The term “Buddhism” evokes a bewildering bifurcation. Here, we have a “soft” version that caters to the desiccated middle classes of the twenty-first century West. This version promises salvation in the form of diurnal restoration, like ease in the midst of “stress” or “real happiness.” There, we have a “hard” version, derived from the models, doctrines, practices, and institutional structures of Buddhism’s ancient and medieval Asian past. This version advocates for a virtuosic cataclysm known as “enlightenment” or “nirvana.” I know of no third version; all sub-varieties get snared by one of these two. Both versions flourish by virtue of an ageless curative fantasy of human beings: to emerge from life—and death—unscathed.
What use is “Buddhism” in the twenty-first century West? Does it even yield useful knowledge anymore? Doesn’t science provide more satisfying models of, for instance, perception and cognition, than does Buddhism? Doesn’t philosophy better articulate the questions that seem to animate Buddhist discourse on meaning, language, and being? Doesn’t psychology offer more effective forms and models of mental health? In short, are Buddhism’s institutions and beliefs too cumbersome and unsophisticated to satisfy any but the most willing to believe? Is “Buddhism” anything but an archaic relic of the past embraced today by a populace adrift, a mere sop to modern fears and human vanity?
The answers to those questions are not clear. Indeed, there is little evidence that they have yet to be addressed at all, certainly not in any sustained manner. Neither those who embrace Buddhist teachings nor those who reject them are inclined toward such questioning. To the former, querying is threatening. Genuine questioning involves the possibility of unforeseen and undesirable transmutation, even destruction. To the latter, such questioning is irrelevant, for they have already foreclosed on Buddhism’s viability.
The purpose of this blog is to engage in a speculative critique of Buddhism. In doing so, I neither take for granted the salubrity of Buddhist teachings for the contemporary world nor bar the possibility of renovation and application. I see, rather, in the very process of speculation an opportunity. In order to seize this opportunity, however, I have found it is necessary to stake out new ground for myself as critic. Proximity is of paramount importance in this endeavor. Too close, and the effulgence of Buddhism’s charism blinds; too far away, and the embers turn cold.
Speculation, as its cognate perspicuity reveals, implies a clear, plain, and intelligent seeing through of a matter. Such seeing presupposes, however, a unique relationship to the matter at hand. In our case, the matter at hand is “Buddhism.” A speculative position toward Buddhism neither embraces nor rejects Buddhism’s postulates. Speculation operates in the mode of interrogation. Therein lies its function as precursor of rupture. Speculation breaks open the closed systems of Buddhism. It is not difficult to see, then, how rupture of Buddhism also includes its disruption: the normative claims underlying Buddhism’s ostensible continuity and unity, is, in the interrogation of speculation, interrupted. What ensues from an interruption? Perhaps discontinuity or even disassembly. Certainly disruption of some form and extent.
This blog is meant to serve as a forum for speculation on Buddhism (more properly, on what I call “non-buddhism“). Perhaps you will use it for discussions and as a source of information regarding this issue of Buddhism’s maturation, rupture, and disruption. The blog neither takes for granted the salubrity of Buddhist teachings for the contemporary world nor forecloses on the possibility of adaptation, renovation, and application. It sees, rather, in the very questioning a speculative opportunity.
Image from the 2011 exhibit “Speculative.”