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 Comment on “Post-traditional Buddhism Compared to Non-Buddhism

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