Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby. —Walter Benjamin

Is there any such thing as x-buddhistic polemics? Or are x-buddhists too busy primming themselves with right speech, loving kindness, and equanimity to consider such nastiness? I can imagine my x-buddhist friends asking how I can even suggest that the perpetually-grinning paragons of compassion that are their beloved teachers would even want to engage in something as “un-buddhist” as polemics.

Come to think of it, I have to ask them a question right back: Is it conceivable that your myriad x-buddhist values (compassion, right speech, renunciation, loving-kindness, forbearance, right thought, etc., etc., etc.) are precisely a passive form of polemics? In “cultivating compassion,” for instance, are you, as x-buddhist, arming yourself for the fight?

Consider this. When asked why he does not engage in polemics, Michel Foucault answered as follows.

The polemicist . . . proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question…. [T]he person he confronts is not a partner in search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is armful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.

To my non-buddhist ears, this description of a polemicist astutely, if unintentionally, describes the contemporary western x-buddhist. This is because, from a non-buddhist perspective, an x-buddhist is nothing if not a person “encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question,” and  someone who “relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.” This legitimacy, this privilege, is, of course, The Dharma.

A speculative non-buddhist thesis holds that x-buddhism is incapable of the self-critique that might permit what Benjamin refers to as a “genuine polemics” (more on this below). One reason for x-buddhism’s failure in this regard is the centripetal force that dharmic decision exerts on the thinking and behavior of all x-buddhists. To be an x-buddhists is to be reflexively beholden, affectively and cognitively, to the force of dharmic postulation. The x-buddhist is x-buddhist precisely insofar as s/he seeks—indeed, is impelled toward—the pure point of dharmic verity.

Decisional reflexivity explains why intra-buddhist discussions and debates are so vapid. It also explains why x-buddhist blogs, magazines, dharma talks, podcasts, websites, Facebook pages, sermons, and all the rest are predictable to the point of brain-corroding monotony: all of them, no matter what their particular x represents, simply spin around and around, shoulder to shoulder, on the same reeling pulpit. For decision, as the speculative non-buddhist thesis goes, is a fecund supposition of uncircumventable validity that manifests as infinite iterations of “x-buddhism.”

This state of affairs can explain in one swoop both the insipid nature of intra- x-buddhist dialogue and the non-existence of robust contemporary Buddhist-Non-Buddhist (Christian, etc.) polemics…

…But wait a minute, haven’t I just inverted the value of the term “polemics”? Indeed, I have. I will leave you with some comments by Catholic thinker Paul J. Griffiths on the topic  “Why We Need Interreligious Polemics.” Griffiths takes a stance opposed to Foucault’s. (Fitting for a post on polemics, isn’t it?)  But before I do, a question:

Why do x-buddhists behave like such disingenuous duckies when debating their views?

Here’s Paul Griffiths:

The intellectual life is essentially and constitutively agonistic. It progresses almost entirely by struggle, by challenge and response, by thesis and antithesis, by getting it wrong and then moving, always asymptotically, toward getting it right. Hegel was wrong, so far as I can tell, about most things, but he was right at least about this: the movement of thought is, in the sense just mentioned, dialectical. Nagarjuna, the second-century Buddhist philosopher, was, if possible, wrong about even more than Hegel, but he too was right at least about the unavoidable necessity of reasoned argument for the maintenance of ethical and epistemic respectability.

If the intellectual life is like this, if struggle is its blood and bone, then one ought to expect those who think rightly about it to delight in and deploy the imagery and metaphors of battle and war to capture its flavor. And so they do. If you like Buddhist examples, consider the famous image, found in numerous Indian Buddhist works from the first century onward, of the two magical warriors, neither of whom has enduring independent existence, battling one another until both cease to exist: this is an image, for its users, of the nature of argument, but it is also an image that has vitally important soteriological implications, a point that I shall return to later. And you don’t have to read far in current English-language philosophy to stumble over (or delight in, depending upon your tastes) similarly martial imagery: philosophers marshal their forces; they propose defeators; they proffer knock-down, drag-out arguments; they line up their propositions and schemata of argument like so many tin soldiers.

This sort of thing is what I mean by the word “polemics.” I take it to denote an intellectual virtue. Perhaps more precisely, I take it to denote a mode of intellectual engagement that flows directly from a proper and clear realization of what serious intellectual work is for and how it should best proceed. If you properly engage in this work, you will be interested in arriving at a position on whatever it is that interests you (philosophy, critical theory, history, philology, literary criticism, or whatever) that is preferable to any other that you know of on that question, and you will concomitantly want to be clear as to what the position that you construct and defend is, what it excludes, how best to show that its competitors are less adequate than the one you want to defend, and in what sense this is true. “Polemics,” as I use it here, does not denote or connote simple hostility, or opposition for its own sake-even though the term has come to mean something like this in ordinary English usage. It points, rather, to the kind of engagement that does and should occur when those who take what they believe seriously encounter others equally serious about, and committed to, their beliefs.


In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion. They depend only on the dialogue situation. The person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has been given him: to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, and so on. As for the person answering the questions, he too exercises a right that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse, he is tied to what he has said earlier, and by the acceptance of dialogue he is tied to the questioning of other. Questions and answers depend on a game—a game that is at once pleasant and difficult—in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of dialogue.

** Paul J. Griffiths, “Why We Need Interreligious Polemics,” First Things (June/July 1994).

143 Comment on “Come On, X-Buddhists, Pump Up The Polemos!

  1. Pingback: So What? » Secular Buddhist Association

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