coverAnnabella Pitkin’s review of A Critique of Western Buddhism, titled “A Clarion Call for Buddhism,” just appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly. Pitkin is an Assistant Professor of Buddhism and East Asian Religions at Lehigh University, near Philadelphia. She wrote an informed and intelligent review. And just for that I am deeply appreciative. That’s not to say that it is an endorsement of my argument, or even that it decisively lays out my argument (there is no mention of decision or of the principle of sufficient buddhism, for instance). But, given the limited scope she was, presumably, permitted by the editor, I feel Pitkin offers a good-faith attempt to convey a fair sense of what the book is up to, including of what she sees as several problems.

As always with these things, Pitkin’s review has the occasional misunderstanding and unintentional misrepresentation. I also think she makes a rhetorical move that, going into the project, I anticipated would be made by readers and reviewers on a regular basis. It’s a move that I find troublesome for several reasons. I mention these reasons at the end of my comments.

The bold is mine, and is meant to highlight what I am responding to, more or less. You can read Pitkin’s entire review at the magazine, which I’ll link to at the bottom. I hope my response will be received by everyone in the spirit of generous dialogue.

The review opens with:

“Western Buddhism must be ruined.” With that ringing sentence, Glenn Wallis throws down his challenge to readers. In his provocative new book, Ruins of the Buddhist Real: A Critique of Western Buddhism, Wallis takes on the complacencies and complicities of what he identifies as Western Buddhism and offers a rigorous philosophical remediation: “ruin,” in the special sense in which he uses the term. Drawing on Continental European philosophical traditions, in particular the contemporary French thinker François Laruelle, Wallis attempts to open new critical and philosophical possibilities from within Buddhism.

I love—love!—that Pitkin gives the title as Ruins of the Buddhist Real: A Critique of Western Buddhism. (It’s the other way around, of course.) I lobbied long and hard for this to be the title! But, no, my editor would not have it. It’s pleasing, too, that Pitkin succinctly states at the outset a primary intention of the project.

Wallis here tackles what he sees as a far deeper problem [than x-buddhism’s collusion with neoliberal capitalism], a fundamental evasion within the heart of Buddhist thought. Wallis suggests this evasion is not limited to recent Western iterations of Buddhism, although in his view the form of Buddhism he calls “Western” is home to some of its most egregious manifestations.

That first bold also nails a primary premise of the argument. The second bold is a minor mischaracterization in that I view that evasion as an essential feature of x-buddhist identity tout court. I mention this because to miss this point is to be in danger of misunderstanding my theory as yet another iteration of x-buddhism, as, that is, yet another reformist endeavor. For, it implies that there is something going on in Western Buddhism that, on the evidence of non-Western Buddhism, can be avoided or corrected. My view is that this “something” is precisely constitutive of x-buddhism per se.

The ambitious scope of Wallis’ critique is really in some sense to free Buddhism from itself…That is to say, Wallis asserts that despite the radically liberatory potential of Buddhist insights into reality, these potentials are lost when Buddhism becomes just another form of ideology, another system of philosophy.

The first statement is a really nice summation of the impulse driving the whole project. The second one is, as Germans say, half light, half shade. The book indeed stands on the premise that x-buddhism is run through with liberatory potential. But I nowhere argue that this potential is lost in fashioning the material into an ideology. In fact, I am careful to make the point that there is no outside to ideology. The point, or struggle really, thus becomes, I argue, to use the potentially liberatory material to consciously fashion a potentially  liberatory ideology, one that enables a liberatory practice. Again, to miss this element of my argument is to nudge it once again toward the cliff of reformist literature. The problem I see with Buddhism is not that it is “just another form of ideology, another system of philosophy.” The problem is that it disavows this fact. The problem is that Buddhism presents itself as standing outside of ideology altogether as a specular vision from on high. The potentials that I see in the material are lost not because they, of necessity, appear in an ideological form, but because their particular x-buddhist form obscures these very ideological machinations. A non-buddhism or a buddhofiction will differ from an x-buddhism in that it makes explicit its ideological formation.

Wallis identifies some exceptions to his damning indictment of the “failure” of Buddhist thought. For instance, he suggests that certain Chan and Zen masters cut to the heart of the matter he wishes to address.

I treat several Zen koans because they provide hard-case instances, not exceptions, of how x-buddhism steadfastly proceeds with an immanent practice from the Real only to panic and reverse course into an auto-hallucinated, transcendent x-buddhist “Real,” such as “buddhahood.” Again, Pitkin may have missed this important point. I am starting to worry that  readers and reviewers will have difficulty viewing my project as anything other than yet another attempt at reform. For, an “exception” to the “failure” I am analyzing would suggest a mere correction of course under the punctilious gaze of the Zen masters. What I show, rather, is that these masters commit the very same parapraxis that constitutes all of Buddhism.

I give the three paragraphs at length below because they contain the most pointed criticism that Pitkin has to offer.

Problematically and confoundingly, however, Wallis seems to want to apply this critique not only to the spokespersons of Western Buddhism who are his initial targets, but to something less historically or socially specific that he calls “Buddhism.” It is of course a familiar point that there is no single “Buddhism,” and that the many Buddhisms in the world, both living and historical, host diverse philosophical, commentarial, social, and ritual possibilities. Wallis himself repeatedly notes this fact. But he explicitly insists that he wants to dig below what he sees as the particularist evasions often offered by Western Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism, to get at what he sees as a core Buddhist philosophical problem. He wants his critique to stick, and he warns readers (if not in so many words) not be tricked by Western Buddhist apologists bearing details.

Yet this principled position leads Wallis to eschew particularity (of people, stories, places, practices, philosophical systems) to a remarkable extent, even as he acknowledges the claims of such particularity. He generally chooses as his interlocutors a specific kind of Western Buddhist generalist (or occasionally a Pali iteration of the canonical Buddha) and then generalizes from these examples, while insisting that his criticisms extend to all “Buddhism” (whatever that is). Wallis offers sophisticated asides about the vast complexity of Buddhist identities and forms, and the artificiality of affixing labels such as “Zen,” “Tibetan,” “mindfulness,” “Theravadin,” and so on. Yet the reader may be left feeling that the tumultuous and contentious living worlds of Buddhism in our present moment have gotten elided into what at times appears a smooth philosophical surface, ripe for critique to be sure, but also strangely silent.

To put it another way, where are the people in this book? Wallis has his interlocutors, and he moreover offers a promising turn to narrative (“buddhofiction”) in the book’s final sections, but the characters and people featured here often function more like theoretical abstractions. Ideas and terms frequently float free of people. A historical or anthropological intervention might enrich this abstraction, though Wallis takes pains to make clear that this is not his project; perhaps it is unfair to ask this of him. Nevertheless, this is an unpeopled book. And as such, despite his engagement with his chosen interlocutors, at points the reader comes away with the sense that the only voice we really hear is Wallis’ own.

Anticipating the kinds of comments Pitkin makes here, I took great care in the Introduction to explain to the reader why I would not be engaging in precisely what Pitkin is taking me to task for avoiding; namely, an historical, socially or culturally specific, anthropological, doctrinal, in short, particularized, account of “Buddhism.” The short version is that I believe it is necessary to bracket normative conceptions of Buddhism (precisely to create a smooth or flattened surface, to render background visible as figure*), whether derived from historical contingency or scholarly categorization, so that it can be subjected to closer analytical scrutiny. I will repeat my longer version here. It appears on page 19 of A Critique of Western Buddhism:

The point that I want to make here—and it is a crucial point overall—is that whatever Western Buddhist “objects, authors, themes, positions or texts” I could name would amount to little more than indices. That is, names of specific texts, doctrines, teachers, etc., are but “indications of problems that we are striving to demonstrate and analyze in their coherence and functioning; guiding threads for penetrating into a [buddhistic] environment that exceeds them, but the extent, the possibilities and also the limitations of which they have made perceptible.” I am interested in the “environment” that both exceeds and precedes any Buddhist text, figure, and so on, that we might name. This environment constitutes the problematic because it, and not specific doctrinal details, is the incubator of the countless phenomena that comprise “Western Buddhism.”

I go on to say that this entire problematic is encased in the concept of “decision.” Pitkin nowhere mentions decision. I am beginning to wonder if she perhaps overlooked the role that this crucial feature plays in my overall argument. For, if she had seen it, she would understand why I take the ahistorical approach that I do. That is not to say that she would thereby agree with me. (I am prone to assume that Pitkin did see it and does understand but that the restrictive editorial demands of Buddhadharma has muddled things.) Ironically, I justify my avoidance of particularities by claiming precisely the opposite of what Pitkin contends here. She says that “It is of course a familiar point that there is no single ‘Buddhism.’” My entire argument is founded on the claim that there is precisely one single Buddhism. This one Buddhism has a plurality of cultural, historical, doctrinal, etc., forms (marked by the variable x in x-buddhism). What makes them one is a shared identity (“buddhism”). My critique aims solely to understand the function of this identity. It’s too much to repeat here what I mean by x-buddhist identity; but taking care to mention crucial methodological devices in my account—like decision, sufficiency, The Great Feast of Knowledge, radical immanence, the Real, the stranger subject, ideological capture, conceptual parapraxis—a reviewer would go a long way toward articulating what I mean by identity, and why I feel justified, indeed, compelled in taking the approach that I do in teasing it out and analyzing it.

Where are the people? Surely, Pitkin must have observed that they are all over the place! And my interlocutors are clearly not limited to “a specific kind of Western Buddhist generalist (or occasionally a Pali iteration of the canonical Buddha).” I am not sure who Pitkin wants to class as a “generalist,” but if she means people like Stephen Batchelor, David Loy, Ken Jones, D. T. Suzuki, etc., then, yes, they make appearances, at times ranging over several pages. Presumably, Pitkin does not want to include scholars as generalist. Several of those are heard from as well: Sara McClintock, Tom Tillemans, Heinrich Dumoulin, Jay Garfield, David McMahon, Donald Lopez, and more. Practitioners, too, often make a ruckus: the Dalai Lama, Matthieu Ricard, Barry Magid, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Surya Das, Thich Nhat Hanh, Alan Wallace, Gil Fronsdal, Joanna Macy, and others. We also hear from numerous non-Pali-canon types, like Dogen, Joshu, Master Foyan, Dainin Katagiri, Muso, Nansen, Taixu, Wu-men, and Yun-men. I don’t understand how Pitkin comes away with the view that this as “an unpeopled book.” Given the cacophony of people chiming in in the text, I am a bit confused that she heard my voice only. Maybe I am missing her larger point here.

Readers who are encountering Wallis’ project for the first time, on the other hand, may be put off, not so much by his critique of modernist, Western Buddhism (which echoes and builds in various ways on the work of major scholars of Buddhist modernism including David McMahan, Donald Lopez Jr., Heinz Bechert, and Jens-Uwe Hartmann, and may echo concerns that Wallis’ readers already bring to the table) but by the need to enter into the conceptual system and vocabulary of the French philosopher Laruelle that Wallis so wholeheartedly embraces.

I appreciate the work of the scholars Pitkin mentions. In fact, I was a student of Bechert and Hartmann in Germany. And I think the work of both McMahan and Lopez is crucially important and deeply illuminating. But to see my argument as echoing and building on the work of these scholars mistakes what I am doing for, yet again, a kind of reformism. I am not critiquing “modernist, Western Buddhism.” This would require a point of reference or a system of measurement or a standard of judgement, all of which must exist outside of “modernist, Western Buddhism,” and hold it accountable. I am critiquing the very form that generates, in an algorithmic manner, specific patternings of human practice, practices that are unambiguously stamped with the designation x-buddhism.

One might wonder as well, of course, if Wallis has tilted too far to the extreme of emptiness/nihilism in his presentation of Buddhism’s core liberatory potential. Wallis himself confronts this possibility—indeed, he addresses it head-on and attempts to disarm it by refusing to accept nihilism as a term of critique…Yet for some readers, Nagarjuna’s famous remarks about the dangers of misgrasping both emptiness and snakes may come to mind.

I am claiming that even Nagarjuna ultimately performs the conceptual parapraxis that identifies him as a specifically x-buddhist subject. If someone wants to show how he avoids the misturning, and thus cancels the warrant of sufficiency, then I’d love to see it. If it can be shown, then we will have to completely revise our view of Nagarjuna—stop seeing him as in any way “Buddhist,” for starters. (Maybe see him as “non-buddhist” in the sense I articulate?)

Curiously, an enthusiastic embrace of emptiness as the most interesting thing Buddhists have on offer is not unique to Wallis. This move is intimately connected to the historically situated Western Buddhist (Protestant, modernist) embrace of meditation as the best thing Buddhists do. To be sure, Wallis himself addresses such modernist presentations of Buddhism and meditation directly, in a sophisticated way. And yet repeatedly in this work, one has a sense that other things many Buddhists do have fallen by the wayside. Wearing amulets, reciting mantras, seeking out divinations, prostrating, making offerings, praying—these Buddhist repertoires and the people who participate in them disappear or appear beside the point (or worse) in Wallis’ critique. These Buddhist repertoires are trumped by meditation, ideally on emptiness, as the “real” sine qua non of true Buddhism. In that sense, Wallis’ critique here, as well as this book, themselves constitute a deeply Western Buddhist project.

I do not think that emptiness is the most interesting thing that Buddhists have on offer. Emptiness is, however, a concept that looms large in Western Buddhism. (And recall that by “Western Buddhism” I mean a form of thought that took shape in the East, and that continues to shape “Eastern Buddhism.” But my critique applies equally to ostensibly more traditional forms of Buddhism as well, to the kinds of rituals and practices that Pitkin mentions here.) Neither do I believe that meditation trumps rituals, divinations, etc., or that it is the “sine qua non of true Buddhism.” And I certainly reject the notion that this is “a deeply Western Buddhist project.” Pitkin is engaged here in a rhetorical move that I feared would disable any substantive discussion of my critique, and that, indeed, arguably renders x-buddhism stubbornly resistant to critique in general. I want to quote another passage from my Introduction, since it is intended to inoculate readers against this very move that I see Pitkin making.

Perhaps the most obvious approach to investigating the viability of Buddhists’ claims for their ostensibly pansophic teaching would be to systematically present and analyze these teachings. Such an approach, however, would be tedious beyond belief and ultimately unproductive. Why do I say this? It would be tedious because “Buddhism” is the name of a two-and-a-half millennia amassing of ideas, beliefs, rituals, worldviews, texts, theories, art, architecture, music, fashion, practices, universities, monasteries, lay communities, virtually ad infinitum. And all of this in the cauldron of cultures spanning Beijing and Boston. Although this baroque assortment bears the shared name of “Buddhism,” the commonalities across time and space are mostly of the family resemblance variety, wherein the self-identity of each lies in its difference from the others. Like the proud factions of a venerable and extremely large clan, Buddhists seem to be particularly sensitive to this matter of difference. This sensitivity, furthermore, informs the reason that a doctrinal analysis of Buddhism would be as unproductive as it would be tedious. Contemporary Western Buddhists commonly respond to criticism with an appeal to exception. This tendency parallels what I call a detail fetish among Western Buddhists, a kind of exemplification reflex. Providing a particular example in order to make a finely calibrated point is, indeed, not unusual in complex systems of thought. Heidegger has his hammer; Wittgenstein, his slabs. Spinoza has his hatchet, and Descartes, his wax. If you have ever read even the first page of a book on classical Buddhist philosophy, you will almost certainly have come across “the pot.” Buddhists, in the written word and in dialogue, have always been quick at the draw with their own mechanism of ideological damage control: the hyper-specific doctrinal detail. Apparently, there is no criticism of a given Buddhist concept that cannot be decisively dismissed with an added detail, an overlooked facet, an ever-so-slight shifting of the dharmic goalpost. The detail is taken from this teacher’s meticulous interpretation, from that pinpointed textual passage; or, failing its intended effect, from the hidden sphere of wisdom known as personal experience. The detail corrects, alters, refines, and reshapes. And along the way, it inevitably derails any criticism, rendering it irrelevant.   [For yet another attempt to steer my critique away from x-buddhist appropriation, see the quote from this blog’s Why X-Buddhism? page below**.]

The rhetorical move that I see informing Pitkin’s review is one that I incessantly warn readers against making. The move is this: yes, meet the critique out there, in the hinterlands of the Buddhist refuge; but then hastily march it into the High Court of Buddhist Law, and place it on trial there. The eyes of the Buddhist (and Buddhist studies) magistrates are incapable of seeing non-buddhism as anything other than yet another false usurper of the True Dharma. The interrogation always assumes this endgame. Pitkin shows sympathy with my project, and a good deal of astute understanding. In the end, however, her review joins the camp of critics that readily wields the weapon of appropriation. The Terms of Appropriation read: We, Scholars and Practitioners, hereby deem non-buddhism yet another iteration of Buddhism. We and only we, are capable of that judgement; and we will judge it accordingly. 

This move is troublesome for several reasons. The first reason is that it derails a reading experience that just might be headed for Destination Stranger Subject. It throws the switch to head instead full steam on the familiar ruts toward Destination Buddhist Subject. This move has the further effect of evading and diminishing the critique. For, safe in its Buddhist home, the critique is judged according to Buddhist, and Buddhist studies, rules and values. I can repeat here that the critique, and its corresponding practice of non-buddhism, calls for an entirely different order of rules. It poses this problem: how can we use x-buddhist materials “to effect a real transformation of the subject”? Usage implies something wholly at odds with the kind of hermeneutical or interpretative imperative that I expect virtually all reviews of the book to engage in.

The most troublesome aspect of this move is that it perpetuates what I see as an overly-determinate yet unacknowledged value operating within American Buddhist studies: liberal-reformism. I can say what I mean by this term, and why I see it as troublesome, by coming back to a point of contention raised by Pitkin. When she speaks of the book’s “theoretical abstractions,” “smooth philosophical surface,” and “remarkable” eschewal of “particularity,” she is, in my view, assuming the liberal position that the best we can offer, as citizens and as scholars, is to fix our existing systems and structures. Doing so requires only that we tinker with the details, with the concrete particularities. The liberal-reformist conversation, whether in Buddhist studies or in politics more generally, always hinges on “the particulars.” (Hence, see §38  in Cruel Theory|Sublime Practice: detail fetish/exemplificative braggadocio.) 

We can contrast the liberal-reformism of Buddhist studies with non-buddhism’s radical position. My critique is interested in operating on the atmosphere—the environment, the status quo, the backgroundthat generates the endless figures that we recognize as Buddhist because I infer this atmosphere to be alienating and toxic. From what do I draw this inference? From the very particularities that are on proud display in the Buddhist marketplace: Buddhist teachers; Buddhist ideologies; Buddhist philosophy; Buddhist “spirituality;” Buddhist educational practices; Buddhist subject formation, and so on and so forth. I am explicit in the book about what I see as toxic and alienating about these, and many other, Buddhist forms. But to give a taste, what I mean is: authoritarianism; covert theorization; pseudo-science and theological philosophy; obscurantism; status-quoist social collusion. The point of the critique is thus not to comment on the particularities, much less tweak them to better suit the alienated human. The point is to offer an overt ideology that perhaps better helps to fashion a subject that recognizes and resists such interminable institutional machinations, not only in some x-buddhist community, but in society as a whole. This is the stranger subject.  It is a dynamic subject, not flinching from the force of thought, eyes fixed on the concrete utopia of not-yet, hell-bent on ruin.

_______________________

*  The resonance with “The Smooth and the Striated,” chapter 14 in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, should not get lost here. Recall that the striated space is stationary, fixed, institutionalized; it is hierarchical, authoritarian, controlled by rules and structures devised by the masters, etc. Its refuge is the city and the sangha. It is being. The smooth space is unfixed, nomadic, heretical, oppositional; it is a space of heterogeneity, creativity, non-conformity. Its refuge is the desert and exile. It is becoming.

Smooth space is filled by events of haecceities, far more than by formed and perceived things. It is a space of affects, more than one of properties…It is an intensive rather than an extensive space, one of distances, not of measures and properties. (479)

My critique is calling a subject into being who does precisely occupy such a smooth space. Recall, too, that “The primary determination of nomads is to occupy and hold a smooth space.” (410)

** Why X-Buddhism?

“Buddhism” suggests an abstract, and abstractly static, One.  A study of this One would show it to be of the (abstract) type of cultural-doctrinal systems (religion, philosophy, mythology) that claim grand authority concerning human knowledge. “X-buddhism” means to capture a crucial fact about “Buddhism,” the abstract One: it loops incessantly.

We could study the x. Such a study would be historical and comparative. We could compile a descriptive catalogue of Buddhist schools from a (atheist) through m(Mahayana) to z (Zen), graphing their relations and tracing their divergences. In so doing, we would discover differences concerning, for instance, each x‘s version of the means and end of the One’s grand authority. From such a study we would begin to see that the One, Buddhism, breeds infinite interpretation not only of the world, but of itself. Hence, Buddhism splinters into unending modifiers, x.

Yet, this same study of protean variation would inhabit clues as to the function producing such difference-of-the-same. (After all, each modifier indicates membership in a single set: Buddhism.) My critique stems from the function of the same—from the identifying mark of the set as a whole. “X-buddhism” thus intends to capture the fact that the One is indeed a unity, but a splintered unity, a pluralized singular. Abstract and inert “Buddhism” devolves to the concrete and spirited interpretive communities of limitless “x-buddhisms.”

Devolvement ensures replication. And, indeed, what we find in each and every x is the sign of the One. Following the work of François Laruelle, I call this sign decision. My contention is that we can trace the authority of each back to a simple yet powerful syntactic operation, an operation that is embedded in, indeed, constitutes, the abstract One. In short, decision functions as an algorithm of infinite iterations (x) of the One (“The Dharma;” “Buddhism”). That is the general sense of the term “x-buddhism.”

“A Clarion Call for Buddhism” 

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