A Blog for Buddhists Who Can Handle the Truth!

Are there any Buddhists out there who can accept the truth?  Any who don’t use Buddhism as a means of retreating from reality into comforting illusions?  I’d like to hear from you, to get some serious discussion going, and to try to devise new ways to help more people strip the comforting veil of illusion from the brute frame of reality.

Some preliminary caveats:

  1. This blog rejects idealism or dualism in any form; there is no atman of any kind.
  2. Capitalism is a humanly created social system, which can be changed by humans, and should be because it requires enormous human suffering.
  3. Our lives in the world require beliefs and practices that are socially created; I will call these ideologies.  We must have an ideology, there is no way to act in the world without one.  However, ideology does not need to be an illusion or a deception, and we can consciously choose our beliefs and practices instead of assuming they are natural or universal.

I will simply reject any comments trying to insist that capitalism is natural, a result of “human nature.”  I will also reject any comments arguing that there is such a thing as an atman/soul/transcendent consciousness, etc.  There are plenty of places to discuss and engage in these deluded beliefs.  Here, we will only discuss the truth.

It is my fundamental assertion that Buddhism is founded on a truth, not an ideology.  The truth of Buddhism, the “truth event” to which I wish to be faithful, is the essential insight that we must always have an ideology, but that it is possible to consciously choose our ideology.  This is a truth that obtains for all human beings in all times.  We can escape determinism and suffering if we can learn to be conscious of, and consciously choose, the beliefs and practices with which we engage in life in the world.  These beliefs and practices are real, they are not “mere illusions,” but have real causal powers.  They are our social formations, the structures which shape our interactions with one another and with the non-human world.  Unlike the laws of physics, we can change these structures–but only collectively, and with effort.  What I call the “Buddha event,” the truth event of the advent of Buddhism, is the recognition that there is no atman of any kind and, along with that realization, the recognition that there are “two truths,” an intransitive truth of the mind-independent reality in which we exist, and the transitive truth of our social systems, which have real inertial force, but can be understood by the human mind in collective symbolic thought and so can be transformed.

Although I will not engage with reactionary sophistry and attempts to deny these truths, I will gladly engage with any serious questions about them, including critical responses and any attempt to introduce new concepts or approaches to the truth.

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7 Comments

  1. Is the blog back up? This is great news! These essays are at the pinnacle of the best writing on Buddhism, anywhere, anytime. They are also proving to be highly influential among younger, more theory-savvy, writiers. May we see new texts going forward!

  2. Joseph Dowd

     /  November 23, 2020

    As a philosophy instructor with an intellectual interest in both Buddhism and what might be broadly described as “left” politics, I found your blog fascinating when I stumbled upon it. I’ll admit that I haven’t read many of your posts, but I have a few questions that take this post as their starting-point and would be gratified if you took a moment to reply.

    1. You write, “This blog rejects idealism or dualism in any form; there is no atman of any kind.” Given my background in philosophy, either of the clauses in this sentence would make sense to me on its own, but I don’t understand the sentence as a whole. You seem to equate the idea of an atman with idealism and dualism. As I understand it, traditional Buddhist metaphysics (which you, of course, may—and presumably do—reject) accepts the latter while rejecting the former. On the traditional view, dualism is true in the sense that mental events are distinct from physical events, but at the same time there is no atman, no self over and above the flux of mental and physical events. So traditional Buddhism seems to work with a concept of atman that makes the atman/anatman issue separate from the dualism/materialism issue. Indeed, if I understand it correctly, the Buddhist denial of an atman would rule out many materialist viewpoints, namely any materialist viewpoints that posit a person over and above the person’s constantly changing components. Can you clarify what you mean by “atman” and what connection you see between an atman on one hand and dualism and idealism on the other?

    2. I found this blog thanks to your Amazon review of Ronald Purser’s McMindfulness and read your “Can Mindfulness Be Liberated?” post. In the latter, you reject Purser’s assertion that a person is “nothing but a mental construct, a phantom’s mask covering the reality of change” and his denial that “we are metaphysically real entities with real causal powers.” Your point—that such a view at least appears to undermine the agency required for positive change—is well taken, but it seems to me that nearly all traditional branches of Buddhism interpret the denial of an atman as precisely the claim a person is a mental construct and not a metaphysically real entity. (As for whether there are “real causal powers,” this seems to be a more complicated issue that becomes a big deal only after the rise of Mahayana philosophy, though I may be mistaken about that.) So this brings me back to the question of what you mean when you deny the existence of an atman. Perhaps you can direct me to some posts where you explore this topic in detail?

  3. I wouldn’t agree that “all traditional branches of Buddhism” share the same interpretation of just about anything. I am sure that many of the Buddhist school more popular in the West would disagree with me. I don’t believe my position differs from traditional Madhyamaka Buddhist thought.

    I’ve discussed this some in my essay on anatman, which is in the “Article Archives” section, and in my section of the book “Cruel Theory/ Sublime Practice”.

    I would not agree that making a distinction between mental events and physical events requires dualism—any more than making a distinction between dancing and doorstops does. Perhaps I have a different idea of dualism than what is common in academic philosophy, though.

  4. Joseph Dowd

     /  November 23, 2020

    You’re right that I shouldn’t have made a claim about what “nearly all branches of Buddhism” say.

    “I don’t believe my position differs from traditional Madhyamaka Buddhist thought.”

    Well, from a Madhyamaka viewpoint, you could say that the self is conventionally real but not ultimately real. In fact, that’s what you say in “Taking Atman Full Strength.”

    However, I don’t see how to interpret the conventional/ultimate distinction except as a distinction between the (merely) conventionally constructed and the metaphysically real. So, for example, a table is only a mental construct. You can divide the world into things, including tables, just as you can divide a length of rope into inches, but in both cases the division is merely a convention and does not exist in mind-independent reality. So I don’t see how, from a Madhyamaka perspective, you could claim that “we are metaphysically real entities.”

    I’ve read some interpretations of Madhyamaka that seem to imply that conventionally real entities are metaphysically real, just not causally independent. The trouble is that this interpretation seems to make the conventional/ultimate distinction obvious and trivial. No one thinks that a table, for instance, is causally independent.

    As for the dualism thing—abhidharma philosophy, at least, seems dualistic if anything is. The ancient Buddhist abhidharma systems call the basic building blocks of reality “dharmas” or “dhammas” and distinguish mental dharmas from rupa (physical) dharmas. On this view, if you break a person down into her smallest parts, some of those parts will be physical while others will be non-physical. That strikes me as a form of dualism. At the same time, the abhidharma systems reject an atman because they regard these dharmas—and not any person composed of them—as the only metaphysically real entities.

  5. I would say that the conventionally real is as real as anything gets. This is what I take Nagarjuna to argue: that even the “dhammas” are dependently arisen. So to say something is conventionally real is just to say it is metaphysically real—the “merely” is the error we need to try to get over.

    Yes, certainly, may schools of Buddhism are dualist. I am just not convinced by them. I expect you won’t be convinced by my position either. I’m really not concerned by the claim that I’m not an authentic or true Buddhist—such debates don’t interest me. I’m simply concerned with what reality is actually like.

    I’ve discussed this further in Chapter Two of “Indispensable Goods,” but I suspect you would find it terribly unconvincing. I do not assume the existence of any final “really real” particles that are the ultimate ground of everything. What I mean by metaphysical is simply the state of being an object—something that continues being what it is against whatever resistance occurs to dissolve it. So yes, a table is just as metaphysically real as a photon, although not in exactly the same way.

    I do understand your position. But we begin from fundamentally different first premises, and I don’t expect to convince you to change yours. That is to say, I am not a postmodernist who believes we cannot understand one another—I expect we can make our positions clear. But I’m not sure I can give you sufficient reasons to change your most fundamental assumptions about reality.

    If you don’t accept my concept of what it means for something to be real, it may just be that this project isn’t going to be of much use for you.

  6. Joseph Dowd

     /  November 23, 2020

    “Yes, certainly, ma[n]y schools of Buddhism are dualist. I am just not convinced by them. I expect you won’t be convinced by my position either.”

    Well, I’m not convinced by your position, but I don’t reject it either. My views about mind and body are far from settled, and I wouldn’t call myself a dualist.

    I suppose there’s some miscommunication here. I was simply arguing that the atman/anatman issue, as understood by many Buddhist schools, seems separate from the dualism/materialism issue. For the record, I don’t consider myself a Buddhist at all, let alone an authentic one.

    Anyway, thanks for the talk. I’ve found this site interesting, though not wholly convincing, so far, and I’ll probably read a bit more of your stuff.

    P.S.: I don’t believe that elementary particles are more real than tables. If there’s a “real” reality distinct from the conventional reality of people and tables and whatnot, then I would say that it’s simply reality itself—not reality regarded as a single thing but, rather, reality prior to our conceptualization of it as one thing or many. But that’s just my current and not very firmly held view.

  1. Buddhist Quotes – Buddha Shakyamuni

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