confusions informing Secular Buddhism: technology and ideology

Glenn Wallis’ new book, A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real, is getting some well-deserved attention. See the unedited version of the interview from Lion’s Road here, and the review on McConnell’s Post-Traditional Buddhism here.

While I’m creeping forward toward a full review of the book, one aspect of the LR review deserves special attention as it evidences a continuing and fundamental confusion informing Secular Buddhism (to highlight the doctrinal commitments concealed by the seemingly innocuous “secular Buddhism” which makes those commitments normal, normative and invisible). The foundational confusion is the idea that technology can be separate from ideology, that is, from systemic ways of thinking about things and the values motivating actions within such systems of thought. At one point Randy Rosenthal, the Lion’s Roar interviewer, asks:

RR: I’m not sure what a non-buddhism would be in practice. Would it simply be meditating itself, without the “Buddhism”? Basically, I would take a step back and ask if mindfulness practice or vipassana, which I see as secular Buddhism, is helping people “be sane in an insane world,” as you write, or helping say, ADHD affected children function better, then what is better than that? If it’s working—as you do say, it does work—then what’s the problem?

First, to clear the ground: the issue is not whether meditation is “helping people” or not. That is a consistent red herring that regularly deflects attention from the ideological commitments of Secular Buddhism.

Second, the main point of contention: there is no “meditating itself.” Meditation is conducted (meaning both individual practice and social instruction) either in the ideological context of Buddhist praxis, or in the ideological context of a secular, therapeutic culture. The idea that technology and ideology are autonomous is part of the mystification that enables that culture to obscure the naturalizing of contingent views regarding personal identity, societal values, and socio-economic structures. Implicitly normative because they are taken as natural and therefore unproblematic, these contingent views are accepted without reflection and become self-enforcing.

The societal basis for this mystification is very broad, indeed. The disjunction between technology and ideology is pervasive–meditation is no more autonomous in relation to a system of ideological commitments than are cell phones, credit cards, automobiles.