Enjoy part one of Matthew O’Connell‘s updated overview of non-philosophy/non-buddhism. It’s so gratifying to see someone do the hard work required to understand and creatively absorb this material. Check out Matthew’s podcast, The Imperfect Buddha (now on the New Books Network, as well) and his coaching practice. I have heard great things about the latter; and the podcast is the best there is on all things Buddhism and well beyond. If you appreciate the approach of the Great Feast of Knowledge, you will love The Imperfect Buddha.
Non-Philosophy: from François Laruelle to Glenn Wallis & the possibility of non-Buddhism
By Matthew O’Connell
My discovery of old Frank started backwards. My first encounter with non-philosophy was through the work of Glenn Wallis, a one-time academic of Buddhist Studies turned radical educator, with a claim to being American Buddhism’s enfant terrible. Glenn originally started the Speculative non-Buddhism[i] project as a website producing intelligent critique of western Buddhism when very little genuine critique existed anywhere. In fact, the opposite was far more likely with many western Buddhists employing science to justify their enamored readings of Buddhism whilst others strove to turn Buddhist meditation into a commodity to sell to the masses. The site was built around his work and that of two primary collaborators, as well as occasional others, myself included. Where some contemplated Alan Badiou and other assorted French philosophers in often searing critique of the American Buddhist landscape and its anti-intellectualism, more often than not Glenn’s work was centered on his experimentation and application of non-Buddhism.
Initially, an heuristic rooted in the work of living French philosopher François Laruelle, it developed into book projects; Cruel Theory, Sublime Practice, a collaboration with those two regulars, and A Critique of Western Buddhism, his mature, later, academic work on non-Buddhism. These have been followed up in 2022 with a book on non-Buddhist Mysticism. Each of Glenn’s work builds out from Laruelle’s as much an artistic endeavor as a genuine exploration of the possibility of thought in action.
For folks like me, the SNB site was a revelation: A place for intelligent critique with no taboo, no-go areas. It provided fertile ground for those seeking an intellectual refill after too long spent absorbed into the spiritually enamored western Buddhist spaces and their reverence for exotic others and promises of a new sort of salvation: The sort of spiritual chimera rooted in the mantras of “Don’t think too hard!” and “All that exist is the present moment”. Needless to say, I have become one of non-Buddhism’s practitioners and although it is odd to name myself as such (as you will see below), non-philosophy and non-buddhism are exceptional practices for avoiding the excesses of ideology, Buddhist or otherwise. They are not replacement belief systems and though identity formation may be an inevitable consequence of practicing anything seriously, I would never claim to be a non-Buddhist, or non-buddhist[ii], as it should be denoted. To be a practitioner of either is to be an allusive participant in the world of Philosophy or Buddhism with no intentions of becoming yet another good Philosopher of good Buddhist.
It is difficult to explain what non-buddhism is in a short text like this but I will try. This is in part due to its roots in a philosophical enterprise whose context is very rich, but also to its set of terms and concepts that tend to baffle newcomers and require quite a bit of patience and determination to grasp. Ideally, a meander through both men’s heuristics would lead the way, but that would take a book, and one from both figures already exists. If we consider non-thought and non-practice as the working materials that emerge from Laruelle and Glenn’s work though, what we get are a set of working tools for engaging with Buddhism, Spirituality, Philosophy and systems of thought more broadly in an original and ultimately disruptive manner. The heuristic nature of the works point to their practicalities; an aspect often missed by the anti-intellectual crowd and critics. The description that follows looks at non-philosophy and non-buddhism with these considerations in mind though inevitably leaves a lot out. Note, there are podcast episodes if you want to explore further. A very early one with Glenn an experimental work on non-Buddhism from yours truly as well as a more recent interview with an expert on non-Philosophy John O Maoilearca.
The French philosopher François Laruelle was born in the 1930s and has lived and worked through a great deal of the ups and downs of 20th and 21st century philosophy.