Author: matthewoconnell

Critical turn #1

Critical turn 1Critical turn #1

On a deep dark night in a deep dark wood, something strange happened over at the Imperfect Buddha podcast. Was it a moment of folly? Was it a moment of genuine madness? It remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure is that a critical turn took place and in good company too. For in that deep dark wood there was a gathering, and a fire, and those who turned up were Samuel Beckett, Peter Sloterdjik, Francois Laruelle, and Evelyn Underhill. Animal presences could also be heard amongst the trees and in the undergrowth, whilst the fire crackled away, providing the warmth that would stimulate a rather atypical exploration of recent themes to appear on the podcast.

This is the first of perhaps many critical turns, or, if it is deemed a forest fire like disaster by listeners and critics, it may be consumed as a one-off event, just like a Tibetan sand painting. As I have been saying for several episodes now, the creative and the critical are great bedfellows and this is my expression of a meeting between the two. There are strange sound effects, music, disembodied voices and narration.

For the more practically minded, what I do is lay out a number of principles for guiding a sort of critical engagement with Buddhism, Buddhist materials, and practice materials more broadly beyond spirituality. I also reflect on the topic of mysticism, which came up in my conversation with Ken and Hokai. This is in fact the intention for future critical turns, to pick up on and address issues left over from conversations with guests, identify unanswered questions, and make links to broader issues covered in the life of the podcast. This may also produce interesting material to explore with future guests. It is an experiment, so it may or may not work. Feedback will hopefully be worthwhile and indicate the direction that further critical turns take.

Prepare yourselves, expect the unexpected, and try not to take it all too seriously.

Comments, complaints, suggestions, corrections, pledges of large sums of money, can all be made at the usual places.

Enjoy the show!

51. IBP: Ken McLeod & Hokai Sobol on Practice & Mysticism (P.2)


This is the second instalment of my wide-ranging conversation with Ken McLeod and Hokai Sobol. It features an extended introduction that is, in part, a response to feedback from episode 50, and I invite our more critically leaning listeners to gift feedback on what is an ongoing experiment in crafting conversations that will increasingly respond to the challenges raised and explored throughout the life of this podcast.

The conversation was largely unplanned and improvised & this means it features free-flowing exploration, rather than a programmed engagement with a few straightforward ideas. We journey into the terrain of mysticism and practice and most of the topics covered are explored within the context of these two. Here’s just some of what we cover;

– Mysticism
– Sloterdjik & Jonathon Haidt (Žižek too!)
– Ethics V Morality
– Social duty & mystical practice
– Universal human rights & authority
– Transactional & utilitarian approaches to practice
– Verbing outcomes: nirvana & freedom as practices
– Purity & purification
– Critical thinking & engaging with the taboos of our time
– Risqué practices & the Protestant strain in western Buddhism
– teacher/Student relationships & ongoing challenges

End music is by Bristol based artist Aisha Chaouche and is called “So what?”

Enjoy the episode and let us know what you think at the usual places.

O’Connell Coaching:
Post-Traditional Buddhism:


50. IBP: Ken McLeod & Hokai Sobol on Practice (P.1)


This is a quick introduction to help you on your way through the new season of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast. After a year of traipsing the globe with academics in an outrageous attempt to address the anti-intellectualism rife across Buddhism, and spirituality more generally, we have landed with both feet on the ground in the terrain of practice.

The challenge for this season is clear: to approach the whole concept of practice afresh. Not ignoring the past, but looking at it all in as contemporary a lens as possible, whilst bringing the great wealth of knowledge gained from our academics to bear on the personal, the subjective, the intimate, and the phenomenological.

Our first foray into such terrain is carried out in Kostrena, Croatia with Ken McLeod and Hokai Sobol and together we discussed all manner of topic from practice to culture wars, from Peter Sloterdjik to Jonathon Haidt, from non-conceptual mind to evil, from social duty to the great themes of our time, and the way they all interrelate with practice.

The conversation is divided into two parts. Being recorded live outside the studio, the quality is not the best but it is perfectly listenable and I hope the occasional passing car and slight echo won’t get in the way of your listening pleasure.

End music provided by The Naturals from Bristol. The track is entitled 2HGS and is rather wild.

Enjoy the episode and let us know what you think at the usual places.

O’Connell Coaching:
Post-Traditional Buddhism:

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The Practising Life: updates!


What is practice? This is the fundamental question driving the new season of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast, which is about to start its journey out into the world. Practice, initially, is intended to be understood here in its most basic form; as that which humans do. Stripped bare so as to be only minimally caught in one ideology or another, practice will start off simple and return as often as possible to the most straightforward of human acts.

My interest in human practice really starts with the rudimentaries of all human lives; eating, sleeping, speaking, shitting, resting, as well as perceiving, thinking, and feeling as our most intimate practices. Yes, I think it wise to consider these last three as practices in themselves; as acts we repeatedly engage in within boundaries and confines that allow us to distinguish this from that and give value, or not, to what is carried out habitually.

My challenge in part for this season is to convince guests to chart terrain in a similarly, minimally ideological vein, in spite of whatever ideological commitments they will bring to conversation as practising beings living practising lives. We should all expect regular failure; me, you, and future guests. The striving is important all the same. Thinking from and beyond the limitations of existing thought is a noble task. Feeling beyond the familiar and sticking to it is a revelatory endeavour.

If we can do this together, then all the better for it.

Because of this stripped down relationship with practice, I will be little interested in discussing the ins-and-outs of self-contained systems of practice, or their accompanying theoretical justifications, or the promotion of teachers or traditions. Rather, I am after the leaky corners where tradition is broken out of its own stories about itself and is required to be human again and speak beyond its own special categories. I am after the leaky moments where people’s ideas and feelings are disrupted, and their humanity shines through, or where such things are reconsidered after an engagement with a new or other world of thought and feeling and practice.

None of this means I lack respect for traditions and their wares. On the contrary, I find almost all Buddhist traditions fascinating. It is rather that a living practice is always a human practice and by being so it is messy, unpredictable and beset by the concerns of the time and age in which it is practised. It is to that horizon that my gaze is fixed and to that land of emergent and unknowing possibility that I am compelled to head. If such a journey attracts you too, then I will see you on the way over the next months, and we shall find out to what degree the conversations that follow effect the practising lives we all live.

Side Note One

I recorded an interview with Cleo Kearns for Incite Seminars that was rather wonderful. I am using the past tense because technical issues strangled it dead and time constraints have meant a second chance was out of the question. Cleo, however, deserves your attention. We had a riveting discussion of ritual, ceremony and practice and her workshop this coming weekend deserves your attention if you are in the Philadelphia area (Saturday, May 12th). She will be coming on for a full, regular conversation somewhere down the line and we will discuss the practising life in relation to religion, spirituality, Shamanism, Catholicism (that’s right, I’m not kidding), and Buddhism.

For now, here’s the link to the event:

Side Note Two

The first conversation in this new series has already taken place. When opportunity knocks, well, you know the rest. I recently spent time in Rijeka in a three-way conversation with Ken McLeod and Hokai Sobol. Anybody paying attention to these two knows that they are both fully immersed in the practising life. They have also been past guests and already in those conversations the emphasis was on practice. The three-way format is a good one and I hope to make more such conversations take place. Conversing is always an art and I often fail to reach the fine art levels of discourse I would envision possible, but a practising life, if it is anything, is a reminder that imperfection is the nature of the thing. Within the imperfection we can find the human struggling and striving and playing out his or her life. Hokai and Ken are great examples of fellow humans committed to practice and coming to terms with it in the messy lived life.  Both have disrupted their relationship with tradition and both are striving to make sense of the rich heritage they have grown up in with the challenges of the world we inhabit today. Our conversation covers much ground and many topics.

End Note

The shift from the theoretical to the practical is not total. Thought, theory, ideology, and identity all come along for the ride. For those with a more critical bent, I invite you to stay critical, but to do so from the perspective and experience of practice, even as you engage theoretically. I think you will find it more fruitful to do so and the thought that emerges as a consequence will be of a different flavour. Of course, you can do as you wish, but why not see these conversations and interviews firstly as a practice in themselves?

Wish me luck fellow travellers. On to terrain anew and places unknown.

IBP 49: Donald S. Lopez on the Buddha, Tibet, Myth, & Context

Donald S. Lopez

We have come to the end of our series engaging with academics from the world of Buddhist studies and other relevant disciplines and what better way to complete it than with an interview with Donald S. Lopez Jr. Donald is the Arthur E. Link distinguished professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at Michigan University and the well-known author of many books on Buddhism. He specialises in late Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism and his books include Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, The Madman’s Middle Way, Buddhism and Science: a Guide for the Perplexed, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: a Biography, and two titles that will be coming out this year with one on the Lotus Sutra that I am looking forward to. Donald’s books are aimed at the general public as well as fellow academics and they are entertaining and very well written. He draws on rich historical analysis and contemporary analytical tools for understanding complex religious phenomena and the West’s relationship with them in a way that is insightful and illuminating. They are also full of laugh out loud moments and wit.

Donald and I talk about his work, his writing, his books, Buddhism, philosophy, and more. It was a pleasure and honour for me to speak with him and I think this is a great way to round up this series before we move on to the practitioner and teacher cycle later this year. Thank you for listening to the podcast and I hope you have found it as stimulating as I have.

O’Connell Coaching:
Post-Traditional Buddhism:


IBP 48: Critical Reflections on Western Buddhism

Payne 1

We reach our penultimate episode in this series with Buddhist academics. Richard K. Payne is former Dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies and Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies at Berkley. Richard also trained as a Shingon Priest, and provides interesting insight into Buddhism at his blog, Critical Reflections on Buddhist Thought.

We get stuck into a whole range of topics in the conversation, from White Buddhism to perennialism, from Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True? to mind-body dualism. We also touch on popular themes to the podcast such as transcendence, ideology and anti-intellectualism. Below you will find the article on Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism, which is discussed and it is is a must read for contextualizing some of the odd fantasies Westerners still hold onto regarding Buddhism.

Payne Traditionalist Representations PW

There is also a slightly longer introduction than usual which contextualizes this year’s output, gives a view to where we’re heading, and provides a few updates.


Richard K. Payne’s University website:

Richard K. Payne’s blog, Critical Reflections on Buddhist Thought:

Incite Events advertised in the intro:

Podcast Updates & Request (…not for money!)


Here are a few updates for the podcast. We have two episodes left from the wonderful world of academia with the next one being a conversation with Richard K. Payne, Yehan Numata professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkley, and senior editor of the Pacific World Journal. Richard also trained as a Shingon priest in Japan, and has an insightful blog called Critical Reflections on Buddhist Thought. We talk about aspects of online Buddhist culture, White Buddhism, why Richard Wright’s “Why Buddhism is True” may not be true at all, perennialism, ideology and transcendence, as well as anti-intellectualism in Buddhism. As I mention on the podcast interview, I highly recommend reading a text by Richard on traditionalism and perennialism and the role they have played in forming many of our enduring fantasies about Buddhism.

After that, you will get to hear an interview with Donald S. Lopez, Arthur E. Link distinguished professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan. Many of you will be familiar with Donald’s work already, in particular his texts that look at the history of Buddhism with a very original twist. From Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism in the West, to The Scientific Buddha, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead: a Biography, Donald has written entertaining accessible books thoroughly rooted in deep scholarly work that dismantle many of the enduring myths we hold regarding Buddhism and its authentic past. Many of you will also be familiar with The Madman’s Middle Way, and we talk about this text along with his others throughout the interview. I’m a big fan of Donald’s work, and if you are too, you will no doubt find this conversation highly stimulating.