"Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

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"Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby JKhedrup » Fri Nov 09, 2012 9:07 am

Bhikkhu Dhammanando, for those of you who know him, posted this on Facebook.
I actually like much of the work of Thich Nhat Hanh (and Alan Watts). But to me there are some points expressed here that ring true. What do you think?


Comfort-Food Buddhism

Posted by Tom Pepper on August 24, 2012 http://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2012/ ... -buddhism/

Vague Platitudes to Avoid Life’s Hard Questions: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Comfort-Food Buddhism

by Tom Pepper

My first experience with the “mindfulness” craze was in psychology class. Nobody seemed very clear on what mindfulness meant, but they were all sure it was a “Buddhist concept.” It seemed harmless, if not at all helpful, so I ignored it. Until they showed us the educational dvd on mindfulness, which I believe came from the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA.

In this video, a well-meaning psychologist spoke earnestly of how mindfully living “in the moment” would cure everything from ADHD to post-traumatic stress to addictions. When she got to the description of how we should learn to ignore everything but our sensory experiences, I thought, well, she just doesn’t know much about the history of psychology, or she would be aware that such practices have been tried, and nobody can EVER do that. Not even for a moment. And she doesn’t know much about Buddhism, or she would know that such “bare awareness” is not at all what the Buddha meant by sati. Then, she began to describe how one could mindfully walk to the guillotine to be executed, and I laughed so hard I had to leave the room.

I didn’t think much of the new fad of mindful-everything, and figured it was harmless, and irrelevant to Buddhism. I didn’t think any Buddhists were so mistaken about the concept.

Then, I read Thich Nhat Hanh. I discovered that this concept really is coming from a Buddhist, and it became much more troubling to me. I had never read Thich Nhat Hanh until about four years ago, when a study group in my sangha decided to read his Answers from the Heart. I wasn’t much interested in the kind of night-stand Buddhism that is usually found in the books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. These books seemed mostly interested in making a quick buck off of the American middle-class readers who just want to feel better about themselves without too much effort, and like to think they are more open minded and spiritually advanced than average. I pretty much dismissed Thich Nhat Hanh without reading him.

I sometimes wish I had left it at that.

Having now read nearly a dozen of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, I have to say that I think his version of Buddhism is troublingly simplistic, not really helpful at all, and overall damaging to the possibility of any real understanding of Buddhism spreading to the United States. His Tuesdays-With-Morrie-style empty platitudes make people think they’ve learned something profound, when they have actually only strengthened their attachments to the delusions that are the real source of misery in our culture. I read Answers from the Heart with a knot in my stomach, wondering: don’t people realize this is just a bunch of banal clichés? Isn’t it obvious he is oversimplifying every problem to the point of absurdity?

Nevertheless, I pressed on with the reading, trying to find something useful in the book, something to say when the study group met. Then, I got to the “Children’s Questions” section, and, well, I lost hope. Let me give a specific example of the problem.

In answer to a child’s question about what “we can do to become enlightened,” Thich Nhat Hanh says:

When you drink your tea, and know that you’re drinking your tea, you’re concentrated, you see that drinking tea is something you like to do. So drinking tea mindfully is a kind of enlightenment. (p. 147)

No, it really isn’t. It may be a kind of contentment, and may be very useful in helping restore peace of mind, relieve stress, and help us go on with our day. But it is NOT enlightenment. Nowhere does the Buddha say that what he means by awakening is enjoying a good cup of tea–or anything even remotely like it. Even if mindfulness was the same as concentration, which it isn’t, neither is it the same as enlightenment. They are not even a beginning, or lower level of, enlightenment. At most, they are a preparation to train the mind, so that we will be able to begin working toward enlightenment. Now, this is an answer to a question by a child, and we could say that this is just skillful means, that he is encouraging the child on toward that fantastic castle-city. But my problem is that this is the same thing he says in all his books, repeatedly, not just to children, and he never gives any indication that he sees this as only a first step. For Thich Nhat Hanh, drinking tea, chopping carrots, and looking at flowers simply is what the Buddha meant by enlightenment.

This may be comforting to the bookstore Buddhist who wants to believe her garden parties or his golf swing really is the end of the Buddhist path. But it is very, very clear from everything that the Buddha says about his own awakening that he had something much more in mind. And it may not always be so easy to accept.

Certainly what Thich Nhat Hanh says sounds, at first, like wonderfully “wise” answers—until we realize he hasn’t told us anything we couldn’t get out of a fortune cookie. For instance, when he discusses “engaged Buddhism,” he tells us to encourage our leaders to “understand the world situation” (103), and to “bring about awareness”(104), but he never says anything specific about what would help, or what exactly should be done. Who doesn’t think that leaders who understand the problem would be a good thing? There’s nothing Buddhist about that. What about discussing a Buddhist position on the absurd naiveté of the voluntarist idea that leaders could change the world if they just wanted to? What is the Buddhist position on the problem of structure and agency in social formations? These are harder questions, clearly, and require more than fortune-cookie answers.

And they require thought, which Thich Nhat Hanh consistently discourages. I began counting all the disparaging remarks about “philosophy” and “rationalism” and “intellectuals,” but really, there’s no point. I think Thich Nhat Hanh’s anti-intellectualism is pretty obvious in all his books. On his understanding of the dharma, the Buddha believed thinking was the source of our problems, and just sipping a cup of tea in the garden would clear everything right up. Now, Americans hate thinking, so I can see why this is popular. To quote Heidegger, is there any greater anxiety today than the anxiety in the face of thinking? But the Buddha doesn’t seem to have this terror of mental effort. The figure of the Buddha presented in the Pali canon clearly knew all the major philosophical trends of his time, and developed a fairly sophisticated one of his own. It isn’t all that complex, but it is very difficult because it is thoroughly counter-intuitive, and requires not just thought, but also practice. This is an important point. We need to both practice, and to be able to think clearly about what we are practicing and why. Samadhi, in fact, seems to originally have served as mental training to produce the powers of mind necessary for complex philosophical thought in a non-literate culture, where one couldn’t just take notes or “google” something.

Like many self-help Buddhists, Thich Nhat Hanh is adept at telling people what they want to hear, and making it sound profound. When he tells the luxury-car-driving nuclear warhead designer to keep his job, because he will do it mindfully, I wanted to scream. Really, go ahead and facilitate mass murder, just do it in a mindful fashion? Would he have said the same to Himmler, when he was drawing up the plans for more efficient mobile gas chambers? Weapons-dealing is one of the things the Buddha most explicitly says is NOT right livelihood. So sure, go ahead and keep whatever job you have, and don’t worry about whether you are producing bad karma; but, you should realize that you will never become enlightened, are not practicing Buddhism, and will contribute to the dukkha of countless other people. But, hey, as long as you are mindful while driving your Mercedes, right?

Answers from the Heart is full of evasions, vacuous platitudes, and empty clichés. Consider some of the questions in the “spiritual practice” section. When someone asks what “looking deeply” means, he defines it as “being deeply aware”(66). Yeah, real helpful. “What is the best way to nourish our bodhicitta?” We should desire to ”help awaken other people, relieve their suffering, and bring them happiness”(68). Okay, this is a (vague) definition of what bodhicitta is, but it doesn’t tell us how to acquire it, and tells us nothing about what will really bring people happiness. All this feel-good empty advice is not just harmless, because it makes people think they are actually learning Buddhism, when they are learning nothing at all. Thich Nhat Hanh merely helps people strengthen their existing tendency to avoid facing the hard questions and solving the hard problems, the tendency to be only as “engaged” as we can be while we watch reality television and surf the internet, drive our luxury cars and drink our tea. We only need to wish people well, not do anything about it that might actually put a crimp in our lifestyle. Instead of challenging people to face the truth, Thich Nhat Hanh produces the worst kind of capitalist post-modern ideology, and calls it Buddhism.

So, one final point, on the idea of anatman. Thich Nhat Hanh absurdly conflates ideas of a “healthy sense of self,” self esteem, and a sense of superiority, and then suggests that what is really meant by “no-self” is simply not being a narcissist. Having compassion is our “true nature of no-self”(75). This ridiculously oxymoronic phrase is the worst explanation of anatman I have ever seen, and I’ve read some bad ones. No-self means realizing that we have an essential true nature of compassion? Yikes! If he was going for the Zen paradox here (to realize no-self is to realize our essential self), that would be bad enough, but clearly this particular example is just a case of convoluted thinking.

I used to be indifferent to Thich Nhat Hanh, thinking he was a harmless popularizer; but the more I read of his books, the more I think he is one of the worst things to happen to Buddhism in America since Alan Watts. People are just getting over the idea that Buddhism means dropping acid and having sex with your students. Now they are likely to think it means sipping tea and looking at flowers, and general anti-intellectual American complacency. Maybe that’s just a feature of the audience–the baby boomers are getting old. Thich Nhat Hanh, though, seems consistently better able to reinforce delusions than remove them.

But of course, this is what sells. The bookstore Buddhist wants comfort, not challenge. She wants to be reassured that the only test of the truth of anything is whether it corresponds to what she already believes (this is what the Kalama Sutta says, right?). And that “the Buddha says” that “intellectualizing” is the source of suffering, and that we must accept everything in the world, including our own mind, and never make an effort at improvement. The Buddha says these things, right? It’s on that plaque I bought at T.J. Maxx, it must be true. Thich Nhat Hanh has paved the way for a whole host new teachers who spout platitudes in soft voices at retreats and sell their books online. Everyone’s afraid to ask them a question, because pointing out that what their saying is simplistic or just plain wrong is rude. And, if you do it, they get irrationally angry, call you names, and start listing their “qualifications,” then condescendingly smirk at your ignorance. After witnessing this once or twice, most people just won’t dare to ask a question. They choke down the cloying comfort-food version of Buddhism, and when they can’t stomach any more move on to something else.

Enough with the mindfulness already. There’s nothing wrong with thinking! For millennia, even Buddhists did a lot of it.
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby catmoon » Fri Nov 09, 2012 9:21 am

This guy really knows how to build an argument. But when he critiques the mindful drinking of tea, I think he missed the point that it's a pretty good practice for a small child, and that's who the advice was adressed to. I don't think TNH would advocate abandoning all Buddhist practice in favor of sitting around sipping tea.

I think he missed a point with the nuclear weapons designer, too. Teachers often encounter students who are unwilling to change their ways, and I suspect this was just such a case. So TNH advised him to do his job mindfully. What TNH did not tell him was that if he did his job mindfully, that weapons designer would have to confront the images of burning children, powdered cities, cancers and the destruction of the whole of civilization. And he would have to do this every step along the way as he did his job. TNH knows that no human being could continue like that for long. So it was pretty good advice if you ask me.
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby JKhedrup » Fri Nov 09, 2012 9:30 am

Agreed. An explanation of the 12 Links of Dependent Origination would not be suitable for a small child, perhaps Ven. TNH was just being realistic.

In fact, TNH has some commentaries on the sutras that are quite good, but you don't seem them in stores. This is not necessarily his fault. People just don't want it.

I do agree though that there is an element of anti-intellectualism in the Plum Village Sangha. Certain questions are not welcomed, and indeed seen as suspect and haughty if they are too "intellectual". There is one example of a friend of mine posting one of Geshe Sonam's teachings on the nature of reality on his website. A young Western Plum Village monk responded that "thinking" was one of the "greatest obstacles to enlightenment". His reponse to GS's teaching? "Brother, the plum blossoms are blooming on the trees behind the field".
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby catmoon » Fri Nov 09, 2012 9:38 am

There are many paths to the Buddha's hut. It would not surprise me if some of them led through the plum orchards.
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby JKhedrup » Fri Nov 09, 2012 9:48 am

Indeed this is true, especially considering one of the key incidents spoken of in Ch'an/Zen- the story of the Buddha looking at a flower and smiling.

My concern is the statement of the monk about "thinking" being the greatest obstacle to enlightenment. I realize that conceptuality is seen by some in that way, but to advocate against thinking entirely seems to me very dangerous. I remember in one of the workshops of TNH's one person was scolded for asking questions that people couldn't understand.

If the person was being deliberately arrogant and joining in the game of "who can ask the most sophisticated question", a censure would seem warranted. But in that instance it didn't seem to be the case- indeed, the question seemed sincere. I thought the knee jerk reaction was a bit unfair.
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby catmoon » Fri Nov 09, 2012 9:56 am

JKhedrup wrote:
My concern is the statement of the monk about "thinking" being the greatest obstacle to enlightenment. I realize that conceptuality is seen by some in that way, but to advocate against thinking entirely seems to me very dangerous. I remember in one of the workshops of TNH's one person was scolded for asking questions that people couldn't understand.




Ah yes. Advocating against thinking is indeed dangerous. It's one of the hallmark signs of a cult. I certainly hope this attitude has not become widespread in the organization, because if it has, TNH's organization is going to be in serious doo-doo about five minutes after he passes away.
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby zenkarma » Fri Nov 09, 2012 12:35 pm

I dont think Tom Pepper knows nearly as much as he thinks he does and that like most of the world his life is a hall of mirrors reflecting his delusions rather than reality. The power of paying attention to whats actually happening rather than what you think or fear might be happening cannot be overestimated. Its a life changer.
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby Jikan » Fri Nov 09, 2012 3:49 pm

related: Ken Knabb's critique of engaged Buddhism a la Thich Nhat Hanh:

http://www.bopsecrets.org/recent/buddhists.htm

(Knabb is a longtime Zen practitioner)

I bring it up because there is some overlap between these two critiques (Knabb & Pepper)
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby Indrajala » Fri Nov 09, 2012 3:54 pm

JKhedrup wrote:My concern is the statement of the monk about "thinking" being the greatest obstacle to enlightenment.


I'm concerned about this trend as well. I have to wonder where this anti-intellectualism comes from, especially since Buddhism from India to Japan has always fostered strong currents of dialogue and philosophy. The Buddha himself was quite well educated and competent in discussing the prevailing philosophies of his day. He never advocated that people just meditate and give up thought. He was always open to discussion and critical analysis.

Perhaps it stems from the belief that since dialogue and thinking are conditioned it somehow inhibits one from realizing the unconditioned? There is also the Chan emphasis on "a teaching beyond words" -- however, Sanlun patriarch Jizang, a predecessor to Chan in a sense, proposed the same thing, but used ample amounts of words and reasoning to direct people towards that realization. Through contemplation and gradual removal of wrong views one could achieve liberation. Thinking is just a means to an end, but a necessary one at that.

It seems some believe that liberation is achieved through immobilization of the body and mind, which is quite like the early Jain practices. The Buddha of course never taught this and was opposed to it.



I realize that conceptuality is seen by some in that way, but to advocate against thinking entirely seems to me very dangerous. I remember in one of the workshops of TNH's one person was scolded for asking questions that people couldn't understand.


I'm of the mind that if questions are discouraged it is best to walk away.

The whole "full glass" analogy is useful to a point, but a good teacher should be willing and able to respond to questions and more importantly criticism.
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Fri Nov 09, 2012 6:55 pm

I bought my first book on the Buddhism (Dwight Goddards "A Buddhist Bible") at a bookstore, so I guess i'm a bookstore Buddhist.

Can't imagine someone who is looking for something like TNH actually trying to read a Sutra themselves, or even a more in depth book by an acknowledged teacher. The world is definitely in need of people who can take the complex and communicate it simply though - whether TNH is that or not.

Anecdotal, but most people I know who read TNH aren't actually Buddhists, they are people from some other liberal-leaning religious background, or just general readers of "light spirituality" books.. they read him about like they read Deepak Chopra or something, as sort of a supplement with nice sounding slogans.

He makes some really good points, but there are two ways of looking at it:

1) Most of these "bookstore buddhists" (nice BTW, could not a better term be found?) will never be Buddhists in the first place, and TNH can't delve further into Buddhist thought without these people simply deciding not to read him. So yes he is writing pop psychology Buddhism, but the effect on Buddhism overall is minimal, because most of his readers would never bother anyway.

2) TNH is harmful to Buddhism because people who might otherwise learn and pursue more in depth Dharma teachings get inaccurate, confusing teachings

Personally I have doubts that #2 is in play very much outside TNH's own organization, I know people with years of practice that still have some weird ideas about Buddhism due to largely to lack of actually just reading Sutras themselves and similar, they basically meditate to feel good. It's hard to solely blame teachers when the students won't investigate for themselves in the first place, isn't it? So whether or not someone like TNH is putting out incomplete, feel-good teachings does not make a whole lot of difference in the larger scheme, as the audience for deeper Dharma teaching might not be the same.

I really liked the Knapp piece, and found myself agreeing with it strongly.
Last edited by Johnny Dangerous on Fri Nov 09, 2012 7:27 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby viniketa » Fri Nov 09, 2012 7:26 pm

The stubborn streak of anti-intellectionalism in Buddhism, to my understanding, can be traced to the erroneous idea that all "conceptual" thought is mistaken (and obscuring) and must therefore be abandoned totally and permanently. This is a common theme I see running through many conversations just on DW alone, not to mention many other online and offline discussions.

Why do we not see "bodhi" emphasized in Buddhist thought?

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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby Sherlock » Fri Nov 09, 2012 7:34 pm

Huseng wrote:
JKhedrup wrote:My concern is the statement of the monk about "thinking" being the greatest obstacle to enlightenment.


I'm concerned about this trend as well. I have to wonder where this anti-intellectualism comes from, especially since Buddhism from India to Japan has always fostered strong currents of dialogue and philosophy. The Buddha himself was quite well educated and competent in discussing the prevailing philosophies of his day. He never advocated that people just meditate and give up thought. He was always open to discussion and critical analysis.

Perhaps it stems from the belief that since dialogue and thinking are conditioned it somehow inhibits one from realizing the unconditioned? There is also the Chan emphasis on "a teaching beyond words" -- however, Sanlun patriarch Jizang, a predecessor to Chan in a sense, proposed the same thing, but used ample amounts of words and reasoning to direct people towards that realization. Through contemplation and gradual removal of wrong views one could achieve liberation. Thinking is just a means to an end, but a necessary one at that.

It seems some believe that liberation is achieved through immobilization of the body and mind, which is quite like the early Jain practices. The Buddha of course never taught this and was opposed to it.



I realize that conceptuality is seen by some in that way, but to advocate against thinking entirely seems to me very dangerous. I remember in one of the workshops of TNH's one person was scolded for asking questions that people couldn't understand.


I'm of the mind that if questions are discouraged it is best to walk away.

The whole "full glass" analogy is useful to a point, but a good teacher should be willing and able to respond to questions and more importantly criticism.


I think in most Tibetan Buddhist circles, especially among Gelugpas and Sakyapas, anti-intellectualism is strongly discouraged because of the infamous Samye debate. I think some Gelugpas end up doing more analytic meditation than sitting practice or tantric practice as a result of this though.

On the other hand, the Nyingmapas and Kagyupas might have a slight tendency towards emphasizing practice over study, both schools still turned out many eminent practitioners who were also skilled scholars though, and it might depend on the particular school and teacher. Dzogchen monastery is apparently quite heavily influenced by the Gelugpas.

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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby Yudron » Fri Nov 09, 2012 7:43 pm

Because I can be an arrogant jerk at times, I am very sensitive to arrogant jerk phenomena. This dude, Pepper, makes me want to move to Plum Village, just because of his know-it-all attitude.
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Fri Nov 09, 2012 7:49 pm

It's been my impression (and of course no offense to anyone here) that Zen especially has always has something of a strong anti-intellectual current in it, partially due to being the historical "Buddhism of choice" to the warrior class. I can only say from my own experiences that Zen does seem to attract alot of people who just want to sit, and not talk much about Buddhism. Of course there is nothing wrong with that - providing it is even accurate of Zen as a whole.. different strokes for different folks, and for some it is undoubtedly the right path.

One thing, is it always wrong to be 'anti-intellectual"? There are certainly times where intellectuals need to get woken up by a (hopefully metaphorical) slap in the face, just like the Koan.
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby Fruitzilla » Fri Nov 09, 2012 8:02 pm

Yudron wrote:Because I can be an arrogant jerk at times, I am very sensitive to arrogant jerk phenomena. This dude, Pepper, makes me want to move to Plum Village, just because of his know-it-all attitude.


Heh, I totally resemble that!

Pepper seems to be the usual angry intellectual buddhisty type. Normally you can see his conversations being characterized by argument. He almost never connects with the people he talks with. Not unlike a quite a lot of denizens of buddhist fora.

Anyway, I've seen a few of Hahn's followers, and to be honest, they are so unnatural and dependent they scare me way more than Pepper does.
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby duckfiasco » Fri Nov 09, 2012 9:35 pm

I found TNH's books to be a wonderful gateway to the dharma. I don't think he gives the impression that his books that ARE armchair-y (Peace is Every Step, Present Moment Wonderful Moment, Happiness, etc.) are the final word on Buddhism. If that were the case, I would've contented myself to smiling at flowers and drinking tea. The important thing is what is TNH pointing at? Since many of his books are geared towards Western audiences, I think a lot of these things are skillful means. From what I've seen about myself and others in this culture, mindfulness is an incredibly rare commodity. He likely recognizes this and so it's the thing he stresses above all else. And from sustained mindfulness applied in all activities, including when we're angry or taking a crap or whatever else, inevitably comes awareness of at least the first Noble Truth: this is suffering. When you start to meditate or maintain mindfulness for several hours over a period of time, everything takes on a really surreal ephemeral quality that we never noticed before, and amidst all the ghosts and smoke, a vague feeling of sadness: dukkha. How precious a gift, and a strange thing to treat with scorn because it seems too simple to the critic.

People who critique TNH for being simplistic miss the point, I think. He's simplifying because his audience, at least for books going to places like Barnes and Noble, has zero, zilch, nada knowledge of Buddhism or of mindfulness. And when you're ready to tackle the heavier, more incisive topics, TNH has books on the subject. But giving someone a copy of his books on the 12 links of codependent arising or on store consciousness when they don't know how to focus the mind for even an instant, it'll be of no use at all.

I've never been to Plum Village, but some other parts of those critiques seem like critiques of Zen in general instead of a particular teaching style. Anti-intellectualism is a problem everywhere, and so is intellectualism. Balance is important.

I still thank my lucky stars for Thich Nhat Hanh's books, even the sugary sweet ones. They gave me a taste of a path in such a gentle way that I was eager to learn more. His "simplistic" teachings have opened my eyes to possibilities of love and richness in life that I never, ever noticed... save for when I started drinking my tea and smiling at flowers.
Please take the above post with a grain of salt.
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby Thus-gone » Sat Nov 10, 2012 1:02 am

Anti-intellectualism is what happens when you take Zen out of context as a practice and sect of Buddhism. It is true that, in the context of certain Zen practices, any kind of conceptual thought whatsoever must be totally dropped and even avoided. In this case, intellectualism is an actual obstruction to experience. It would be a big mistake, however, to reject all conceptual thought on that basis, or to posit it as an obstruction in the context of completely different practices. In fact, a major part of Zen training in many lineages is academic study . Everything has a time and a place.

The anti-intellectualism of Zen only has power when there is already a strong foundation in Buddhist thought. Otherwise, nothing is being uprooted; and it's the act of uprooting that triggers direct seeing.

EDIT: I do, however, get the distinct sense that the person who wrote the article has very little understanding of Buddhism and especially Zen Buddhism.
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby Indrajala » Sat Nov 10, 2012 2:30 am

Johnny Dangerous wrote:It's been my impression (and of course no offense to anyone here) that Zen especially has always has something of a strong anti-intellectual current in it, partially due to being the historical "Buddhism of choice" to the warrior class. I can only say from my own experiences that Zen does seem to attract alot of people who just want to sit, and not talk much about Buddhism. Of course there is nothing wrong with that - providing it is even accurate of Zen as a whole.. different strokes for different folks, and for some it is undoubtedly the right path.

One thing, is it always wrong to be 'anti-intellectual"? There are certainly times where intellectuals need to get woken up by a (hopefully metaphorical) slap in the face, just like the Koan.


In Japanese the word zengaku 禅学 (Zen Studies) refers not to zazen, but the study of the corpus of Chan/Zen literature, which became particularly popular in the Edo period. It is a special type of literature with its own lingo and nomenclature, and cultural references which are difficult albeit not impossible to trace.

Zen in Japan calls schools like Kegon and others as gakumon 学問 (scholastic) in a pejorative sense, but this is utterly ridiculous in the face of their own extensive scholarship confined primarily to the vast canon of Zen/Chan literature.

Zen in Japan, I believe, was more of a literary movement than practice lineages. It still is.
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby Jinzang » Sat Nov 10, 2012 2:32 am

viniketa wrote:The stubborn streak of anti-intellectionalism in Buddhism, to my understanding, can be traced to the erroneous idea that all "conceptual" thought is mistaken (and obscuring) and must therefore be abandoned totally and permanently. This is a common theme I see running through many conversations just on DW alone, not to mention many other online and offline discussions.


Well, conceptual thought does obscure the truth and there's nothing unorthodox about saying so. But you need the relative to approach the ultimate, so to abandon conceptual though from the start is a problem. Buddhism is anything but anti-intellectual, as study has been emphasized in all traditions, even Zen. But the intellect will only take you so far.
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Re: "Comfort Food Buddhism" a critique of

Postby wtompepper » Sat Nov 10, 2012 4:43 am

There seems to be an assumption here that there is an orthodox position in all schools of Buddhism that there is an unconditioned reality, not subject to the vicissitudes of dependent origination, and which can only be experienced but remains beyond thought and words. It might be good to keep in mind that this idea really becomes part of Buddhist thought in China around the ninth century CE, and that many Buddhist believe that such an “unconditioned” and ineffable dimension was one of the fundamental Brahmanical teachings that the Buddha rejected. There are many Buddhists for whom, in the words of Matsumoto Shiro, “if zen (the practice of dhyana) means the cessation of conceptual thought, then Zen thought is the denial of Buddhism itself.” But then, I don’t know anything about Buddhism, and I suppose Matsumoto doesn’t either.

It is a shame that so many people see all thought as a sign of anger, and any argument as a sign of arrogance. It might be worth examining where those assumptions come from. Is the assertion that I know nothing about Buddhism, without even a single mention of anything I am ignorant of, not arrogance? Is it not made out of anger? I’m sure my blog post made many people angry—but perhaps it could be an opportunity to consider why, and to honestly admit the anger and hostility, instead of projecting it onto me. Why would one assume that intellectual engagement is not “connecting” with someone? We might usefully consider what assumptions about the world and sentient beings underlie the automatic assumption that we can only “connect” emotionally and without thought—I would suggest that perhaps these beliefs derive from attachment to self?

As some people here have mentioned, there is a very long tradition of serious thought and intense argument in Buddhism, and I would not want to suggest that all of those important Buddhist thinkers should be ignored because they were angry, arrogant, and unable to experience the unconditioned. Perhaps they were just smarter than us, right some of the time, and didn’t believe in an unconditioned reality.

I know the rhetoric of the blog post on Thich Nhat Hanh was a bit inflammatory—but the goal was to provoke discussion, not assent. I do think, despite the rhetorical style, there is nothing I say that is not correct. Some might say that Thich Nhat Hanh doesn’t do much harm, but the number of comments I’ve seen, including some right here, from people angrily defending him with passive-aggressive insults and mere assertion instead of argument (ie, the “Pepper is clearly ignorant” type of response), would indicate to me that he has quite a following of thought-free and very angry people, who are unable to even recognize their own hostility. This is why I think he is so dangerous. Buddhist practice has the capacity to make us more, not less, aware of our attachments and aversions, but “mindfulness” seems to avoid that—to encourage the illusion that paying attention to our immediate sensations will give us access to the pure truth, as if our perceptions of what is “actually happening” were not dependently arisen; as a result, mindfulness in the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition prevents one from understanding reality, and reifies our culturally produced perceptions.

Yes, perhaps I am an arrogant jerk, but wouldn’t it better to examine why you feel so angry that you need to point that out, and to consider what truth in my argument your glib hostility is helping you avoid dealing with?
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