Glenn Wallis’s book A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real is blistering. So hot I often had to stop reading to let out a “Whew!” For forty-plus years, Wallis has been “actively surveying the Buddhist landscape,” as he writes in his Preface; with a Ph.D in Buddhist Studies from Harvard, he’s a scholar and translator of Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan texts; yet he’s also studied with achans in tropical forests of Thailand, rinpoches in the Himalaya, and roshis in Japan; and he’s also engaged with several practices at meditation centers, as well as university classrooms. After everything, he’s concluded that “Western Buddhism must be ruined.”
This conclusion, and the critique that is his book, will be disturbing if not infuriating to anyone who considers themselves to be Buddhist, a dharma practitioner, or even a scholar of Buddhism. Yet Wallis is not at all trying to be provocative simply to stir up the pot—as his Pali teacher Charles Hallisey told me, Wallis “is nothing less than serious.” And his critique comes from a deeply sincere desire to salvage something real from the ruins of what has become Buddhism in the West.
To begin, he points out a similar framework found in such books as Donald Lopez’s The Scientific Buddha and Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s Buddhist Romanticism, which is that Western Buddhism is Buddhism diffused through the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Protestantism; it a modern movement claiming ancient legitimacy, but ignores, if not dismisses, the inherent supernatural aspects of the early Buddhist scriptures, such as how the Buddha—who Wallis delightfully calls “the protagonist of the Pali scriptures”—possesses supernatural powers and performed miracles; the presence of devas, petas, brahmas, yakkas, and other invisible beings; and the necessity of rebirth as intrinsic to the Buddha’s teaching. In modernity, the Buddha has been turned into a rational, empirically-minded scientist, and Buddhism has been praised as the most scientific of religions. Piercing through the layers of illusion, Wallis calls Western Buddhism “a critique subsumed in an ideology subsumed in a faith.”
What does he mean by this? I’ll let Wallis do most of the explaining, but a powerful example is his scathing critique of the “business of mindfulness,” and how this Western Buddhist practice has not only been co-opted by corporate interests and secular teachers, but embraced and emphasized by Dharma centers and Buddhist communities themselves. Looking, with astonishment, at Matthieu Ricard’s influential presence at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, for instance, Wallis writes, “Western Buddhism is the perfect ideological supplement to rabid consumerist capitalism.” That is, Buddhism as we know it is inseparable from the neoliberal ideology in which it has flourished.
If you’re like me, you might initially react to this idea with a, “Wait, what?” But it makes sense. By practicing mindfulness, by letting go, by being non-reactive and non-judgmental, a worker will search inside themselves—but not into the exploitative nature and conditions of work environments that create employee malaise, stress, and anxiety in the first place.
This is just one aspect of how Wallis reveals Western Buddhism is not what we think it is. Through “doctrinal alterations” focusing on positive well-being, and statements of “tautological idiocy”—the typical wisdom sayings we’ve become accustomed to hearing from Dharma teachers and writers—Wallis thinks we have been embracing a Buddhism that actually resists fulfilment of the ideas it promotes. As he writes, “The history of Western Buddhism … is one of evading the consequences of its own thought.” That is, we do not want to fully accept anatta, and we do not truly want to pursue nibbana. We don’t even want to accept that all of this is dukkha.
To be clear, Wallis is not trying to recapture some ideal pristine Buddhism. And he is not promoting a return to any kind of Buddhist orthodoxy, like one perhaps found in the East. Rather, his critique has led him to embrace what he calls “non-buddhism,” based on the philosopher Francois Laruelle’s idea of non-philosophy. Through non-buddhism, we can salvage and practice the Real that the Buddha’s teachings have to offer. His critique sincerely aims to answer the question, “What are we to make of Western Buddhism?” That is, rather than annihilate the edifices of Western Buddhism, he wants us to be able to make something of it—he hopes it will stimulate deep thinking in order so Buddhist materials can “contribute to serious, immanental models of human transformation, but only in ways that would be unrecognizable to Buddhists.”
But what do all of these terms mean? Since A Critique of Western Buddhism is intellectually dense—not to mention, as an academic title, prohibitively expensive—I had a Google Hangout with Wallis so I could ask him to explain these ideas to those who might not be able to read his book, and also to those who, after reading this interview, will want to.
Randy Rosenthal: In the introduction to your book, you write that after 40 years of surveying the Buddhist landscape, you conclude that “Western Buddhism must be ruined.” This will come as a shock, if not a provocation, to many people. Can you elaborate this idea? For instance, do you mean we should ruin it, or that it is already ruined? What do you mean by this?
Glenn Wallis: The biggest take-away point from my critique is that Buddhism represses its most radical insights. I think the literary conceit of “ruin” gets at this repression. In the book, I quote the German writer Georg Simmel, who wrote in 1907 that “a ruin is fused into the surrounding landscape and, like tree and stone, grows into and is integrated in that landscape.” To my mind, that image is suggestive of a human cultural form that is inseparable from nature. Buddhism presents itself as hewing extremely close to “nature” (to the nature of mind, to reality, to the way things are, etc.). My critique is an investigation of this claim. It concludes that Buddhism is, metaphorically speaking, precisely not a ruin. It is more akin to a sprawling spa-like estate. Therefore, to say that it must be “ruined” is to say that it must be radicalized. Radicalized means that Buddhist ideas and practices have to be stripped of their pretension, which I call “the principle of sufficient Buddhism.” That is, the idea that Buddhism can be universally applied to its object, whether mental health, desire, relationships, emotions, the workplace, the environment, whatever. Radicalized means that it just becomes raw cultural material that human beings can work with, unbeholden to the punctilious gaze of Buddhist mastery.
It’s obviously intended to be provocative to say Buddhism must be ruined, but it’s not what people think—it doesn’t mean you need to annihilate it and be done with it. It means we need to perform certain operations on it to make it become what it seems to want to be—although we want to avoid a kind of reformism here.
RR: Right, in your book you stay away from saying we should get back to a Buddhist orthodoxy or anything like that. But you do mention that Western Buddhism has “doctrinal alterations.” Can you specify some of those doctrinal alterations or elaborate on that idea?
GW: There are a couple of ways. One way is it’s interesting because Buddhism is supposed to be a timeless teaching, whose originations is the deep insight that this man had about basic structures of human existence that are abiding and eternal or universal, and so forth. Both the insight and the structures are held to not be contingent on time or place. That’s a primary premise of Buddhism, one that makes it a kind of religious system, as opposed to, say, a psychology or philosophy. And yet all the time Buddhists perform operations on both the insight and on what constitutes basic structures of human existence. They regularly perform doctrinal alterations. This seems to imply that it’s not really seen as this universal timeless teaching, that it’s more like a time- and place-bound ideology, one that moreover requires alteration and adjustment and so forth.
An example is dependent origination. In the old Buddhist texts, dependent origination explains our horrific situation that there is no freedom, that we’re inextricably bound to everything, from genetics—they don’t use that term; they used a term inherited karma or something like that—to society and language, to the pressures of the family and everyone around us, to the social institutions around us, and to the culture in which we are embedded. We’re interconnected to all of that, so that there’s no real human freedom. But the doctrinal alteration in the modern day usage is the celebratory mechanism, whereby all things are interconnected in a way the bespeaks truth, goodness, and beauty—it’s evidence of a profound and thorough-going interconnected freedom.
RR: So there’s a positive spin put on something intrinsically negative, in order to satisfy the Buddhist customer, as it were. I get it. So from there you go into what you call “non-buddhism,” which you seem to be personally embracing. Can you just explain what that is?
GW: Non-buddhism is simply a Buddhism minus the principle of sufficiency. It’s not an anti-Buddhism. It’s not a not-Buddhism. It’s not an un-Buddhism. It’s a Buddhism inscribed by this lack of sufficiency. It’s Buddhist material that offers resources for human beings who are trying to navigate life. Or you could do anything with it—you could apply it to a social theory, psychological theory, you could develop a practice regimen out of it, but minus the sufficient imperative that Buddhist teachers operate under—namely, that idea that it has all the goods that makes it necessarily sufficient, so that they don’t have to be placed in dialogue with other forms of thought. The non initiates the removal of undue sufficiency and idealism. Non-buddhism is Buddhism returned to its rightful place at the Great Feast of Knowledge—the gathering of equalized human discourses on what it is to be human. Significantly, Buddhism must leave its transcendental armour at the door to the Feast.
RR: I’m not sure what a non-buddhism would be in practice. Would it simply be meditating itself, without the “Buddhism”? Basically, I would take a step back and ask if mindfulness practice or vipassana, which I see as secular Buddhism, is helping people “be sane in an insane world,” as you write, or helping say, ADHD affected children function better, then what is better than that? If it’s working—as you do say, it does work—then what’s the problem?
GW: Well, what I would say is if it works, it works because of human biology, human psychology, human physiological dispositions—the “working” is tied to that base materiality. I always write mindfulness with a lower “m”—this simple human cognitive act that we all have the capacity for. My grandmother always used to say. “Be mindful of the time.” That’s just something that’s an awareness that we can generate, a certain kind of basic awareness. And so if you do mindfulness meditation or any other kind of meditation, if it works, it’s because of the constitution of the human being.
But what happens in Buddhism and in the spiritual traditions is they encode that simple human practice with extraordinarily complex ideologies, postulates upon postulates upon postulates, hidden value upon hidden value upon hidden value, unstated assumptions about the state of the person and possibilities in the world and all of that. To me mindfulness with a capital “M” is what people are practicing. They’re practicing a little bit of little “m,” which is just a simple human practice, but lots of the big “M,” the ideological inculcation to a world view.
My mother had back pain. I taught her some basic meditation, minus all sorts of Buddhist postulates about what it was doing or could do. So that’s another pivot point. The one is a material sort of non-meditation, the simple human practice of attending to your breath, etcetera etcetera. The other is an idealist, Buddhist meditation—“the Buddha did it, and it leads to this or that wonderful result.” It’s all about this and that and the other, and you find yourself ensnared in this complex network of all-too cumbersome, overdetermining Buddhist postulates.
RR: So you’re saying the ideological narrative around meditation is what needs to be ruined? Whether it be a narrative regarding the cultivation of well-being, or making merit for better rebirth, or any kind of ideological narrative at all?
GW: Absolutely. A narrative is what I would argue is what is seducing and capturing the person. The narrative captures the human’s desire to have the curative fantasy fulfilled with that imaginary plenitude realized. And as long as my desire is captured by that formation, I’m lost, really. I become the preformed subject of a kind of spiritualized bureaucratic system.
That’s some of the thinking, and so a big part of this thinking is that the Real, the One, is also the individual stripped of all kinds of claims on his or her identity. Buddhism makes all kinds of claims, like lots of systems do, on the person’s identity, what you should be. What emotions are good? What are not? What ways of being are good? What are not? And this is a kind of violence committed against the human that these systems perform.
RR: I see. So then you get to the idea of the Real. What is the Real?
GW: Buddhism is so unbelievably interesting because it has all of these “first names of the Real,” as the philosopher François Laruelle would call them. So first of all, the Real is some sort of a-priori that all these different religious traditions and philosophical traditions and spiritual traditions are trying to get us to in some way, either to realize or to fuse with and merge with in some sort of way, cognitively, existentially, emotionally. So it’s a powerful element of human thought—we see it in Taoism, in Confucianism, we see it in early Plato, in the pre-Socratics. Sometimes it’s called the Real, sometimes it’s called the One, or even more often it’s called some other word altogether, like the Tao, or the Truth or Being It’s the notion that there is some a-priori, some really essential important something that stands prior to our language and to our conceptualizations of self and existence to our ideologies, to our world views, and that to the extent to which our worldviews conform to that, the better they are. So it’s a powerful operative to something that we have lots and lots of names for.
Like, pain and suffering is a human real. Dukkha-tanha, suffering-desire is an existential, something that’s inextricably woven into the nature of existence—which Buddhists say it is—it flows through life like water. Then that is the idea of a Real. That is the idea of an indestructible kernel at the heart of existence. Pain is a real. Impermanence is a real. Death. These are real. These are profound truths about the nature of human existence that we cannot operate on. We can’t operate on death. We can only operate on constructing fantasies about what happens afterwards. But we can replace those with the actual fact of the real of death, the disappearance, the return into organic, inorganic matter, of our loved ones.
You’ve seen a dead person lying there, right? They’re gone! That’s what we know, right? They’re gone. But we can hallucinate all kinds of things about them—fantasies about rebirth and other realms, which we have no experience of. So that’s the critique. It’s that these guys keep starting off with a beautiful powerful Buddhist First Name for the Real, but they invariably go through the process of circling back around to a visionary form of knowledge to shore up against that raw human real.
RR: So, to wrap up, I’ll ask you to answer your own question: What are we to make of Western Buddhism?
GW: Well, this is another frustrating part of non-philosophy, non-buddhism is that you can’t say—saying what to make of it and what it might be, is to start all over again the kind of harassment of a system. I’m going to harass you by saying what you should make of it and what your life should be like. Part of what that non is is the elimination of harassment. So, you lay out the materials. You do interesting things with it. But it can never be prescribed.
See? Part of the criticism of systems of thought, is that they’re too prescriptive. That’s where the violence comes in—they’re too prescriptive of what a human being should be.
One of many ways of understanding “the One” is that it ultimately points to the generic human, to what Laruelle calls “the stranger subject,” or, we might say with caution, to the actual person. So, there’s a profound sense of each individual having to make a life for him or herself, free to the greatest extent possible from harassing systems of thought.
RR: So, you’re basically saying every individual has to decide for themselves what to make of Western Buddhism?
GW: Yes. A synonym for the Real is the One, and ultimately the One is—you know, I’m getting very Buddhist-y here—it’s our old Dzogchen, the Dzogchen mudra. In the thangkas, the teacher is always going like that … pointing back at you.