By Glenn Wallis

Is anyone interested in writing book reviews for this site? The new publications below have come to my attention recently. Maybe you have other suggestions? If you are interested, either email me at gw@glennwallis.com or leave a comment in the usual spot. Here are the books and podcast I have in mind, including their press descriptions and my two cents (links are at the very end):

  • Marcus Boon, Eric Cazdyn, and Timothy Morton, Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2105).

Though contemporary European philosophy and critical theory have long had a robust engagement with Christianity, there has been no similar engagement with Buddhism—a surprising lack, given Buddhism’s global reach and obvious affinities with much of Continental philosophy. This volume fills that gap, focusing on “nothing”—essential to Buddhism, of course, but also a key concept in critical theory from Hegel and Marx through deconstruction, queer theory, and contemporary speculative philosophy. Through an elaboration of emptiness in both critical and Buddhist traditions; an examination of the problem of praxis in Buddhism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis; and an explication of a “Buddhaphobia” that is rooted in modern anxieties about nothingness, Nothing opens up new spaces in which the radical cores of Buddhism and critical theory are renewed and revealed.

This book includes some discussion of the speculative non-buddhism project, both favorably and critically. In bringing “contemporary European philosophy and critical theory” into the discussion, it also attempts something like a feast of knowledge. One interesting point of difference between Boon, et al. and what they term “Wallis et al.” is that the term Buddhaphobia appears in contrast to our (or maybe just my) very early term buddhaphilia. The former is Timothy Morton’s invention. It “overlap[s] with those [coordinates] of homophobia: a fear of intimacy, a fear of ambiguity, a fear of inwardness and introversion, a fear of theory rather than praxis” (187). The latter refers to westerners celebratory Romantic embrace of all things buddhist, particularly of those very “coordinates” that Morton sees as pointing to Buddhaphobia!

  • Richard Boyle, Realizing Awakened Consciousness: Interviews with Buddhist Teachers and a New Perspective on the Mind (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

If, as Buddhism claims, the potential for awakening exists in all human beings, we should be able to map the phenomenon with the same science we apply to other forms of consciousness. A student of cognitive social science and a Zen practitioner for more than forty years, Richard P. Boyle brings his sophisticated perspective to bear on the development of a theoretical model for both ordinary and awakened consciousness.

Boyle conducts probing interviews with eleven prominent Western Buddhist teachers (Shinzen Young, John Tarrant, Ken McLeod, Ajahn Amaro, Martine Batchelor, Shaila Catherine, Gil Fronsdal, Stephen Batchelor, Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Bernie Glassman, and Joseph Goldstein) and one scientist (James Austin) who have experienced awakening. From the paths they traveled to enlightenment and their descriptions of the experience, he derives three fundamental properties of awakened consciousness. He then constructs an overarching model that explains how Buddhist practices help free the mind from attachments to reality and the self and make possible the three properties of awakening. Specifically, these teachers describe how they worked to control attention and quiet the mind, detach from ideas and habits, and open themselves to compassion. Boyle’s account incorporates current theories of consciousness, sociological insights, and research in neuroscience to advance the study of awakened consciousness and help an even greater number of people to realize it.

This book strikes me as a living, oral testament to x-buddhist specularity and to the principle of sufficient buddhism. In interviewing the figures that he does, Boyle also–inadvertently, I imagine–gets as close to a definitive statement on the slippery question: what the hell is “Western Buddhism” anyway? One result is that the vehement criticism that was leveled against Žižek’s “ignorant,” “uninformed” critique of Western Buddhism appears to be proven mistaken. In other words,it looks like the Slovanian devil is on to something.

  • William Davis, The Happiness Industry (London: Verso, 2015).

In winter 2014, a Tibetan monk lectured the world leaders gathered at Davos on the importance of Happiness. The recent DSM-5, the manual of all diagnosable mental illnesses, for the first time included shyness and grief as treatable diseases. Happiness has become the biggest idea of our age, a new religion dedicated to well-being. In this brilliant dissection of our times, political economist William Davies shows how this philosophy, first pronounced by Jeremy Bentham in the 1780s, has dominated the political debates that have delivered neoliberalism. From a history of business strategies of how to get the best out of employees, to the increased level of surveillance measuring every aspect of our lives; from why experts prefer to measure the chemical in the brain than ask you how you are feeling, to why Freakonomics tells us less about the way people behave than expected, The Happiness Industry is an essential guide to the marketization of modern life. Davies shows that the science of happiness is less a science than an extension of hypercapitalism.

As I read this book, I continually thought of the Buddhist Geeks and allied projects. Virtually on every page I paused and thought Vincent Horn should read this book! What Davis is describing is alive and kicking in the Geeks’ “koan:” “How can we serve the convergence of Buddhism with rapidly evolving technology and an increasingly global culture?” Would that be a good thing?

  • Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).
Some twenty-five centuries after the Buddha started teaching, his message continues to inspire people across the globe, including those living in predominantly secular societies. What does it mean to adapt religious practices to secular contexts?
Stephen Batchelor, an internationally known author and teacher, is committed to a secularized version of the Buddha’s teachings. The time has come, he feels, to articulate a coherent ethical, contemplative, and philosophical vision of Buddhism for our age. After Buddhism, the culmination of four decades of study and practice in the Tibetan, Zen, and Theravada traditions, is his attempt to set the record straight about who the Buddha was and what he was trying to teach. Combining critical readings of the earliest canonical texts with narrative accounts of five members of the Buddha’s inner circle, Batchelor depicts the Buddha as a pragmatic ethicist rather than a dogmatic metaphysician. He envisions Buddhism as a constantly evolving culture of awakening whose long survival is due to its capacity to reinvent itself and interact creatively with each society it encounters.This original and provocative book presents a new framework for understanding the remarkable spread of Buddhism in today’s globalized world. It also reminds us of what was so startling about the Buddha’s vision of human flourishing.

I could only glance at it so far, but as we should probably expect from Batchelor, the portion available on Nook for the Web reads as a latter-day modernist-romantic attempt to resurrect a dying god. Amiwrong?

  • Finally, Matthew O’Connell, founder of the blog Post-traditional Buddhism, and Stuart Baldwin have created an intelligent, informative, and entertaining podcast called The Imperfect Buddha.

The Imperfect Buddha podcast explores the world of contemporary western Buddhism in all its facets, mixing in banter with analysis and no holds barred discussion along with occasional guests. This is the Buddhism podcast that goes where other Buddhist podcasts fear to tread and it is a podcast, not the nightly news.

To me, this podcast is a manifestation of what we might start calling the critical turn in western-buddhism. The hosts are favorable to Buddhism. Yet, they do seem to be “go[ing] where other Buddhist podcast fear to tread.” The contrast to, say, The Secular Buddhist podcast, is striking. See for yourself.

If you are interested in writing a review, I will send you the book. The advantages in writing for this blog: (1) it still gets 200 views on a quiet day. That number regularly spikes to 500+ when an old post is discussed on social media. So, you will be read; (2) the discussion forum will permit you to engage with others–and we all know how much fun that is! (3) from the looks of some of these books and of certain trends around the web, this blog got and still gets an interesting and productive cast of lurkers; (4) jams will once again get kicked out, motherfuckers…


Marcus Boon’s website

Eric Cazdyn’s website

Timothy Morton’s blog

eBook preview of Realizing Awakened Consciousness

Buddhist Geeks’ koan page

Vincent Horn’s website

Stephen Batchelor’s website

Nook preview of After Buddhism

The Imperfect Buddha Soundcloud

Matthew O’Connell’s blog

The Secular Buddhist podcast

23 Comment on “Book and podcast reviews?

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