My Formal Response to Ken Wheeler, Part 1: the Intro
The fool who is aware of his foolishness is at least wise to that extent, but the fool who considers himself wise is indeed to be called a “fool.” —Dhammapada verse 63 (one of my favorite verses)
Having abandoned what was acquired (attam), not taking up anything, he would not be in dependence even upon knowledge. He truly is not a partisan among the schoolmen; he does not fall back on any view at all. —Paramatthaka Sutta, verse 5
Whatever you well understand (sampajānāsi), above, below, across, or also at the center, having dismissed delight and entrenchment in these things, consciousness would not remain established in existence. —from the Mettāgu Mānavapucchā
This post is somewhat of a followup to the last one, in which I briefly discussed the high emotion and sometimes fanatical intolerance of western “Buddhists,” and people considering themselves authorities on Buddhism, who cannot accept the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of anattā, or No Self. In that post I mentioned a person named Ken Wheeler who has a relatively popular YouTube channel, and who is a relatively high-profile example of this high emotion; and in response to what I wrote he sent me a number of responses, two indirectly through a mutual acquaintance, possibly three (or one in three parts) anonymously in the comments to the last post, and one directly and privately via email. This response to his response to my previous post may be a longish one, probably longer than the post that initiated it, and it may even extend into two parts, because there is so much to unpack.
A month or so ago my sweetheart started watching a YouTube channel called Theoria Apophasis, I think because it was repeatedly mentioned on the Discord server associated with my SubscribeStar channel. I had never heard of the channel before, and at first did not know that the host of the videos and livestreams was Ken Wheeler, whom I had heard of a few times but with whom I was totally unfamiliar. He turns out to be a very controversial commentator on a number of topics, including politics and the Wuhan coronavirus, and also including Buddhism and what the original Buddhism was really like.
My sweetheart, in her simple-hearted naïveté, suggested that I reach out to Mr. Theoria Apophasis and have some kind of dialogue with him, possibly even a friendly discussion/debate on Buddhism, and what it originally was like. I had seen enough of him however to consider that unrealistic, as he is extremely smug and very dismissive of anyone who does not accept his interpretation of Buddhism, which is almost everyone, including me.
Nevertheless, during one of his livestreams she posted a comment saying that I had interviewed a Platonist on my YouTube channel…mentioning this because Mr. Wheeler professes himself to be a Platonist. His response was laughing mockery of “soul-denying nihilists,” and if I remember correctly he even went so far as to declare that ALL Buddhists are EVIL. I assume this is because all Buddhists, or almost all, disagree with his interpretation of Buddhism. On the other hand I saw a video of his in which he declared the chain of Trader Joe’s grocery stores also to be EVIL.
(On the other hand, I have been told that Mr. Wheeler has also stated that there ARE no real Buddhists—again I assume because the people who profess that religion/philosophy/yogic spiritual system don’t agree with his interpretation of the teachings of the Buddha, especially with regard to the existence of an immortal soul. I have heard with my own ears his repeated assertions that there is no such religion as Hinduism, declaring Hindus simply to be an ethnicity, somewhat like the Jews. I would simply observe that a good functioning definition of a Hindu is anyone who accepts the spiritual authority of the Vedas, which conveniently filters out the Muslims, Jains, Parsis, Buddhists, Christians, etc. who live among the people who consider themselves to be Hindus. Also it would allow a Canadian or Albanian or Nigerian who does accept the authority of the Vedas and worships Shiva or Vishnu besides to be a Hindu…but I digress.)
So anyway, I have butted heads with a few soul-insisting people lately who consider themselves to be Buddhists and/or authorities on Buddhism, and Mr. Wheeler is a good example of this type, so I mentioned him last time…and he sent me a sort of rebuttal of one of my main arguments, the fairly straightforward formula of the tilakkhana or three marks (of existence), the third of which is sabbe dhammā anattā, or “All states (conditioned or otherwise) are not self.” His attempted refutation rests on the strange assertion that the word sabbe here, meaning “all” and modifying the noun dhammā or “states,” is really a singular noun somehow serving as the object of the sentence. His argument is essentially what is found in the comments to the previous post under the name Anonymous. You can read it for yourself and make of it what you will, although I will point out that the accusative singular of sabba is normally sabbam, not sabbe. He tries to conflate the singular sabbam found in some suttas with the meaning of everything, or the All, with sabbe in the formula, pretty obviously serving as an adjective modifying dhammā, and with the same plural declension. Furthermore he dismisses the idea that sabbam as a noun really means “All,” considering it to mean only what is worldly, phenomenal, and sensory. Aside from this he made no real effort to refute my arguments, including in my opinion the very important one of what the earliest texts say, but more on that later.
So Mr. Wheeler sent indirectly a message practically verbatim with the anonymous comments to the post, putting forth his rather odd grammatical interpretation, presumably the comments themselves…and then he sent me directly a private email also saying essentially the same stuff…except laden with sneering insults. The introductory matter of the email, before he wades into Pali grammar, is as follows.
Some random person sent me your miserable little personal musings (not doctrine, rather your subjective spew-mongering) about buddhism (“I teach brahmayana” Samyutta Nikaya 5.4 meaning path to the Absolute)
Since you don’t translate Pali, and I have been doing same for 24 years, ill clue you in my little son.
Might I remind you, your musings (NOR MINE) are neither Doctrine (5 Nikayas, which predate Theravada by 600+ years) …..NOR do they supersede doctrine, son.
I know you won’t listen, since youre an egomaniac who thinks his (meaning your) personal subjective spew is either equal to ‘buddhism’ or supersedes same.
Buddhism, son, is ITS teachings, not your (nor mine) droolings/ musings.
Eso Kaya Na Me So Atta’
Theravada (i.e. Sarvastivada sect, as originally deemed) has used as its last defense for 1500 years now, the “sabbe dhamma anatta” defense to ‘prove’ that all is ‘void’ of a Soul in Buddhist doctrine, or that there cannot be a Soul whatsoever, for as they say “all Dharmas” encompasses everything in entirety. The Theravada say this phrase found in the Dhammapada (and other locations) means in translation “All Dharmas are Soulless”. However, in fact, under close examination the Theravada dogma falls apart very quickly and their self-created dogma disappears under close scrutiny. Here ends the “sabbe dhamma anatta” debate.
Now it seems peculiar that he would send me the same message about his interpretation of the word sabbe twice, or three times if we include the anonymous comments which contain verbatim his words elsewhere, with the public versions seen by others to be more or less civil, but the private version to be loaded with personal insults. I have been told that he doesn’t care what other people think of him, but if that were the case, why omit the arrogant sneering from public comments? Seems to me that he knows it makes him look like an ass.
I have been told that Mr. Wheeler has been doing this stuff for more than ten years. I read an old blog post, some ten years old, stating that this person had created a number of fake accounts to give multiple one-star reviews to books on Amazon that disagree with his idiosyncratic, Platonistic and “perennialist” interpretation of Buddhism. At the same time he declares himself unironically as the world’s highest authority on what early Buddhism was like. But on what does he base his information?
For that matter, on what did he base his statement that I don’t translate Pali? Arrogant wishful thinking? I began studying the language in the early 90s and wrote my first major translation, the Atthakavagga, in the late 90s, so mere number of years means relatively little. It would appear that Mr. Wheeler has been MIStranslating Pali for quite awhile, and his pronunciation of it on his videos is, let us say, unique to the point of being almost unintelligible.
But I will save my critique of his strange ideas about the original Buddhism for next time, because this is a long one.