A Critique of Western Buddhism

It’s not quite there yet (including the cover, I hope), but getting close. You can pre-order at Bloomsbury Academic. Here’s a description from the publisher’s site:

A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real 


What are we to make of Western Buddhism? Glenn Wallis argues that in aligning their tradition with the contemporary self-help industry, Western Buddhists evade the consequences of Buddhist thought. This book shows that with concepts such as vanishing, nihility, extinction, contingency, and no-self, Buddhism, like all potent systems of thought, articulates a notion of the “real.” Raw, unflinching acceptance of this real is held by Buddhism to be at the very core of human “awakening.” Yet these preeminent human truths are universally shored up against in contemporary Buddhist practice, which contradicts the very heart of Buddhism.

The author’s critique of Western Buddhism is threefold. It is immanent, in emerging out of Buddhist thought but taking it beyond what it itself publicly concedes; negative, in employing the “democratizing” deconstructive methods of François Laruelle’s non-philosophy; and re-descriptive, in applying Laruelle’s concept of philofiction. Through applying resources of Continental philosophy to Western Buddhism, A Critique of Western Buddhism suggests a possible practice for our time, an “anthropotechnic,” or religion transposed from its seductive, but misguiding, idealist haven.





Introduction: Raise the Curtain on the Theater of Western Buddhism!

Why Western Buddhism?

Theaters Comforting, Theaters Cruel

1. The Snares of Wisdom



Neoliberal Subjects are Us, Wise and Well

2. Specters of the Real

The Rhetorical Unconscious

The Principle of Sufficient Buddhism

3. First Names of the Buddhist Real

First Names

Self-void (anātman)

Suffering-desire (dukkha-taṇhā)

Nihility (śūnyatā)


4. Non-Buddhism


François Laruelle and Non-Philosophy

A Science of Buddhism


5. Immanent Practice

The Great Feast of Knowledge

Thinking from the Real-One

Interlude: The Immanence of an Actual Suffering

Radical Immanence

Axiomatic Real


6. Buddhofiction

The Deliverance of Fiction

A Buddhism without a Past

7. Meditation in Ruin


15 thoughts on “A Critique of Western Buddhism

  1. Hey Glenn,
    Congratulations this is great news and like Matt, I’m very excited to read it. Of course Mal makes a good point–too bad it can’t be as accessible as a copy of Old Path White Clouds! but I understand there are many many costs associated with such a publishing. I’ll be happy to share mine with any readers here at SNB blog soon as I’ve finished it.

  2. Mal. The price will change, too. It’s typical for academic publishers to first sell to libraries, most of which are already subscribers to the publisher’s list. After that process is complete, the book will come out in paperback, and the price will come down to the $20-30 range. At least that has been my experience so far.

  3. Congratulations. It can be a long and frustrating process.

    The price on these kind of books is always ridiculous at first—they only expect to sell hardcovers to university libraries. Hopefully it won’t be too long until they make a paperback available. Of course, it will still be pricey compared to the new Think Not Hanh book on Amazon…

  4. I will commit to buying your book Glenn even if it doesn’t come down in price. Having recently read The Bhudda Pill which took a skeptical look at the promises of contemporary meditation and mindfulness, it is good to see the publication of another intelligent and critical voice. No doubt Josh Korda(also about to publish) over at Dharma Punx ( who claim to go against the stream, but whose preoccupations seem to be entirely mainstream) and some of his mates such as Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield will no doubt have a bit of a hissy fit when your book comes out as they did when Zizek made his interesting crtique of western Buddhism and its compatibility with a stagnating and unstable western capitalism. They seem to be increasingly reliant on neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to sell their message to a western audience. Evolutionary theory is a contentious field at best and plagued by circularity of argument and certainly not a science in my opinion. Hope I can get my head around Laurell. All the best. Paul

  5. Paul: just a query. I’ve read some good criticism of the cult of neuroscience, but none of evolutionary psychology. I’m sure there must be some serious responses, but the only one’s I’ve encountered are kind of right-wing and anti-intellectual nonsense. Do you have any recommendations for more interesting and intelligent critiques of evolutionary pscychology? It does seem to be ruinously full of unexamined ideological assumptions mistaken for scientific truths, but the few responses to it I’ve seen tend to miss this problem, and instead just assert more absurd unexamined ideological assumptions.

  6. Can’t wait to dig in to this tome. But just a thought: I think ‘Ruins of the Buddhist Real’ is a much more interesting title than ‘Critique of Western Buddhism.’ Avoiding the Real is exactly what Western Buddhism is about. Did you think about reversing the title/sub-title?

    Also, how is this different from Cruel Theory-Sublime Practice? What does each book have to offer? If I didn’t read ‘Cruel Theory’, would I be missing something in ‘Ruins of the Buddhist Real’?

  7. Hi Shaun.

    My original suggestion was Ruins of the Buddhist Real: A Critique, etc. The publisher insisted on A Critique of Western Buddhism: The Self-Help Myth. The subtitle was based on their search engine optimization research. I insisted that that would not work because I never address the self-help myth in the book. Hence, the compromise title. I’m happy with it. Thanks for your interest.

    Hi Paul. Thanks for your commitment to buy and read. I hope you’ll wait until the price comes down, though. Do it out of principle if not for the savings.

  8. Second question: How is this different from Cruel Theory-Sublime Practice? What does each book have to offer? If I didn’t read ‘Cruel Theory’, would I be missing something in ‘Ruins of the Buddhist Real’?

  9. Hi Shaun. The book is very different from my piece in Cruel Theory. The book is actually constructed as a theoretical argument. I added a short buddhofiction at the end as a necessary next step. The CT|SP piece was constructed as a provocation cum methodology. It assumed that other people would start creating buddhofictions, and so provided some support. The tone or voice of the two are thus completely different. As far as what each has to offer, beyond what I just said, I think that question can only be answered by reading. As far as your last question, each stands on its own. If anything, Cruel Theory is an extremely condensed version of the book. But it’s also very different.

  10. Hi Mr. Wallis, and also Mr. Pepper

    I’ve followed this blog with some interest for a while now and thought I’d try and address some issues it has caused for myself (not happy with how I worded that but can’t do much better…). Keeping it brief, I used to be your typical western Buddhist, but that’s since been shaken and I’d say a part of that has been this blog. My ‘beliefs’ are still evolving, but I do read somewhat more widely than your typical buddhist, namely I have Foucault, Baudrillard, Bertrand Russell, some leftist theory, some popular science books, to name a few amongst others in my bookcase alongside your Thich Nhan Hanh, Dalai Lama’s etc… All I want to ask/throw out there if I may be so troublesome is that I really do appreciate the views articulated and things said by the Dalai and his associates, but I (now at least) don’t think they are sufficient for thinking seriously about the world’s problems. I think (please correct me if I’m wrong here) this ties in your ‘principle of sufficient Buddhism’ in that many will take western Buddhist ideas to be all you need and this is a dangerous idea? An example I will steal from you Mr. Wallis, is that of Kabat-Zinn talking about mindfulness. I would argue mindfulness is of immense value for self and society, but when Kabat-Zinn said in an interview it could help impact people’s prejudices he may be somewhat erroneous. Sure it could make people more open to others, but it may be just as likely to cause people to ‘forgive themselves for thinking that way’ and not think critically about their views. It’s of little real value and use meditating, thinking happy thoughts, and volunteering at your local soup kitchen if we think that is sufficient to cause a change in the world, if we don’t also think critically and seriously about the material causes of inequality in society. That’s where you want your Piketty, Smail, and generally political authors. Not people like Nhat Hanh, Matthieu Ricard and so on.

    Essentially I still think there’s a lot to be said for Buddhism, western Buddhism, even ‘spirituality’ (excluding Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra and the like) for contributing to happier people, and a better world. This comes with the caveat that they are not seen as sufficient and me may blind ourselves to a better way if we focus on these views and we ignore the contributions of wider academia like; psychology, continental philosophy, political theory, critical approaches to name but a few.

    Does this roughly square, or make sense? Also will be hoping to read your book soon – hopefully my university library purchases a copy so I get it sooner, and you get a bit more money 🙂


  11. Thanks, Rowan. I share your views and would be thankful for a reply from one of the pillars of this page/community.
    I consider myself (and am considered by others…) a “radical leftist”. I regard Capitalism and racism as the root causes of global suffering. I do not think meditation will solve these problems.
    But I certainly think meditation can help us accept what we cannot change right now and go on with our activism, based on a realistic outlook and less anger. Eventually, this can help us do so in a more sustainable manner.
    Feeling one’s emotions, even without seeking some underlying cause (and who’s to say there is always one??) goes a long way towards alleviating personal suffering, without giving up on the will to go out and fight for a better world.


  12. Rowan and Ofer,

    I don’t know if anyone cares to hear from me in this discussion, but I suspect Glenn is rather busy right now (haven’t heard from him in a month or so) and may not be reading comments here. So in the meantime, I’ll offer my two cents.

    It’s good to know there are still some people out there, even those with some interest in Buddhism, who haven’t bought into the standard rhetoric about how naive and childish it is to think the world can be changed for the better.

    It is important to realize that Buddhism, and the “principle of sufficient Buddhism” usually contribute to this attitude, insisting that all you need to do is “sit on the cushion” and the effects it has on you will subtly spread across the land.

    I would be wary of relying on the contributions of academia, though. The university, in the west, has always served as an ideological support for the existing social system. Psychology was invented, by William James, to prevent what he saw as the dangerous critical thought being done after Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin—he set out to put an end to thought that might destabilize American capitalism, and produce a kind of empiricist ideology of this subject that we could pretend was “scientific truth.” Production of that ideology is still the only goal of Psychology. Most other disciplines, particulalry English, serve the same purpose. Most real thought occurs outside of academics (Marx, Freud, Darwin, etc. worked outside the university system—can you imagine Marx getting tenure and teaching Capital at a university?)

    One other suggestion—think about the meaning of the term meditation. It is usually used with the assumption that it refers to some kind of non-conceptual relaxation exercies, that it will enable us to stop thinking and “feel” better. But that definition of the term is very recent. The word used to mean thinking rigorously, in clear concepts, about a problem that needed to be solved.

    So, rather than assuming that we should just “feel our emotions’ and assume they are just things that exist with now cause, we might meditate to think rigorously about what we mean by emotion (the word itself originated as capitalism arose, and it has always been a powerful capitalist ideology). Maybe “emotions” are a thing we do, and we can determine what social practices give rise to them, instead of just “feeling them deeply, and letting them go” as the x-buddhists would tell us. If you are angry about the injustice in the world, the Buddhist teacher would ask you to feel it, acknowledge it, and then let it fade an be replace by a more “mature’ and happy emotion. Instead, we might “meditate” by thinking rigorously about what an emotion is (my own idea is that Spinoza was right, it is an unclear thought) and then pursue why we have that emotion (why are we unable to think clearly about the causes of injustice, or unable to formulate a productive response to them). The goal of this kind of meditation is to determine better courses of action. Soup kitchens may make us feel better, many feed a few people each day, but they will not remove the need for more soup kitchens…


  13. Based on Tom’s definition, I’ve recently started doing something that might resemble meditation. If I’m feeling very tense, anxious, sad, etc. I just try to focus on breathing or movement and then think about the possible causes for feeling that way. Usually I’m thinking about immediate social dynamics.

    I suppose this is a pretty common coping mechanism, but one reason that this is at all remarkable is that I used to be deeply interpellated in the ideology of meditation. Meditation used to be one of the most important practices in my life (itself embedded in a web of x-buddhist signs/meaning) whereas now it’s just a minor strategy for me to survive neoliberal capitalism.

    I think this kind of “meditation” is great to do with friends—collectively share personal problems and then relate them to global problems of capitalism, patriarchy, racism, the state, etc. Maybe brain-storm creative strategies to become a thorn in the side of capital. We don’t have to be sad militants after all.

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