Philosopher Timothy Morton is injecting Buddhism into Western philosophy in a way that’s never before been done. He talks to LionsRoar.com’s Sam Littlefair about Buddhism, ecology, and optimism in the age of Trump.
You may not have heard of Timothy Morton, but he’s changing the world you live in. Last year, Morton was named one of the fifty most important philosophers alive. In a popular Guardian profile in June, journalist Alex Blasdel noted even that some of the most influential figures in the art world draw inspiration from his work, including Icelandic artist Bjork, who recently included correspondences with Morton in her retrospective at the MoMA.
Morton’s philosophy is alluring because it’s unorthodox — sometimes downright strange, sprinkled with pop-culture references, emotionality, and surrealism. And, though he doesn’t advertise it, Buddhism is one of Morton’s biggest influences.
Originally from England, he currently holds a chair at Rice University, and his new book, Humankind, is out this month. He spoke to me about the wisdom hidden in shame, why narcissism is good, the power of art, and how Buddhism pervades his work — even if it isn’t always obvious.
Buddhism In the Subtext
In contemporary philosophy, you’re likely to find names like Hegel, Nietzsche, and Zizek. In Morton’s works, you’re just as likely to encounter Trungpa, Dogen, and Nagarjuna — great Buddhist thinkers. With the rising popularity of Morton’s work, some of Buddhism’s most profound teachings on emptiness are seeping into Western philosophical discourse.
Sam Littlefair: How did you become a Buddhist?
Timothy Morton: I was fascinated as a teenager. Later, what really motivated me to start meditating — as opposed to just reading about it — was my brother getting schizophrenia. My brother is a brilliant drummer. He was going to be the drummer for the funk act, Jamiroquai. The suffering from that pushed me into studying Buddhism.
I hadn’t realized Buddhism could be about laughing.
When I was at Oxford, I met two people from Trungpa Rinpoche’s sangha at a party. I’d read a lot about Zen, but I’d never met a Vajrayana Buddhist before. I thought, “God, these people are actually having fun!” I hadn’t realized Buddhism could be about laughing and enjoying pleasure. I very, very quickly read almost everything Trungpa Rinpoche had published.
The other thing is that, when you’re a scholar, you get blown around the earth looking for a job. It can be so alienating and depressing and life-disrupting. I wound up in Boulder, as luck would have it.
Now, since the late nineties, I’ve been studying with Tsoknyi Rinpoche.
How much Buddhism is there in the subtext of your writing?
There’s a lot.
It’s interesting, because part of me thinks, “This is the best thing and I want to tell everyone about it!” Twenty years ago, I was an I’ve-just-drunk-the-Kool-Aid religious nutter of a person. The twenty-year-ago me would’ve said, “Now’s my chance to tell everybody about the thing that I really think is great!”
I’m trying to use ideas to reach something that isn’t conceptual.
The irony is: now that I’m actually doing it, I haven’t got a clue what it actually is. I really love it, even more than I used to, but I have much less of an ability to put it into words.
Working with the philosophy stuff is safer for me than trying to talk directly about Buddhism. I think that would be quite off-putting, and it would just be rubbish coming out of my mouth.
Morton came onto the scene in 2007 with the release of his first book, Ecology Without Nature, in which he challenged the view that nature is separate from human society. When Zen Buddhist poet Gary Snyder, whom Morton succeeded at UC Davis, read the book, he told Morton, “You know what? This is a philosophy book.” That’s when Morton, a Buddhist, scholar, and ecotheorist, became a philosopher, too.
Morton’s worldview — partly inspired by “object-oriented ontology,” an emerging school of philosophy — posits that words can’t do justice to experience. So, instead of stating things outright, Morton circles them. His lectures have been described as performance art. He rarely negates or asserts an idea, arguing that “positive assertions about objects fail,” echoing Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. Instead, he engages constructively, picking up thoughts and teasing them apart. Sometimes, his writing and spoken word can seem rambling and incoherent, but it seems to always find its way back to articulate thought.
How does Buddhism appear in your work?
Several performance artists have told me that I am in fact a performance artist. As a teacher and as a Buddhist, I’m very aware of the energy of the space when I’m talking to people. I’m taking ideas in the philosophy world and it feels like I’m bending them into yoga positions — twisting them into fractal shapes.
Because of that, something else starts happening. Something nonverbal and nonconceptual. That’s the magical bit. I try to not pay any manipulative attention to that. I work on the ideas, bending and twisting them. Whether it’s in my prose or in a group, people tell me there’s this atmosphere that takes over. It’s got this mind-meldy, poignant, slightly passionate feeling.
Everything is a phenomenon. Toothbrushes and ideas about toothbrushes. These phenomena are suffused with emptiness. Basically, that’s it.
For example, last year I was in Tromsø, in Northern Norway, where there was a big thing on a concept I’ve developed called Dark Ecology. These Scandinavian sound artists had been working for three years in Arctic Russia and Norway. I gave this lecture at the end, and the whole setup was like, “And now Tim will mansplain everything you’ve been doing for the last three years and make you understand exactly what’s good and bad.”
That’s what I see to be how I relate to official Buddhism in my work. It’s there, but I try super-hard not to do it too much directly.
The way you use certain words reminds me of specific Buddhist concepts.
Oh, go on?
In Hyperobjects, you describe the idea of “world” in terms of suffering and the six realms of existence, making me think that your use of the word “world” suggests the Buddhist notion of “samsara.”
And “hyperobjects” reminds me of the Buddhist idea of “mandala.”
The way you talk about “agrilogistics” reminds of the Buddhist notion of the “human realm.”
Wow. So that’s amazing, because you’re seeing things that I haven’t explicitly seen in those concepts, but it’s true.
Sometimes, on a good day, I can laugh hysterically at the absurdity of samsaric suffering.
I thought you were going to focus on the word “appearance,” because Dzogchen writing uses the word “appearance.” Everything is a phenomenon. Toothbrushes and ideas about toothbrushes. These phenomena are suffused with emptiness, and basically that’s it [laughter]. So I deliberately use the word “appearance” like that. I like to use that word. It’s very evocative, and it has a ghostly, spectral, illusion, apparition quality.
But you’re right about the idea of hyperobjects and mandala. Agrilogistics and the human realm is interesting. It works. It totally works. What was the other one?
You’ve commented on the idea of the “world” — human society on this planet — suggesting that that we’re sort of trapped in this idea. You even compare the idea of “world” to the Buddhist notion of “all-pervasive pain… [which] has to do with the fixation and confusion that constitute the Six Realms of Existence… the Wheel of Life.”
Oh yes. That’s one of my very favorite bits.
I love Trungpa Rinpoche’s prose. I love how he talks. One of the things that has informed my work for a very long time is a phrase he uses to describe the third type of suffering in Glimpses of Abhidharma.
There’s the first type of suffering, the suffering of change — where you stub your toe. Then there’s the second type of suffering, the suffering of suffering, when you stub your toe and then you bang your head on the door as you run to get the sticky plaster. Then there’s the all-pervasive suffering. His phrase to describe it is “a fundamental creepy quality.” That’s amazing. You can’t see it directly, but it’s sort of there. As the guy says in The Matrix, “like a splinter in your mind.”
That reminds me of another phrase of yours that sounds Buddhist, “dark ecology.”
You know, if you’ve trained in Buddhism for a bit, and trained with a Buddhist therapist at the same time, and done a few retreats with Pema Chödrön, then I find — sometimes — on a good day, I can laugh hysterically at the absurdity of samsaric suffering.
Everyone gets it a bit wrong about Buddhism: “Buddhism is all about suffering.” No, it isn’t. It’s about laughing about suffering. Yes, we’re having a bad time, but that’s not what we’re underlining here. We’re underlining the fact that the bad time is because we keep fixating. You keep missing the target, trying to overdo it, which creates more suffering.
There’s irony there, and the “dark” in “dark ecology” is speaking to that irony.
The dark bits don’t just have to do with how awful everything is. They have to do with how weird it is that everything is awful.
In Hyperobjects, I quote one of Trungpa Rinpoche’s elocution exercises, because it’s so good. As you can tell from my accent, I was roped into being an elocution teacher for a bit. One of the exercises is “the vicissitudes of life are like drowning in a glass pond.”
Fuck. That’s the most amazing line I’ve ever seen in my life. That’s the kind of irony I’m talking about. It’s not the irony of escaping. It’s the irony of no-escape. The Regent’s [the late Buddhist teacher who succeded Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche] favorite line in the movie Buckaroo Banzai was “Wherever you go, there you are.” No matter what you think you’re doing, there you are doing it. That’s a truth in phenomenology as well as in Buddhism.
The dark bits don’t just have to do with how awful everything is. They have to do with how weird it is that everything is awful. Inside of that weird smile there is another smile, which is quite joyful. Instead of rejecting this world, you can discover something very special inside. So the feeling of “dark” is definitely Buddhist.
“Weird” is an idea that’s very central to your work.
“Weird,” for people who don’t know, is from a Norse word meaning “entwined” or “twisted in a loop.” Loop. Loop, loop, loop.
It’s this weirdness quality of things. If we think about the concept of nirvana and samsara, as you read the smaller and smaller print about them, you see they’re different but totally entwined. Otherwise, you couldn’t become Buddha.
But, that means you can get really lost in the view, and stop paying attention to being a nice guy, because you get so hypnotized by the idea of samsara and nirvana being indistinguishable. You default back to nihilism.
So, it’s weird, because they’re different, and yet they’re entwined. Like, I am so not a Buddha. I’m a sentient being. And yet, also, they’re not separated.
Enter Object-Oriented Ontology
Recently, Morton has made waves championing a fledgling school of philosophy called “object-oriented ontology” (OOO). OOO posits that everything in the universe — every “object” — has an experience. OOO, established by philosopher Graham Harman in 1999, is radical because it insists that objects do exist independent of human experience, which runs contrary to much of Western thinking. Morton cites this video by Ian Bogost to help explain the idea:
Morton has helped raise OOO into mainstream discourse. He has coined new OOO concepts, like the idea of “hyperobjects” — things, or arrangements of things, that exist massively distributed across time and space, like a solar system, nuclear waste, or “Gangnam Style.” Morton has also proposed the idea of “dark ecology,” to describe the fact that everything is creepily, inextricably interconnected.
In your letters with Bjork, the two of you discuss OOO, and she mentions “each laptop, each bird, each building.” You responded, “that’s an ‘OOO’ sort of list there… i love to make such lists. spoon. quasar. frost on an iron railing.”
In fact, you’ve written that “random lists of objects,” called “Latour Litanies,” are “the hallmark trope of OOO.”
All of this made me think of another list — the first lines of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s masterwork — which you have also cited in your work — The Sadhana of Mahamudra: “Earth, water, fire, and all the elements, / The animate and the inanimate, the trees and the greenery and so on, / All partake of the nature of self-existing equanimity.”
There you go! Right. Boom! Wow. Yeaaah. You said it.
So, how do OOO and Buddhism overlap or differ?
I think the list thing is also in the Prajnaparamita Sutra. “No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no seeing.” The very first retreat I ever did was a weekthun with Reggie Ray in 1997. It was really freaking snowy up in Rocky Mountain Dharma Center [now Shambhala Mountain Center]. The first time we did the Prajnaparamita Sutra, I totally lost it emotionally, just crying, because of the phrase “There are no characteristics.”
In OOO, we like to list things because we like to remind people that there are all these things in the universe that we’re not accessing right now. Accessing doesn’t make things real, in particular.
One of my criteria for what counts as good thought is: does it make me smile?
Buddhism has been appropriated by standard Western philosophy to say that “we co-create reality.” Tell me something I didn’t know. That’s in Foucault, Heidegger, Hegel, Marx, Kant. That’s what they’re all saying. This isn’t weird, freaky stuff. This is standard. The interesting flip side to what they’re saying is that there are all of these entities that have nothing to do with you. That’s the bit that OOO emphasizes.
You’ve got two flavors:
You’ve got the flavor that we call the “correlators.” In Buddhism, it would be “confusion mind.” In Marx it would be “human-economic relations.” In Nietzsche it would be “will to power.” These things make stuff real. Like, “Sure, there are lemons, but they’re not really real lemons until you farm and eat them. Then they’re real.” There’s real stuff, but it’s not reality until something or somebody performed it. Okay. I get that bit.
Then there’s this other flavor, which is that there really is a lemon. There is a spoon. It’s not so much that there is no spoon. It’s like luminosity. OOO is talking about emptiness, but it’s also talking about luminosity.
The emptiness is why stuff can happen. It’s not the end result of being really intelligent; it’s the basis for why stuff can occur at all. It’s why, when you write the list, you’ll never get to the end of the list. And all of the stuff in the list is weird and mysterious, and yet at the same time it’s incredibly vivid. OOO and Buddhism, in different ways, evoke something about the fusion between emptiness and luminosity.
It’s the first Western philosophy that I can actually not throw up when I read. Actually, quite the opposite. It makes me laugh. One of my criteria for what counts as good thought is: does it make me smile?
With OOO, how do you see your practice?
From an OOO point of view, when you meditate, you’re letting your mind be what it already is which is an “object.” This is a controversial word. When we hear the word “object,” we see in a mirror what we think of as the worst possible thing that could happen to a person: that they become objectified.
In OOO, “object” means anything at all. There’s no subject in this view. Everything is an entity, or a being — something like that.
So, according to Buddhism, there is a thing called a “mind.” I’m not the object police, so I can’t tell you what exists, but let’s go with that for a minute. According to OOO, mind must be on the one hand withdrawn — AKA, completely open, like a crystal ball. On the other hand, it must be very vivid and endowed with intrinsic qualities that aren’t superficial — AKA, the luminosity aspect, the reflections in the crystal ball.
My argument is that — this is a kind-of Buddhist one — inside of you there’s something really beautiful.
So, when you’re meditating, you’re just allowing your mind to be what it is already, which is an object. In that sense, just let it do its thing. As Tsoknyi Rinpoche says, very beautifully, “Let experience happen.”
For me, meditation has got this aspect of just allowing stuff to exist without putting too much of a copyright control stamp on it. Since I’m a dzogchen practitioner, I have been instructed to be doing this freaking thing all the fucking time. Unfortunately, it almost never happens [laughing].
In one essay, you wrote about what Trungpa Rinpoche called “the genuine heart of sadness,” and how that relates to guilt and shame. Given that the political discussion revolves around phrases like “tiny hands,” the notion of shame seems very relevant right now. Not to say that you have any obligation to fix the world, but how do you see society addressing pervasive shame that causes so much suffering?
Well, first of all, thanks for telling me that I don’t have to fix the world. The most common question that I get is “What are we gonna do?” So thanks for relieving me of that burden. Having said that, can you say more about the shame? Tell me what’s on your mind.
In your essay, you talk about how shame is an experience that we all have, and one could tunnel into that shame to uncover inner sadness. Anyone could do that, but most often we don’t, and instead we just go around hurting people.
Yes, it’s true. Lots of people like me like the idea of shame. I think that’s because we’ve gotten so intellectual we’ve forgotten what it feels like. When I feel shame, I either want to kill myself or kill the person who’s making me feel that way.
It’s a very strange moment we’re in right now in the United States. You mentioned the “tiny hands.” This is a very intimate thing that happens around the semi-dictator phenomenon — the notion of narcissism.
The entire country is caught in a horrible narcissistic aggression, which is about distinguishing yourself from Trump. It’s, “Oh, I’m not like him. Look at that revolting narcissistic person over there. Blech.”
One of the cool things that Buddhism does is it gives you permission to be “narcissistic.” Because, what is that, in fact? In Buddhist language, that’s maitri. First, love yourself, because otherwise how can you have a clue about loving your neighbor? In Tibetan monasteries, when you learn generosity, the first thing you learn is to give the ball to the other hand. Then you take the ball and you put it in the previous hand. From a Western point of view, that’s narcissism — but it’s essential for how to not act out.
I heard a Buddhist years ago say [pompous voice] “I’m not one of those awful Western Buddhists who actually likes themselves. Heaven forbid that I like myself. That would be appalling. I’m a self-flagellating proper Buddhist who hates himself.”
I’m like, “What’s wrong with this picture, man?” You’re supposed to like yourself. You’re supposed to achieve, at first — as Tsoknyi Rinpoche would put it — a California practitioner kind of pleasure. Then you can transcend, because then you’re not spiritually bypassing your shit.
There’s much less of “Tim” than Tim likes to think there is, in order for Tim to exist.
You’re absolutely right. Unless we deal with phenomena that makes us aware of our inevitably broken, abject, distinct, sticking-out physicality embodiment that we have, we’re going to act it out. So, my argument is that — this is a kind-of Buddhist one — inside of you there’s something really beautiful. So, don’t reject the guilt and the shame.
An awful lot of stuff from the ecology world — which is how I spent most of my life — is about making people feel really, really guilty all of the time. You open the paper and it tells you some kind of number, like “Twenty!” “Seventeen percent!” “Two hundred thousand!”, and you think, “Oh my god. Not another bunch of numbers.” The whole thing is to put you into a position of: completely paralyzed, yet weirdly outside of it at the same time. That, to me, is the dynamic of shame. There’s nothing you can do, and you’re observing it from another’s point of view. And both of those things are very toxic.
Donald Trump uses the word “great.” “Make America great again.” What he’s really getting at isn’t national greatness. I think he’s talking to the shame. When you have all of this shame, you’re gonna get really violent and exclude all of the beings that we pin the shame tail on, like Syrians and Mexicans. He’s talking to opioid addicts in the mid-west and saying, “Right now you feel like shit, but don’t worry, you’re gonna feel great again when I take care of you, so just relax and have another Vicodin.”
Suffusing the Western theory of humanity with the Buddhist idea of emptiness
Morton’s newest book, Humankind, is out this month. The book attempts to discuss the sticky concept of “humanity” and argue that humans should have solidarity with non-humans (animate and inanimate), based on a fundamental kindness.
Humankind is about considering non-humanity in a view of philosophy, which seems very closely related to the Buddhist view of boundless compassion. How does that relate to everything we’re talking about here?
Academics in my line of work — humanistic studies — have basically argued over the last thirty years that if you say something like “we” or “human,” what you’re doing is deeply patriarchal, white supremacist, and imperialist. There are so many great reasons why that’s true. So, can we say “we” in a way that doesn’t do that? Because, right now it’s become very obvious that there is an entity called the human species, and this entity has almost successfully destroyed the Earth, so it might be a good idea to say “we.”
Humankind is an attempt to talk about that.
There’s a meme we’ve been retweeting in the West for a very, very, very long time. It’s basically a theistic meme: the notion that “the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.” There’s no good reason to think this. Think about the opposite: that the whole is weirdly less than the sum of its parts.
There’s so much more in a thing than your concept of it. Reality, fundamentally, is very, very creative.
“Tim,” for example. There’s much less of “Tim” than Tim likes to think there is, in order for Tim to exist. Tim does exist, but there’s all kinds of things in Tim that aren’t Tim. There’s all this bacteria and crustaceans and stuff.
My way of thinking is: of course you can talk about the human species, as long as you don’t poof it up into something that’s much greater than all of the parts of the human species. This notion of “human” isn’t some great, big theological Pacman that swallows everything. It’s actually smaller than its parts.
If you suffuse the idea of the human with something more like the Buddhist notion of emptiness, then you can talk about it. Wouldn’t it be a really good idea if that started to occur?
In Buddhist thinking, the notion of skandha is amazing. “Skandha” means “heap.” Heaps are very interesting because there’s a logical problem with heaps in Western philosophy.
Say, for example, you’re looking at a pile of sand. If you take a grain of sand out of that pile and say, “Is it still a pile of sand?,” you’ll say, “yes.” You can carry on doing that and answer the same question the same way until there are no grains of sand left. Then you conclude that there never was a pile of sand, and therefore piles don’t exist.
In order to look after things like human beings and whales and ecosystems, you have to allow piles to exist, because these things are heaps of stuff that aren’t them. So the notion of skandha is actually perfect. Implied in the notion of skandha is the logic that accepts that there can be such things as heaps, and that’s very interesting. To me, this notion of skandha is really a good way of thinking about what beings are.
With the example of “humankind” — you could annihilate billions of people, but you would still have “humankind.”
Exactly. And it’s because “humanity” is less than those people. There’s so much more to those people than just being symptoms of humankind. There’s so much more in a thing than your concept of it. Reality, fundamentally, is very, very creative. It’s always going to elude your conceptual grasp.
Facing Our Buddhaphobia
In his essay Buddhaphobia, Morton explores the fears of some of Western philosophy’s most influential thinkers — Nietzsche, Hegel, Zizek — and looks at how their philosophies are informed by a fear of “nothingness,” or Buddhanature.
“Buddhaphobia means being afraid that there is something within us: not us, yet extremely intimate, perhaps even more intimate than our sense of being ourselves,” writes Morton. “This fear is based on the awareness that we are not who we think we are.”
Morton argues that the Buddhist concept of shunyata, or “emptiness,” is intrinsic to Western philosophy — perhaps going back to the Greek skeptic Pyrrho, who studied in India around 300BCE — but Western philosophers largely disregard it.
Toward the end of Buddhaphobia, you make a powerful case for why Western philosophers should be more open to encounters with Buddhism and emptiness. You say that a less phobic encounter between Western philosophers and Buddhism’s view of emptiness, “is a way to imagine the future of theory outside of modernity.” What’s your view of the future of philosophy and Buddhism?
I’m a very optimistic person.
Ontology is the study of how things exist. It’s not the study of what exists. I can’t tell you whether there are quarks, or whatever, but I can tell you that if there are quarks, they exist in a certain way.
Causality isn’t a mechanical churning underneath appearances. Causality is appearances.
There’s an ontological reason to be optimistic, which is the fact that there’s so much wiggle room — inside and underneath stuff — for new stuff to happen. This is where you could go if you started to fuse together what seems superficially different — Buddhist philosophy and Western philosophy — but which actually have, I argue, very, very deep connections, both historical and philosophical. So you’re not doing anything wrong. You’re actually acknowledging a very long history.
What you’re gonna find is that you’re able to imagine how causality isn’t a mechanical churning underneath appearances. Causality is appearances. Causality is in the realm of appearance. It’s how things appear. What does it mean? It means that causality is an aesthetic phenomenon, which means that art is having a direct causal influence on the World, which means that it’s perfectly possible to not only create more and different types of future, but the whole notion of future as such — even more important than a predictable future that I can finger paint for you — is held open by art and a way of thinking that allows art to be causal.
The really good news is that it’s kind-of-a-little-bit-sort-of-anarchism. It’s saying, “You’ve got the controls.” At any moment, it’s much easier than you think to change the world. And you’re obviously not going to change all of it, all at once, forever. (But when ever was that a good idea? Why was that ever in the cards for being a good idea?) Therefore, whatever you do can’t be dismissed as small-bore, incrementalist whatever. It’s incredibly important, whatever you’re doing.
You are creating new political formations all the time. If non-human beings are just as important, or just as real, as you, then you’re creating little collective between you and your clothing and your street and the cars on the street and the buildings all the time. So it’s perfectly possible to get to there from here. It’s not a problem. In fact, in a way, the problem is seeing it as a problem.
If you’re looking to read more about Morton’s work and how it relates to Buddhism and dzogchen, here are a few resources for getting started:
- Timothy Morton’s essay about Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s teaching on the “genuine heart of sadness”
- A commentary by Morton on Slavoj Zizek’s view of Buddhism
- Tsoknyi Rinpoche on Buddhism’s two truths
- Excerpts from Morton’s correspondence with Bjork
- Guardian feature profile of Morton
- Morton’s introductory curriculum to OOO
- A report on dialogues about panpsychism between Buddhists and neuroscientists
- Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism, featuring Morton
- Morton’s blog, “Ecology Without Nature”