Glenn Wallis’s new book A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real may be disturbing, if not infuriating, to anyone who considers themself Buddhist. For forty-plus years, Wallis has been “actively surveying the Buddhist landscape.” With a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from Harvard, he’s a scholar and translator of Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan texts. He’s also studied with ajahns in Thailand, rinpoches in the Himalayas, and roshis in Japan. Yet, he doesn’t wear robes or call himself a dharma teacher, or even a Buddhist. This is in part because, after everything, Wallis has concluded that Western Buddhism must get ruined.
“Ruin” is the keyword in Wallis’s new book (it’s also the name of the punk band that Wallis co-founded in 1980). As he says below, it doesn’t refer to destruction or annihilation. In his usage, it describes a return to an unkempt state. Wallis argues that Western Buddhism has been diffused through Enlightenment, Romantic, and Protestant thinking. It claims ancient legitimacy while ignoring aspects of the early Buddhist scriptures — such as stories of the Buddha’s supernatural powers and the teachings on rebirth. Today, the Buddha is depicted as an empirically-minded scientist. These and other doctrinal alterations, argues Wallis, represent the troubling upkeep of Buddhism’s facade. In order to maintain itself as an institution within the consumerist capitalist framework in which it operates, says Wallis, “Buddhism” must package and market itself. In doing so, he contends that Buddhism negates the very teachings it aims to convey.
Wallis says he is not trying to recapture some pristine pre-Western Buddhism, nor is he advocating a return to Buddhist orthodoxy. Yet “the history of Western Buddhism,” he writes, “is one of evading the consequences of its own thought.” Fundamentally, we struggle to accept Buddhism’s most fundamental truths, such as suffering and non-self.
Wallis is an anti-establishment thinker with threads of anarchism. That’s clear when he outlines his cure for Western Buddhism’s problems: get rid of capital-B “Buddhism” and invite humans to discover what feels true for themselves, rather than adhere to something external. Wallis calls this ideology “non-buddhism,” after the philosopher Francois Laurelle’s idea of “non-philosophy.” Wallis argues that if we “ruin” the edifices of Western Buddhism, then we can work with the profound teachings that remain. He hopes his view could stimulate some deep thinking.
A Critique of Western Buddhism is not written for a general audience, and as such it is intellectually dense. Reading his book, I found myself at times frustrated, stimulated, confused, and inspired. I spoke with Wallis to better understand what he means.
Randy Rosenthal: In the introduction to your book, you argue that “Western Buddhism must be ruined.” What do you mean?
Glenn Wallis: It’s obviously provocative to say Buddhism must be ruined, but it’s not what people think. It doesn’t mean you need to annihilate this and be done with it.
A ruin is not annihilated structure. It is transformed. It is returned to its natural condition. It’s still a beautiful, profound structure that is uplifting and inspiring. It no longer functions as a place of commerce or bureaucracy. That’s the idea of a ruin.
Western Buddhism must be radicalized — stripped of the pretension, of the principle of “sufficient Buddhism.” It just becomes raw cultural material that human beings can work with.
An important idea in your book is “sufficiency.” What do you mean when you use that word?
The principle of sufficient Buddhism says simply that in the end it must be the Buddhist idea that prevails. It must prevail over other forms of knowledge that might be better in the situation. Some people apply this thinking to addiction theory, saying that everything you need to understand about addiction is in the Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths.
Buddhist institutions operate as edifices to protect the Buddhist sufficiency. If you take away the principle of sufficiency, all of a sudden Buddhism doesn’t seem to necessarily have the goods. All these other forms of knowledge appear — biology, psychology — and then Buddhism comes into dialogue with them.
And this leads to your concept of non-buddhism. What is “non-buddhism”?