avoiding bad trips, feel personally good. But we won’t do anything to prevent society to go in the crapper. But I’d like to note that exceptional personal experiences are able do generate intentions that may have a pro-social impact, pro-social in the sense that they challenge the status quo.

    As one example, I’d like to use people having had near-death-experiences. An often seen after-effect of these experiences is a marked change in attitude, especially towards the lives of other people.

    So what I think is important to see is that after having undergone such experiences, we may, like through rigorous thinking, arrive at an intention. And it is obvious that those new intentions may challenge the intentions we assumed to be the ones of our through delusion assumed ‘true self’. So change of intention is possible through rigorous thinking ‘and’ personal experiences. But what inevitably needs rigorous thinking is the inquiry into the validity which or whose ends those intentions serve. But we may be able to check those intentions also by looking at the changed behavior of the persons concerned.

  9. Matthias

     /  May 5, 2020

    In a nutshell, what is of importance for social change is that some of our practices and actions effect change, are able to challenge the status quo in which we have settled lazy and stationary.

  10. Matthias

     /  May 6, 2020

    Thinking again and again (sometimes when sleepless at night) about the hopefully unfolding dialogue above, I see more and more the importance of where the Faithful Buddhist project points to. One short point from this night:

    An individual practice that reinforces the delusion of an experience solely dependent on the individual is doomed to fail. Nothing will change but the experience of the individual. It is important to see that is indeed possible for an individual to change experience through individual practice (see e.g. the use of hallucinogens). Yet thinking this is the ‘whole story’ concerning experience is delusion.

    Here’s the key point: If we exclude the dependence of our experience on society as a whole, we will keep the delusion of an atman, and equally important, we will stay deluded by excluding an important influence on our experiences.

  11. Matthias

     /  May 6, 2020

    So if or let’s better say how an individual practice (like my sitting meditation practice) can be brought together with the key point expressed above is one of the questions I’d like to see tackled on this thread. I gave some thoughts in thinking how this may be possible.

  12. I’m not completely sure I understand the force of your question, Matthias.

    My belief is that most “sitting meditation” practice is fairly worthless, and people lose interest in it eventually. That is, there needs to be a strong social component to it, or it just doesn’t work to maintain the illusion of an atman it is meant to produce. The koan you mention, the “does a dog have Buddha nature” question, is of course part of a larger discourse. The puzzle being posed here is complex. We have to consider what we mean by “Buddha nature,” whether it exists at all, and if so whether only humans or all beings can have it. Dogs were assumed to be a particularly low and vile form of life, so the question is asking whether the most despicable life forms participate in the highest “nature.” Then we have to consider what “mu” might mean. Is it saying no, dogs don’t have this nature, or that there is no such thing as Buddha nature at all, or something else? This is a complex discursive question, that assumes a great deal of knowledge about the philosophical debates of the time. An modern equivalent might be something like asking “How does the fly get into the bottle?”

    What is usually meant by “sitting meditation” (and I’m not sure if this is what you mean by the term) is just to focus on the pure syllable “mu” with no discursive thought at all—as if the syllable itself could be a sensory perception we can experience objectively. This is strategy avoids the complex thinking that koans were meant to encourage.

    My concern about mindfulness is that it doesn’t work, and most people know it is nonsense and won’t do it—BUT, they continue to believe that they ought to be doing it, and refuse to say explicitly what their actions show that they really know. They will SAY that mindfulness is a great technique to bring happiness and peace, but will never do it alone, outside of some group setting where they can use it to demonstrate their spiritual superiority.

    As I’ve said many times, my first encounter with mindfulness was may years ago in rehab. I thought it was absurd, and so did everyone else, and none of us would do it—but we had to go to a daily “mindful meditation” class for forty minutes, and watch several videos about mindfulness. This is still standard practice in addiction treatment—and I know literally dozens of addiction counselors who are paid to give the mindfulness classes, but not a single one will ever practice mindfulness meditation on their own.

    So, if nobody does it, why is it bad? Because it is the only solution on offer: a combination of cognitive therapy for addiction (proven for decades to have a success rate of zero) and mindfulness practice. And as long as we have these two useless techniques, which are popular because they can be easily done by “counselors” with limited intellects and little education, the common wisdom is we need nothing else. These “solutions” are on offer, and if they don’t work the addicts can be blamed for failing to “want it bad enough.”

    As for the dramatic changes of hallucinogens, yes, it is exactly of the kind we see with near-death experience. When people have a near-death experience, their lives are completely transformed…for about three to six months. But a year later, they are exactly the same as they were before. This has been studied extensively, and is always used to claim that our personalities, even our beliefs, are inborn and cannot be changed. My argument would be that a real change requires a consciously chosen and effortful course of action over a long period of time—it cannot be brought about by an accident. Or by a drug. Hallucinogens produce a powerful sense of solipsism or extreme narcissism, which does reduce anxiety and fear of death, even reduces fear of any negative consequences; but this is not permanent, and will wear of very quickly if the consequences one has become indifferent to become realities. The contended state only lasts so long as others are still worried about consequences enough to do the work that the acid user doesn’t care about.

    Certainly, not every action we do needs to be working to eliminate social suffering. We need rest and relaxation as well. But if your rest and relaxation involves things like taking hallucinogens or mindfulness, things that distort your perception of reality, then they are working to prevent your successful engagement with reality when you are done relaxing! We need to create a word in which people can be free of anxiety without such debilitating strategies.

  13. One more point: I’d also like to hear what others think of this. How might one’s meditative practice actually be made useful to the goal of reducing suffering?

  14. what about…
    when I was a student I used to do “processing”, which was practically just sitting around a lot after lectures and let inside things happen. There was nothing forced or planned about it, nothing spiritual or otherwise “self-optimizing”, I, in fact, needed this “unproductive” alone time to deal with all the impressions, all the new things of the day; in retrospect it was also about a latent psychological condition.
    Now why not understand a form of meditation just as sitting around a bit. No purpose, no goal, no specific intention. Maybe that is not possible – and a contradiction if I say, it could serve to undermine the compulsion to be productive all the time, undermine concepts of “laziness”, “productivity”, and “usefulness” which are all connected ableism (as people with disability struggle with the ideology of the useful and productive and thus included member of society) – and by the way maybe reap fruits of creative boredom?

  15. Matthias

     /  May 6, 2020


    you write: “I’m not completely sure I understand the force of your question.”

    I have to say I am not sure myself. And the longer I think about my inquiry, the less I’m sure what’s the worth of my thoughts. I fear that above I am trying, writhing, to defend a practice which may be totally nuts. I think everyone who deeply thinks about it has to admit this. Blogs like this one are really provoke deep scrutinizing.

    And, just as an aside, today I left my cushion short after beginning to sit. I simply was not convinced in that moment that what I’m doing is worth doing it. And I am still not convinced.

    You also write: “What is usually meant by “sitting meditation” (and I’m not sure if this is what you mean by the term) is just to focus on the pure syllable “mu” with no discursive thought at all—as if the syllable itself could be a sensory perception we can experience objectively. This is strategy avoids the complex thinking that koans were meant to encourage.”

    Do you have any reading recommendation for me where I can get information about your indication that koans were meant to encourage complex thinking. My informations on what koans meant to encourage are diametrically opposite. What is this information I have? As you may expect, koans according to my information were meant to generate spontaneous enlightening experiences. So I am keen to know the truth here.

  16. Matthias

     /  May 7, 2020

    I am currently reading Tom’s paper ‘The radical potential of Shin Buddhism’ (https://faithfulbuddhist.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/radical-shin.pdf). I have to say that the first pages really electrified me and let me now see more clearer the problems with individual practice.

    A key insight of Shinran seems to be that we only can achieve liberation by focussing on the liberation of all dependently arisen conscious entities. So the point is to rigorously think about and create ideologies that work towards the eradication of suffering.

    One of the ideologies created by humans is capitalism. I am not really knowledgeable in politics. But I am convinced that by searching for suitable ideologies, or let’s say better suitable parts of ideologies, which can help to reduce suffering, one has to take a very nuanced strategy to take account of truth.

    As I said, what I spout here concerning politics may be damn stupid. But how should I think rigorously without risking to utter boneheaded thoughts which may bring my thinking further through receiving the critique of others.

    To my knowledge, capitalism has contributed to the reduction of suffering. Of course, no ideology can have the ultimate solution. But isn’t it a legitimate question to think what is good about capitalism? In my view, when it comes to this topic, we often see a prejudging demonization. But to really reduce suffering, one should at least be willing to deeply think about capitalism and what may be suitable in it to reduce suffering. Of course, a nuanced approach also should look at the troubles effectuated by an ideology. That’s out of question.

    I fear many readers of this blog may condemn me for even allowing the thought if a capitalist ideology or parts of it may be suitable to reduce suffering. But I think when it comes to the liberation of all conscious entities, as I said in the beginning, then our focus should be on liberation, not on an undifferentiated rush to judgement of ideologies.

  17. Matthias

     /  May 7, 2020

    To sum it up, my key question here is not if capitalism is reducing suffering or not. From what I know in the moment, it may, but as well may not. The key question rather is the following:

    By living according to the principles set up by Shinran as explained in the article linked above, is it *in principle* possible to include capitalism on one’s search for liberation through the reduction of suffering? On this search we may, when we have enough information, discard capitalism from what we have learned through rigorous thinking about it. But one has to give it a try in the first place to be honest on one’s search for liberation.

    This in no way diminishes the importance of critiquing a Mindful subject who would accept and quietly breathing away every ideology, no matter how much suffering this ideology would produce.

    The thinking subject honestly considers which ideologies are suitable to reduce suffering. So thinking, even about capitalist ideology, is inevitable. The Mindful subject only is interested in her own liberation.

  18. Of course we should think dialectically about capitalism! This is what marxist thought has always done. Capitalism requires a generally higher level of education, for instance. And at least must claim to offer equality. It also generally improves our standard of living, and increases the likelihood of the struggle for gender equality succeeding (although this has not yet happened). So, under capitalism, unlike under previous social formations, we can at least demand equality and an improved standard of living as a “right” that is not being met.

    On the other hand, unlike any other social formation, capitalism requires, to continue operating, the complete destruction of all life on the planet. I’m not sure I’d see this as a good trade for the mere empty promise of equality, and the ability to watch television shows whenever we want, eat ourselves into obesity, and drive around in cars.

    So, sure, we do need to think rigorously about capitalism. It isn’t enough to say that it requires gross inequality and racism. After all, the fact that we can complain about these things and not see them as the natural order of things is also due to capitalism’s demand for endless “progress” and so its need for a more educated populace.

    But thinking dialectically also requires that we not stop short at seeing the benefits. We also need to see the negative side, and be unwilling to oppress the majority of humans, and wipe out life on the planet, for our own comfort. It may be true that the worker under capitalism isn’t as bad off as the slave in the Roman Empire; but that doesn’t mean we should accept the current situation.

    So I would agree that we need to think seriously and rigorously about the nature of capitalism. This could be a good form of meditation. Most people will not be willing to do this, though. Generally, for instance, in Anglo-American analytical philosophy this is ruled out—capitalism must be taken as a given, as a natural background, like physics or chemistry, to which we must adapt ourselves.

  19. Nicola,
    There used to be a term for this kind of thinking: contemplation. Just observing things and considering how one feels about them, without the rigorous attempt to solve a problem. But this is in no way the “nonjudgmental bare perception of the present moment” advocated by mindfulness. In fact, contemplation requires memory and evaluation. There’s nothing particularly wrong with such an activity. My point would simply be that it is much less likely than more rigorous thought to make us aware of our unexamined assumptions about the world. It may even help us arrive at solutions to some problems, so long as such solutions are possible within the existing conceptual framework (the “common-sense” understanding of things). When contemplation leaves us stuck, however, we might need to try meditation.

  20. For future comments: I’m not really interested in pursuing the old debate about capitalism being the best of all possible worlds (or, the worst possible economic system…except for all the others, as somebody once said). I do think explaining to people who are affluent and benefit from capitalism why it is not okay to violently oppress billions of humans for their benefit, and why the death of thousands of species and destruction of the Earth’s atmosphere is not worth having a better cellphone or faster car. This is worthwhile work to do—I just don’t want to do it here. I would like to begin the discussion here from the position that capitalism is in fact bad and should be eliminated. To my mind, this is sort of like beginning a physics class with the understanding that gravity exists—if we have to explain the basics every time we start to talk, we cannot get anywhere.

    If you are still at the position of doubting the undesirability of capitalism, I would recommend reading David Harvey’s book “Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason.” There are many other books that will also help explain this, but I think Harvey’s is a good one and clear for the non-specialist.

    On another note: Does anyone have any suggestions for reading on the history of the Koan? I know I’ve read several essays and books explaining why the Western obsession with the “one hand clapping” and the “mu” koans are based on a distorted idea of what Koans were for. However, in recent years I have purged my shelves of a couple hundred books on Buddhism, and don’t know where I read these things. I do know there are some folks much more knowledgeable than I am about Buddhist studies still reading this blog—any suggestions? If you don’t want to comment on the blog, you can email me and I’ll relay the suggestions without identifying you!

  21. Matthias

     /  May 9, 2020


    thanks a lot for recommending Harvey’s book. I will take your advice to heart and use the book as starting a meditation about the nature of capitalism.

    I would like to add something important. You write to Nicola: “When contemplation leaves us stuck, however, we might need to try meditation.”

    Am I right that the term meditation you use in this quote is meditation as a serious and rigorous kind of thinking?

    If yes, do you see any chance that the term meditation will eventually recover its original meaning, namely a kind of serious and rigorous thinking?

  22. I expect there are book in German that make the case that Harvey is making—maybe other readers can offer some suggestions?

    As for “meditation”: yes, in that sense to Nicola I meant thinking rigorously. Once we have done the hard work of learning something, we can sometimes arrive at new ideas and insights by a sort of passive contemplation—thinking about something else, or just letting our thoughts wander over what we’ve been doing. When I was writing my dissertation, sometimes after weeks of intense reading I would have sudden flash of insight while hiking or mowing the lawn. The insight would not have come if I hadn’t taken a break, but it also was necessary that I first did the weeks of intense reading.

    And no, I don’t think at this point the term “meditation” can be rescued. It has been mostly used, since the 1960s, to refer to mystical states and the cessation of thinking. In America, to most people meditation refers to the kind of “zoned out” state you reach when you’re a bit tired and just sit staring blankly feeling kind of hazy. It is hard to recover the meaning of a word once it has changed for most language users. Sort of the way “literally” just means “figuratively” to most Americans today—if you use the word correctly, you will be misunderstood by most people.

    So, perhaps we need a new word to describe the act of thinking rigorously in an attempt to solve some problem?

  23. Certainly there are many texts on the undesirabilty and failures of capitalism, but I’d like to suggest “Business as Usual” by Paul Mattick. It came out in the aftermath of the 2007 economic crisis but is more like an historical analysis of the inherent problems of modern capitalism, and the associated oncoming environmental catastrophe…
    As far as a new word to describe the act of thinking rigorously to solve a problem?
    How about Meta-tation?

  24. Yes, Mattick’s book is a really good suggestion! Mattick explains not only the 2007 crisis, but why such crises are not accidental, but necessary to the functioning of capitalism. This is the important point: that the existence of an oppressed underclass, the destruction of the environment, and periodic wars and depressions are not the result of external accidents, but are necessary results of a capitalist economy. Contrary to the common right-wing claim that such crises are a result of socialists in congress, they are in fact inherent features of capitalism when it is NOT restrained by socialism.

    Another book that deals with this is, also by Harvey, “Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism.” I know I’ve read other accounts of this as well, but cannot remember tittles at the moment.

  25. It seems that I’ve neglected this discussion for too long, and many issues have already been resolved (or at least discussed thoroughly). I’ll only chime in to give some reading suggestions, mostly in German, that you might find helpful, Matthias.

    On the dialectical nature of capitalism, here is a good article that addresses the ideas of people like Pinker, who write only about the wonders of capitalism without understanding its development and its actual nature:


    The point made above is that capitalism was at one point progressive, but that it has outlived this, and is now preventing further progress. For instance, it is true that capitalism has done a great deal to eradicate certain diseases. However, this is no longer the case, and in fact capitaism now precisely prevents any further development. For a relevant example of this, consider this article on capitalism and the coronavirus (and disease in general):


    to appreciate this, consider the way in which Marxists analyze any social formation: not as static, but as something that undergoes constant change and development (very buddhistic!). Here is a good article, also in German, that explains the basics of dialectical materialism:


    Finally, here is one of the best articles I have read on the history of capitalism. It demonstrates quite clearly that the myth that capitalism developed more or less peacefully, and has made the world less violent in the process, is without any basis in fact. Unfortunately, this article has not yet been translated, but it’s worth the effort:


    Hope these are helpful.

  26. “The koans do not represent the private opinion of a single man, but rather the hundreds and thousands of bodhisattvas of the three realms and ten directions. This principle accords with the spiritual source, tallies with the mysterious meaning, destroys birth-and-death, and transcends the passions. It cannot be understood by logic; it cannot be transmitted in words; it cannot be explained in writing; it cannot be measured by reason. It is like the poisoned drum that kills all who hear it, or like a great fire that consumes all who come near it.”
    When I read the phrases about the principle behind the koans that “…cannot be understood by logic; cannot be transmitted in words; it cannot be explained in writing” etc. I thought it belonged to some writer following D.T. Suzuki or Alan Watts and I thought “Oh no, another populist windbag promoting anti-intellectualism, probably a contemporary writer who lives in a society (likely in U.S.) where most literate people are just specialists and don’t like reading long texts outside the scope of their profession, let alone critical thinking!” But the citation belongs to Zongfeng Mingben (1263-1323) 😄
    So my guess was maybe partly wrong, the writer is not a contemporary one but being an anti-intellectual windbag part is right? Maybe in those times, Chinese literate people mostly resembled to the ones living in some of our contemporary societies. We are talking about an opressive rule where “critical thinking” was not very (!) favorable.
    Let’s say the principle behind the koans are beyond analysing, thinking and writing etc. But how can I choose to concentrate on the syllable “mu” while doing belly breathing, if the ideology of the question in the Mu koan is so obviously controversial? Even if we evaluate it with an early Buddhist understanding, how can you rationalize accepting any life form (dog) lower or higher (buddha) than others, considering impermanence and the understanding that all beings are devoid of an essence/atman? Also how can you talk about an essence(?) like “Buddha nature”? To concentrate solely on the syllable “mu” you have to stop thinking about these questions, and this won’t take you anywhere other than the practices of mindfulness. Maybe if you are persistent enough, you can have an experience of altered consciousness. But an altered consciousness experience is not satori or nirvana or any other life changing event, it’s not much more significant than getting a drug.

  27. Yes, the debate in Buddhism goes back to the very earliest texts we have. Even a thousand years before Zongfeng MIngben, Nagarjuna was arguing against the schools of Buddhist that believe in the existence of an eternal uncreated consciousness. In China, as I remember (I haven’t read about this for some time now) there was quite an intense debate, as some Buddhists attempted to appeal to the wealthy and powerful classes by making Buddhism into a kind of anti-intellectual mysticism, which seems to have been more what they were looking for. Of course, most of the texts we have are by the winners in this contest—those who pandered to the rich and powerful. But in their passionate vilification of those who advocate thought and anatman, we can still see that there must have been such Buddhists, right?

    Anyway, the history is of less interest to me. I’m more concerned with the correct understanding of reality. Debates about which is the “true original Buddhism” seem to me as absurd as debating which is the “true original philosophy,” or the “true original physics,” as if what came first must be preferable. The bigger point is that the American obsession with the “mu koan” is part of the atman/mysticism approach, and not likely to get us anywhere useful.

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