This episode involves a conversation with the Tibetologist Sam van Schaik. Sam wrote his original PHd thesis on Dzogchen and the work of Jigme Lingpa and has been involved in the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library, where he currently works, and also teaches at the SOAS University in London. He also happened to write one of my favourite books on Tibet, called appropriately, Tibet: A History. Well-written, entertaining and informative, Sam’s overview of the history of the country that has lived larger than life as a place holder for all manner of western fantasy is a book with academic chops but aimed at a general audience. If you like Donald S. Lopez’s work on Tibet and Buddhism, this is one for you for sure. We discuss it as well as his book Tibetan Zen but the lion’s share of the conversation concerns his latest work on Buddhist Magic. Something of a companion piece to Tibet: A History, it looks at the role magic has played throughout the history of Buddhism and in the wider world of Buddhism today beyond Mindfulness, Secularism, and the cute fantasy that westerners hold that Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy. Such folks might like to wonder if the other world religions have ever made similar claims too. I get a story in about my first encounter with the Shugden Oracle in case you are interested.
In an attempt to make more sense of non-Philosophy, and therefore non-Buddhism, I interview Irish philosopher and academic John Ó Maoilearca, the author of All Thoughts Are Equal, an exceptionally accessible introduction to the work of that pesky French philosopher Francois Laruelle, who we’ve been name dropping on the podcast for quite some time.
Laruelle’s work navigates an interesting paradox. On the one hand it can be incredibly straightforward, perhaps more so for those who have not been indoctrinated into philosophical thought. On the other, it presents a wide range of challenges to established philosophy and systematic modes of thought, including those found in Buddhism.
We talk about non-philosophy as a heuristic in this regard, therefore as a kind of practice that people can engage in, and experience certain kinds of liberation through. A practice, I would argue, that compliments Buddhist ideals and fits perfectly well into the practicing life for those intrigued by post-traditional explorations of Buddhist materials, notions and practice techniques.
In part, this episode acts as a preparation for grappling with non-Philosophy and so we unpack three of its most important concepts.
- What makes Laruelle’s non-Philosophy so radical and so intriguing for the world we live in today?
- The Democracy of Thought.
- What are we to make of the democratization in an age of alternative facts, and the difficulty of distinguishing narrative and reality in polarized times?
- Decision, sufficiency, and The Real.
- The most important contribution John’s book makes to Laurellian thought.
- Where non-philosophy is heading.
- Henri Bergson & Mysticism.
“How do animals think? What does it mean to be at large? What is Buddhist Magic or even Tibetan Zen? These are questions posed by the three guests to follow in a rather lovely triad of interviews and conversations for the Imperfect Buddha Podcast; each one unique and diverse, each with a European guest, each tackling a topic that has long interested me: from non-Philosophy to Freedom in our age, from seeing Tibet without the romanticism, to the role of interpretation as a fundamental facet of existence. Mysticism, Fake News, and animals all get a look in too.”
Taken from this intro to the new season of a resurrected podcast. To be fair, it had never really been assigned to the tomb, but rather, was resting.
With three episodes being released back to back, this super short intro provides an overview of what’s to come and will help you to decide what to listen to.
“Kindness. The only possible method when dealing with a living creature. You’ll get nowhere with an animal if you use terror, no matter what its level of development may be. That I have maintained, do maintain and always will maintain. People who think you can use terror are quite wrong. No, no, terror is useless, whatever its colour – white, red or even brown! Terror completely paralyses the nervous system.” Mikhail Bulgakov
The current cultural eruption has led to a wide range of new and fascinating concepts emerging in common discourse, with the latest ones entering everyday language at a speed that is impressive and unheralded. We have one complex concept emerge to then be immediately superseded by another; concepts that actually need considerable and sufficient elaboration to be made sense of. Each would ideally receive sustained examination and critical engagement rather than be adopted as factual means for navigating complex phenomena.
When everything is political though, this is not permitted, or even considered necessary. In the battle underway, soldiers need weapons. They don’t need to know the history of the tool in their hands, the engineering that went behind it, the variety of weapons they might choose from, they just have to pick it up, aim, and fire.
If we lived in slower times, the dysfunction I speak of in this series might have been avoided. Better, wiser articulations might have emerged. Ideas and concepts might have been ingested and digested far more slowly. Kinks ironed out. Critique heard, refinements made, fallacies pointed to, and an appreciation for the limits of theory embraced. We might define such moves as forms of wisdom, rooted in the maturation of understanding through real-world application.
Practice ideally leads to theory evolving, mutating and eventually closing the gap between its inbuilt assumptions and blind-spots, and the reality of the wider world beyond its ideological boarders. But in accelerated and polarised times, this process has become unpopular, and we find ourselves instead in a politicised social landscape filled with sloganeering, attack and defence dialogue, and ideological assertions masked as facts. In politics, such behaviour may be forgivable, or even necessary, but in the practising life it presents a fundamental unease that cannot be swayed with a call to act on behalf of the good.
“They were arguing about something very complex and important, and neither of them could refute the other. They did not agree with each other in anything, and that made their argument especially interesting and endless.” Mikhail Bulgakov
Saturday, July 25th, 10am-2pm EST / 4-8pm Europe /3pm-7pm UK. Online via Zoom.
On Saturday, the 25th July, your truly will be running a workshop on rethinking practice at the Great Feast for Incite Seminars. The podcast provides more information on the event and Incite Seminars.
From the event page;
Western Buddhism and spirituality more broadly provide us with a rich menu of practices, messages and visions of the human condition and what is possible and even desirable to do, avoid, and strive for within a human life. Yet, as many of us have come to realize, these practices, messages and curative fantasies do not always live up to expectation. The overly prescriptive ideals of what it means to be human, what practice is, and what we should be doing with it all too often reduce the Buddhist practitioner to the role of a passive performer of tradition and can lead to a loss of faith, disenchantment, and the feeling of having been conned. Can critique and disenchantment lead us to creatively reclaim our sense of ourselves apart from tradition, and discover new lines of inquiry, practice, and ways of relating?
In this hands- and minds-on workshop, we will explore the possibilities of making a new relationship to Buddhist practice through the concept of the The Great Feast of Knowledge. This concept, articulated by Glenn Wallis, asks what happens when we invite any kind of thought, practice, insight or claim to exit its ideological bubble and interact with the great, vast planes of knowledge, human struggle, and discovery that sit outside the walls of its meaning-making apparatus? What might happen if we were to bring figures like the Scottish philosopher John Grey or the postmodern concept of hyperreality into our meditation practice? What would it mean to go on retreat with the ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, or the work of Social Anthropologist Tim Ingold?
A key idea from Francois Laurelle that will be useful to us here is the democracy of thought, which served as an inspiration for Wallis’s Feast. Laurelle poses that all thought is equal, and for us that means that our own thought can participate at the feast if we can just muster up some courage. There is a price to pay, of course. You must expose your inner-world, and your private practice, your secret desires, needs, and fears, to the wider world and risk their disruption, and even destruction. Armed with epistemic humility and renewed curiosity, whatever happens, the Great Feast brings us back into the collective struggle of our species to come to terms with the human condition.
This experimental and explorative workshop may serve to help those who are disillusioned by the whole project of Buddhism, or the spiritual, to find a way forward that remains critical but infuses personal practice with new life. Post-traditional and non-Buddhist tools will be explored initially, though we may manage to make some our own in the process.
For information, registration and the rest, visit the Incite Seminars page for the event: https://inciteseminars.com/reconfiguring-practice/
If you have questions to ask me, write them in the comments below, or use the contact form to do so directly.