My daughter said –Hey Dad, I just read a really cool interview with you.
–Oh, yeah. I really liked those guys. They were super smart. They went through all the trouble of coming down from Brooklyn. They were great conversation partners. Yeah, that was a good one…
So, here it is (again).
It wasn’t so long ago that the variety of practices known as meditation stood outside, if not quite against, the American spiritual mainstream. With heads turned vaguely toward the East, the seekers of the Baby Boomer generation moved in a territory delimited on one side by Orientalist mysticism and on the other by Sixties radicalism; the Dharma was to be found somewhere between Alan Watts’s soothing chin-beard and Allen Ginsberg’s hippie mane. Today, Buddhist mainstays like the cessation of desire and realization of the Self’s inherent emptiness compete with other productivity hacks, more likely to arrive via push notification than guru.
In 2011, during an early foray into the vast dharmic library of the internet, one of us stumbled onto scholar Glenn Wallis’s recently launched Speculative Non-Buddhism page. Conceived as a platform for a wide-ranging critique of Western Buddhism, the blog quickly sank whatever hope he might have harbored for mindfulness as existential cure-all; but the riot of criticism Wallis and company had initiated felt vital (if largely incomprehensible), and the site’s arguments lacked the sanctimonious, snake-oily sheen of so much Buddhist writing in English. The almost parodically abstract title, jury-rigging together two contemporary movements in continental philosophy (speculative realism and non-philosophy), signaled something of the spirit of the site’s articles and discussions, which tended to mix crankishness and insight in equal measure. Not content with the easy targets of corporate mindfulness and New-Age exoticism, the SNB-ers took as their object the entire range of Western Buddhist institutions, from hardcore Tibetan traditionalisms to stripped-down neuroscientific deployments. By their lights, everyone engaged in these “x-buddhisms” was sipping the same transcendental kool-aid.
Wallis’s own engagement with Buddhism spans half a century. While studying meditation at an alternative high school in Moorestown, New Jersey, he helped form the locally-legendary Philadelphia band Ruin, whose cryptic lyrics and backstage mantra rituals earned them a reputation as the scene’s premier “Buddhist punks.” In his mid-twenties, Wallis moved to Germany to study Sanskrit, Pāli, and Tibetan with the renowned philologist Heinz Bechert. From there he went on to a doctoral degree at Harvard, a tenured position in the religion department at the University of Georgia, and the publication of numerous books—many of them, such as The Basic Teachings of the Buddha and a translation of the Dhammapada (both published by the Modern Library), aimed at a general audience. In 2006, he moved to the Won Institute of Graduate Studies in Philadelphia to run their Applied Meditation program. As we discuss in the interview, his recent work has been marked by his disillusionment with both Buddhism and academia, and by his attempts to turn this disillusionment into positive critique. Still in Philadelphia, he now runs Incite Seminars, an independent educational series that aims “to agitate personal growth and incite social engagement.” Wallis’s newest book, A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press.
While his philosophic constructions tend toward a sort of theatrical maximalism, in person Wallis is easy and unaffected; he looks more ex-punk than ex-professor, with a piratical ring through his left ear, and speaks in a Philly-inflected baritone. His good humor confirmed the playfulness one often suspects is dancing beneath the surface of his writing, though it also lent an unsettling charge to some of his darker pronouncements. We met in a large post-industrial coffee shop (cf. “ruins,” below) on the main drag of Philadelphia’s Fishtown.
Glenn Wallis: I guess it starts, in terms of the production of work or whatever, with this band Ruin. I started that band as a teenager. It started with the idea that it’s gotta be something really powerful, that really affects people. We want bodies and lives and faces. We were reading about Nietzsche and the Dionysian, the origins of the theater; or we were reading people like Artaud, the Surrealists, the Situationists. We wanted to create an event. We wanted people to have an encounter with something very real.
Jonah Galeota-Sprung: So you had this sort of project or desire already, and punk happened to be the best available form?
GW: I was a philosophy major. This is the early Eighties; Nietzsche, the existentialists were still popular, just barely. Punk had just hit and we were all very excited about it because, you know, I don’t want to put down prog-rock, I like a lot of prog-rock, but me and my friends felt that it was getting kind of sluggish, ponderous. I mean Yes is beautiful, I love Yes, it’s nice, it’s fun to play, if you’re really high it’s nice to listen to; but as sort of a catalyst for, uh, an encounter with the Real, it didn’t quite do it. Punk just happened to be there, and it excited us. The way I look at it now is that it kind of recaptured our drive, which had been buried or lost or deeply repressed in the lifestyle of the late Seventies and early Eighties. The numbness of high school and all that. Something about the punk spirit, for me and my friends anyway, helped to revitalize this drive. Being a human being. Having an effect on the world.
Andrew Blevins: Did your interest in punk start at the same time as your interest in Buddhism?
GW: Actually, it probably begins with Buddhism. I got interested in Buddhism already as a fifteen-year-old kid, and this punk stuff hit when I was about seventeen or eighteen. I went to what you would now call a Free School. A philosophy grad student at Villanova and a friend of his who was an English professor somewhere started this school and put up advertisements for students who were smart and well-behaved but couldn’t function in the regular school system. First day of school I show up and it’s like, “What do you want to learn? What are you interested in at this moment?” My father had just given me that Ram Dass book that all the hippies read, Be Here Now. For some reason he thought I’d be interested, and I was. So I said, “Asian philosophy.” And they were like, OK! They go out into the community and find a guy named Bruce who was gonna teach me Asian philosophy. We sat in this room all year long and he taught me the Dhammapada, the Buddhist text. And he taught me what I now know as Vipassana style meditation. I was just so interested in Buddhism from that moment on.
JGS: Had Bruce come to Buddhism through hippie sorts of pathways?
GW: The only thing I remember about Bruce: He told me that he had been an accountant or something at some American business place, and he pulled into his driveway one day, and got out, and went around to his trunk to get his briefcase and his suit, opened the trunk, and just had this breakdown. Like, “What the fuck am I doing? I’m a young man and I’m miserable.” He quit his job; he did what they were all doing back then, he tuned in, dropped out—I don’t know if he turned on. He looked like he had never actually turned on.
So, from very early on these Buddhist ideas were coupled with this kind of social critique. Because of Bruce. His story and his critique of American corporate society were interwoven with my reception of the ideas from the Dhammapada. It’s been there from the beginning, that connection.
JGS: A kind of response to the anomie, or what you earlier called numbness?
GW: Yeah, the numbness and the emptiness and the nausea—that was a term we used to throw around, from the Sartre book—to me, that was part and parcel of the larger social structure. The big corporate structure that I had reference to at the time was high school, which I thought was just horrendous. I could not believe that such a place existed. I’m getting a stomach-ache just thinking about it. To me, it was a really sick environment. I understand it all better now, but back then I just felt depressed and numb. So the punk was a way to explode out of that. And to connect to people again, you know?
JGS: So, with Ruin—I know that you didn’t want to define yourselves as a “Buddhist punk band,” but that label did get applied.
GW: Part of that is still an interest of mine: to have everything be of a single piece. It never made sense to me to separate things. I never felt like I had to make an effort to put them together because it just seemed natural. We were getting a lot of ideas and a lot of inspiration from Buddhist practice. All of us were practicing Buddhists except our drummer. Why not have that be one of the ingredients?
AB: Eventually, the band winds down and you end up entering the academic world. How did that happen?
GW: I thought, well, what do I love the most? And it was Buddhism. So I found myself…