Below is a reposting of Tom Pepper’s essay “Atman, Aporia, and Atomism: A Review of B. Alan Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic.” But first, an explanation.
Last night I was reading Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic for a section of my book, Critique of Western Buddhism (see my previous post, “Slogging Through Buddhist Writing.”)
Then, this morning I read an article in the New York Times on how Trump’s “ideological guru,” Steve Bannon, has an affinity for the ideas of the Italian figure Julius Evola (1898-1974). Evola was a proponent of what is known as Traditionalism. (Links at bottom.) Very briefly, Traditionalism is closely aligned with Perennial Philosophy’s belief that all humanity shares a transcendental unity via the “brightly shining… unconditioned… pristine awareness” (115) that is our “primordial consciousness,” which “transcends all conceptual frameworks” (24). So, given that this glorious “ground of becoming” (102) is our birthright, why isn’t humanity basking in “an eternal, timeless bliss, or nirvana” (47)? Goddamn modernism and materialism, that’s why. The Traditionalist’s task thus becomes one of “breaking the ideological chains of materialism that shackle the minds of scientists and the modern world at large” (239). It is not difficult to see why Traditionalism had a love affair with the far right wing parties of Europe, old, neo(-Nazi), and Nouvelle(-Droite).
Anyway, as I was reading the piece on Evola, my thoughts kept turning to B. Alan Wallace. Maybe it had something to do with passages about how Evola, in his book The Revolt Against the Modern World, “cast materialism as an eroding influence on ancient values,” as the Times article says. Maybe it had to do with Evola, Bannon, and Wallace’s shared, seemingly insatiable yearning for the reestablishment of a transcendent moral order that would, among other cataclysmic ends, “restore meaning to the universe” (72). Maybe it has to do with the fact that every single one of these quotes (with page numbers) is a quote not from a right-wing Traditionalist, but from Wallace’s book. Yes, Wallace’s views graft seamlessly onto fascist-aligned totalitarian Traditionalist thought.
Before allowing myself such a drastic conclusion, I did some research. I visited Mark Sedgwick’s blog. He’s quoted in the Times piece, and rightly so; he seems to be the leading scholarly authority on Traditionalism. Much to my pleasure, Sedgwick refers to Richard K. Payne’s article, “Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism.” So, I read that article. It is a tour de force. Every practicing Buddhist should read it. Payne’s article was no doubt timely and relevant when it was published in 2008. But it is even more so today. The article is rich in lines of thought and conclusions to be drawn for the identity of Western Buddhism and of Western Buddhist subjectivity. The one that I want to mention here is this: much of contemporary Western Buddhism (as well as its Religious Studies and Buddhist Studies scholarship) is deeply implicated in the anti-rationalist “experience fundamentalism” that it shares with the Romantic strains of Traditionalism. Given that such “experience,” as a Buddhist-Traditionalist rhetorical trope, is invariably presented as “inherently veridical, and to be epistemologically privileged” (Payne, 180, 182), the path to a kind of totalitarianism of thought, to a hierarchical institutionalized authoritarianism, is cleared.
Wallace looms yet again. This time as a Buddhist St. Paul, an uncompromising evangelist, declaring the good news of the all-seeing Buddha’s epoch-making “contemplative revolution” (147).
Given the advent of Trump, Le Pen, Brexit, the AfD (Alternative for Germany), and so on, the term “fascism” is no longer a mere pejorative: it has reverted back to its role as a legitimate cultural-political descriptor. My point here is not, of course, that Wallace is fascist in the way that a violent brown-shirted thug is. I don’t know Wallace personally. My point is that his text (via his “Buddhism,” Dzogchen,” and this and that mostly Tibetan teacher) has resonances in contemporary fascist thought. I am suggesting that we may find in Wallace the same kind of unconscious (?) collusion with a cultural-political-spiritual fascist ideology that we find with, say, Jon Kabat-Zinn in relation to neoliberalism or Stephen Batchelor in relation to a neo-Orientalist colonialism.
At the very least, Wallace’s Buddhism may be akin to Christofascism, which is to say, it is comprised of a veneer of spiritualized, cosmic meaning-making lain over a functionally totalitarian and apocalyptic traditionalist ideology. Spiritualized apocalyptic thought, whether of the New Age or Traditionalist variety, involves beliefs about the end times of the old world and the coming of a new world. This new world is augured not by collective social action but by some sort of “contemplative revolution,” by, in Wallace’s terms, “liberating people from a state of unknowing (agnostics) to becoming knowers (gnostics) of ultimate reality” (147).
Anyway, the final step of my research led me back to this blog, and to Tom Pepper’s essay. He uses different language. His argument is cool and reasoned. Still, a careful reader will not fail to notice that it’s all in there.
The age of Western Buddhist innocence has passed. What comes next?
[NOTE: Pepper’s essay first appeared under the post title “Feast, Interrupted.” Have a look at the 94 comments to get the full force of the original discussion.]
Atman, Aporia, and Atomism: A Review of B. Alan Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic
By Tom Pepper
By any measure, we would have to acknowledge that B. Alan Wallace is a major player in Western Buddhism. In the last eight years he started the Santa Barbara Institute of Consciousness Studies, published nine books, and is engaged in the International Shamatha Project. He has impressive credentials, with a Ph.D. from Stanford and a stint as a Tibetan monk ordained by the Dalai Lama. He has created himself as the leading authority on the relationship between Western science and Buddhism. His latest book, Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic (a title that would seem to have been chosen to invite comparison with Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist) is subtitled “A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice.” The book sets out to argue that Buddhist contemplative practices can contribute to the scientific study of the mind, which is currently running hard down a dead-end in its attempts to map the mind onto neural activity. Along the way, Wallace argues against a reductive, materialist philosophy of science, and for a particular version of Tibetan Buddhism, as the correct way to finally understand human consciousness.
I first came across Wallace’s work many years ago, with a book called Choosing Reality: A Contemplative View of Physics and the Mind (the word “contemplative” was changed to “Buddhist” in later editions, apparently for marketing purposes). I picked up the book because as a Buddhist who is also interested in philosophy of science, I thought perhaps Wallace was going to get beyond the popular misrepresentation of quantum theory that says that we “create” a particle by observing it. I was hoping he might be trying to demonstrate that both Buddhism and quantum physics could be understood from a realist perspective. That is, I thought he was going to choose reality; instead, Read the rest of this entry »