Speculative Non-Buddhism

ruins of the buddhist real

What is non-Buddhism?

Glenn Wallis

The work of François Laruelle has given impetus to my specific formulation of “non-buddhism.” Think of my notion of “non-buddhism” (and of Laruelle’s “non-philosophy”) as somewhat akin to non-Euclidean geometry. The difference between Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry lies, of course, in the behavior of a line. Euclid’s fifth postulate assumes parallelism. In upholding this postulate, along with the other four, Euclideans radically limit the field of possible forms. Rejecting this postulate (though preserving the other four), non-Euclidean geometry envisions, so to speak, radical new possibilities; namely, it permits elliptical and hyperbolic curvature.

This image is instructive. “Non-buddhism,” as I conceive it, makes no decision about (1) what postulates properly constitute “Buddhism,” or (2) the value, truth, or relevance of any of the claims made in the name of “Buddhism.” Such non-decision enables a speculative, and perhaps even applied, curving toward or away from the ostensible teachings of Buddhism, as the case may be. Crucially, though, the criteria for any given move lie wholly outside of “Buddhism’s” value system. From within the fold, such a move is unpalatable, even heretical; for, the integrity of the system—its premises, authorities, and institutions—must, axiomatically, remain inviolate.

Non-buddhism stands outside of the fold, but not as a violent revolutionary storming the gates of venerable tradition. Accepting the postulate of requisite “disenchantment,” non-buddhism is too disinterested in “Buddhism” for such a destructive stand. This disinterest, however, does not manifest in rejection. Non-buddhism is acutely interested in the uses of Buddhist teaching, but in a way that remains unbeholden to—and hence, unbound by and unaccountable to—the norms that govern those teachings. As Laruelle claims for non-philosophy, I claim for non-buddhism: once we have suspended the structures that constitute Buddhism, once we have muted what to the believer is Buddhism’s very vibrato, we are free to hear fresh resonances.

To both traditionalists and post-traditionalists, non-buddhism must appear as ill-behaved to an extreme. For, it is not interested in preservation of any kind. In casting a coruscating gaze on the very postulates that loyally uphold “Buddhism’s” vallation, it debilitates their potency and cancels their warrant.  Again: this gaze, however, is not an act of hostile destruction. It is an act of vivification, or vivifying destruction: in clarifying it gives new life.

Why am I engaging this project of speculative non-buddhism? I am doing so because I see a need—now, more than ever—to begin stemming the swell of western Buddhaphilia. Why? Because, as I said, I commission, hence, enable,  the  postulate of requisite disenchantment. In this, and many other deflated Buddhist postulates, lies, ironically, the beginning of the speculation that, done honestly, just might lead to the end of Buddhism as we know it. And what might arise in its place? We will never know until we, as the literary protagonist named the Buddha or Gotama is made to put it, let the collapsed house lie in shambles.

Am I full of paradox and contradiction? Of course I am!

At Radical Philosophy, Ray Brassier gives a brief explanation of Laruelle’s idea of non-philosophy. It should be clear how his remarks relate to my project of non-buddhism. Brassier writes:

“What makes the Laruellean heresy interesting is the way it provides a philosophically disinterested – which is to say non-normative – definition of the essence of philosophy.

Like the revolutionary, the heretic refuses to accept any definition of philosophy rooted in an appeal to the authority of philosophical tradition. But unlike the revolutionary, who more often than not overturns tradition in order to reactivate philosophy’s supposedly originary but occluded essence, the heretic proceeds on the basis of an indifference which suspends tradition and establishes a philosophically disinterested definition of philosophy’s essence, or, as Laruelle prefers to say, identity. This disinterested identification of philosophy results in what Laruelle calls a non-philosophical use of philosophy: a use of philosophy that remains constitutively foreign to the norms and aims governing the properly philosophical practice of philosophy. And in fact, ‘non-philosophy’ is Laruelle’s name for the philosophically unprecedented or heretical practice of philosophy he has invented.

Yet despite its name, this is neither an ‘anti-philosophy’ nor yet another variant on the well-worn ‘end of philosophy’ theme. It is not the latest variety of deconstruction or one more manifestation of post-philosophical pragmatism. Non-philosophy is a theoretical practice of philosophy proceeding by way of transcendental axioms and producing theorems which are philosophically uninterpretable.

‘Uninterpretable’ because Laruelle insists – and reactions to his work certainly seem to bear him out – non-philosophy is constitutively unintelligible to philosophers, in the same way that non-Euclidian geometries are constitutively unintelligible to Euclidian geometers. Thus, Laruelle suggests that the ‘non’ in the expression ‘non-philosophy’ be understood as akin to the ‘non’ in the expression ‘non-Euclidian’ geometry: not as a negation or denial of philosophy, but as suspending a specific structure (the philosophical equivalent of Euclid’s Fifth axiom concerning parallels) which Laruelle sees as constitutive of the traditional practice of philosophy. New possibilities of thought become available once that structure has been suspended and non-philosophy is an index of those philosophically unenvisageable possibilities.”

30 Responses to “What is non-Buddhism?”

  1. Nagapriya said

    Hi Glenn

    Thanks for creating this interesting experiment. I am especially interested in your notion of ‘aporetic inquiry’, however, I am a bit confused about the ‘non-Buddhism’. Isn’t non-Buddhism just something that’s not Buddhism? Consequently, why call it ‘non-Buddhism’ as opposed to ‘non-mud wrestling’? You are clearly using Buddhist ideas – and possibly practices – as a reference point so I suppose the question is why? I am interested in what you are trying to do and would like to understand more about the Buddhist element of it.

  2. Bob D said

    Non-Euclidean geometry was never born of making “no decisions about what postulates properly constitute [geometry]”. That would have been aimless doodling. It was the constraints of the postulates that focused the new developments and unified the efforts of many people. The other four postulates were the indispensable vehicles that allowed mathematicians to investigate unimaginably counter-intuitive ideas. In fact, because of the highly abstract nature of the territory they were being used to explore, the postulates were required to be far more tightly defined than the Greeks would have ever thought necessary.

    I can see the attraction of throwing away the rule book, whatever discipline one is involved in. But it almost always seems to involve inventing a straw man concretised rule book that doesn’t really exist in order to jettison it, implicitly claiming to have greater freedom than the great teachers and practitioners of the past as a result, and then carrying on largely following the conventions and norms of the tradition without allowing oneself to acknowledge it and finding ways to justify one’s own prejudices and whims as being part of one’s practice.

    But it’s undeniably a fascinating idea. Perhaps you’re suggesting something that’s more carefully thought-out and less glib than the picture I’m painting of it. If so, I’d be interested to know what it is.

  3. Roger Bygott said

    Hi Glenn,

    I’m intrigued and interested in your blog. I have just re-read your ‘Nostalgia for the Buddha’ blog and found it very stimulating. I find it helpful to discover contexts within which questions and questioning are able to remain ‘open’, free of the desire to find ‘closure’ (horrible term!) and yet energized with curiosity and playfulness (essential whilst hovering on the borders of polemic challenge, or waving guns at sacred cows).

    As with Nagapriya’s comment, noted earlier, I’m unsure about ‘non-Buddhism’. In the context of this discussion I would currently describe myself as ‘Post-Buddhist’. This allows for a liberation from my Buddhist past, and – most importantly for me – a liberation from a ‘Buddhist identity’. Yet at the same time allowing me to still engage with Buddhism, Buddhists and dharma discourse. So there is a moving on, into a not-quite-knowing-what, but bringing with me some Buddhas to chew on. (Chomp, chomp!). On that theme I probably think that Buddhism should eat itself, digest itself and spit/shit itself out onto the ground of the emergent post-modern world.

    Be interested to see how these blogs unfold!

    Best wishes


  4. Glenn Wallis said

    Hi Nagapriya. Thanks for your comment. For some reason, I haven’t had a single comment about the terminology and language style of the blog–until, all of a sudden, yesterday I received four! You might want to read my two responses to the comments below (when I get to them), and look at my response to Andy at the “Nostalgia for the Buddha” post.

    You are right: I am indeed using Buddhist ideas and Buddhist practices as a reference point. My main concern here is to create a space for critique–for a fresh view–of Buddhism, and not for, say, mud wrestling (funny example). Hence, the word Buddhism is retained. I feel that a new space is necessary for a clear view because Buddhism is so tortuously convoluted. In fact, I always feel compelled to write it “Buddhism.” Twenty-five hundred years of change, regression, and development, and contact and collision with dozens if not hundreds of cultures and sub-cultures will do that to “a tradition” (there I go again!). Just as significant is the fact that so much of what counts as the Buddhist genius or the Buddhist contribution to knowledge and culture is arguably better realized in other arenas, such as philosophy, poetry, psychology, neuroscience, etc.

    The problem that I am trying to address at this blog has to do with proximity. Because Buddhism presents itself as a “thaumaturgical refuge,” it is impossible to do the kind of critical work I have in mind from within. The glare is blinding. If you have ever spent time around committed Buddhists or in a Buddhist sangha or, indeed, if you have ever waded into the toxic waters of a Buddhist forum, you must have at least a faint idea of what I’m talking about. I think I will have to work this point out in more detail at in the near future; but for now I will just claim that the cacophony of “Buddhism” precludes careful investigation into its propositions. Now, the opposite is true as well: if you stand too far outside of “Buddhism’s vallation,” I personally can see no compelling reasons – or perhaps only a few – for taking its propositions seriously. So, again the issue is one of proximity. Too close, and the critic is blinded by Buddhism’s charism. Too distant, and the resplendence turns dark. I hope that my blog posts are helping to illustrate what I’m talking about. I think that reading these posts, you will indeed discover “the Buddhist element of it.” That element, though, will have been transmuted into something other than “Buddhist.”

    You may find further answers to your question by hunting around on the blog. I hope so. Thanks so much for your comment. Peace.

  5. Glenn Wallis said

    Greetings, Bob D. Thank you very much for your comment. I agree with you here. I did not mean for the parallel between non-Euclidean geometry and non-Buddhism to be too exact. That is, I would not put “geometry” in brackets as you did following the statement about “no decisions;” I would – and in fact did – only put “Buddhism” there. I wonder what a good Buddhists or non-Buddhist parallel to the “other four postulates” of non-Euclidean geometry would be – postulates that would allow “[non-Buddhists] to investigate unimaginably counter-intuitive ideas.” Any ideas?

    I agree with you, too, that there is a danger in creating a nonexistent, reified straw man that is then – voila! – vanquished. As I am not at all interested in aimless doodling, I certainly want to be careful to hew my critique closely to the real, living cultural entity we call Buddhism. Or I should say to a real, living, etc., since what I find when I start looking for some instance of “Buddhism” to apply, comment on, or critique is an extraordinarily complex plethora of Buddhisms. As I say on the “About” page, I have recently, found the entire Buddhist project fruitlessly tedious – there are, indeed, far too many official Buddhist “rule books.” I considered abandoning the colossal vector field of Buddhism altogether. Instead I decided first to try to create a space whereby I can – and anyone else who is interested – engage Buddhism from a healthy distance. This blog is my attempt to do so. So, the last thing I am interested in doing is creating a straw man account of some Buddhist teaching, practice, or idea. I hope you let me know when I have in fact done just that. So far, I hope you’ll agree, I think I’ve hit solid wood.

    Whether what I’m doing here is “carefully thought out and less glib” then you picture is probably up to you to decide. Before you do so, I hope you’ll spend some time reading around the blog – the various pages, the comments, and, of course, my introductions to the posts themselves.

    Thanks again for your comment, Bob D. Peace to you.

  6. Glenn Wallis said

    Hi Roger. Nice to hear from you. Thanks for taking the trouble to comment here.

    What a great name: Bygott. Was that originally German Beigott? I once had a colleague – a very devout American Muslim – with the surname Godlas. He had just enough of the California hippie notion of karma in him to be bothered by his name. I also once had a very stubborn philosophy of religion colleague named Will Power – really, no s. Sometimes, nomen really is omen, I guess.

    “Waving guns at sacred cows”! Buddhism’s “eating itself and shitting itself out onto the ground”! Two additional great phrases/images for my future collection of blogdada poetry. Thanks for those!

    I appreciate your generous account of what I’m up to at this blog – given in your first paragraph. About your second paragraph, I, along with you and Nagapriya, am unsure of the term “non-Buddhism.” Laruelle’s notion of “non-philosophy” struck me as so absurd and bizarre and, to be honest, borderline idiotic, that my first response was “that’s it– just what I’ve been looking for!” I’m not sure about the term “post-Buddhism.” It’s pretty good. I have to give the whole thing more thought; but my initial response to, for instance, Hokai Sobol’s term “post traditional Buddhism,” was resistance. “Post” doesn’t work for me because it implies that something has come to an end, that something has been surpassed once and for all. Maybe I am wrong about that. I should probably say more about Laruelle’s thinking. Yes, that’s what I’ll do: I’ll write a post about his idea of “non-philosophy,” and how it relates to what I’m up to. Or maybe we should have a contest? Either way, thanks for the stimulation.

    Hope you stay in touch Roger. Thanks again, and peace to you.

  7. Roger Bygott said

    Hi Glenn. Thanks for your response.

    Yeah – it’s an interesting family name I have. Hadn’t heard of Beigott – coud be a link. Possibly Scandinavian via the Normans. Possibly from ‘good-town’. But in Normandy it became Bigot – which might link to Vigot or Visigoth! But it’s probably that they originally did a lot of swearing oaths ‘by God’!

    Regarding ‘post’ and ‘non’. Well I wonder if we are simply up against the limitations of language. ‘Buddhism’, ‘modernism’, ‘post-modernism’, ‘feminism’, ‘dadaism’: all nominal labels fulfilling a need to deal with the complexity of life; all relative and temporarily useful; all potentially
    stifling and tending to wrap the ineffable in safe boxes of certainty.

    Given this, I quite like the proposal of a contest! Maybe it brings a bit of the Norman out of me!

    I actually thing ‘post-Buddhist’ has more of a sense of things changing, a sense of being in a historical process. Whereas ‘non-Buddhist’ is more final, terminal. However there was that Fukuyama book ‘The End of History’ and the idea of ‘The End of Buddhism’ has a nice challenging ring to it!

    How to find terminology that has a ring of process? The poetic vs the rational.

    Best wishes


  8. Jamie said

    Aiyaiyai, lol. I actually like the idea of this site. However, am I allowed to make a small criticism? I’m a big reader, and I’m the kind of nerd who reads a thesaurus for shits and giggles. Yet I still had a hard time following your writing because I had to look up 20,000 (maybe an exaggeration) words that were new to me. If the aim of your site to to engage only intellectuals who eschew common language in favor of a more convoluted approach to communication, then you’re doing a good job. But, I think you would attract more readers if you considered your audience. Remember Mrs. Tingle in the 7th grade… when she asked us all to consider our audience when we chose our writing voice? It’s more than just choosing a tone, you also have to consider the audience’s vocabulary. Maybe you write in the pedantic vernacular of your home planet WikiWebsturn, but I’m betting that there are many readers that are lost in translation… so they give up and assume that this is just more pretentious blathering. When I translated your writing, I actually enjoyed it! However, I have been known to enjoy tedious activities like picking all the dog hairs from the couch one by one. I doubt I could recommend your site to any of my friends because they would become quickly frustrated by your writing style and wouldn’t care enough to finish reading. (But, then they would miss out on your overall message!) To put it bluntly, unless you only want to surround yourself with literary elites… please consider dumbing it down for the rest of us.

  9. Brad said

    Even though I too have had to look up more than one or two words Glenn has used on this site, I rather enjoy his style. I view it as part of the overall aim to raise the bar on Buddhist (or “non-Buddhist”) discourse in the West. Keep on pushing the envelope Glenn!

  10. Glenn Wallis said

    But, Jamie, look at all of the witty, intelligent, and insightful comments I am attracting. I mean, when did you ever see the following words, phrases, and imagery in a comment on a “dumbed-down” blog post:

    Mrs. Tingle
    thesaurus for shits and giggles
    home planet WikiWebsturn
    pretentious blathering
    picking dog hairs from the couch one by one

    That is good shit. It’s headed right to my blogdada crypt for future assemblage. And that’s just from your comment!

    Seriously, you raise an excellent point. I address different version of this “style question” here and there in responses to comments. Perhaps you can troll around when you get a chance. You may be right. I will continue to give the matter thought–and I do indeed give it careful thought. My thinking at this point is that I actually don’t want certain practitioners to read my posts. One of my principles states the necessity of “proper proximity” to tradition. Someone who is starting out in practice must, I think, try things on, wear them for a while, look admiringly at themselves in the mirror of ego and say “what a fine Buddhist am I!” At some point, the vesta buddhica (there I go again!) will become ill fitting. The aspiring bodhisattva might then have a mind to chuck it all, go to the mall, and buy some new spiritual armor. This is when I step in and say: cease to vacate the vallation’s vista [or something with fewer Vs]; you know not what you do! So, that’s the first thing: write in a way that puts off the newly enamored so that they can master, complete, fulfill the phase of enchantment. I hope this idea does not sound patronizing; but I think that timing and proximity are important, and not everyone is “ready” for my message.

    Another reason for my language is that, originally, I was hoping to attract only a handful of people to start sharing some of the tasks I envision as components of this critique (e.g., book reviews; analysis of word choice in English translations of Buddhist literature; comparisons to other systems like cognitive science, pre-Socratic philosophy; modern philosophy, literary theory; rhetorical analysis of the three big Buddhist glossy mags; and so on–there is lots of work to be done.). My language–and these are further explanations now–with its irony, playfulness, difficulty, evocativeness, provocativeness, and so on, thus serves as a kind of gate or check-point. This work, as I conceive it, does not require careful argumentation and expository writing. As I say in an article I am working on, “it is too late for arguments.” The work, as I see it, requires the mind of a poet as much as a thinker. That is, imagery, emotions, the sense of wonder and of unseen possibility is as important as reasoned, step by step, logic-driven exposition. This is style as weapon and style as risk.

    Buddhist writing is anemic. At best it is a fleeting anodyne for those fallen in battle. (Yet may they be soothed and quickly rise!) Speculative non-Buddhist writing is glistening with droplets of blood. Let us splatter some here and there in the face of the pious. Perhaps the body’s rich claret will conquer in them the inner slurper of mere dregs. perhaps it will–may it be so!–rouse in them the heart of a true awakened one.

    Thanks so much for your comment, Jamie. Peace to you.

  11. I’m still chewing on “aporetic inquiry” and “thaumaturgical refuge” from a previous post.

    I confess, I also had to look up “vallation” on this one, but did so happily (enjoyed the way it bolstered all the structuralizing going on vocabulary-wise in the rest of the paragraphary).

  12. Jamie said

    I can understand your love of language. I just hope you realize that it may be weeding out perfectly good people. I think you want to weed out ignorant pricks, huzzah for you. Yet I’ve also met highly educated ignorant pricks… you cannot stop them with language, you can’t even slow them down.
    “I hope this idea does not sound patronizing; but I think that timing and proximity are important, and not everyone is “ready” for my message.” Lol. uh yeah, that is extremely patronizing! It does imply that you have a superior grasp on things, and that the rest of us are peons who either don’t get it yet, or are too busy eating our toenail fungus to learn anything. You should just say “I luv wordiness and I don’t haf to ‘splain myself to youuu!”, then maybe kick a stack of legos over. I think that is more in line with your honest feelings. You just like descriptive language and you wanna express yourself in your own way. Fair enough. I guess I wish that there was a hyperlink for the really rare words that are circling extinction. You may think “Hub bub bub! I’m not going to spoon feed people that are too lazy to learn something for themselves”, (Mrs. Tingle agrees with your sentiments)…. However, if you want to nurture a love for language you should consider some hyperlinks on some of those bad boys.
    Buddhist writing isn’t that anemic, they just tend to quickly silence anyone who pops the chill/peace/love/imaboveitall bubble in the public arena. I’ve visited a couple of informal Buddhist threads and noticed at how topics like “karma”, “enlightenment”, and “reincarnation” can start a real shit storm. People who normally claim to be impervious to insult really seem to enjoy mudslinging, and I always laugh when they post “peace and love” at the bottom of a vicious retort as if it negates all previous intent. (Imagine the reverse… if we signed off a lovely message with “suck it, mofo”.)

  13. Jamie said

    Ahhh damn you Glenn. Now I’m struggling through all your posts anyway. I just want you to know, that as a nursing student whenever you use the word aggregate I see spinning blood vials. I’ll leave you to look up why I do, Ha!

  14. Tom Pepper said

    If I follow your argument, then non-Buddhism would be a way to set aside decisions about “true” Buddhism, and instead to treat Buddhism the way Laruelle treats philosophy: to try to determine the constitutive decision of each school of Buddhism, to see what kinds of practices in, and construals of, the world the particular decisions enables. On this approach, Buddhism would be like philosophy is for Laruelle, a series of attempts to address the world in such a way as to enable us to do something. But what if Buddhism is already a kind of non-philosophy? That is, what if the goal of Buddhism itself is to examine the constitutive decisions each culture makes?

    I am a very poor reader of French, so I don’t know much about Laruelle, but it seems to me he also makes a constitutive “decision,” and not the one that Brassier defends against (the argument that positing immanence is a “decision”) but more simply the decision that everything is based on a “dyad,” a binary or duality. He seems to somewhat replicate, in different terms, the Althusserian division of ideology and science. Philosophy can either be an ideological practice, or it can be a critique of, a science of, ideological practices. I think Buddhism, because it requires a kind of practice itself, may be able to transcend that division. More like critical realism’s theory of transformational model of social activity, we can do science and ideology at the same time.

    Personally, I would like to see Buddhism function as a practice in which we can gain critical distance from, and knowledge of, our ideological practices, and attempt to produce better more effective ones. Althusser said that we can never do without ideology–it is not a delusion or false consciousness for Althusser, but a set of material practices which enable us to produce and reproduce our world. Education, for instance, is necessary if each generation is not going to have to reinvent the wheel, and the particular form our education takes is our ideology. Or, in Literary Theory, which is my field, either we are producing theories of correct reading practices (ideologies) or theories of how those reading practices function to reproduce the relations to the relations of productions (science, or non-Literature, if you will). Althusser also says that for a marxist or a spinozist, it is possible to be aware of the ideology in which we participate. I would suggest that Buddha’s social projects was also to establish a new set of social practices which did not reproduce the existing set of social conditions, but transformed them.

    To give a brief radical (mis)reading of Buddhism: what if we understand samsara as the reproduction of the stifling and stagnant social conditions of pre-Buddhist India, as going around in circles and not allowing individuals to use their full human potential; and if we understand karma as a theory of ideology, as intentional social practices that reproduce that social formation and the stifling subject positions it entails; and if we understand bhava not as reincarnation, but as the reproduction of the form of “consciousness” produced in the existing subject formation; and enlightenment becomes simply (but it is never really simple) gaining a critical distance on the ideology of one’s own subject position.

    I don’t know if I’m making much sense here–I’m trying to be brief, which I never to well. But I’m wondering if maybe Buddhism was always already non-Buddhism? Perhaps it is just in the worst of the commercialized forms that it has become purely an ideological practice for the disaffected lower middle class.

  15. Glenn Wallis said

    Hi Tom. There is so much in your comment that I’d like to strap on, plug into my mental Marshall, and let rip. But I am off to the hills for three weeks, and still have a ton of crap to do. So, I will have to get back to you. In the meantime, see the post from today. I hope I have not misrepresented anything you said or meant to say. If so, I hope you’ll correct me pronto.

    More later. Thanks so much for taking the trouble of formulating and sharing your thoughts.

  16. Tom Pepper said

    As you mention, the last sentence in the second paragraph is a bit unclear as worded. Apparently, I’m not only bad a brevity but at celerity. I’m referring there to Bhaskar’s theory, and it probably would have been better to simply say “the critical realist transformational model of social activity.

    I appreciate what you wrote. I was also fascinated by your translation of sati as “ancestral anamnesis.” I’m guessing you mean something like becoming aware of the source of this supposed “knowledge”? I think of sati as being aware of the causes and conditions of things, including the causes in our culture and language of our way of construing the world. I don’t think this definition strains the literal meaning of the Satipatthana Sutta.

    I would just like to add, again trying to be brief, that I think the key difference in Buddhism, what it can add that existing academic fields like psychology and philosophy and literature cannot, is that it provides an epistemology in which we can be aware of our own ideological practice. We are fully participating in a practice that reproduces (in both senses, as re-make or transform and as and replicate) the social structure we inhabit. In much of epistemological thought (definitely not all of it, but much of it), correct “scientific” knowledge of human practices is not possible because a) our thought is inevitably distorted by language, culture, or social practices or b) we cannot study human practices because awareness of the structure being studied alters reactions. I would argue that in Buddhism (and in critical realism) we can have correct knowledge of human social practices exactly because their a) their effects are enduring and detectable (e.g. they systematically distort our thought) and so can be studied and b) we can become aware of the structure shaping our actions and so become able to change our behaviors.

    In reading a poem, for instance, typical Literary theory can either teach us the correct practice of reading to get the proper effect from The Waste Land, or it can step “outside of Literature” and examine the ideology of the poem and the reading practices it requires. What if instead we could read the poem from within Literature, but with full knowledge of the relationship between the avant-garde literary technique as a strategy for producing reactionary (fascist) ideology. We can “practice” literature with sati not by fully reveling in the emotional experience of a poem, not by “feeling it in the blood and bone,” but by having a full awareness of the effects of such emotional and (pseudo)intellectual experiences, the kinds of practices they are and the social formations they were, and are, constructed to (re)produce. This kind of sati would be always a practice and a critical awareness of the effect and function of the practice. Reading The Waste Land in this way, or any poem, would dramatically alter the social practice, and change its effects.

    And again, I’ve failed to be brief. But I’m wondering, would this kind of “Buddhist reading,” if you will, be non-Buddhism, or would it be part of the Buddhist practice you are looking to step back from, produce a science of, as Laruelle does with philosophy?

  17. Erick said

    A few thoughts about language style and terminology. I like the ease with which you riff on themes without battering it all down with logical locksteps. And the idea of approaching Buddhisms from the perspective of the aesthetic, and more particularly the poetic I find very fruitful, although as an addition and supplement rather than a replacement per se. I myself have loved Stevens poetry for decades and frequently hear resonance in it with Buddhist themes. Especially in its modernist emphases on the centrality of language and imagination in the perceptual creation and recreation of the world of experience. And the tragic fate of that enterprise.

    But talking primarily in riffs and poetics risks false agreement as well. The more powerful and rich the metaphors, the easier it is for readers to envision and project agreement when there might not in fact be any. And in addition, as they say, it is difficult to argue with a poem. Or a song.

    Which leads me to your terminology. I find it consistently evocative, resonant and illuminating. It calls out to me. And yet, I also can’t help but wonder whether it really in fact calls out to me in a dialect and whisper that is shared by you or the others who have commented on your posts. Which is to say, I think it would be beneficial if there was some substantive clarification, with empirical examples, of these key concepts you keep employing and deploying, if you are in the end to persuade rather than seduce. A few of the terms I would appreciate understanding with greater clarity: charism, vibrato, thaumaturgical refuge, warrant to truth, (voltaic network of) postulation. You have begun with decision above, which I appreciate.

    I suppose this repeats an impulse I already started in another comment – beginning with clarity over analytic terminology in order to avoid unnecessary confusion, misunderstanding and false agreement.

  18. My deepest appreciation, Erick for taking so the time and effort to respond so thoughtfully to what you read on the blog. It is difficult for me to respond briefly because the points you raise must be dealt with in substantive terms. I think that the article I am working on for Global Buddhism goes some of the way toward answering you; and the book Meditation as Organon of Dissolution goes a bit further. But just a few brief remarks in the meantime. (I’ll do it dialogue form, from your four most recent comments. I am posting this response under “What is non-Buddhism” because of the scope of your questions. Please let me know if I have distorted any of your views in taking this approach.):

    Erick: Given the presumed radical approach of this blog, I must confess I’m a bit surprised that meditation nonetheless occupies in your perspective a position of praxilogical and epistemological privilege that parallels in many ways conventional Western Buddhism.

    Glenn: To be honest, I was surprised as well. Somehow, meditation—or, as Matthias so eloquently expressed in a response to you—something like meditation, has, after the prodding and probing of a Speculative non-Buddhism audit, bounded up quite robustly, ready for business. (I think, too, that you make a rich point about the parallelisms between Western Buddhism—including secular, progressive, atheist, agnostic, etc., etc., varieties— and more orthodox forms. To my eyes, these Western forms are simply re-inscribing the same old conventions in current vernaculars.)

    Erick: Wouldn’t a truly serious speculative non-Buddhism seek to displace, devitalize, mute or deflate – to use some of your own language – this golden calf of Buddhist charism within the Western Buddhist ideological imaginary? Isn’t meditation one of the most omnipresent and unavoidable fetishes within the Western approach to Buddhism?

    Glenn: When subjected to the methodological moves that you mention, “meditation” is stripped of its decorative raiment. Denuded, it turns out to be nothing but sitting, still sitting, in silence (one’s own), in the midst of salt shakers, noisy neighbors, and dirty dishes, with attentional proclivity toward immediate experience. So, stripped, such sitting loses its charism, which in turns alters the practitioner’s orientation toward the practice, the sitting. “Meditation,” seen in this aspect, becomes analogous, physiologically, to sleep, and cognitively, to homeostatic freeze. So, it does, as you say, seem to preserve a certain praxilogical and epistemological function if not privilege (unless you want to say that sleep is a privileged instance of the work that it does—cell restoration, memory download, ontogenesis, etc.). The first question I ask a person who comes to me for “meditation” instruction is this: are you content with being a homo sapiens ape, or do you desire to be a god?

    Erick: Despite a rising awareness that it has not occupied the ideological heights of living traditions of Asian Buddhism in the past and that its contemporary prominence is in part a consequence of a global, cosmopolitan modernist project of reconstructing Buddhist authority and practice in the colonial and post-colonial eras, Western Buddhists simply cannot think of Buddhisms without meditation. It is at the center of their imagining of it, and the practice of meditation is simply magical in the mana-like consequences it can produce. From well-being and therapeutic renewal, to pleasurable somatic intimacy with the world and transformed emotional psychic structures.

    Glenn: I agree that the West has wielded meditation like a anamnestic caduceus—the catalyzing herald of our forgotten wholeness, buddhahood, joy. As you say, Western Buddhism/mindfulness has refused to consider anything but meditation as the font of mana. (As an aside, in the first phase of my career, I wrote on Buddhist ritual as a way of “correcting” this view a bit.) A central move that Speculative non-Buddhism makes is that of “disinterest.” As investigator, I don’t care what Asian Buddhists and Western Buddhists think or believe about themselves, about one another, and about their respective traditions.

    Erick: Even here in the comments it has been advanced as a liberating technique for cracking open the ideological implications of sub-conscious cognition to the critique of unequal social structure. But really, can the praxis of meditation bear all of this weight, this burden, this hope?

    Glenn: I think you are seeing something here that we have to keep a careful watch over, assuming that Speculative non-Buddhism really wants, as it says, to avoid becoming yet another ideological sop. The short answer is that you ask a valuable question—can the praxis of meditation… etc. (Though now we have to understand not “meditation” as configured within the buddhistic network of postulation, but as a denuded sitting.) I like letting questions, rather than answers, inform praxis. So, as for me, I will continue to pose myself your question. The reason that I leave the question open is, of course, already an answer of sorts. I think that sitting can indeed function as a kind of “cracking open” insofar as it enables (forces?) an increasingly unavoidable coalescing of the sitter and dissolution— finite, irreversible and inexorable dissolution. I think that I have arrived at my Speculative non-Buddhism view in large part because of the fact that it continually dawned on me that sitting—session after session, sesshin after sesshin—was empty of the complex representations that Buddhism insisted on. This raises what strikes me as an extraordinarily crucial question; namely, how do we speak about it? (I devote another blog to that question—Ovenbird). It is in the speaking about that the ideological Trojan horses get rolled in to empty reality. At this juncture, I am exploring aesthetics as a constructive way forward. One reason it’s looking promising is that aesthetics has had a pronounced sensitivity to what it sees as the reality-representation divide since at least Plato. So, it’s a way of speaking that is encoded with an automatic alert system.

    Erick: I’m not suggesting mediation is unproductive, futile or shouldn’t be engaged in. But that it is perhaps more humble and fragile than imagined. Why not put it in its place, alongside the whole range of actions and praxis that is historically available from within living traditions? What of other acts of (social) production in other registers such as aesthetics, ritual/performative, narrative, the moral cultivation of the self? Is meditation really the best technology for speculating about non-Buddhism, or the most important dimension of social praxis to focus upon?

    Glenn: Again, I value this question qua question. Maybe what I have spoken to so far is this first order of business, what you call “putting it in its place.” I am asking, just that: what is the place of “meditation” (in the lives of homo sapiens apes) devoid of the aggrandizing, spiritualizing, sop-like accoutrements of tradition? The reason for this move is my suspicion that there are indeed such accoutrements and that they do indeed obscure certain functions. I think that I would say that, concerning your last sentence here, that an additional necessity is thought. Buddhism, Zen in particular, pooh-poohs thinking, as if it were a human disease. Speculative non-Buddhism values thinking as (1) an aesthetic practice, (2) the precursor to aesthetic-intellectual performance (writing, dialogue, living), and (3) a mode of making intelligible. Having said that, though, I’d like to temper it with Brassier’s astute observation that “Thinking has interests that do not coincide with those of living; indeed, they can and have been pitied against the latter.” Hence, my desire to cast thinking in aesthetic hues.

    The Buddha

    [See Erick’s comment under “Nostalgia for the Buddha.]… Wouldn’t a truly speculative non-Buddhism simply no longer care about these dreams of origins, these dreams of the beginning, these dreams of singularity?

    Glenn: Yes, Speculative non-Buddhism meets these concerns about origins, etc., with disinterest. Having exposed the claims about the Buddha and so forth to the Speculative non-Buddhism heuristic, “The Buddha” becomes the protagonist in a vast, complex, historically layered literary production called “Buddhism.” The Buddha, Gotama, Siddhartha, the Blessed One, etc., is a historical figure who has been completely and irretrievably over written by a literary one. One reason that I feel so confident about this assertion is that I spent three years working on a biography of the Buddha. The blog post is a summation of some of my conclusions. With that post, the question ceases to require a response.

    Magazines , etc.

    Erick:: I look forward to your critique of these three gatekeepers of Buddhist writing. I agree that they are far, far too often predictable, formulaic, shallow, dessicated, dusty. Especially the mass market publishers and magazines. The writing in and of academia can avoid those ruts more frequently. Presumably though you might need to add certain blogs to that trio of standard bearers. The ability of blogs to digitally replicate and propagate writings makes them especially powerful as standardizers in a way more conventional print media can’t quite reach. I would also hope that you might expand your analysis of the deadening hand of standardizing gatekeepers to the realm of orality as well, however. I can hardly manage to stomach or attend introductory lectures by Dharma teachers anymore, I must confess. They are also far too often predictable, repetitive, boring, unexceptional, dessicated. I fully realize the power of repetition in learning via oral instruction, but still, it amazes me how so many Western Buddhists can sit through rotating iterations of the same basic teachings, themes, idioms, issues and questions (and answers) over and over.

    Glenn: I have in mind to offer such a critique some day. But, now that you put it the way that you do, I wonder: why don’t you write it—I’ll post it? Or perhaps a collaboration. Would you consider it?


    Erick: But talking primarily in riffs and poetics risks false agreement as well. The more powerful and rich the metaphors, the easier it is for readers to envision and project agreement when there might not in fact be any. And in addition, as they say, it is difficult to argue with a poem. Or a song. Which leads me to your terminology. I find it consistently evocative, resonant and illuminating. It calls out to me. And yet, I also can’t help but wonder whether it really in fact calls out to me in a dialect and whisper that is shared by you or the others who have commented on your posts. Which is to say, I think it would be beneficial if there was some substantive clarification, with empirical examples, of these key concepts you keep employing and deploying, if you are in the end to persuade rather than seduce. A few of the terms I would appreciate understanding with greater clarity: charism, vibrato, thaumaturgical refuge, warrant to truth, (voltaic network of) postulation. You have begun with decision above, which I appreciate. I suppose this repeats an impulse I already started in another comment – beginning with clarity over analytic terminology in order to avoid unnecessary confusion, misunderstanding and false agreement.

    Glenn: This comment is the most difficult for me to respond to because it strikes most near to a central artery of the concerns that I explore via Speculative non-Buddhism. I think that it is too late for arguments. I think that an affective-evocative approach is what is needed to turn some people toward the vista I see. Maybe “seduce” is indeed the better metaphor here. One reason that I say this is that I think no one, certainly not committed Buddhists or spiritualists, wants to be persuaded that they should attend to “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” In my upcoming article, I do attempt a fuller clarification of certain concepts (all of those that you mention, I think); but I am clarifying in a largely aesthetic, rather than philosophic, register. For me, the aesthetic comprises a premium chunk of the philosophy or theory. Again, please see Ovenbird; for instance, “Epitomes” and “On Not Improving.”.

    Thank you very much for this conversation, Erick. Hope to have another soon.

  19. Erick said

    Yowza! That a lot of commentary responses all bundled together to respond in turn to. Here is my imperfect, partial, (probably forever) incomplete stab at a response to some of the bits that most jumped out at me.

    I think it was perfectly fair of you to place them all in this post, as clearly my questions all spin around the same thematic, ultimately, of trying to get a stronger bead on what exactly you mean by Speculative non-Buddhism. I look forward to your article in Global Buddhism. I follow the journal and check in on it regularly to see what is new. Is this book, Meditation as Organon of Dissolution, in print, or digital, or in process, or in revision? Or something else?

    I personally am very interested in what Asian Buddhists and Western Buddhists think and believe about themselves, about one another, and about their respective traditions. I find it very intriguing and very illuminating. Once one gets beyond, that is, the canned, and even canonical, rhetoric and responses we most typically hear. Because I think one then finds a great deal of diversity and complexity not typically accounted for. The living traditions are typically much more resistant to the official narratives, teachings and authorities, much more accepting of those various aporias that bedevil the scholastic mind. And a comparative reflection on this full diversity of lived traditions is instructive, even foundational, I think to an immanent critique of the reified idea of Buddhism. Although I recognize this is not the same as the project of Speculative non-Buddhism. I just find the complexity and complicity and contradictions of living traditions fascinating and humbling, quite honestly.

    While I’m critical of the excessive hype of meditation and the unbearable burdens that I think are placed on it, I must confess that re-imagining it as metaphorically equivalent to sleep or homeostatic freeze doesn’t exactly inspire me either. I do think it can be quite powerful, that it does generate real skills, techniques of embodied being and acting that are skillful. I just object to the extravagant claims that have been built on these skills and capacities, and the way that these extravagances have occluded these foundational and in some sense more narrow and limited skills and capacities. I am not fond of the many and ponderous ideological Trojan horses that have been carted into the space of meditation either, even though I also recognize that much of that effort is honest and earnest, rather than deceitful or opportunistic. You speak about meditation as denuded sitting. I don’t think I really grasp what that means at a substantive, experiential or aesthetic level. Perhaps you have discussed this elsewhere? (I admit that while I’m aware of your other blog, Ovenbird,I haven’t yet found the time to read through it. I will aim to look at those entries and the blog more generally in the future when I find more free time. So no need to repeat yourself for my lazy benefit.)

    I am intrigued by your appeal to, turn to aesthetics vs. the philosophical register, or the reiteration of received ideological frames, idioms and templates as offered up by various Buddhist postulates, etc. I do think there is much of value in this, as most folks – even committed Buddhists, of course – are persuaded not by philosophical argumentation or canonical evocation. But I am, again – of course – not sure I grasp what exactly aesthetics means to you. Are you talking about another register of reasoning, ala Kant. Or another way of speaking words and grammar (rather than the philosophical)? Or are you talking about non-linguistic modalities of communication – the visual, the performative, etc – which can’t really, let’s be honest, conveyed very effectively on a blog filled with paragraphs and paragraphs of conversation back and forth?

    In the interest of the aesthetic representation of illumination, I have always found this Wallace Stevens poem much more resonant of my idea of awakening and nirvanic insight than all the Tibetan treatises I have read:


    Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
    Pink and white carnations. The light
    In the room more like a snowy air,
    Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
    At the end of winter when afternoons return.
    Pink and white carnations – one desires
    So much more than that. The day itself
    Is simplified: a bowl of white,
    Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
    With nothing more than the carnation there.

    Say even that this complete simplicity
    Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
    The evilly compounded, vital I
    And made it fresh in a world of white,
    A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
    Still one would want more, one would need more,
    More than a world of white and snowy scents.

    There would still remain the never-resting mind,
    So that one would want to escape, come back
    To what had been so long composed.
    The imperfect is our paradise.
    Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
    Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
    Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

  20. […] something I can’t quite name yet. Jason Siff’s deconstructive Unlearning Meditation and Glenn Wallis’ aporetic inquiries have been an inspiration to practice in ways that free me from the constrictions of religious […]

  21. tom nickel said

    Your playfulness with words and ideas is really fun to read. I’m not sure if it’ll stem the tide you say you want to stem, but then I have no convincing alternative strategy. The actual Buddhists are pretty limited when it comes to pedagogy. But the core stories are cool; if they weren’t, you wouldn’t be the non-Buddhist. Your remarks about Buddhism and politics are especially suggestive. I have left morning group meditations to go Occupy Oakland and it’s not a smooth and easy transition. But it should be. Buddha was a 1%er who saw a little bit about the 99% and flipped out. We could use a re-telling in a contemporary idiom. Not one that emphasizes Sangha, “perfect society” values, but a version that takes off from where Buddha took off in the first place. Buddha in blue jeans. Neil Patrick Harris. What Buddha was — a radical educational force.

    This is all a tricky argument, saying Buddhism is politically naive or worse. Institutional forms of Buddhism have made nice with the powers-that-be Most of the time throughout its history. Just because someone is a moderate-to-conservative doesn’t mean they have no politics. But this is precisely why your non-Buddhism is needed — to break through all that institutional imperative that’s grown up and smash it before it takes deep roots here — which is a danger. Small Buddhist groups all over proclaim their lineage, like it’s just obviously a good thing. I’m not so sure. Because, to say it again, I think we need to re-tell the Buddha story not the Buddhism story, with Neil Patrick Harris.

  22. Tom Pepper said


    I agree that Buddha saw how his society worked and wanted to reject it, and that retelling the story could help restore its radical pedagogical potential.

    But, why Doogie Howser?

  23. tom, nickel said

    You’re behind on your pop culture Tom. NPH is a lot more than Doogie. Yes, I was just having fun juxtaposing Buddha thoughts with contemporary references — but he is the consummate entertainer who could pull it off. Keanu Reeves would have been a more obvious choice. I should have known that the people attracted to this blog might not be so up on Neil Patrick Harris’ career.

  24. Tom Pepper said

    You mean Ted from “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”? Keanu Reeves couldn’t act dead if you shot him.

    How about Radical Buddha: the graphic novel?

  25. stoky said

    As promised, here are some thoughts about possible reasons for confusion.

    – Confusion about the term Non-Buddhism

    On the one hand it’s pretty obvious that “Non-Buddhism” is not another Buddhism, but that’s not the full truth. Think about it: Theravada-Buddhism, Zen-Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Secular Buddhism, Non-Buddhism…

    One could easily think that you’re trying to develop a new form of Buddhism. And the following quote supports this:

    “Non-buddhism is acutely interested in the uses of Buddhist teaching, but in a way that remains unbeholden to—and hence, unbound by and unaccountable to—the norms that govern those teachings.”

    So one problem, in my opinion is that you mix analysis with creation. In “Mindful Lobotomy” you criticize the rhetoric of some mindfulness texts. Fair enough. But then you also criticize the teachings itself.

    It’s one thing to criticize that a text allows a certain interpretation. It’s another to say that this is the intended interpretation and that therefore the text is wrong (rather than being not well-written). That’s

    – Different approaches

    The next problem is that most people have a different approach to Buddhism. When I first read a text of Matthias that criticized Tibetan Buddhism I thought “Well, if he doesn’t like Tibetan Buddhism, why doesn’t he just dig into another kind of Buddhism?”. Of course that was stupid and lead to some confusion, but that’s because I for myself at that point was looking for a form of Buddhism I could relate to. It was stupid to assume that Matthias did the same, but that’s what people do… (Also, from my experience, people like me are the majority and people like you and Matthias are a minority).

    Finally, you could argue that this shouldn’t be a problem because you have long detailed explanations of everything at your blog. But seriously, on the web, nobody reads tons of material before commenting. That might be the third problem.

    – Complexity

    If you want people to read ten pages before they comment, maybe you should think about having people to register before they comment or something alike. You could also have a disclaimer like “please make sure to read … before commenting” or something like this. But of course this will stop some people from commenting (don’t know whether that’s good or bad).

    Another possibility is to make sure that your texts are readable even for people who stumbled upon this blog for the first time. I have no idea what’s right and wrong here, but maybe this helps you to clarify things when clarification is needed.

  26. Vimala said

    I like your cheek – but why start with Althusser when you are talking about the social construction of science? and wonder have you read Sue Hamilton’s book on Early Buddhism and the I of the Beholder?

  27. Joe said

    I read the comments on the articles and reflect upon the many x-buddhists trying, with blunt reasoning, to defend something.

    I think the point of the blog is not to deliver another holy truth to compete with x-buddhism and to win a crowd of believers. I guess this blog only tries to make the intellect free enough to actually inquiry x-buddhism. Regarding the ideas presented on the blog: the value does not lie in the ideas themselves, but in the potency the multitude of ideas have to change the readers perspective. The resoning here is clear enough to allow me to play with my perspectives. X-buddhist litterature does not allow me to play with perspectives, because the reasoning is not clear and instead seem to rely upon some “truth” collectively aggreed upon.

    Thank you for this experiment!

  28. Hi–or let me say–Hey, Joe, thanks for joining us here.

    I agree with you, which means: you are exactly right! I do want the ideas on this blog to be played with, applied, put to the test, held up next to the x-buddhistic data. And you are right that once I start claiming to have gotten hold of some truth, or some better-than-the-others interpretation of x-buddhism, we are sunk here.

    A recent exchange with someone on another blog was about this same point. So, I’ll share it here (it’s from last night):

    A commenter named Dial said that I seem “to be performing exactly as the object of [my[ own critique, – a default hyper-reflexivity to a ‘Non-Buddhism – rather than ‘Buddhism’ -’ that clatters around within the same small container of moves without really seeming to take us anywhere much.”

    I replied: “I do want the theory itself to remain a small container, like those five-gram glass vials that hash oil comes in. In other words: not much in there, but enough to radically fuck with your perspective–in a fun way! Still, I’d like to hear more of what prompted your comment. Relatedly, you say here that you suspect that “SNB is far more doctrinaire than it imagines itself to be.” What do you mean?Are you referring to the heuristic? I am indeed trying to create a method that others can use–can hold up to the x-buddhist data. That part is probably doctrinaire-ish in that it’s a prescribed method. Is that what you’re referring to?”

    The greatest irony, Joe–and, I don’t mind saying it, the biggest lie–of x-buddhism is that it peddles liberation as it binds up its adherents in…The Dharma.

    When you see a holy truth being proclaimed here, please, pass the hash on over…


  29. solxyz said

    So it seems you think that there might be something interesting or useful about buddhism but that buddhism itself restricts or limits that usefulness. You would like to be able to utilize something that you find within buddhism without having to accept all the baggage of being a buddhist. Ok, that sounds very reasonable. But now come to the point: what in particular seems interesting or valuable? Why not just forget about Buddhism altogether? Or, if want to remain non-commital, or if the whole project is too experimental to say for sure at this point, could you sketch out a few potentially interesting or valuable non-buddhisms and indicate why they are interesting. Otherwise you might give the impression that you are mostly interested in being a pompous canker on the buddhist world.

  30. Solxyz (#29). Read around, please. This site is full of examples of what can be done with x-buddhist materials using non-buddhist ideas. That’s different, though, than “a non-buddhism.” We’re not up to a reformulation of Buddhism. We’re creating tools for critiquing it. The rest is up to you.

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