A review of A critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real

9781474283557

Glenn Wallis should need no introduction to those who visit this site regularly and engage with the podcast, but just in case it’s your first time here, I’ll provide you with the essentials. Wallis holds a Ph.D from Harvard in Buddhist Studies and has authored several books on Buddhism including The Dhammapada: Verses on the Way, Mediating the Power of the Buddhas, Basic Teachings of the Buddha, and the one most closely linked to this review, Cruel Theory, Sublime Practice. He’s even written articles for Lion’s Roar. Oh, the shame of it! Wallis has taught in a number of universities including Georgia, where he received tenure, and later went on to work in other educational institutes, among which the Won Institute. He was also a founding member of the Philadelphia punk band Ruin.

“Western Buddhism… Serves as a fetish, an object that effectively holds some unbearable truth at Bay.”

My first encounter with Wallis was through the Speculative non-buddhism (SNB) site and his experimental writing on contemporary western Buddhism. That site brought him to the attention of many folks at the fringes of the western Buddhist world and has been a cauldron of creative, intellectual activity since its inception, amassing long, complex exchanges with readers in its comments sections, exploring all manner of topic from neuro-science to Marxism with some highly intelligent contributors getting into lengthy debate. It was also a site of conflict, argumentation and the wrath of its chief antagonist Tom Pepper whose rants against capitalism, anti-intellectualism, and the ignorance of those who could not grasp his insights, which were more or less legendary. Whatever the controversy, many exciting approaches to Buddhist materials were cooked up at the site and those dogged enough to stick with Buddhism in spite of its many faults found much succulence there and, dare I say, meaning. The site was a sort of explosion of western Buddhism’s dark unconscious; it’s anti-intellectual turn, its closeness to New Age idealism, its comfortable affinity for Hindu beliefs, its strong adoption by middle-class America as a coping mechanism, and its comfortable alignment with Capitalism. These facets were all uncovered, critiqued and abused. Those whose intellectual cowardice was on display would leave with a bloody nose, but those who were aware of their ignorance or came specifically to challenge their views would often find great generosity and sharp, bracing insight. It was a break from the often dull norms of western Buddhist niceness and its main participants would argue that such fierce critique was the only thing that would disrupt the intellectual complacency of so many western Buddhists. Wallis was certainly the ideal person to carry out such a disruption and for many it was the most exciting thing to happen in Western Buddhism for decades. The SNB was the charnel ground of Wallis’s most recent book, A critique of Western Buddhism: ruins of the Buddhist real.

It is worth noting at this point that Wallis has been a long-term meditation practitioner and has taught meditation and Buddhism, even leading retreats, so, he is not a mere intellectual academic looking in onto Buddhism from the outside. Of course, it would be far easier to dismiss him and his views if he were. His work does not only critique Buddhism and its many forms in the West, but very much seeks to revivify practices that might liberate folks to the potential that is held within Buddhist thought and practice: A potential that has been all too often enclosed in an unimaginative ideological adherence to the status quo of western spirituality, more generally, and a willing participation in wider economic and social norms more specifically.

To engage or not to engage

In the book’s name is its purpose. To critique is to analyse and evaluate a thing, opening up new spaces of understanding, categorising, and perception; the object at hand is western Buddhism. Those who are intellectually astute and deeply embedded in Buddhist practice would certainly benefit from reading this book as it crafts its critique of the landscape of contemporary western Buddhism, though it may make for an uncomfortable read for those too closely wed to Buddhism as the source of meaning in their lives. Reasons for resisting powerful critique of one’s own practice are numerous, and self-defence is a perfectly understandable instinct that drives much of the antipathy towards intellectual intrusion on the sacred spaces of experience, subjectivity, personal spirituality, and the pragmatism that defines much of American Buddhism. Many Buddhists are of course highly intelligent folks and many of them will happily profess that Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy (as if this excused their interest in it). Yet then have very limited engagement with philosophical thought, preferring to cherry pick those areas which resonate with their own beliefs and practices, as if philosophy were done and dusted and there was no more work to be done in addressing life’s big questions. Critique of traditional Buddhism by such folks may touch on the more exotic, pre-modern aspects such as reincarnation, or karma, but there are always limits; and those limits are telling. They betray an agenda driven engagement with critical material that marks out those who are ideologically wed to a given tradition of practice and belief. Buddhists are no different from other members of wider society after all and it is the special status afforded by genuine association with an ideological form that compels its members to shun that which would significantly disrupt the ideology’s cherished vision of the world, and the certainty, direction, and sense of participation that makes ideological affiliation so attractive.

We all need direction, purpose and long for a sense of belonging, and a good ideology can provide all of this, but always at a price. Wallis’s critique throughout his text unpacks, destabilises and reframes the narratives of contemporary western Buddhist discourse, identifying in the process the habits that form so many western Buddhists into predictable kinds of subjects run through with ideological features that range from beliefs to language patterns, from behaviours to perceptual limitations, hopes and fears, resistances and desires. Necessarily, Wallis’s book should be uncomfortable reading. Not only for its usage of theoretical tools, language and concepts that may be new for those less intellectually engaged, but also because it challenges so much of what is taken as given by spiritual folks more generally, and more specifically those Western Buddhists who believe that their paths are complete.

For those that frown upon the critique of Buddhism and believe that it must always be filtered through the higher, greater, wiser and compassionate truths of Buddhism, such criticism must affirm the truths of Buddhism or be rejected. But why would we want analysis and critique that leaves us feeling comfortable or only mildly discomfited in our habitual terrains of practice and belief? Such resistance is all too often a symptom of the anti-intellectual strain in western Buddhism which often gets expressed as a sort of snobbery towards what is perceived to be excessive intellectualising. This is justified through various contemporary Buddhist teachings that promote experience over thought, and practice over theory. It is an odd bias that contradicts Buddhism’s rich history of thought, theoretical practices, and support for study, reflection and debate, and that’s without mentioning the enormous canon of Buddhist literature.

Complexity is perhaps a second reason for not engaging with challenging thought of the like to be found in Wallis’s book. Spirituality generally struggles in its relationship with the material and can act to distract practitioners from the surrounding material conditions and the insipid place of ideology in establishing the ground of what we see, we don’t see, feel or don’t feel, can know, or not know, imagine or not. We ignore the fabricated nature of our habitual engagement with knowledge as a coping mechanism because it’s easier that way. It’s too much to deal with this thinker or that. We can’t cope with too much thinking: It’s too much. It’s too complex. Our discomfort with complexity is in fact a foundational element of anti-intellectualism and the refusal to bring our personal beliefs and practices into relationship with the complex ecology of ideas that our human species has developed since pen was put to paper. Excuses for not engaging with something like Wallis’s work, or other insightful, intellectually robust analysis are mirrored in a more general refusal to engage with the ongoing never-ending pursuit of better understanding, clearer knowledge, and additional perspectives being carried out across the globe, where outcomes are almost never guaranteed, and final truths are merely unreliable resting places for the overly confident or fatigued. This kind of pursuit in which knowledge and practices are all part of the rich tapestry of our collective human effort to make sense of our lot is imagined as a great feast in Wallis’s work; a place where all ideas, possibilities, and questions can meet on a level playing field so that better learning, understanding, theory and practice can be developed, and new meetings may take place so that unexpected configurations of knowing and practicing may emerge. Such a field can be very complex indeed, but also incredibly creative, and complexity is also richness, and that much vaunted simplicity of certain western Buddhist thought can end up as a form of incredible poverty; not just in terms of intellect, but also in terms of creativity, and even utility.

The book

“Ideology is Western Buddhism’s ego. It is the “I” of the subject, the “we” of the community.”

I won’t lie to you, Wallis’s book is indeed complex, and not always an easy read. It requires effort and graft. But it provides powerful reward for those willing to enter the struggle. There are many features in it that were first explored in Cruel Theory and at the SNB website, which should mean it’s more easily accessible to those who have dabbled in either, but that doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible for the newcomer. Naturally it evolves beyond both, and develops further avenues of exploration as it continues Wallis’s project to identify, analyse and understand the dysfunctional collective psyche running through western Buddhism. Its complexity is in part an attempt to evolve different ways of seeing and thinking alongside and with Buddhist thought, rather than passively follow it, or lazily oppose it. It attempts to put into practice what Wallis has learnt from many great thinkers with François Laruelle being most important, perhaps. Laruelle is a challenging figure for many a great thinker and this is visible in some sections of the book. It won’t hurt you to have a good dictionary at hand and a willingness to do some additional reading as you make your way through. This is all to say that reading this text is a practice, and if taken personally, it will produce phenomenological fruit to sit with for many months.

The book itself is divided into three parts. The first is an analysis of western Buddhism’s dysfunctional psyche. The second looks at non-buddhism specifically and the possibility of immanent practice, themes we’ve explored with him and others in the podcast. The third looks at the development of the notion of a Buddhofiction and outcomes that might emerge from a disenchanted Buddhist.

In Part One we find an intriguing engagement with contemporary western Buddhist staples and I think the best way to invite you in to the feast at this point is to pose its chapters as questions.

  • What is wisdom, really? Why is wisdom so seductive yet difficult to locate? What power does belief in ephemeral omniscience grant a tradition, teacher or practitioner?
  • What happens when well-being becomes the goal of practice? What sorts of compromises must be undertaken to reach such a ‘lofty’ goal? Who gains from such an odd ‘spiritual’ goal? What aspects of reality must be denied to focus one’s spiritual quest on it?
  • Is Buddhism really all it’s cracked up to be? Does it truly have all the answers? Is it a sufficient means for addressing suffering? What consequences emerge from the belief that Buddhism is all one needs?
  • And, what about emptiness? Is it really a magical void of bliss? Is it the end goal? Is it actually empty, or rather filled with something unexpected? What would nihilists have to say about such a goal?

This first section disrupts many of the foregone conclusions of western Buddhism. It unpacks the rhetoric of Buddhist discourse and peeks under the hood, into the dark abyss of its unspoken assumptions and commitments. There will be many interesting surprises awaiting those unfamiliar with such terrain!

One central key to finding relevance and utility in Wallis’s critique is the notion of sufficiency, which Wallis takes from the progenitor of non-Philosophy, Francois Laruelle. This concept is far-reaching and insipid. To believe in the sufficiency of Buddhism, or any other ideology, is to hold to a vision of the world that is already made, already complete. As such, it affords various guarantees that need only be accepted, digested, and integrated into one’s subjective experience of the world. Thus an ideological subject is born and fashioned. This may not sound so bad when one affectionately thinks of Buddhism, yet such a behavioural turn leads to a new kind of relationship, not only with Buddhism, but with the world at large: one that is structurally predictable and antagonistic against forms of thought or practice that undermine the postulates and certainties of Buddhism. Because affiliation with a given Buddhism is so important, emotionally meaningful, and intellectually stabilising, to undermine Buddhism’s truths, whether noble or otherwise, is to disrupt the solidity and guarantees that spiritual commitment to Buddhism provides. To disrupt this stance towards Buddhism is therefore highly disruptive, and typically deeply discomforting. But once grasped as a form of insight, recognising the principle of sufficiency in Buddhism opens up a whole new world, one that radically destabilises one’s relationship with any and all forms of Buddhism, and more widely, to what might be popularly understood as spirituality. This coupled with decision, which is explored later, constitutes the awakening of the non-buddhist. To realise the fallacy of sufficiency is to cease to identify with Buddhism wholeheartedly as a self-contained means for resolving one’s suffering and the suffering of all sentient beings. It does not mean the need to discard and reject Buddhism as a whole, but rather to uncouple oneself from the arms of a suffocating intimate embrace that blinds and seduces in equal measure. This book then is not for those who reject Buddhism whole and abandon the raft, but rather those who are significantly repulsed by its dysfunctional edge, and yet compelled to continue with it all the same for there continues to be worth and value and practices that may yet yield purpose. This is the non- position; one that refuses to be formed by the embrace, or the emotional break up either. The first step thus may be that of the voyeur who finds new stimulation by looking anew and from unexpected angles.

Part Two takes Wallis’s engagement with the thought of Francois Laruelle further as he explores non-buddhism. He touches on key themes including the central role of decision, which can be understood as a meaningful commitment to becoming a member of a group, or identifying with a system of thought or practice to the degree that it “becomes part of me” and “just who I am”. Uncoupling our subjective sense of self from a Buddhist identity and recognising that Buddhism is human material in the first instance is to invite oneself into a new kind of subjective terrain, a strange land, a strange world, a different mode of being which triggers dissonance with the norms of Buddhism and Buddhists. The name for this figure is the stranger subject; he or she who no longer falls for the warm embrace of certainty, no longer fits into the team of Buddhist subjects, who no longer vibrates in harmony with those still in a committed relationship with the Buddha. This is, in a sense, a new start. A second wind. A new opportunity. These folks have estranged themselves from the games of contemporary western Buddhism and are in a sense free to come at Buddhist thought and Buddhist practice anew if they so choose.

Finally, Part Three unpacks the nature of story, illusion and fantasy surrounding Buddhist discourse and the possibility of recasting the curious stranger into a new world of thought and potential practice. In defining Buddhism as whole, many fall for the stories that the various Buddhisms have woven to justify their legitimacy as complete systems for liberating beings from suffering. The notion of the Bodhisattva, superlative, fully awakened, perfect beings are all, in a sense, forms of violence against the human subject whose first commitment ought be to the sea of humanity that stretches far beyond the rhetoric of any given ideology. In dismantling the unconscious of western Buddhism, Wallis tells another story, one that accompanies what can become newly workable materials that were once obfuscated by the desires, almost always well-intentioned desires, that too often act to fill the gaping hole of western materialism.  Wallis’s desire is clearly to lead us forwards to the great feast of knowledge where Buddhism is welcome to participate in the wider world of thought and practice, present its wares and be willing to see its truths and practices in new forms of light. This is a self-aware and transformational telling in which the subject (practitioner) can cease to be the ideological product of Buddhism and instead become an active agent in the contemporary construction of new potentials as Buddhism is taken out into the world beyond the buttresses of self-referencing and self-serving sufficient Buddhism.

For those concerned that all that might be on offer is theory, look no further than the chapter on Immanent Practice, which develops further the implications of a Buddhist practice based in immanence and stripped of the secret transcendent desire that animates contemporary western spiritual practice more broadly. Each movement of analysis raises questions and provides materials for practicing a new kind of relationship with Buddhist materials; one radically diverse from that which is usually found in the pages of Shambhala Sun or the new, best-selling book on Buddhism.

This is my way of making sense of Wallis’s book, but a more straightforward take might come from Stuart if he were the one writing this review, he would say it differently, he would likely cast us back to The Matrix and the decision point that Neo faces when offered two pills by the pseudo-guru Morpheus. Wallis’s book is most certainly the red pill; it leads to a sober, harsh world that may not be to your liking, but it is more real than the fantasy that was inhabited before. More books on wellness, neuro-science, happiness and mindful tea and donuts constitute the blue pill! Take your pick, or don’t bother, it’s all good.

 

The Book: A Critique of Western Buddhism

The Man: Glenn Wallis

The SNB: https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/

The interviews with the Imperfect Buddha Podcast

1. On non-Buddhism (bad sound quality I’m afraid)

2. On transcendence & immanence

3. Darkness, Sloterdjik, & more

4. Unlearning

5. Stuart & I discusing non-Buddhism for newbees

 

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