What is non-buddhism?


The full answer to this question is given in A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real. The book is available on Open Access for free. Go here.

Here’s the short version.

The work of François Laruelle has given impetus to my specific formulation of “non-buddhism.” To use an analog suggested by Laruelle himself, 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!

See Matthew O’Connell’s thoughtful, well-informed overview, “What is Non-Buddhism,” at The Imperfect Buddha blog.

See also my most complete treatment of non-buddhism, A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real. Read for free–it’s open source!

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.”

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