Wrestling with the World in Virtual Reality: A Deleuzian, Anti-Essentialist, Relational Reading of Classical Buddhism as the Radical Practice of Freedom and Desire
On the Difficulty of Understanding the Insights in Classical Buddhist Texts
Classical Buddhist texts having something in common with Deleuze, or Networkological thought? I must admit, I’ve spent a lot of time reading Buddhist texts, and never saw these parallels before. But recently I’ve returned to these texts, by means of contemporary advocates that have argued that the core insights of Buddhism tend to get lost in translation between cultures. And after having read some of these texts, I’ve been shocked to see that once these common misunderstandings are cleared up, there’s actually a great deal of overlap between classical Buddhism, and many aspects of philosophy that I find interesting, powerful, and important.
And this is why I’ve found that to approach Buddhist texts in the present day, one needs mediators, people who translate not only the words from one language to another, but who, like Hadot, who can translate the meanings of the meanings of the words in relation to the contexts in question, and those today.
Books like Mark Epstein’s wonderful Thoughts Without a Thinker: A Buddhist Approach to Pscyhotherapy has been quite helpful. In addition, Robert Thurman’s many works, but especially those in which he essential “riffs” on an ancient text, explaining the way it can speak to us today in a manner analogous to how it functioned at the time it was written. In addition, Jeremy Safran’s excellent anthology Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue is great for those with some background in contemporary psychotherapy, though I’d read the Epstein first if you don’t.
Thurman’s great book The Jewel Tree of Tibet: The Engligtenment Engine of Tibetan Buddhism, for example, takes 500 year old, 15 page Tibetan verse text called Mentor Worship, and shows how it can be transformed into a roadmap to an entire worldview. The book is actually a slightly modified transcription of a guided meditation retreat he directs. And in this he explains that, for example, the “fascination with numbering” in these texts is because they are designed like rungs on a ladder, to help one memorize stages of meditation practice, so that one can go through the stages oneself, even if the text isn’t present. Without this knowledge, the numbering of jewels, vehicles, etc., seems pretty random. But when Thurman explains that they are there to help meditators go through the steps of exercise in order and repeatedly, the text opens up.
What’s more, Thurman explains why so many of the seemingly ornate yet unnecessary turns of phrase are based on complex understandings of what these terms meant in relation to meditation practices at the time. Without this act of translation, these texts can be read by Euro-Americans living today, but they are unlikely to gain much from them.
In what follows, I’ll discuss various Buddhist notions, such as emptiness, compassion, karma, dharma, recinaration, etc., in order to show how they are often interpreted by Westerners in ways that obscure much of what they have to provide us today. While clearly this will be a radical simplification of thousands of years of many varied traditions, these are basic notions that show up in one form or another in decently consistent form throughout the various Buddhisms, though obviously any such syncretic summary needs to be seen as simply just that. And in the process, the goal will be to show how many Buddhist concepts begin to view meditation as a sort of virtual reality that wrestles with the very fabric of the world itself.
Rethinking Emptiness: Sunyata as Anti-Essentialism
The most crucial term, perhaps in all of Buddhism, the one which most Westerners interested in Buddhism seem to misunderstand, particularly as it relates to the self and call for “selflessness,” is the notion of emptiness, or sunyata (in Sanskrit). The notion of emptiness, most clearly articulated by second century C.E. Indian Buddhist philosopher, often considered only second to the Buddha himself, named Nagarjuna, is one of the primary notions organizing Buddhism, and it is the essence of Nirvana, which is to say, the goal of meditation practice. One aims to see the emptyness of things, the world, and ultimately, the self, which is the Buddha’s notion of selflessness.
Most modern Westerners see this as a yearning for the void, for oblivion, and as having fundamentally nihilist tendencies. Certainly this was the way Nietzsche famously viewed Buddhism, as life-hating, and this reading of Buddhism has persisted until rather recently, a trend which cultural translators like Epstein and Thurman work hard to overcome. But it takes quite a bit of effort.
What they seek to show, however, by means of comparison of various Buddhist texts, is that emptyness could not mean void or nothing in the way most Westerners conceive of it, simply because if you look at the ways in which Buddhists use this term in their works and practices, both now and throughout history, the word simply works differently in these contexts. So, for example, a frequent Buddhist teaching that “Nirvana is samsara” argues that enlightenment, or Nirvana, is the same thing as our deluded world of suffering. In which case, what’s needed is a change in our point of view, one in which everything is empty. But if this emptiness is what is clearly here, then somehow the goal isn’t to negate everything, but to see it differently.
Buddhism as Deconstruction?
And here we encounter the fundamentally deconstructive aspect of much of Buddhist thought. The famed paradoxical nature of many Buddhist forms of argument is aimed at helping us to think in a non-reified manner, and to do this, it employs paradox. The notion of emptiness is perhaps the single trickiest example of this. But as cultural translators like Epstein and Thurman show, a western, non-literal translation of emptiness could perhaps better be something like “essenceless” than emptiness or void in our contemporary sense.
What does it mean for something to have no essence? That it is free. That it can become anything else, that it is not limited by some deep core which binds it to being one particular way over another. Put something in a different context, and it will mutate. Rather than see things as expressing eternal essences, essences which are expressed in their outer form, and which hence limit the possibilities of these forms, the forms something can take is seen as determined fully by their contexts. And so, any sense of essence is created by relational context. It can be thought of as an illusion, or at least, as a secondary creation of this context, with the context as that which determines what an aspect of the world can do.
From such a perspective, the fundamental stuff of the world is free to be anything it can be in relation to its contexts, all of which mutually determine each other. The world is what it makes itself to be. And any fixity is mutually determined and relative, but not necessary and absolute. Essences are produced, not producers.
There are similarities between this and various forms of contemporary cultural and critical theory. Certainly queer studies and many forms of performance studies have argued that social identities retroactively create the sense of essence by means of repeated performances. That there is no “essence” to genders, races, sexualities, classes, ethnicities, or any other social categories, only repeat performances that make use of bodies and discourses in various ways. Only a radical play with the world, viewing the world as experimental laboratory, can liberate the potential that bodies and discourses have within them, yet often fail to explore, due to their sense that we need to “express” predetermined “essences.” Once we see these essences as socially and historically constructed, if in dialogue with the also relationally free matters of the world, we see that the world can be what we make and desire it to be, and that it always has been this way. But knowing this allows us to imagine a world beyond the fixed essences of the past, many of which have perpetuated horribly oppressive systems.
Anti-essentialism is also part of contemporary philosophy. Much of contemporary philosophy is preoccupied with an immanent, this-worldly approach to the stuff of our experience. Rather than see the world as the expression of some transcendent beyond, either in quasi-Platonic essential forms or a transcendent God, much of contemporary thought is an attempt to understand this world immanently. And this would mean that even the essences that seem to direct this world are part of this very world, its products rather than its producers. They are folds within the fabric of the world, but not some external, controlling beyond.
And as a result, there is more freedom than we would have thought. We aren’t bound, for example, to simply reproduce “male” and “female” for all eternity, nor simply even rework them by means of their inverses, notions like “man in a woman’s body” or “woman dressing like a man.” Rather, we have what Deleuze and Guattari call for, n-sexes. New possibilities. Essences are products, not producers, or rather, each is a side of the other.
And this is why even a term like ‘anti-essentialism’ is perhaps a poor fit, for in fact, anti-essentialism isn’t against essence to things, only any sense that they are fixed. That is, if notions like “male” and “female” are products, produced by their contexts, yet not the expression of immutable essences, then we are free to change then. But they are, nevertheless, currently there, the product and social construction of the history, culture, and other contexts which produced them. And so, the appearance of an essence to these is quite real, it is only the fixity and necessity of this essence which anti-essentialism seeks to dislodge.
Why There Aren’t Any Things in Buddhism: Against the Ding-An-Sich
And so it is with Buddhism. When Nagarjuna argues that entities are “empty,” he’s not saying they aren’t there, or are void. That would be silly. Let’s take the way Thurman descibes this in his Jewel Tree book, which I’ll paraphrase here. Examine a table. Where’s the tableness that makes it a table? If you take away a particular part of it, like a leg, is it still a table? Yes, it’s just a table missing a leg, and the same goes for any part. Look at the molecular level, there’s no table there either. Where is the table-ness then? It’s a fiction, in our minds. The table isn’t there, there’s only parts, and these in turn are only parts. An infinite regress, but no “tableness” there.
And so the “tableness,” the essence, is in us. It is a reification, a thing-ification of an aspect of the world. The fact that humans see a thing-in-itself, a Ding-an-sich, at the core of “things” in our world, seems to be part of our cognition. But is it there in the world, or do we put it there? As Hegel argues, might it not be simply the reflection of our subjectivity, our desire to see concrete and discrete entities in the world, just as we see ourselves? Are these perhaps not two sides of the same? And might they not be the product of our evolutionary development in the world, whether this evolution be seen as physical, biological, or historico-cultural?
As Thurman argues, the self is just as “empty” as “table.” And as many scientists have argued, humans seem to acquire “object constancy” at about the same age as they acquire egos, a phenomenon which Lacan famously describes with his notion of the “mirror stage.” Fixed objects in the world, which have relatively stable traits and endure over time, are the flip-side of our sense of ourselves. We see essences, and yet, might this be effect rather than cause?
As Thurman continues to argue, when we begin to see the table as part of a relational matrix of forces, as the product of its contexts, we begin to understand the Buddhist concept of “determined origination,” which is the notion that everything in the world is mutually created by everything else, and to try to find the “essence” of anything by looking for it in these contexts, which are its true essence, lands one in infinite regress. And so, one needs to deal with the context as a whole as that which exists in a perpetual dialectic with any seeming “oneness” or “thing” as they co-create each other.
The World as Crystal: Holographic Refractionism, or Each As All, All as Each, But All Differencing
And from such a perspective, each entity isn’t truly distinct from the world, but rather, its expression at that particular location. Its holographic refraction, so to speak. The table in front of me is the universe, at least, in the way it manifests in this particular location within it.
In this sense, each entity contains within it the entire universe, holographically, in its own unique way, and vice-versa, the universe contains that unique entity, in inverse form. Such an approach to things makes clear such otherwise seemingly paradoxical statements within many non-Western traditions, statements like “All is one,” “The One in the Many, the Many in the One,” or even the famed Hindu mantra “Atman is Brahman.” If Atman, in the Vedic tradition, is the soul or essence of anything, whether human or thing, and Brahman is the creative force, then any aspect of the world is a manifestation or refraction of that world as a whole in its own holograhic way.
To see something as “empty” isn’t to see it as non-existent in the sense of being “void,” but rather, as the refraction of its contexts. This is relationalism, of the sort advocated by so many contemporary philosophies. Process theorists, in particular, like Peirce and Whitehead, but also figures like Bergson and Deleuze, advocate perspectives on things quite similar to what is being described here.
And so, rather than see anything as fixed in nature, we need to see the manner in which, if its contexts changed, it could change. And this allows for freedom, newness, radical newness, to enter the world. There is a core of freedom rather than of restriction at the center of any “thing,” one which could even blast open its boundaries as a thing, and all its aspects to recompose their relation to aspects of their contexts, and give rise to radically new types of “things” or even “non-things.”
Deleuzian Virtuality: Buddhism as Practice of Radical Freedom and Desire
This is in fact the Deleuzian notion of “the virtual,” the potential for radical freedom within the actual, one which is only released, however, by shifts within the modes of folding within the fundamental stuff of the world. One could easily say that the meaning of emptiness in the Buddhist sense is the Deleuzian virtual, then, and being true to the core of the insight here, even if the translation seems so odd at first.
But with the reconstruction of the meaning provided by those with access to the oral tradition of lived Buddhism today, those like Thurman, who lived for years as a monk in Tibet and was ordained by the Dalai Lama, or those who combine this with philological and cultural reconstruction, it’s possible to come up with translations like this which can actually speak to us today, and from the alterity of these traditions.
And this help us understand better the notion of “selflessness” advocated by Buddhism, a notion about which there is seemingly infinite potential for misunderstanding. Rather than identify with nothing, it is an attempt to identify with freedom. Radical freedom. And yet, we are never free unless our contexts are free as well. If anyone in the world is suffering, I am suffering too, if indirectly, if by no other means than the guilt that warps my ways of dealing with the world.
Marx saw this insight clearly, when he saw that coming to “class consciousness” required that individual workers saw that pursuing their own self-interest was not in their self-interest, they needed to band together, as a class, the proletariat, to change the world, if they really wanted to pursue their self-interest. So it is with Buddhism, and the Buddhist notion of “compassion” is simply this. Rather than advocate a vague sympathy for others, which this notion tends to conjure up in most contemporary Westerners, it is rather that which forces us back into the world of action. The only way to relieve my own suffering is to also relieve that of the world I live in, otherwise, my happiness will be incomplete. I have to change the world. My self-interest, as Thurman states, is actually other-interest, at least when intelligently pursued. As anyone who has lived too long can tell, selfishness is ultimately self-defeating, because then no-one wants to deal with you, and it makes you unhappy! Real selfishness is learning how to give, and learning how to give is selfish . . .
Again, paradox. For in fact, Buddhism has, as I mentioned earlier, an odd, deconstructive relation to language. This is part of its anti-essentialism. As soon as a word takes on a reified meaning, Buddhism will attempt to explode it from within. And this is because it is an attempt to continually identify with the virtual. This is what Lacan, in his own way, called the “discourse of the analyst,” the attempt to identify with that which cannot be symbolized, with the paradoxical extimacy of the world and its representations to themselves.
And the more we do this, the more we find that the symbolic narratives and imaginary images that bind us and create unhappiness are in fact the source of our suffering in the world. We cast off what Winnicott would call “false selves,” and realize that our “true self” is freedom. The paradox, as many of the therapists in Jeremy Safran’s Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue articulate, is that the Buddhist notion of “no self” is so similar to the Winnicottian notion of the “true self.” Or, to bring this back to Lacan and his “discourse of the analyst,” by identifying with the “object a,” which he often describes as the presence of a void in the symbolic and imaginary orders, we in fact free ourselves and become more ourselves.
There is a deconstructive movement here, in which the path to the true self is the non-self, the path to selfishness is giving, the way to save oneself is to save the world, and all this vice-versa. Many contemporary Buddhists describe this as the “non-duality” in Buddhist thought, but I see it as going beyond simply duality. It is beyond reification, beyond fixity, beyond essence. This doesn’t mean it does away with fixity, reification, or essence, but rather, recontextualizes these as moments within the larger processes within the relational whole of the world.
And once we have shifted our perspective upon fixities, things, and essences in this way, we begin to become freer in relation to them. Every essence becomes compounded with what Deleue would call “even the thinnest thread” which connects it to the virtual, which is to say, the essence of freedom. The notion that things can be different if we change their contexts. That we can be different, not by merely wishing it, but by changing our contexts. That to change ourselves, we need to change the world.
This is Hegelian dialectic, liberated from its teleological, and dare I say, reified, shell. Rather than simply a dialectic of binaries, there is a radical between the terms here, in which one side of a binary is an object, the other the context from which it distinguishes itself, and the process of deconstruction, or dialectical reversal, is the tracing of the movement of the process which carved up the stuff of the world into these parts, but which could have done this differently. Tracing this enough times is what meditation is, and it teaches us what Lacan would call “separation” from narratives, images, and roles in the world which restrict us.
The notion of a single self, a single story and/or image which defines us, is simply the most obdurate, persistant, and fixed of these. Once we see this as the product of our history, our parents, our prior defense mechanisms whose causes are no longer there but whose effects are, we start to feel these as less necessary. We start experimenting, often in the laboratory for new performances of relationality we call therapy, with new ways of existing in the world. Therapy is about providing the safe space in which this questioning, experimentation, and new ways of imagining can happen. The therapist is simply someone who is good at guiding this process of self questioning and expeimentation, and this usually happens by providing a safe space and a relationship which can act as secure anchor to the process.
And this is why Buddhism shouldn’t be seen as anti-desire. If desire is understood, in the Lacanian sense, as beyond the fixations of the drives, as the desire for desire, in ever new and changing forms, which is to say, the practice of freedom, the Buddhism increases desire, fosters it, cares for it, nurtures it. It liberates desire from having to always desire the same things. To quote Brian Massumi, animals aren’t free because they are tied to their instincts, like a “dog tied to its vomit.” My dog isn’t free to paint rather than mark other dog’s urine with his own. He’s a slave to his passions, and they drive him, not the other way around.
Buddhism helps us to practice separating from our passions, to see ourselves as being free of them, as having more than the limited potentials they provide. We stop becoming slaves to our pleasures, needing to have them, and this provides us with freedom to desire other things. By giving up our desires, we gain desire itself. Again, paradox, to truly gain something, you have to lose it . . .
Meditation and Tantra: Or, Doing Battle With the World via “Virtual Reality”
Meditation, then, is practice in separation from narratives and images which we have felt determine some aspect of who or what aspects of ourselves and/or our world are. As each thing comes by in our mind, we separate from it. I’m thinking that thought, but I am not that, it doesn’t bind me, I’m free from it, I can separate from it. I feel that emotion, and yet, it doesn’t control me, it is a part of me, I acknowledge it, I see it as caused by its contexts, but I am free to choose to dive into it and explore it, or let it fade, because I’m not that. I’m rather, a principle of infinite negativity, to use a Hegelian term, a site of infinite creativity. I am only limited by my relation to my contexts, and I can alter this through action, by making the world a better place, a freer place.
And this desire to free the world doesn’t mean doing what we think is best for it, to control it. Rather, it means to try to help the world free itself from its own chains, its own illusion of the necessity of the narratives and images, the essences, which imprison it. It is to want the world to self-actualize, on its own terms. A good therapist wants this both for themselves and their clients. This is what a Buddhist means by compassion.
But what about Karma? Is it possible, as Owen Flanagan argues, to come up with a “naturalized” form of Buddhism, one which is in accord with contemporary science, which doesn’t postulate notions like “recinarnation” that seem so odd to contemporary Western ears?
Thurman does a great job of explaining how if there is no self, then reincarnation needs to be seen in a very subtle form. I believe it’s quite possible to reinterpret karma and reincarnation in naturalistic, which is to say, immanent or “this worldly” terms, whether or not that was the original intention of Buddhist sages. For in fact, whenever we do something bad, nasty, evil, selfish, it ends up hurting us. Even if we don’t feel it, we create a sense of guilt, often repressed, which enters into a feedback loop with paranoia, and leads to the bolstering of our defenses against questioning ourselves, and our ways of looking at the world. We start to see ourselves as an island, a territory, in need of defense, and we become wedded further to the images and narratives we have told about ourselves. And this leads to the need for more selfish actions.
Each action in the world, in this sense, has an afterlife, one which liberates us from essentialism, paranoia, and defensiveness, or which rather opens us to freedom, curiosity, and experimentation with new ways of being in relation to others. If the self is but an illusion created out of others, and all is a refraction of the world and its aspects, then there’s no need for the reincarnation of human souls. Rather, our patterns and habits, our thoughts and emotions, propagate into the world, ourselves in the future, and our children and society. There are waves of cause and effect, action and reaction.
And if this is the case, each trial we face, each difficulty, is something we must have caused by an earlier misdeed, and hence, an opportunity to overcome the tendencies within ourselves that lead to being vulnerable to this trial or difficulty in the first place. Turning obstacles, trials, and calamities into opportunities for growth, no matter how difficult this process is, is part of the Buddhist process of learning to give up on attachment to the world staying fixed, or conforming to our wishes and desires. Leaning to be happy with what is here, now, is the way to learn how to any moment in which the world does conform to our wishes as an unexpected bounty. A hard path, but ultimately, one which makes our happiness less dependent upon past and future, and more in sync with what we can control, which is how we react in the present.Which is ultimately, the only place we ever are anyway, the here and now, and it is this from which our freedom and happiness can derive. It is only when we expect the past and future to conform to our demands that we find our happiness dependent on aspects of the world radically beyond our control. While we can’t control the world, we can control how we react to things, and that is the source of all other freedoms.
None of which is to say that some of these notions of reincarnation might not be useful in other ways as well. Tibetan Buddhism in particular sees those people around us as so many mixtures of our ancestors, and so, rather than worship ancestors in the past, Tibetans tend to treat all those around them as living reincarnations of ancestors, if in various forms. It’s possible for various ancestors to show up in the way someone looks at us, and then we see another ancestor in the same person one minute later. Some other people reincarnate aspects of whole people. If we see this in figuratively, rather than literally, however, it starts to seem less strange.
Much of this ties into the Tibetan notion of Tantra. As Thurman describes this, Tantra is a sort of “virtual reality,” its the set of technologies whereby Tibetan Buddhists attempt to build upon meditation with the powers of their imagination. So rather than merely practice the type of meditation I described above (generally known as vissapana meditation), Tibetan Buddhism makes use of various forms of visualization to help meditation. These visualizations are attempts to create new virtual realities which can then impact our physical reality. And this physical reality is itself seen as simply our collective virtual reality. If we all visualized the world differently, we’d act differently, and the world would become that.
While I don’t think we could all just decide to hallucinate that the world was really composed of cows, I do think there’s a powerful lesson here. This is what Walter Benjamin describes as a “tiger’s leap into the future,” and it is precisely what Marx did with his renarrativization of the history of the world as the process of coming to consciousness of the proletariat. The proletariat is something which will have come to be if the working class hear its call. It is a call to what Deleuze would call a “people yet to come,” a collective fabulation that could have quite real effects in the world. In fact, the way Deleuze views the potential political world-making capacities is how Tibetan Buddhism views these visualization practices.
For example, by practicing imagining everyone in the world as having been reincarnated multiple times, as having been your mother, and you their mother, at infinite times in past and the coming future, we see whatever nasty things they do to us now as the result of the way karma distorts our vision of things, leading to a bad feedback loop of defensive actions that create pain. And this karma is itself a reflection of the contexts which produced it, which is itself the results of chains of cause and effect, which is to say, karma. By visualizing an exchange of self and other, we see any evil we do to others as evil to ourselves, and any good the same. We ask for the pain of others, and imagine it in ourselves, and we imagine the blessings that come to us as freely given by us to others.
And by imagining our own deaths, and knowing it could come at any moment, we call into question the fixed narratives and images of ourselves that dominate what we “should” do and be,” and we become liberated to lead the present moment as if it were our last. Liberated, and free. Meditating on death frees us to lead a more liberated life. Because if we live as if each moment were our last, we know that our happiness comes not from our possessions, goals, or relationships, but from our ethical relationship to it all.
And this can provide a happiness that we know we are living as best as we know how, something which needs to be renewed at each moment. This is, of course, a hard discipline, and one which requires constant practice. Meditation is this, but Buddhists also view everyday life as a form of meditation. Once again, non-dual thinking, the interpenetration of opposites.
Beyond Belief, and Non-Belief: Virtuality, or Fiction as Technology of the Self
What’s more, even the notion of belief is deconstructed. Tibetan visualizations, these virtual reality practices to imagine new ways of being which could then have ripple effects on actual practices in the world, requires we suspend disbelief, in a sense, and imagine and meditate in such a way that we put ourselves in these imaginary spaces to practice trying to translate aspects of them into the physical world. By imagining our worst enemies as our mothers, or our teachers as existing in a jewel tree that can provide mental safe space for play and imagining new selves, we practice new ways of being. It’s like therapy, only in our minds.
We don’t imagine that our visualizations are real, we’re not hallucinating, but in a way, they are real, and become more real, the more they impact the way we see the physical world, and act in regard to it. The more powerful these virtual practice sessions become, the more the “actual” world becomes malleable, unreal, and in fact, changes. And the more we do this with others, the more this goes beyond our ways of acting and perceiving the “actual” world, and into the way the world is in fact reconstructed by means of its “virtual” potentials.
Do we believe in these visualizations? Does a Tibetan Buddhist really believe that their mentor is perfection, the reincarnation of the Buddha, even though they see their faults right in front of them? Surely “mentor worship” in Tibetan Buddhism has been seen by some as a degradation of Buddhism’s original method, just as the visualizations are seen as impurities. But Tibetan practitioners see them as extensions of the belief in anti-essentialism, as the first step in using the virtual within the actual to change that actual and liberate it. And so, by treating the mentor as if Buddha, the mentor is more likely to act in this relational context like a Buddha, and help provide a model for the disciple. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, a virtual giving birth to itself as actual. Or, an intervention in virtual reality, not quite different from the way, in therapy, we assume that the therapist can help us, and the therapist has faith that therapy works.
This dual suspension of disbelief in the potential of therapy to cure is precisely what allows this virtual reality technology to cure! Therapy is nothing but this virtual reality. And so it is with visualization in Tibetan Buddhism. Is this much different from when we watch a film, or read a novel? We see virtual selves, and we disavow for a short period that we aren’t them, to “try on” their ways of being in and seeing the world. Only in therapy and Buddhist visualizations, we admit this is what we’re doing. This is why, as performance theorist Jose Munoz argues, “fiction is a technology of the self.” We step into virtual worlds, narratives, and images, in order to imagine new ways of being in the world. Or, to use a phrase coined by Judith Butler, we learn to “argue with the real,” by means of fictions, of performances taken less seriously, by playing around. Serious play, but play nevertheless, the permission to explore new ways of being.
This is precisely what Nietzsche was aiming at when he said we need to give ourselves our own values, and make new myths. It is what Deleuze describes as fabulation. Even the various hierarchies of gods and Bodhisattvas, listed off one after another, can each be seen as embodying different concepts which “ingress” in our mundane reality in the manner in which Whitehead’s “eternal objects” ingress in the physical world. These gods and Bodhisattvas are concepts, outside of space and time, and their ingression in our physical world is similar to the ways in which ancient Greco-Romans related to the planets, each representing an eternal principle from which the things of our world were formed as various admixtures. The only difference, however, is that it seems Buddhism, particularly in its Tibetan form, is rather explicitly aware of the creativity at play here.
And in this sense, what we see here, in many forms and degrees of conscious deployment, is a use of virtual reality to impact the actual world, between belief and disbelief. Or, Buddhism as a type of practice in non-reified thinking and acting in this world, wrestling with the world in virtual reality. Perhaps religion, cosmology, mathematics, and even philosophy are simply various forms of precisely this, ways of playing with symbols to lead us to create virtual universes that can help us navigate and modify not only our relations to the actual world, but the selves we imaginatively create, dissolve, and recreate in this perpetually renewed process.
Pierre Hadot and Ancient Greco-Roman Spiritual Exercises: Lived Philosophical Therapeutics
There are many, many similarities between what is described here and what Pierre Hadot described in regard to ancient Greco-Roman “spiritual exercises.” Hadot’s three primary exercises, really three sides of the same, are that of the meditation on the present here-and-now, the expansion of self to the relational contextual whole of what is, and the meditation on death. These are for Hadot three sides of the same, for to see oneself as simply a refraction of one’s context, and the here and now as the core of this, is to see oneself from the depersonalized view of eternity in this instant. It is to treasure the present as the source of our happiness, to put it in his terms. It is to liberate oneself from the illusions of self-sufficiency, or the necessity of essences which determine the narratives or images which bind specific meanings to things or ourself. It is to practice freedom in the mind, preparation for practicing it in deed.
And this is why the core of Buddhist teaching is dharma, which is a very difficult word to translate, and it is used in many varying senses. In many ways it is similar to the Taoist notion of “the Tao,” for it literally means something like “the teaching.” Compassion leads the Buddhist to want to promote dharma, to give it to oneself and others. To teach. But not to indoctrinate, but rather, to model in oneself what liberated life might look like, and presenting the path to this to those who will listen, who are ready to hear. Forcing others on the path will simply increase resistance to it. Rather, if it is true, they will eventually hear the message when and if they are ready for it.
And this hope, this faith, is the Buddhist faith in the fundamental goodness of the world, in the fact that eventually, it will hear this message. And the Buddha, who in the Tibetan tradition in particular is imagined as outside of time and place, but rather, as having infinite manifestations and emanations, down to and including ever aspect of the world, which has a Buddhanature in it even if it does not notice this, is this hope and faith in the potential of everything for liberation and freedom from self-and-other mutually imposed restraints. The Buddha, not as historical person, which was simply an incarnation, but as principle, is precisely this, the potential for freedom lurking within everything which exists.
This is why the Jewel Tree that Thurman describes articulates the dharmas of Buddhism, which is to say, its teachings, as jewels, and the various mentors and sages as jewels in their own way, and why so much of the discourse talks in terms of light. For in fact, distinct and discrete entities are seen as refractions of this potential, in their own, holographic way.
There is nothing articulated here that is not in sync with the networkological worldview. The logic or the node, or reification, is viewed in networkological philosophy as a necessary aspect of the differentiation of emergence in the world. And yet, this logic is like a lure, for it is the root out of which paranoia, defensiveness, and various other destructive formations grow. Identifying with the logic of emergence, rather than that of the node, is one of the crucial ethical and therapeutic aspects of the networkological worldview. Reification, in any and all forms, is necessary, and yet, a distortion of the whole, one which always must be overcome if grow is to occur beyond the limitations of the reification in question. Much more will be said about these links, however, in future works.
Needless to say, I am increasingly beginning to think of networkological thought as having the potential to be a lived philosophy, in the sense articulated here and in the works of Hadot, an issue I’ll be addressing at length elsewhere. But there are many, many parallels between what’s being articulated here and the networkological worldview, even down the holographic, relational approach to the world of experience, or the intertwining of epistemological/ontological questions with ethical/therapeutic/social ones.
Afterward: Why It’s So Difficult to Get What Ancient, Non-Western Texts Are Even Trying to Say . . .
But why is it so difficult to extract these meanings out of Buddhist texts without help? I have to admit, I’ve read a LOT of Buddhist texts before hitting the works of contemporary “translators” like Epstein, Thurman, or Safran, and never really saw the potential for these sorts of insights lurking there.
One of the great dangers of reading texts from another culture or time period is to assume that we already know how to read them. The same, of course, goes for film, or any other cultural artifact. None of which isn’t to say we can’t read ancient or foreign texts and not get something from them. In fact, history is full of the productivity of misunderstandings, of mistranslations becoming the source of new creation. All interpreting is little more than this, and is a source of great newness in the world.
But simply doing this often serves to obscure the fundamental strangeness of texts that come to us from a distance. And just as misunderstanding is potentially productive of newness, so is interaction with aspects of another culture, distant in space or time from oneself. And in fact, if creative misunderstanding transforms the artifact of another culture into a mirror of one’s own preoccupations, truly understanding the strangeness of a text to one’s expectations has a possibility of a shock to one’s preoccupations. Rather than than artifact simply becoming a vanishing mediator or stepping stone in one’s process of change already begun, it has the chance of becoming an event, one which fundamentally alters one’s course. These are, of course, often simply two sides of the same. But understanding the fundamental alterity of another culture’s ways of relating to aspects of their worlds puts the emphasis on the alterity, rather than the sameness.
Pierre Hadot’s work in What is Ancient Philosophy? works precisely to underscore the fact that many ancients related to their texts very differently than we do today. And so, to simply read these texts at face value is to miss so much of what would have been obvious to readers in antiquity. What is necessary, then, is to reconstruct aspects of the socio-historical contexts, what literary critics often call the “horizons of expectations” whereby readers/writers in that time period related to their texts. Only by putting these expectations into conversation with our own can we get a sense of just how odd ancient philosophy is, and how it can be other than simply a mirror to our current needs.
Hadot does this all by reconstructing in great detail how the ancient schools worked, and the social manner in which texts were produced and consumed. For example, he shows how Marcus Aurelius’ text of The Meditations is most likely best read as a sort of memory device in the process of his own self-fashioning, rather than as a text to be read like any other book we have today. Likewise, to read Neoplatonic texts as poor commentary on Plato’s writings is to miss the history whereby it was widely understood that Plato’s texts were to be read allegorically in light of his “secret doctrine,” the existence of which was generally accepted in late antiquity.
Hadot further reconstructs the manner in which the schools of the time saw their texts as simply adjuncts to the “spiritual exercises” and “choice of life” which was seen as philosophy itself. A person was considered a philosopher not by writing or having a position in a school, but by living a certain type of life. Even the Cynics, who rarely ate, read, bathed, or did anything else which fit into any sort of social convention, were seen as philosophers, because they had a discipline which gave meaning to their life, and was proof of their love of wisdom, wisdom on how to live the best life. Disinterested contemplation or research of the various aspects of the world was simply not on the agenda, for even in the Aristotelian-Peripatetic tradition, it was generally thought that research was always in the interests of understanding more of the world so as to help one to learn to live better in it, according to the model described in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. Hadot shows how, especially for the Stoics and Epicureans of late antiquity, research into physics was seen as only important to the extent that it served the purpose of giving us a sense of our place in the cosmos, and hence, of helping us understand the best way to live. Ancient Greco-Roman philosophy was, above all, an inquiry into the art of living, and only secondarily a study of anything else.
Without Hadot to reconstruct this context, however, the texts of Greco-Roman antiquity are often seem baffling, full of, as he argues, strange emphases, odd gaps, and an overal organizing purpose which seems nearly perverse to those in contemporary Euro-America. Without a sense of the “why?,” the principle of selection of elements, the assumed grammar, is to a large extent missing.
We could imagine a similar thing happening if we took a contemporary film, particularly one in an established genre, and showed it to someone from a radically different culture who hadn’t seen such a thing. While most of the world today has seen modern Euro-American films, just imagine a time machine, if we presented ancient Greco-Romans with a standard American sitcom, like “Friends.” We could even supply these ancients with a dictionary of all the words used. They still wouldn’t understand why laughter seems to come from nowhere, even when things aren’t funny. Why other people from outside the story come and play out little skits with various products every few minutes, only to return us to the world of the story as if nothing happened. Why each week it seems like the previous story barely happened. All of these conventions that we bring to the text of the sitcom, the implicit genre assumptions, as well as assumptions about how the culture works (ie: the existence of roommates), would need to be explained.
Reading Plato, Plotinus, Epictetus, or any of the ancient Greco-Romans without these reconstructed contexts would be like showing them a few episodes of “Friends,” or “The Daily Show,” and expecting them to understand anything beyond the surface, in particular, why it’s funny, or not. It’s very likely that they’d understand the meaning of sentences, but their sense of the fuller meaning of what’s being said, the way it riffs on so many implied contexts, would be missing.
Such a problem even exists in relation to Euro-American texts from the recent past, at least, those constructed under different contexts and in relation to assumptions different from those reading them. Getting someone like George W. Bush or John Kerry to understand the meaning of punk lyrics from Britain in the 1970’s, or French Surrealist verses from the 1920’s, would require substantial work as well. Bush or Kerry might understand the words and sentences, but not why anyone would say them, nor what these gestures were taken to mean as performances in wider contexts of reception. The cultural critic is the person that needs to painstakingly reweave these webs of assumptions and preconceptions if any sense of what these artifacts might have meant can be unlocked, even slightly, but those from other contexts.