Post-traditional Buddhism Primer: oh no! It’s ideology.


What will follow over the next few weeks is a series of blog posts designed to take the next step in the exploration of a post-traditional approach to Buddhism. It will summarise much of the work taken place at the site and expand where necessary. It will also employ two key additions. Firstly, a number of new topics will be looked at and, secondly, a consideration of more practical applications will take place that readers may find useful in re-examining their own relationship with Buddhism.  In this way, we might define it as a primer.

Posts will be in the form of short sections for people to browse through, skip or return to, with a presentation style designed for shorter attention spans and the quick location of personally relevant material, although a narrative line does run through, unifying the different posts.

This primer also acts as either a general introduction to post-traditional Buddhism for those pondering whether to listen to the upcoming Imperfect Buddha Podcast episode, or as a return to document for reviewing some of the ideas therein. At the very least, it should give readers something to think about and a means for approaching Buddhism more consciously (i.e. creatively and critically). If you have criticisms, additions, questions or doubts after reading, feel free to leave a comment.


Where to begin? Well, with ideology of course. A 20th century buzzword, it has evolved and expanded in its usage and usefulness over the last decades. It no longer defines solely the major political ideologies of Capitalism and Communism, but any seemingly self-contained system of ideas, behaviours and norms that people identify with. Ideology may not be everything, but it is everywhere, and this makes it a necessary topic of study. What follows is a short essay of sorts on ideology and Buddhism as religion. It also sets the initial ground for the sort of exploration I intend to take in subsequent posts.

Do enjoy…if your idealogical leanings allow it.

Ideology strikes again

Although it may be taken for granted in the West that religion and government are separate institutions, it is quite clear that such separation has never fully taken place. We need look no further than Italy, Poland, Spain or Ireland, and increasingly the United States, for copious examples of religious meddling in state affairs. This dynamic is not only institutional and external to our own concerns and experience of the world. The internal manifestation of the dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, the secular and the sacred, is at the heart of what we believe ourselves to be or not to be. Committed Buddhists are interesting in this regard because unlike Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and so on, they are all too often likely to consider their religion or spiritual path as being rational and in line with secular values, which is to say, not at all religious. In polls, they typically define themselves as members of that growing group known as the spiritual but not religious. Such a belief is problematic, however, as although many Buddhists like to think of Buddhism solely as a philosophy or a way of life, it is additionally a world religion and therefore carries with it many of the facets that define those other religions, including ideological affiliation and the process of subjectification. In this context, subjectification refers to the process by which an ideology moulds people into subjects that are integral to its own maintenance and it does so in its own image.

If you spend enough time in any institutionalised form of Western Buddhism, and examine its forms with a critical eye, you will start to see that it has many similarities to religious congregations of all forms. These similarities may be explicit and out in the open or hidden or subtle, but either way, they are there in the form of rituals & beliefs, power structures & dress code, deferral to authority & sacred texts, objects and sites, specific notions of past present and future, mythological stories and founding figures, along with formulations of what is good and bad, and the nonnegotiable behavioural norms to be adopted. None of these facets are inherently good or bad. They are simply the structural, patterned expressions of human activity that can be found in all religions and they make up an elaborate ecology that followers enter into: a sort of alternative world that marks a break from the continuity of one’s prior habitual existence and surroundings, we might say, a refuge. When handled well, a new Buddhist ecology can offer a context for gathering new insights, tasting new experiential worlds and destabilising the previously inhabited reality which held together a sense of self and place in the world. When handled badly, it can end up being an ecology of expectations and conformism. A place of entrapment in which an expectant self is modelled to new arrivals to be copied, constructed and identified with.

Why start off by mentioning this? Well, if Buddhism is a religion, it is not as neat and tidy as many western Buddhists might like it to be and redefining it as a path or philosophy does not make those religious elements magically disappear. What’s more, it means that involvement in Buddhism involves a whole set of conscious and unconscious agreements. In fact, we can say that when you enter into relationship with Buddhism and become a Buddhist, you agree to participate in the maintenance of culture: one that is performative, stabilising of emergent identities, and concerned with the formation of a new experience of self in the world.

It would be wrong to presume that Buddhism can escape from our very human failings in its various attempts to construct answers and institutions capable of responding to deep human concerns. It should come as no surprise that Buddhisms form into ideological systems as much as any other. To the passionate believer, however, Buddhism is very special and often conceived of as a self-sufficient, complete path that does not need to explain itself to the wider cultural world. This can lead to any form of criticism being unwelcomed. Yet, to point out that Buddhism is always ideologically formed does not mean to say that it is only ideology or that ideology is inherently bad. Rather, in pointing this fact out we are reminded that Buddhism is manmade and because of such is prone to the foibles of human activity and the concerns of ideological systems, and cannot be perfect, unless we use such a term to define things just as they are, in which case, we might as well not use it.

This presents us with an identity problem because all ideological systems are bound up in culture, time and place. This explains why the various forms of Buddhism are different in their appearance and oftentimes variant in their core beliefs and practices, in spite of being part of the same religious family. Getting into arguments or debates about which is ultimately the best or most authentic misses the point. They are different and the differences lead to the formation of different Buddhists and therefore the formation of different identities. Some of those that are aware of this may react with a comparative analysis based on personal ideas of what is important and they may look for one of the following; the original, the most authentic, the truest, or simply the one they feel most drawn to. This is fine of course and perfectly understandable, but if one does not recognise that the different Buddhisms tend to lead followers down pre-determined pathways, then ideological entrapment will likely ensue. Buddhist groups may be fortunate enough to have a teacher who recognises this and incorporates some means for reducing ideological blindness. All too often, however, teachers themselves fail to appreciate the ideological nature of their tradition and end up reproducing it as unwitting, faithful subjects. This creates a form of entrapment in which liberation is an idealised thought prison to which unthinking followers aspire, thus creating a contradiction between the supposed aims of Buddhism as a path of liberation, and the role of Buddhism as ideology that leads followers to construct replacement identities.

It is of great importance to recognise the existence of this fundamental paradox at the heart of organised Buddhism and the role of subjectification at play. Buddhism can end up creating good Buddhists rather than freeing them up to work on pre-existing self narratives. It can form good ideologically identified followers rather than provide human individuals and collectives with the means for coming to terms with our existence and its inherent suffering. It can prescribe its own forms and assumptions over an invitation to explore the degree to which some form of liberation from ignorance and its consequences is possible: a task which Buddhism ought to be ideally suited for but often fails to live up to.

To recognise these tendencies is to ask the question of what to do with Buddhism and how to relate to it. Clearly a Buddhism created for the Chinese or Tibetans several hundred years ago in a very different social context is not going to be the most appropriate form of individual and social practice in Europe or an American setting in the 21st century. This does not mean, just to throw in a necessary caveat, that there are not very happy Western Chan and Kagyu Buddhists out there, but rather, that we will likely need alternative forms of practice in this time and place and that different sorts of practice will be essential for dealing with the collective forms of suffering and ignorance that currently dominate the world we inhabit. A post-traditional approach takes this into consideration and acts as an invitation to Buddhists to dialogue with Buddhism afresh and to act on it. Eventually, where the inspiration is present, those adopting such an approach would be actors in a creative, critical engagement with Buddhism in order to liberate its human potential from the walls of tradition, either to transform tradition itself, or generate new forms of practice that may or may not be defined as Buddhist.


Feeling Trumped?

The world is not America. Thank goodness for that. We do all live in crazy times though. If you’re a good Buddhist, you might want to send compassion out to those lost souls that voted for the orange one out of desperation and anger at the neo-liberal agenda. You may choose to send out a dharma slap to the evangelicals and neo-fascists instead. They will all need it as Trump will inevitably disappoint with his big talk. If you’re more the nihilist, you might embrace the mad hat brigade with a wry smile and a drop of whiskey sourced from the Scottish island where he’s been shitting on the locals’ lives with his golf course project, cutting off water to old women and ruining the community as he goes. If you’re just your regular human struggling through samsara, here’s a song that captures the feel of the moment from my favourite group. They’re Canadian, which means something in this precise moment.

New podcast is being projected and a huge piece of super sexy writing is in the works. Please be patient. We have lives, jobs and families to care for.

Here are links to some interesting takes on the Trump win that I read this morning. You may read them whilst chanting a mantra of your choice and holding an image of the world surrounded by a beautiful white light, purifying the whole place of its racism, misogyny and ‘anger’;

In bolstering this tidbit of a blog post after Matthias’ complaints, I’ll add a film recommendation too. Hell or High Water is a film about the America that voted for Trump. It’s also very well made and acted. Go check it out.

9.3 Imperfect Buddha Podcast: Glenn Wallis on the Immanence & Transcendence Divide


In this episode, writer, critic, Buddhist scholar and Philadelphia punk legend punk Glen Wallis returns to the Imperfect Buddha podcast for the second part of our discussion on non-Buddhism and its consequences. We go deep into an issue at the heart of contemporary western Buddhism: the seemingly irresolvable division between immanence and transcendence, which in lay man’s terms is the distinction between spirituality as escape or as embodiedness. You may not know how deep these two go down the rabbit hole of modern spirituality and how they sit right at the dysfunctional heart of Buddhism. Applying constructive critique, we look at how Buddhists and teachers avoid the consequences of thinking them through to the very end and how that lack of insight leads to all manner of escapism and confusion.


9.2 Imperfect Buddha Podcast: Glenn Wallis on non-Buddhism(P.1)


Show Notes 9.2 Glenn Wallis Interview

Why would a modern day Buddhist engage with the work of non-Buddhism? Why bother to be forced to question your relationship with Buddhism? Why risk destabilising the status quo? Why not carry on as usual? If the last episode didn’t convince you, maybe the man who started the thing will.

The instigator of the non-Buddhism project graces the Imperfect Buddha podcast with his presence and with such rich material and such a sharp mind, we couldn’t contain everything in a single episode. Glenn’s interview straddles two episodes and the development of ideas across them. The humanity shines through and for those who may have been unsettled when approaching the revolutionary work at the Speculative non-Buddhism site, the content of the podcast may be surprising.


9.1 Imperfect Buddha Podcast Meets non-Buddhism

This episode tackles a complex but thoroughly important topic, namely non-Buddhism. A theoretical project/applied critique of Buddhism as ideology; as an unintentional prison. This work gets at the heart of what’s missing in Buddhism and Buddhist discourse; a failure to understand the collective formation of selves. Due to such, Buddhism operates at the level of the individual and the abstract mythical landscape that is the six realms. It fails to understand the collective formation of selves and the omnipresent role of ideology in the mass suffering and ignorance that grips our species. Non-Buddhism is here to wake Buddhists up to this ignored and uncomfortable reality.

Glenn Wallis is the architect of this wondrous and terrible journey into the heart of darkness. He is a wordsmith and profoundly insightful corrupter of all that is beloved and pure in Buddhism in its guise as escape from reality. He is also a punk rock driven despiser of conformity and liberal ignorance. Glenn may be more compassionate than many realise as he provokes whilst simultaneously offering western Buddhist a way out of their voluntary imprisonment in the false promise of Buddhist refuge.

Stuart and I tackle the vocabulary, the concepts, the philosophy, the hard business of thinking, so that you dear listener can get a grasp on one of the most radical critiques of Buddhism to emerge in its entire history. Really.

Will it withstand the power of insight? Will it remain intact? Will it be changed by those who get it? Who knows? That’s in part going to be up to you.

Can your Buddhist identity take it? Can you withstand the depth of dismantling decimation? Can you handle the truth?


8.0 Imperfect Buddha Podcast: Ben Joffe on the paranormal, Tibetan Buddhism & the Ngakpa

To listen to the podcast episode click here

What do the Dalai Lama, the X Files, UFOs, Sex Magic, Tibetan singing bowls, Yeti-Monsters, demons, dharma, wizards, Tantra & Darwin have in common? Why, Ben Joffe of course. He was our latest guest on the Imperfect Buddha podcast and he had quite a lot to share. So who is he?

Ben Joffe is a cultural anthropology PhD candidate from South Africa whose research focuses on the anthropology of Tibet and Tibetan diaspora. His doctoral dissertation research is specifically concerned with Tibetan Buddhist non-celibate tantric ritual specialists, or ngakpa/ma (sngags pa/ma སྔགས་པ/མ), living outside Tibet. He is interested in how the esoteric knowledge and charisma of these long-haired tantric Buddhist wizards are being mediated, circulated, appropriated and contested. His research explores how this is taking place both as a part of the increasing globalization of Tibetan Buddhism, and in light of Tibetans’ efforts to make legible a Tibetan nation in exile and to both preserve and reform Tibetan culture as stateless refugees. His research examines how ngakpa/ma engage institutional and other forms of authority in exile, and the ways in which the expertise, charisma and activities of these specialists can be said to contribute to the forging of particular moral orders and imaginaries in situations of dislocation, change and uncertainty. As such, Ben’s interests include:


7.4 Imperfect Buddha Podcast: After Enlightenment, Coaching, Support & Ongoing Development


Imperfect Buddha Podcast: Episode 7.4


We recently finished the third in a 3-part series looking at Buddhist enlightenment. This series has been quite popular and it marks something of a way stage for Stuart and me. In our first episode, we explored ideas raised over at the Post-Traditional Buddhism site, in which a humanistic, non-dual practice approach was loosely married to the four stages of awakening. We looked at myths, language and identities and asked a lot of what ifs of Buddhist enlightenment.