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.