As Western Buddhism has grown in the last 50 years, and especially with the proliferation of discussion on the internet in the last 5-10 years, there has been a growing niche of satire and criticism of its dominant modes of discourse.
Today two prominent sources of criticism are Glenn Wallis’s Speculative Non-Buddhism and Tutteji Wachtmeister’s (aka Tutteji Dai Osho) Tutteji.org. The former focuses on serious, Western philosophical criticisms of major trends and individuals in Western Buddhism while the latter uses parody with posts featuring such things as “The Tibetan Book of Wining and Dining” and “The Tibetan Book of Fitness and Health” as well as the “108 Shades of Maroon” trilogy. (I am on an academic discussion list where at least one member initially thought all of the posts were real.)
Part of the rationale for critique is, of course, dialogue. And indeed, most of the posts at Speculative Non-Buddhism have long discussions of the material presented, often featuring very different viewpoints. And, according to the thread of discussion that forms the topic of this post, Tutteji himself set up “a trolling-free zone [in the hopes of seeing] some meaningful dialog taking place here.”
The discussion there, which began in late August and ran up to earlier today (and of course could continue indefinitely) is noteworthy as it seems to be the first engagement of a major Western Buddhist figure with either of these critical sites. That teacher is Kenneth Folk, who has his own website and has been featured on Buddhist Geeks and Pragmatic Dharma.
I’ll note some of the flow of the conversation here. This is edited drastically on the basis of my own subjective takes, of course. I have tried to just copy the ‘heart’ of the various comments and ignore those that are ignored by others on the post; there is a lot of interesting discussion that doesn’t fall in with the main Kenneth Folk-centered conversation. I have condensed over 16000 words into around 2000, so I would encourage you to read it all if you’d like.
- What do you think? Are such discussions helpful to Western Buddhists, to thinking individuals, to anyone?
- Are the Speculative Non-Buddhists and other critical groups worthy of more attention or less?
- Did Kenneth Folk do anyone a service by entering into the conversation? Was he embarrassed? Did he point out flaws in the SNB method or ideology?
The quotes will be from Matthias Steingass (MS), Kenneth Folk (KF), Tutte (T), Glenn Wallis (GW), and Tom Pepper (TP):
(warning, some potentially offensive language follows)
(MS) Kenneth Folk: I request you to step forward to acknowledge the superiority of Grandmaster Wachtmeister by decommissioning all your businesses which try to teach people something other than humbleness towards Grandmaster Wachtmeister Tutte the One and Only. Go ahead and be a true role model. Demolish your fake talk about being something other than just another idiot of esotericism. Shut up and succumb. Bow before the true insight – the only one you’re able to have: That you are nothing but a liar and that the only road to salvation for someone like you is to shut the fuck up!
(KF) Mathias, can you reframe your criticism in more structured way? In other words, what specifically would you have me do or not do with regard to my meditation teaching? And why is it important to you? Clarifying this might form the basis for a useful discussion.
(MS) I am skimming through this wired article this morning. It’s all about what has been repeated a thousand times on the SNB-blog: Mindfulness is used to enhance an unjust and absolutely self-embracing autistic capitalistic system which lives separated from the majority of the world population on exactly the resources this majority has to provide.
What you and others do is absolute nothing new…
You, you buddhist geeks, all you oh so smart cute awareness holders, you are absolutely politically unaware. And you are only able to do as you do because you (as me) life in gated communities.
(KF) Skimming a WIRED article is not likely to give you any deep insight into my views, political or otherwise. In fact, I share some of your concerns. I worry that “mindfulness” is being co-opted by corporate power as yet another tool to squeeze profit from the common folk. Meditation is not, in my opinion, best understood as a productivity tool. I wrote about it here:
I’d like to see something emergent in this discussion. Let’s begin by listening to each other rather than downloading.
After a fair amount of discussion by the non-KF contributors, KF returns with:
(KF) 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.
Skipping quite a bit: Wallis responds
(GW) Kenneth. Do you really want to argue that a person who has been engaged in the study and practice of Buddhism since 1975, without pause, even getting a Ph.D. in a Harvard Buddhist studies program, who learned Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, as well as the Burmese, Lao, Singhalese and Thai scripts in the philological mecca of Germany in order to read the primary Buddhist literature first-hand, who has read widely in western, Indian, and Chinese philosophy with world-renowned philosophers in India and Germany, who has–should I go on, big brother?–IS NOT WILLING TO LEARN? You are convinced that you have something to teach me and, indeed, all of humanity. The visible evidence suggest otherwise. I will repeat: you and all the other x-buddhist teachers on the scene today are no different from your facile, ineffectual, platitudinous Self-Help forebears. Like Matthias says, know your history, know where you stand in relation to what has come before. You will not be able to keep up the ruse of “enlightenment” for much longer. Until then: All hail Tutteji!
Give it a rest? You wish, big brother.
..I should probably add, to satisfy what I suspect satisfies more fully your epistemological requirements, studied with Zen, Dzogchen, and Vipassana teachers, blah, blah, blah whose names just might give you a dharmic hard-on.
Tom Pepper jumps in, with a couple paragraphs of criticism of Kenneth Folk concluding:
And like you, Tutte, I do get some enjoyment, sometimes, from how easy it is to get an x-buddhist teacher who makes claims about his level of attainment to resort to name-calling and pathetically listing his credentials or naming his teachers, with just a few questions about anatman. Maybe this proves I’m an ass, but I like to think that although those observing may hate me, I’m fine with that as long as some of them will realize what a jerk the teacher in question really is. I don’t need to attract a following of deluded fools, and I would never charge anybody to teach what I know about Buddhism, online or in person. But my kind of teaching would require hard work, a lot of studying, and wouldn’t produce states of “mindful” bliss or make anyone a more efficient capitalist cubicle dweller, so I don’t expect my schedule to ever get too crowded.
To which KF responds:
“I do get some enjoyment, sometimes, from how easy it is to get an x-buddhist teacher who makes claims about his level of attainment to resort to name-calling and pathetically listing his credentials or naming his teachers, with just a few questions about anatman.” -wtpepper
You seem to have me confused with someone else. I haven’t said anything about my teachers or resume. Your associate Glenn, on the other hand…
Sober up, Pepper, and give it another go in the morning.
(TP) Yes, that last bit wasn’t addressed to you, and didn’t refer to you. To my memory, Ken, I’ve never engaged you on any issue anywhere. I was only speaking about a thing I do sometimes. But thanks for the great advice about sobering up. You really are a complete fucking idiot. I notice you can adress anything I actually said about you or your assinine teachings. It is sad that even a con artst as stupid as you can get money from people when they are in enough distress.
Go get an education, Ken, and try again in about four years.
(KF) Nice try, Pepper. I will not let you off so easily. It is not a coincidence that you reference me by name in two paragraphs, quote me in a third (“purely subjective”), and then make the mistake of responding to Glenn’s resume-pounding from just a few posts up-thread as though it were from me. I believe you misread the post and responded to it as though it were mine. Having now embarrassed yourself and Glenn, you are lying to save face.
I have been repeatedly asked by Glenn and Matthias to engage them (and you by extension) in discussion, and to respond to their critique. I am here, and willing. I’d like to see something from you other than self-destructive nonsense and pointless venom.
Kenneth Folk then gives in square brackets:
Note to folks who wonder if I’ve lost my mind as I bicker with these fellows. In reading the comments and essays on the Speculative Non-Buddhist blog, I have watched this gang of mean-spirited individuals run roughshod over one commentator after another. Glenn, Matthias, and Tom are almost always given a free reign because most people are shocked by their behavior and in any case unwilling get into the gutter with them. I have come to the conclusion that Do Not Feed The Trolls is not always the best course of action, as it leaves the entire field open to the pathology of a few bullies. Although it tips my hand to say so, I am deliberately giving it back to them to see what happens. Tom Pepper’s behavior is particularly noxious, although Glenn Wallis and Matthias Steingass are not far behind. The name-calling and venom you see from these gents is not unusual, it is simply what they do when people disagree with them. I’ve been curious to see how they would respond if they were met on their own terms. So far, I have seen Matthias stammer in bewilderment, Glenn melt down, and Tom babble foolishly and embarrass himself in response to my admittedly cynical baiting. The fact that I am also embarrassing myself is not entirely lost on me… Yikes.
The conversation goes on for a while until Kenneth Folk bows out with:
To those who care about me or are interested in developmental awakening,
One of my intentions in participating here was to out-bully the bullies. It didn’t work. Although I was able to revel in my own nastiness for awhile, I could not sustain it. The SNB fellows are masters of the medium, and I was outmatched. On hindsight, I regret having taken that approach, and I don’t think anything good came of it. The main lesson for me is that it’s better to model the behavior you’d like to see than to try to bludgeon others into submission. You may not change anyone else’s behavior, but neither will you have to regret your own. I do regret my behavior in this case, and I hope to do better in the future.
As for the content of the discussion, even assuming one is willing to wade through the insults and posturing, I don’t see that anything new or interesting emerged. If you wan’t to learn more about what Glenn, Matthias, and Tom are saying, I recommend that you go to their blog(s). If you want to learn more about what I am saying, go to mine.
The others respond, with Tutteji rounding out the conversation (for now) with:
… I can tell you why I host the terrifying triumvirate (and Kenneth Folk) here. I’ve long since given up the hope of seeing x-buddhists engage in serious dialogue. Saying that is bordering on tautology, of course, and there is (theoretically, at least) the chance that the x-buddhist starts to respond to (non-buddhist) critique in a serious way. But then s/he is no longer an x-buddhist. But, as was said earlier in this thread, the purpose of the Tutteji project has never been to convert the true believers, and even less having them admit their delusion in public. Rather, it is about exposing their ideology and rhetorical tricks. And this can be done in several ways: parody and satire is one, less oblique and more direct critique is another, insulting them until that facade of passive-aggressiveness masquerading as ”right speech” comes down, is a third. Having x-buddhist teachers participate in this forced strip show makes it more effective, of course. But the ideal audience is not the faithful x-buddhist, but, as Tom Pepper said earlier, ”the person who has begun to be dissatisfied with the x-buddhist crap, and isn’t yet aware that there is more to Buddhist thought than mindless bliss and fortune-cookie platitudes.”
That’s all for now. Comments are welcome.
(EDIT: because my goal is to foster a somewhat removed discussion of the above I will be blocking/removing comments from those involved -KF, GW, MS, TP and Tutte- and I myself will try not to steer opinion in any one direction. To join the discussion itself please visit Tutteji’s page.)