Feast, Interrupted

A Review of B. Alan Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic

In the following essay, Tom Pepper escorts B. Alan Wallace to The Great Feast of Knowledge. The Great Feast of Knowledge is a speculative non-buddhist trope intended to capture a scene where Buddhism’s representatives discuss their views and theories alongside of physics, art, philosophy, literature, biology, psychology, and other disciplines of knowledge. A central contention of speculative non-buddhism, of course, is that all forms of x-buddhism confuse knowledge of the world with discourses on knowledge of the world; and that we need a critical practice like The Great Feast to help us discern the difference. In such an exchange, Buddhism loses all status as specular authority. That loss is significant because it permits a consideration of Buddhism’s views on equal footing with the feast’s other participants.

On the surface of things, Pepper and Wallace seem to have much in common intellectually. Pepper, after all, is a literary scholar who characterizes himself as “a Buddhist who is also interested in philosophy of science.” Anyone who has read Wallace knows of his training in physics, philosophy, and religion. Indeed, as he writes on his website, Wallace sees himself as a “progressive scholar” who “seeks innovative ways to integrate Buddhist contemplative practices with Western science to advance the study of the mind.”

But the two thinkers, to my mind, could not be any more different. From a speculative non-buddhist view, the difference between them lies in their respective willingness and reluctance to engage thought in the service not of tradition’s validation, but of knowledge itself—even if, as Pepper points out, knowledge itself may have no discernible terminus.

But that’s just my view. Please, pull up a seat, and enjoy the feast! (Glenn Wallis)

Continue reading “Feast, Interrupted”

Ghost Buddha

Are you a believer in ghosts, my friend?

Haul in the chains. Let the carcase go astern… It is still colossal.*

Reading Toni Bernhard‘s article recounting the life story of the Buddha on the recent Psychology Today blog (link at bottom), together with some comments about it on the Secular Buddhist Facebook page,  brought back a memory. Several years ago an editor at Routledge Press asked me to write a new biography of the Buddha. I discussed the idea with my agent, who thought it was something worth exploring. Little did I know at the time that this “exploration” would bind me to the mast of the Pali canon as it plowed unrelentingly through the ocean of the dispensation. Like Ahab, I single-mindedly searched and searched for that elusive object of desire: flesh and blood of the living Buddha. But unlike Ahab, after three years immersed in the search I found not so much as a scrap of flesh or a trace of blood of any historical being. For all literary presentations of the Buddha, man, are but as pasteboard masks.**

In a post here called “Nostalgia for the Buddha,” I worked up some of my notes from that doomed project.  Bernhard’s article, though, makes me wonder anew: Why, why do x-buddhists continue to embrace this Sunday-school fable of the Buddha? It is particularly curious that the scientifically-allied, ostensibly de-mythologized modern variety of x-buddhists do, isn’t it? Why this recurring, and seemingly unacknowledged (by x-buddhists, at least), argument from authority? And why this dishonesty about the lack of reliable data for the so-desired Authority? Or is it ignorance rather than dishonesty? And if ignorance, is it the dark unknowing kind or the willful variety? I admit that, in past writings, I myself have done some damage in arguing for the reconstruction of a recoverable historical figure named “Gotama.”

Let me repent.  My several years’ effort of searching for a reliable historical basis for a biography of Siddhattha Gotama can be summed up as this: Gotama is a ghost. He is a non-entity. Let me elaborate (from “Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism“):

Protagonist, The. The progenitor of the Buddhist dispensation. He is referred to by various names, such as “The Buddha,” “Gotama,” “The Blessed One,” etc. Speculative non-buddhism’s designation “The Protagonist” is intended to indicate the irrefutable fact that “the Buddha” is a historical figure entirely overwritten by a literary one. Not the slightest wisp of evidence has survived that sheds light on the historical progenitor. Any reliable historical evidence that once existed has been reduced to caricature by the machinations of internecine Buddhist institutional shenanigans and the stratagems of ideological dupery. The figure of the Buddha in the classical Pali texts is a concoction of the collective imaginations of the numerous communities that, over several centuries, had a hand in the formation of the canon. Add to this imaginative mélange the imaginings—cultural, political, fantastic, ignorant—of all the iterations of all forms of x-buddhism, and the result is Buddha as Cosmic Magic Mirror, reflecting all things to all people. A viable composite human figure “The Buddha” can be salvaged from this protean symbol of buddhistic vanity only with force of the darkest, most atavistic yearning of puerile nostalgia for The Great Father.

So, here’s my question: Why, given their ostensible sophistication, do contemporary x-buddhists cling so stubbornly (ignorantly? something else?) to a naïve understanding of the very nature of the texts and teachings from which they derive so much authority for their lives?

Another question (added 12-5-11): How would your reception of Buddhism be affected if you saw it as a hodge-podge of often disconnected ideas and theories about human being (which it is)?

What are your thoughts?


* Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter sixty-nine.

** Ibid., chapter thirty-six: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.”

Toni Bernhard’s article, “Who was the Buddha?”

Image by Patrick Trotter, “Ghost Dance.”

Nascent Non-Buddhism

Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism,” the article presented in this post (pdf link at bottom), represents the fullest formulation of non-buddhism so far. The paper presents a heuristic which, if applied to your reading of Buddhist material and to your listening to Buddhist discussions, will, I am certain, prove revealing. As the title indicates, speculative non-buddhism is just beginning its life. A great deal of work needs to be done on both the theoretical and interpretive sides.

For those of you who will read no further than this post, I give you here the beginning, middle, and end.


“What is true cannot change; what changes is not true” is this not the miserable dream in which too many have diffused their cleverness?—François Laruelle

Speculative non-buddhism is way of thinking and seeing that takes as its raw material Buddhism. It is a thought-experiment that poses the question: shorn of its transcendental representations, what might Buddhism offer us? Continue reading “Nascent Non-Buddhism”

Word Blood

This post has some information and a request for your input.

New page. I have added a page called “Articles” on the top bar. Many of the pieces on this blog are really more like essays or articles than blog posts. So, I will package them nicely and create pdf files that you can download and print out. Now, light your pipe, and read at leisure.

New Tagline. I’ve changed the blog tagline to “creative criticism” to better capture what I am up to here. The basic  idea of creative criticism is summed up by Camelia Elias* at EyeCorner Press, who speaks of “promoting … writing with an edge,” and  encouraging “works that engage with rigorous thinking, but which are yet informed by a creative style, and irreverent approaches to literature, culture, and philosophy.” (And, need I add, buddhism?)

e-journal. Speaking of creative criticism, I am creating a new e-journal with the aim of fostering and disseminating  creative writing that uses buddhist materials. I need your support and input. Here’s the idea. Then, what you can do. Continue reading “Word Blood”

Buddhist Anti-Intellectualism

Speculative non-Buddhism suspects Buddhism of avoiding the labor of hard thought. The previous post addressed this issue directly: a Buddhist teacher invoked the unsentimental demands that historical analysis makes on tradition; but she left undone the hard work of thinking through the implications of those demands. Thinking through—i.e., permitting thought to take its potentially destructive course—necessarily unsettles the matter at hand. Yet, somehow, whenever Buddhists think, Buddhism remains unscathed.

Why is that? Why allow the intellect to do only so much work, and then show it the door? X-Buddhists of all varieties invoke the sciences and humanities as allies in their search for knowledge—only to retreat back into the sureness of doctrine and, as Tom Pepper puts it, “down into the thought-free depths of the body.” Why? One reason: anti-intellectualism.

Anti-intellectualism? Consider this statement by a figure who has exerted an exorbitant influence on the shape of Buddhism—and not just Zen—in the modern West:

“Zen has nothing to teach us in the way of intellectual analysis;” sutras are “mere waste paper whose utility consist in wiping off the dirt of the intellect and nothing more” (D.T. Suzuki, in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, 8-9).

In this post, I present to you an essay by Tom Pepper that explores the nature of this tendency of contemporary western Buddhists to “reject the demands of rigorous thought.” From the perspective of Speculative non-Buddhism, Pepper’s essay is a valuable instance of escorting Buddhism to the Great Feast of Knowledge. Continue reading “Buddhist Anti-Intellectualism”

Fanged Dialogue

In sum

All X-Buddhisms are incapable of genuinely conversing with the sciences and the humanities. They are, furthermore, unable to comprehend themselves. For both, we need Speculative non-Buddhism (or something like it). All Buddhism can ever achieve is a Narcissus-like self-referential iteration of its self-given image—as this or that X-Buddhism. For Buddhism must at all costs preserve its majestic omen pontificator: “The Dharma,” Architect of the Cosmic Vault and the Keeper of its Inventory. Only by feigning dialogue at the Feast of Knowledge can Buddhism preserve itself. This is fanged dialogue.

*       *      *

In this post, I want to continue articulating the procedures of Speculative non-Buddhism. Because my method can appear abstract, it may help if I use a concrete example to get some traction. To that end, I want to refer to a recent article by Rita Gross called “Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners” (links at bottom).

Rita Gross is an exemplary Buddhist studies and feminist scholar. She is also a senior teacher in Shambhala Buddhism. I am not critiquing her article point by point here. What I am doing is extracting the major premise and the major conclusion, and then analyzing these to illuminate Speculative non-Buddhist theorems. Continue reading “Fanged Dialogue”

X-buddhistic Hallucination

In sum

A crucial fact, easily forgotten, devoid of which my critical practice of speculative non-buddhism would be just one more of the infinite iterations of x-buddhism: speculative non-buddhism is concerned with reclaiming from x-buddhism the person of flesh and blood, who lives in the world of stone and shit, emptied, that is to say, of the dharmic dream.

X-buddhism” indexes a sacrificial rending from reality. Its rhetorics of display, whether secular or religious or anything else, constitute an act of high pageantry, whereby empty reality is both ruptured and repaired. But the sacrifice and its sacrament are confined entirely to a circle of x-buddhism’s own creation. Reality remains untouched. X-buddhism does not offer up knowledge. It is a matrix of hallucinatory desire—the manufactured desire of the x-buddhist for realization of x-buddhism’s self-created world-reparation. Continue reading “X-buddhistic Hallucination”

Sick Progeny? Buddhism and Psychotherapy

Wherever Buddhism goes, it absorbs the values, assumptions, and ideologies of local cultures.We speak of Tibetan Buddhism, Late-Ming Buddhism or Western Buddhism. Doing so is a way of inscribing specific cultural modifications into the, ostensibly, stable descriptor “Buddhism.”

Whatever other values are intermixing with the X-Buddhisms in the contemporary West—or certainly, in the United States, where I live—those that originate in psychology are unquestionably among them. Is this cross fertilization salutary? Given the proliferation of mutual admiration societies and celebratory books and workshops, one would assume that the question has been settled. But before allowing psychology’s values to transfuse unseen into the various mélanges of Western/Secular/Progressive/Post/Mindfulness/X-Buddhisms, may we consider the opposite: that the genetic admixture of Buddhism and psychology produces sick—albeit socially “well-adjusted”—progeny?

I present to you here and essay by Tom Pepper (links at the end of the post) that does just that. Continue reading “Sick Progeny? Buddhism and Psychotherapy”


Barry Magid is one of a handful of self-described Buddhist teachers whose work I unhesitantly recommend to others. I do so because of his clear-eyed assessment of, on one hand, the potential and limits of Buddhist practice and, on the other hand, the cunning machinations of us homo sapiens apes. As a result of the former, he courageously places Buddhism in dialogue with Kohutian psychoanalysis, invokes Wittgenstein on language, and solicits the views of contemporary poets and ancient skeptics alike. Because of the latter, he is able to perspicuously illuminate reflexive but unfruitful meditation strategies, such as the curative fantasy and the secret practice.

Barry Magid’s lucent, no-nonsense approach stems, I suspect, at least in part from his close association with Charlotte Beck, his teacher in the Ordinary Mind School of Soto Zen. (Magid received “dharma transmission” from Beck in 1999.) As Magid says of Beck in his recent memoriam to her: Continue reading “Flinching”

Raw Remarks on Meditation, Ideology and Nihilism

[I will be high in the Alps (high up, that is) and largely internet-free, until early August. I would like to leave you with a few stray, suggestive, unprocessed, and probably irresponsible remarks about meditation practice. These remarks stem from a chapter of a book that I am working on. Although I won’t be able to respond now to your comments, I hope you will nonetheless “talk amongst yourselves.”]

As I was about to post my raw remarks on meditation, a comment by Tom Pepper arrived on the “What is non-Buddhism” page. I encourage you to read his comment. Tom’s questions, insights, suggestions, and general attitude exemplify the kind of thinking needed for the work that I am hoping to stoke, or indeed incite, on this blog. After reading his comment, I went back and selected different raw fragments, ones that might better speak to his remarks. Continue reading “Raw Remarks on Meditation, Ideology and Nihilism”