Monday, September 16, 2013

A response is in order! RE: Kenneth Folk, some critics of Western Buddhism, et al.

First, go read Justin Whitaker's post on Speculative Non-Buddhism,, and you know what? I'm not going to link to Kenneth Folk. 

If you read Whitaker's post, you ought to realize why: in Whitaker's post Folk revealed himself to be who he is, and I wouldn't want to direct traffic on this blog to a guy that charges money for what ought to be free.

The stuff outside of Justin's site above is especially eye opening, and points up some of the criticisms I've had of Buddhist Geeks (and I suspect from Tutteji's site, "Integral" hoo-hah and all as well.)

In particular, look at this thread.

I could do without much of the Marxist critique on the thread; not that I'm without sympathy to parts of it, and in fact it is kind of catalytic to what I want to say here. What profoundly impresses me is the impression given by Folk that he is a "teacher" of something and therefore somehow different and more skilled than you or I. 

Here's some bits worth quoting (letting the formatting by Blogger fall where it may), firstly:

Do not take it so personally. The article in Wired is all about enhancing productivity via meditation techniques. My point is not so much about you.
I admit, the phrase of someone being
absolutely politically unaware
is a bit misleading. But not in the way you might think. To make it clear: I am not a leftist, marxist or something equally esoterrifying.
What I mean with “unaware” is about one central assumption of Speculative Non-Buddhism I just mentioned to Vince HornWe are not aware (enough) about what make us think as we think!A central term which leads into thinking about this problem (in my case, as differentiated from Tom Rinzai Pepperspray and HH Glenn Wallis) is Society of Control.
I have written about it. You may google about it. You may familiarize yourself with this thought. Then and only then I am willing to have, as you say
something emergent in this discussion.
But for the time being, what I just wrote to Vince goes to you as well: Neither you Kenneth, nor Vince for that, took it upon you to go into the SNB-material. At least I never saw anything in this regard. But still we are asked in such discussions to discuss “topics in a more transparent way”. It is there. If you are interested: Read!The point Tutte the One and Only is making is really a great one. You Kenneth do not get the irony of, for example, saying that you experienced “a fundamental shift in consciousness“. Tutte makes visible that this declaration ultimately is an irony (a kind of semantic territory-marker, a kind of dharmic currency, which does not say anything substantial at all) whereby suddenly Tutte’s irony makes real fundamental shift into being a true critique – a critique that goes to the heart of your being as a awakened one.
The crazy thing here is: you know it. It is visible from your reaction and a lot of other dharma-teachers – however they may address themselves. You know it. That is visible when you admit that Tutte’s visionary irony is working.

A term like "fundamental shift in consciousness" indicates that the one who has had it is somehow different than you or I.


And double plus underscore (I don't know what those last few words mean, frankly, but I hope it's for emphasis) as to why nobody should be teaching things related to mindfulness for money.  Really, the teaching of such things presumes that the "teacher" has better insight into the "mindfulness" of the "student" than the "student?"  

Now the folks critiquing Folk et al. come at this, if I understand correctly, that such teachers in fact don't address the alienation of the "student." Yeah whatever. 

Now it may indicate fundamental problems with the Tibetan guru- style thing, but this is the core of the atom at the center I think of all the ethics problems we see in much of Western Buddhism. 

Naturally I disagree with this sentiment:

 [I]f you believe that Kenneth Folk (or Vince Horn) are interested in any genuine dialog you miss a fundamental point: They are players in a world of delusion who want to stay ignorant about what makes us think as we think. It is a mistake to think they have any interest in this just because they name themselves Buddhists. If you look for genuine dialog about thinking the rules of thinking by the search term “Buddhism” you only get crap. It’s simply the wrong signifier.

There are practitioners of the Way,  there are those that aren't, there's snake oil salesman, and there are those that aren't.  What this critic above wrote is a version of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy.

But I also can't help but see this bit by Kenneth Folk as patronizing, disingenuous,  and bereft of humility, a sense of humor, or any kind of 功夫:

Thinking aloud:
- I find the NSB critique valuable. I have been influenced by some of the ideas I’ve heard/read from Glenn and Matthias.
- Glenn and Matthias, you often seem bewildered by the fact that no one wants to “engage” you in discussion. It is not a mystery; ad hominem attacks, boorish condescension, and an unwillingness to consider other points of view are not traits highly valued in discussion partners. Your opinions about how the world “ought to be” don’t matter here; it is a purely pragmatic issue. If you want people to engage you, don’t alienate them.
- Matthias, your repeated insistence that you find “x-Buddhists” [sic] uninteresting is not consistent with the observable fact that you follow us around the internet trying to get our attention. It reminds me of a little kid throwing rocks at the big kids in the schoolyard, all the while telling everyone that he wouldn’t play with the big kids even if they were willing. I am holding up the mirror for you. Are you a big enough kid to take it in? If you and I compete for who can be less interested in the other, I will win. Let’s not go there.
- Glenn, Matthias: You have something valuable to say. I am glad you are saying it. But you seem to believe that the lens you are looking through is the only valid lens. This displays a lack of sophistication. Check out Robert Kegan or Suzanne Cook-Greuter for an understanding of how the ability to embrace multiple points of view is the leading metric on a continuum of psychological/emotional development. The level of group think and confirmation bias within your group is high. I haven’t seen much evidence that you are individually or collectively aware of this. Your critique will be more effective if you are also able to turn the mirror back on yourselves. People I have spoken to, almost without exception, find you easy to dismiss, largely due to their perception that you are lacking in self-awareness. Can you prove them wrong? Tutte, this goes for you, too. When you pretend to know how this emergent discussion should be, you appear naive and brittle to the people you wish to influence. Drop the arrogance and condescension, and show some vulnerability. (I’m talking not about your parody, which is well-done, but about your conversational tone in the comments sections here and on Facebook.)
- Here then, is the mirror, in all its bright harshness. How honest should I be? The Speculative Non-Buddhists are generally perceived as angry, bitter, socially inept, mean-spirited, and frankly irrelevant. Is this how you want to be perceived? Think about it carefully, because no matter how important your message, no one will hear it if they have already dismissed you as unworthy of their attention. There is a way for you to become relevant to the culture you so wish to influence, and it is much more challenging than anything you’ve done so far. You are going to have to turn the light back on yourselves. Whatcha gonna do, little brothers? Level up or step off.

But this is where real problems arise for Folk:

The Power of Potty Training is meant to de-mystify meditation practice. I believe at one point I say that meditation and awakening are no more holy or mystical than bicycle riding, guitar playing, or potty training. This is the basic theme of the talk. I also use the potty training metaphor to introduce Maslow’s four stages of learning, pointing out that at the fourth and final stage, “unconscious competence,” a skill that was hard-won over time suddenly becomes second nature. While it is tempting to think of this as some kind of magical or transcendent moment, it does not have to be seen that way; this is just the way this organism integrates learning, “burning it into the hardware,” as David Eagleman would say, at which point it no longer requires conscious effort. With this in mind, we can think of the process of human development commonly known as awakening or enlightenment as a thoroughly mundane affair. Thus stripped of it’s magical or holy status, it is no less valuable than before; the ability to see experience as process allows levels of wellbeing that were impossible before.
Not sure if I covered this in the talk, but I would add that this personal wellbeing can set the stage for better relationships, and although this is speculative, maybe even advances at the cultural level. An optimistic scenario would include a more humane and just society. It does not seem to me out of the question that this simple training in meditation might have such far-reaching effects, although I have no evidence for this. What I am confident of is the personal transformation that predictably results from effective meditation practice, and this is what I focus on.
“This involves a rhetorical suggestion that some sort of special, wonder-working knowledge is on offer. Sure the figure in the parable claims to be offering the shit-stained fools something that is as accessible as it is obvious. But still, the fools need him to tell them that.” -GW
Maybe. On the other hand, most people need a piano teacher in order to learn to play piano, and there is no need to posit wonder-working.
“Extrapolated out into the real world, it is you, of course, who are the dharmic thaumaturge. So, you commit what Matthias calls the ‘esoteric fallacy.’” -GW
Yes, good point. I have, at times, allowed or encouraged people to project upon me a special status that I do not feel, believing that this would enhance their motivation or somehow jump-start their meditation practice. As you point out, this is common practice among meditation teachers. I have in recent years been increasingly reluctant to allow this kind of projection, and I find it an interesting challenge to teach meditation and awakening without recourse to the esoteric fallacy. One of my ongoing projects is to offer a definition of awakening/enlightenment that does not involve holiness or perfection. While some have suggested that it would be better to drop such charged language altogether, my contention is that there has always been awakening for those who trained to that level of contemplative excellence, and it wasn’t any holier then than now; it is and was a natural process of human development.

As I think Folks critics point pout, if you're selling "enlightenment" a non-tangible, non-verifable (except as mutually authenticated by the parties concerned) you can't guarantee the quality of your service to those to whom you're selling it.  Implicit in the quote above is Folks is more skilled than you are. 

Is he? 

That's one of the critics' points.  And his response is, "For the enlightenment I'm selling, you get wonderful  prizes in the form of "personal transformation" and "better relationships" or something like that. 

I must be really lucky or something, but here's my conclusions:

1. The critiques of Folk, Horn, et al. have very valid points, especially with regards to ethical issues.

2. The real problem, though is there is a need to develop 功夫, savoir faire, call it what you will.   And you won't get it from those guys.  You probably won't get it from Folk or other "mindfulness for money" guys.


Tutte Wachtmeister said...

Hi Mumon,
Just a brief comment on your last paragraph. If I understand correctly, you miss a degree of savoir-faire from our interactions with x-buddhist teachers. (Like not calling them "obscurantist, reactionary snake oil peddlers" or "fucking idiots", I guess.) This is a common response to the SNB critique, and I agree there is a problem here: The audience often gets so distracted by someone calling a spade a spade, that the substantial critique gets lost.But it's important to remember than neither I, nor the SNB crew, try to convert the faithful x-buddhists. Our targent audience is intelligent and critical readers who are getting fed up with spiritual crap.

Mumon K said...


Actually it's not the language per se.

Rather, I'm not going to become skilled in the living of my life as a Buddhist help reading anybody's anything, or ultimately by paying some "teacher" to teach you something that may or may not be of help.

I was fascinated with this because of its confluence with a whole different critique of Buddhist Geeks erupted elsewhere, via Arun's Angry Asian Buddhist blog.

My inputs are here:

and here:

See also: