Buddhism as the Opiate of the (downwardly-mobile) Middle Class: The Case of Thanissaro Bhikkhu
by Tom Pepper
Let me begin by noting that I rarely take issue with Thanissaro Bhikkhu. This is not because I am awed by his superior learning—in just about every field outside of the Pali language I would venture to assert I am probably more learned than he is. Rather, I find little to object to in his writings and talks because, unlike every other Western Buddhist teacher I have come across, he does not try to deceive or confuse his audience. Thanissaro Bhikkhu never pretends to be presenting a secular truth, and is quite explicit about his faith in the existence of an eternal atman in which we will all live in eternal bliss when we escape this fallen world. He makes it clear that what he means by anatta is merely that this samsaric world is not a part of our true eternal soul, and we must not be attached to it. Unlike most x-buddhists teachers, who claim to be teaching that there is no soul, but then sneak a subtle atman back in with obfuscation and rhetorical sleight of hand, Thanissaro is up front about what he believes: for him, Buddhism is exactly the same as Vedanta or Jainism at its core; the only difference is in what we must do to get to that state of eternal bliss, how we must conduct ourselves in this life to reassure ourselves that we are moving closer to permanently rejoining the perfect eternal atman, escaping the trap of this world once and for all.
One other reason I don’t usually take issue with Thanissaro’s teaching is that he doesn’t seem to be working any kind of new-age grift. He offers his many books and translations for free, and to my knowledge never charges for his public talks. I’ve never been to his monastery, but he doesn’t seem to piling up cash for an escape to a palatial estate once the Buddhism fad has passed. One can easily read his works, determine what he has to offer, and decide whether to follow his teachings without spending any money at all.
The reason I want to consider his teaching here is simply as an exercise in applying non-buddhist interpretive strategies. I want to ask this simple question: What would we make of these teachings if they were offered by Geoffrey DeGraff from New York, if he dressed in chinos and an oxford shirt instead of saffron robes, if he offered his ideas as coming from some Western tradition instead of from translations of exotic ancient texts? If we were to remove the charismatic power that derives from racist Western Orientalism, how seriously would we take these teachings?
Just as importantly, for those among us who do not accept a radical dualism and hope for an afterlife of eternal bliss in a state of infantile imaginary plenitude as compensation for our miserable lives here on earth, what is the ideological function of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s Thai Forest teaching in the period of late capitalism? Is it an ideological function we should be tolerant of?
To begin with, I want to briefly illustrate, for those who will no doubt object, that Thanissaro Bhikkhu does, in fact, explicitly believe in the eternal, dualist, atta or atman. Unlike so many other Buddhist teachers, who deny such belief but then assume the existence of a subtle atman, he is clear on this point. In his essay “No-self or Not-self?” he makes it clear that his understanding of the teaching of anatta is that there is, in fact, an eternal soul, but that nothing that is part of our time-space continuum is part of that soul, and so we must learn not to be attached to anything in this samsaric world. In his recent digital book With Each and Every Breath, he is explicit about his understanding that there is a core “mind” that is separate from the thoughts and mental formations of our conventional selves:
Although the mind often acts under the force of habit, it doesn’t have to. It has the option of making new choices with every moment. The more clearly you see what’s happening in the present, the more likely you are to make skillful choices: ones that will lead to genuine happiness—and, with practice, will bring you closer and closer to total freedom from suffering and stress—now and into the future. (10)
His position is that this core mind is the only place for true happiness, because it is the only thing that is eternal and permanent—there is an assumption that there can be no pleasure at all in anything impermanent, that we cannot enjoy something unless it is eternal and unchanging, and only the core mind is eternal, uninfluenced by any conditions:
There are many dimensions to the mind, dimensions often obscured by the squabbling of the committee members and their fixation with fleeting forms of happiness. One of those dimensions is totally unconditioned. In other words, it’s not dependent on conditions at all. (11)
What we must work for is to detach from everything that exists in time and space, because only achieving this full detachment will assure that we will escape the trap of this world and live in unconditioned bliss.
Certainly this is exactly the kind of Western Buddhism that Zizek has in mind in his well-known and controversial critique. Western Buddhism assures us that we have some core “self,” unaffected by our daily activities; it offers us practices in which to produce this illusory “self,” so that we can achieve states of psychic and bodily comfort in private regardless of how horrid, degrading, immoral, or downright evil our actions in the daily world of global capitalism must be. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it:
Even if you simply want help in managing pain or finding a little more peace and stability in your life, meditation has plenty to offer you. It can also strengthen the mind to deal with many of the problems of day-to-day life, because it develops qualities like mindfulness, alertness, concentrationd discernment that are useful in all activities, at home, at work, or wherever you are. These qualities are also helpful in dealing with some of the larger, more difficult issues of life. (7)
The goal of meditation is to prepare the core, unconditioned, mind to better manage the impermanent, worldly thoughts, which are causing it stress.
The translation of dhukka as “stress” is an essential part of this particular type of Buddhism, because the term “stress” itself is a recent invention, one that could only make sense in our post-romantic world in which we understand there to be a core “true” self which is “stressed” by the social system in which it lives. The concept of “stress” is borrowed from its use in engineering, where it referred to the various pressures put on a particular structural element—weight, pull, twist, etc.—which might cause this integrity of this unified element to fail. The idea that we are under “stress” assumes that we are a core, unified thing, and the conditions we find our “selves” in, far from producing us, are pushing, pulling, and impacting us.
There is a clearly Rousseauian undertone to this concept. Rousseau assumed a core, and essentially “good,” soul, which was forced to do bad things by the social formation it inhabited. Rousseau’s idea was that he was essentially a “good person” no matter what terrible things he did in the world (e.g., abandoning his infant children) because those actions were the result of a corrupt social formation. This is not far from our contemporary “spiritual but not religious” attitude, which assumes that no matter what I do (lie, steal, cheat on my spouse, exploit the poor, support military oppression of third world people, etc.) I will go to heaven because I am, at my core, a “good person.”
In our late-capitalist world, in which even the majority in first-world countries are facing a diminishing standard of living, a world in which our children are unlikely to do as well as us, and our grandchildren will mostly have little hope of things like jobs and homes and health care, this new x-buddhist twist on Rousseau’s good “soul” is surely comforting. Unlike the Weberian version of the “spirit of capitalism,” in which we were assured of going to heaven, of being one of God’s chosen, exactly because of our worldly success, our ability to work and produce and improve, we are now assured of a state of eternal bliss exactly by our willingness to accept our downward economic mobility. Lost your job? Don’t be attached to work—work, or any activity in the world, is not part of our true self. Lost your house? Can’t afford dental care? Can’t buy your kids new shoes? Don’t worry, your possessions, and even your body, are not part of your “true self.” Our new guarantee that we are among the elect, going to the heaven of a state of eternal infantile imaginary plentitude, is that we can tolerate sitting idly, not working, not enjoying ourselves, not engaging with this fallen, samsaric world. And those who can actually enjoy this decreasing ability to interact with the world (what Spinoza defined as the state of sadness) are the ones most likely to get to paradise at the end of this very life, with no next go-around in this miserable, impermanent world.
Clearly, this is an ideology tailor-made for the age of global capitalism, where the rich get richer and fewer, and the majority become one mass lumpen-proletariat.
For those of us who do not accept the dualistic belief in an eternal soul, this type of Buddhism is of little interest. If we understand the “self” to be produced by the social formation and the biological body, instead of to be influenced by or trapped in them, the translation of dukkha as stress makes little sense. The “self” is not “stressed” by the world, but produced as an ignorant, avaricious, belligerent entity by those social formations. The goal is not acceptance, retreat, and detachment, but engagement and judgment and change. We are not a “pure self” corrupted by social formations, but a self constructed as always-already corrupt and ignorant and suffering, and the only way to change that is to transform our social system.
For those of us who don’t believe in any eternal consciousness, there is not much appeal to suffering through this miserable life with the promise of an eternal bliss hereafter. If this was once the opiate of the masses, it seems it has now become the opiate of the downwardly-mobile middle class. This belief, then, becomes something we cannot simply “tolerate” or passively condone: the more people there are who passively consent to the status quo, the more difficult it is to effect real social change. For this reason, it is incumbent upon us to argue against this kind of new-age quietism in whatever form it appears.
images-2 My question again: if we were being taught this by Geoff from New York, instead of a Monk with an exotic Thai name, if he were wearing khakis and a polo shirt, instead of saffron robes, if he explained the source of this ideology as early-capitalist Romanticism, instead of ancient-eastern texts in a lost language, well, how would we respond?