Post-traditional Buddhism Compared to Non-Buddhism

Post-traditional Buddhism Compared to Non-Buddhism
Glenn Wallis

In a question posed to him regarding his recent Buddhist Geeks podcast, Hokai Sobol talks about what he terms “post-traditional Buddhism.” Below is a transcript of his answer, including an addendum made later. I thought his remarks might mark a good opportunity to clarify what I mean by “non-Buddhism.” I don’t mean for my comments to be a detailed critique of Sobol’s idea, or even much of a critique at all. Rather, I want to use his idea as a wedge, as a way to mark a distinction with what I am advocating. I will be brief and suggestive for now, drawing on what I wrote in the “What is Non-Buddhism” page.

Sobol, in the bio accompanying the podcast, says that he “is committed to the formulation of an authentic, no-nonsense spirituality for the 21st century.” Towards this end, he is working towards the development of what he calls “post-traditional Buddhism.” He articulates this form of Buddhism as follows: “post-traditional in the strict sense means evolving Buddhism beyond ethnocentric identities, parochial attitudes, and ideologically-based loyalties; in the broad sense it means also being alert to modern and ‘postmodern’ reactivity when it comes to spiritual principles of authority, verticality, and devotion.” While he advocates for the “post,” however, he by no means wants to rend this “post” from the tenuous yet tethering hyphen that separates it from “traditional.” In other words, he wants to “make a practice post-traditional without throwing the baby with the bath water of the tradition.”

Sobol’s post-traditional Buddhism, in other words, is careful to preserve tradition. It almost appears to come down to something like a generational divide. But, in this case, the younger generation is well-enough behaved; for Sokol sees a need to protect tradition from “modern and ‘post-modern’ reactivity.”

To both traditionalists and post-traditionalists, non-Buddhism must appear as ill-behaved to an extreme. First of all, it is not interested in preservation of any kind. In casting a coruscating gaze on the very postulates that loyally undergird “Buddhism’s” vallation, it debilitates their potency and cancels their warrant.  This gaze, however, is not an act of destruction. It is, rather, an act of vivication: in clarifying, it gives new life.

Sobol’s “post-traditionalism” is Euclidean geometry to “non-Buddhism’s” non-Euclidean geometry. The difference between Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry lies, of course, in the behavior of a line. Euclid’s fifth postulate assumes parallelism. In upholding this postulate, along with the other four, Euclideans radically limit the field of possible forms. Rejecting this postulate (though preserving the other four), non-Euclidean geometry envisions, so to speak, radical new possibilities; namely, it permits elliptical and hyperbolic curvature.

This image is instructive. “Non-Buddhism,” as I conceive it, makes no decision about (1) what postulates properly constitute “Buddhism,” or (2) the value, truth, or relevance of any of the claims made in the name of “Buddhism.” Such non-decision enables a speculative. and perhaps even applied, curving toward or away from the ostensible teachings of Buddhism, as the case may be. Crucially, though, the criteria for any given move lie wholly outside of “Buddhism’s” value system. From within the fold, such a move is unpalatable, even heretical; for, the integrity of the system–its premises, authorities, and institutions–must, axiomatically, not be violated. Speculative non-Buddhism can only scratch its head at Sobol’s desire to uphold the “spiritual principles of authority, verticality, and devotion.”  Then, it shrugs its shoulders.

To repeat, non-Buddhism stands outside of the fortress of Buddhism, but not as a revolutionary storming the gates of venerable tradition. Commissioning the postulate of requisite “disenchantment,” non-Buddhism is too disinterested in “Buddhism” for such a destructive stand. As this blog testifies to, disinterest, however, does not manifest in rejection. Non-Buddhism is acutely interested in the uses of Buddhist teachings, but in a way that remains unbeholden to–and hence, unbound by and unaccountable to–the very norms that govern those teachings. Once we have suspended the structures that constitute “Buddhism,” once we have muted what to the believer is Buddhism’s very vibrato, we are free to hear fresh resonances.

Sobol’s talk (indeed, his very name, “Hokai”) is filled with language, thinking, presuppositions, assumptions, values, and so on that sound, to my ears at least, like a shakuhachi flute: lovely, alluring–and exuding venerable tradition with every breathy note.

Addendum: In reading my own post, I see that I failed to convey how much I appreciate and value Hokai Sobol’s efforts to create post-traditional forms of Buddhism. I wish him courage in this endeavor. His success, I believe, will benefit the people whose lives his life touches. And that, alas, is the very purpose of all of our efforts, isn’t it? I only hope to play a role in encouraging Hokai Sobol, and other like-minded practitioners, to take it even further.

Here is Hokai Sobol’s transcript. I provide relevant links at the bottom of this post.

Hokai Sobol: There are three basic elements that move someone’s approach from traditional to post-traditional. Now, when we use the word traditional, it doesn’t mean that one is necessarily using traditional language when talking about one’s practice, or that one is necessarily using traditional criteria to organize one’s lifestyle. On the contrary, one may on the surface live a very contemporary lifestyle and may talk about dharma in very modern rational terms, however at the core one’s practice still remains traditional. When I say remains traditional I mean “remains in a limited way”, if three basic shifts haven’t taken place. And I will just name them now. We will get more into them as we go through the course.

These three shifts are number 1, one needs to really make sense of both the techniques and the teachings that one is putting into practice and following. Now really make sense means that one can actually explain what one is doing and how one is thinking about it in terms of one’s own life, without recourse to specific notions and concepts that one has quite naturally lived without before meeting Buddhism. This is the first step that needs to be taken. I called this step “naturalizing the dharma.” So basically the dharma needs to be defined in terms that are meaningful to one’s life situation. That’s no. 1.

Number 2, in pursuing one’s practice, one needs to take an additional degree of responsibility for the results of one’s practice. This doesn’t mean that one does not commit to specific style of practice and one does not basically develop – especially in the Zen and Vajrayana tradition – a strong relationship to a certain community and teacher. However, one must be fully clear that one is developing that commitment and developing that relationship of one’s own free choice. And that whatever happens in that relationship one basically takes responsibility for it. Without making that shift people often feel victimized when things get tough. And things may get tough in a good way like when you really hit your edge and hit into your limitations, or sometimes things get tough in a bad way when communities fall apart or teachers or other models, senior practitioners appear to not be what we expected. In any of those cases whether things get tough in a good way or in a bad way feeling victimized shows that we hadn’t made the second significant shift meaning taking full responsibility for our own practice and for results that come out of it. Again I repeat this does not mean giving up on reliance on Buddha’s teachings, the communities and the teachers. But it does mean never giving up our responsibility and accountability.

And the third shift that makes the practice post-traditional is a shift which makes it clear that the meditation experience, even meditative realization, in itself, means nothing. Every experience and every realization, even very high realization, very advanced realization needs to be fully interpreted and fully acknowledged and fully integrated into life experience. This basically means that there has to be a high degree of integrity between our spiritual lives and mundane lives. The basic degree of spiritual development would be a decreasing gap between what we see as spiritual and what we see as unspiritual or ordinary.

So this third shift is also extremely important because scripturally in the Buddhist texts there is a lot of talk about nirvana being samsara, samsara being nirvana. However in the lives of traditional people and traditional society this has never really worked. Today, it’s becoming possible because of changes in social and cultural circumstances to basically dissolve this gap between spiritual and secular to a much much larger degree, and it is our responsibility to do so.

So again very shortly there are three shifts to be undertaken which would make a practice post-traditional without throwing the baby with the bath water of the tradition, right? So, the first step is the shift in interpretation. Meaning that one needs to develop an understanding of the dharma both in theoretical and practical aspect that has a minimum of unnecessary alienating conceptual categories and the maximum of basic natural life categories. The second shift is a marked shift in responsibility and psychological integrity for every practitioner. And the third shift is a shift in interpreting and integrating whatever level of experience one reaches, or whatever level of realization one can stabilize. And I will also emphasize that these three points go beyond a mere post-modern approach.

Sobol later added this comment on his website:

Let me add here several points not made in the live dialogue. I assume that by moving beyond strict traditional considerations we do not just replace Buddhist teachings with modern or postmodern preferences. This has been tried and has – in many respects – repeatedly failed. While post-traditional in the strict sense means evolving Buddhism beyond ethnocentric identities, parochial attitudes, and ideologically-based loyalties, in the broad sense it means also being alert to modern and ‘postmodern’ reactivity when it comes to spiritual principles of authority, verticality, and devotion. In short, it’s a challenging leap with implications for spiritual practice, critical studies, communal discourse, institutional reform, and political culture. Insofar as these spheres are interdependent and mutually inclusive, the actual shift to post-traditional can only really take place as a comprehensive strategic endeavour, bringing together the best of premodern, modern, and ‘postmodern’ contributions, while making sure the core principles of the Buddhist path are reasserted effectively and compellingly. The above transcript only deals with individual approach to spiritual practice in simple, straightforward terms.


Hokai Sobol’s website.

Sobol’s Buddhist Geeks podcasts.

The transcript.

11 thoughts on “Post-traditional Buddhism Compared to Non-Buddhism

  1. It is just this phrase: “Sokol sees a need to protect tradition from “modern and ‘post-modern’ reactivity,” and your response to it, that helps most clarify (to whatever extent it clarifies) what you mean by “non-Buddhism.” I think that it is just this so-called “reactivity” (whether modern or post-modern) that keeps Buddhism ‘honest’ and a living tradition! And, with this as part of my own context, I find “Dharma” readily available in places where I guess “Traditional Buddhism” might flinch!

    Robert Thurman once gave a talk called “Buddhism must cease to be Buddhism” in which he said Buddhism’s biggest impact and offering to the west would only be possible if it ceased being Buddhism. I don’t think Thurman himself actually took that step. Is this perhaps also what you mean when you speak of ‘non-Buddhism?’

    Thanks for this blog!

  2. Hi Frank. Thank you for your comments. I, too, find this resistance to modernism and post-modernism peculiar. That there is such resistance is ironic. After all, most, indeed, virtually all, of the forms of Buddhism in play today resulted from the pressures of the society and culture that X-form of Buddhism found itself at Y-time. As Buddhist teaching itself would predict, this process of change and adaptation, being endemic to all entities–concrete and abstract–is perpetual. To me, the question is more “how will it change, what forms will it take,” rather than “will or should it change?” People simply want change to stop once they’re on the scene, I guess.

    Thanks for the tip on the Thurman talk. I will see if I can find it. Given his apparent profound love of the Dalai Lama and Gelug pa tradition, I find it curious that he advocates for such a “cessation of Buddhism.” If you know where the talk is, can you send along a link?

    I tried to articulate what I mean by “Speculative non-Buddhism” in the pages “What is Non-Buddhism” and “Why Speculation?” An important feature is something which I imagine causes non-Buddhism to differ from most other calls for a radical shift from the current Buddhist status quo; namely, the insistence on muting Buddhism’s vibrato and enervating its postulates. This debilitation cancels Buddhism’s warrant. What ensues from these actions is what I call a non-decision concerning the project called “Buddhism.” It is a refusal to endorse Buddhism’s estimation of itself. But it is an abstention, not a rejection. In this non-decision lies the potential for speculative inquiry and innovative application. I simply do not see others with a stake in Buddhism’s dispensation willing to make these kinds of moves. I will be refining the definition over time. This blog is part of my effort to do so.

    Thanks again, Frank.

  3. Hi Glenn, I don’t know if the Thurman talk is online anywhere. What I do remember is that it was a talk he gave at least 15 years ago or so at Jivamukti in NYC. It was available at one time on cassette — remember cassettes? 😉 so perhaps they still have it available in some form.

    I quite appreciate your comment regarding your ‘project,’: “It is a refusal to endorse Buddhism’s estimation of itself. But it is an abstention, not a rejection. In this non-decision lies the potential for speculative inquiry and innovative application. I simply do not see others with a stake in Buddhism’s dispensation willing to make these kinds of moves.”

    I think the unwillingness to truly engage in inquiry of those with a ‘stake in Buddhism’s dispensation’ a kind of ‘bad faith’ that, is tied up with their ambivalence regarding the reality of change you address in your comment above. In my blog, Zen Naturalism, I posted a letter in response to an article “Shambhala Sun” ran about the so-called “new atheists. They printed my opening paragraph, but left out the real thrust of my argument:

    “Ajahn Amaro also shows the confused thinking about what science really is and how it operates that is all too typical of many non-scientists, as shown by his contention that ‘what makes scientific materialism, which would aptly describe the atheist view, unrealistic and therefore unappealing is the incredible conceit that sooner or later we’ll have the whole thing figured out.’ Could there perhaps be some projection at work here? I have found many Buddhists who feel that the Buddha ‘figured it all out long ago, and that we should just accept all he is alleged to have taught uncritically. Oh, they may say we are not to merely accept, but to question the teachings, but it has been my experience that many teachers and practitioners leave large areas of Buddhist doctrine exempt from such questioning. While I totally agree with Ajahn Amaro that the Buddha encourages inquiry, and that we don’t need to figure it all out, the Ajahn’s assertion that ‘Scientific materialists are often frightened of uncertainty and not knowing’ is absurd.

    Scientists work happily with the understanding that all claims to any validity for both data and theory are provisional. Here’s the physicist Richard Feynman on the subject: ‘I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain. In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.’

    Not only are scientists not afraid of uncertainty, they find life, purpose, and even a sacred truth in the uncertainty which they find lacking in religious certainties, and dogma. Here is Ann Druyan speaking of Carl Sagan: ‘He never understood why anyone would want to separate science, which is just a way of searching for what is true, from what we hold sacred, which are those truths that inspire and awe. His argument was not with God but with those who believed that our understanding of the sacred had been completed. Sciences’s permanently revolutionary conviction that the search for truth never ends seemed to him the only approach with sufficient humility to be worthy of the universe it revealed.'”

    I will be looking forward to your continued inquiry here at your site.


  4. I enjoy your website and writings. I find your arguments provocatively productive to think with. But sometimes I am not clear on their presumptions and parameters. You frequently assert that Speculative Non-Buddhism is not an act of destruction, but rather an act of vivication. I would appreciate it though if you could actually explicate that argument more fully. Which I suppose entails explaining with much greater historical, philosophical and institutional precision what is not being destroyed, and what is being vivicated. I suppose you might even have to explain with some analytic precision what you mean exactly by destruction and vivication.


  5. Hi Erick. Yes, you are right on all accounts. I really am obligated to offer the explanations and definitions that you mention. I would say that I have gone at least some way in doing what you suggest throughout this blog. I have done so in the posts themselves, in the pages, and in my responses to readers’ comments. I am sure you will find contradictions, inconsistencies, and lack of clarity, however, throughout as well. One reason for that is simply that I am making all of this up on the fly, and am doing so in spiritu ludi.

    By the way, I love that you said “to think with.” That is really all I am hoping for here: that my readers use some of my ideas to think along with theirs, side by side, at least for a few steps. Indeed, Speculative non-Buddhism is a way of thinking along with Buddhism. Therein lies its, in my view, uniqueness; for “Buddhism” looks really strange from the side.

    I am currently writing an article for a journal called Global Buddhism that attempts to explain my Speculative non-Buddhism tack more explicitly and coherently than I’ve done on the blog. That journal is doing a special edition on “secular Buddhism.” It should be out in December. I believe it’s available on-line as well, or perhaps exclusively. My contribution is called “Speculative non-Buddhism.” In case it’s not accepted, I will make it available on the blog.

    I actually do address (in the current draft, anyway) the issues of destruction and vivification, though probably not with the degree of “precision” you and many other readers would like. Let me try a brief answer here. What is not being destroyed is buddhistic decision. Buddhistic decision is the structural syntax that generates Buddhism’s specular proclamations. It is a grammatical function that governs every single instance of every single variety, without exception, of buddhistic utterance. Decision is, in the briefest terms, a splitting of the world (hence “de-cision”) between an immanent given and a transcendent fact that guarantees the given (neither given nor fact require phenomenality; hence “grammatical”). In Buddhism’s case, the given is samsara and its causal generator, paticcasamuppada, and its transcendent warrant is the fact “The Dharma,” the specular norm. So, for Speculative non-Buddhism to get on with its work, that structure must remain intact.

    Once exposed, however, something that can only be called destructive does indeed occur. And I suspect that you have astutely perceived this occurence. But the destruction that exposure entails is closer to Heidegger’s notion of Destruktion in Being and Time, namely (from the 1962 text; German at p. 22):

    When tradition thus becomes master, it does so in such a way that what it ‘transmits’ is made so inaccessible, proximally and for the most part, that it rather becomes concealed. Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial ‘sources’ from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn. Indeed it makes us forget that they have had such an origin, and makes us suppose that the necessity of going back to these sources is something which we need not even understand.

    Speculative non-Buddhism’s making proximate of Buddhism’s specular oracularity to the practitioner “unblocks” the “primordial ‘sources'” (concepts and practices indexing phenomenality: sunyata, anatta, anicca, etc.) from which those utterances are, ostensibly, drawn. This unblocking of tradition’s occlusion constitutes a vivification of the “sources.” So, what I am engaged in is thus not destructiion, it is de-construction (probably the better translation of German Destruktion anyway).

    One task I am robustly not interested in is philosophy. I am interested in “going back to the sources” unburdened by tradition’s concealing and tedious tessellation.

    Thanks again, Erick. I appreciate your comment. I hope my article is more helpful than this response.

  6. Is it Buddhistic decision or decisions? I must confess I am very suspicious of singularities in the study of Buddhism (and most everything else). Perhaps I can concede that there is a more generic, overarching dualism of immanent given and transcendent fact. Yet, in historical and empirical reality, at the substantive level just how similar or shared are those across sectarian and geographical traditions of Buddhisms, across eras and ages? Is samsara and Dharma really the same from Asoka’s India, to Tsongkhapa’s Tibet, to Rama I’s Siam, to Suzuki’s Japan? While the rules of the generative grammar may work the same, are the sentences, paragraphs and rhetorics really equivalent?

    And how does one locate and read the “sources” without the tradition’s tessellation? I am increasingly intrigued with how various the sources of authentic authority are within the various Buddhisms of time and space when one stops looking at the directions of the written canon and pays attention instead to the signpost of lived Buddhism on the ground.

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