By Glenn Wallis
I thought I’d start writing on this blog again for a while. I’d like to use it to think through some issues related to the non-buddhism project. Specifically, I want to explore, more explicitly and robustly than before, the constructive side of the critical-constructive dialectic. Many of the posts on this blog and at non + x already present promising work in that area. As a particularly pertinent example, I suggest you read Tom Pepper’s essay “Taking Anatman Full Strength and Śāntideva’s Ethics of Truth.” 1
As before, the argument driving this blog is that Buddhist conceptual materials offer potent resources for thinking radical reformations of self and society in the contemporary West. (I am primarily concerned with western Buddhism.) And yet, the noun “Buddhism” (or what I call “x-buddhism”2) indexes a historical failure to unleash the force of its very thought. “Buddhism,” that is, names an obstinate containment of potentially dynamic human goods. The end result is that Buddhism everywhere functions as a conservative protector of the social status quo, however toxic, and as an ideological fortress spawning subjects whose treasured goal is merely to rest at ease therein. Paradoxically, therefore, we cannot look to Buddhism—to its teachers and defenders, to its commentaries and explications, to its communities and organizations—to assist us in ransacking its “refuge” and interrogating its residents.
Why? Because Buddhism suffers—Buddhists suffer—from a paucity of critique. This is true both internally and externally. Internally, Buddhists presume themselves to be in possession of a kind of science of the real (Sanskrit yathabhuta, “things as they are”), one that even possesses, in meditation, an infallible organon of reality. Externally, figures as discerning as Nietzsche and Lacan have inexplicably taken Buddhists at their word. The end-result is Buddhism as a visionary form of knowledge that, to the critic, appears to be woefully under-theorized and suspiciously irrealist, notional, and self-contradictory. (And it is for these reasons that its concepts and practices, as they are currently configured, cannot provide guidance to liberatory social/personal practices.) It is therefore necessary to make the case for critique. Hence, the need for a critical practice such as non-buddhism.
There is, however, another side to it. The other side is indicated in the new tagline, ruins of the buddhist real. The old tagline, an arsenal for thought, recommended taking up conceptual weapons for exploding the ideologically-thick walls of the x-buddhist thought-fortress. The new one suggests picking through the rubble, and carrying out promising-looking husk and hull.
So, this phase of the non-buddhism project emphasizes its performative and constructive aspects. It examines what might happen after the practitioner has ruined (decimated, cloned, flattened) the x-buddhist material. For those of you who might like to participate, I want to emphasize that the purpose of ruining is not to perform intricate philological surgery on the x-buddhist “text” or, indeed, even to explicate its meaning. Neither is it to recover some pristine “original” teaching corrupted by the ages. The purpose of ruining is to create a reading, thinking, living empirical individual, one who is able to actualize the emancipatory (whatever that might mean) thrust of decimated x-buddhist thought and practice.
To give you some indication of where I may be heading, here are a few issues and questions driving my thought. I hope you’ll join me with comments, experiments, reports, and even essays of your own. I should mention that this phase of the project imagines a participant who is actively engaged, or would like to be, in a communal practice setting. As Badiou says, sustained subject formation and social action are always a matter of ideology and organization. Maybe you’ll create a community if you don’t already have one.
- X-buddhism has abandoned anatman. There is no existing form of x-buddhism in which an idealist, transcendent big-Other-type of entity does not loom large. What would a genuinely materialist (anatmanistic) x-buddhism look like? (And I don’t mean the crass materialism of people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchins.)
- A convicted anti-religious x-buddhism is the order of the day (think: secular, post-traditional, progressive, atheist + buddhism). Is that necessary? Is that even plausible? Given the demonstrable fact that these various “humanist” x-buddhisms are re-inscribing their thought with religious signs, why not just cut that secular-religious cord altogether? What happens if we take seriously the so-called “theological turn” in philosophy–that of, paradoxically, radical materialist-atheist thinkers such as Terry Eagleton, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek (“only an atheist can be a Christian today”), or even that of the self-described “atheist Christian theologian” John Caputo? What new coordinates for thinking-using x-buddhism might emerge?
- One consequence of re-introducing anatman into a decimated x-buddhist practice is that practice itself, whether meditation or something else, will have to include a robust social aspect. (See the Pepper article.) Of course, x-buddhist forms of practice already have this aspect in the form of the sangha, along with its dharma talks, and so on. But given the kinds of subjects created in these communities, namely, Žižek’s “perfect supplement to the… hegemonic ideology of global capitalism,” this only raises big questions such as:
- What is the relationship between meditation (or any other practice) and doctrine? What happens when we realize that doctrine influences and even coerces meditation outcomes? Can meditation be used as precisely the opposite of a liberating practice; namely, as a binding feature of a covert ideology? What happens if we make the ideological function of the meditation-doctrine nexus explicit? Can meditation then be employed as something like a science of ideology? These questions raise further ones:
- X-buddhism claims to illuminate the nature of mind. What happens, in practice, when we admit that it really just offers one of numerous conceivable frames for conceptualizing “mind”? What are the sine qua non components of what we call “meditation”? If we determine that there are such components (e.g., stillness, silence, and attentional proclivity directed toward the breathing body) what is the rationale for introducing additional components?A common feature of the rhetoric of meditation assumes its function as a practice of human liberation. What does that mean for us here and now? What does such a liberated (and liberating) subject look like?
Again, inquiries like these will probably only be of interest–will only have any frisson–if you are part of a community that takes up the thought and practice of x-buddhist materials. Because of the reactionary nature of the secular varieties of x-buddhism, and the obscurantist nature of traditional forms, it’s probably best to create a new group, and start from scratch. If so, I’d like to hear from you how it’s going.
1Tom Pepper’s essay “Taking Anatman Full Strength and Śāntideva’s Ethics of Truth.”
What do you think?