On Demands For An “Alternative”

I want to briefly address a particular strain of criticism that commonly sprouts from those “critical” of critical Buddhist thought. This critique is less of an actual critique, and more of a sort of deflection, one which functions as no more than a justification for the Western Buddhist status quo. I have heard such criticism directed at myself, though it is the same old one that can be found seeping throughout the comment sections on the Speculative Non-Buddhism site.

This kind of, what one might call reactionary, critique usually comes in the form of the following question: “If you hate Western Buddhism so much, why don’t you present a viable alternative?”

This question seems to function as traffic spikes aimed at veering any and all critical thought toward Buddhism off its course. Indeed, this very same question is leveled against any and all critiques of capitalist discourse more generally. Whatever it may be defending in any particular instance, it’s important to get something clear here. There is no alternative. That, in my view, is the entire point, indeed the essential fatality of, the non-buddhist critiques more broadly (though perhaps other actors within non-buddhism might disagree).

What do I mean that there is no alternative? I mean that this very lust for an “alternative”for some innovative, shiny, new and improved, version of Buddhismis precisely what will haunt Buddhism to and in its grave. Traditional Buddhism won’t cut it? Well, why not try MBSR! Secular Buddhism! Modernist Buddhism! Or [x]-Buddhism!this right here is the very problem which we are desperately trying to escape. And when I say “escape”, I do not mean “solve”, in the sense that we should find something better, some final answer. Because final answers are a fantasy.

To use a particularly problematic Buddhist phrase, “there’s nowhere to go.” However, contrary to the clause that typically precedes that one, there is plenty to do. To state my point another way, there will never be any final answer as to what is to be done with Buddhism. The appropriate answer to “what is the alternative?” is exactly the refusal to offer any alternatives, to make questioning and critiquing a never-ending project.

Furthermore, what makes this question problematic is that it presupposes a fact about the way social practices work that does not accord with how they actually work in the world. Which is a nice way of saying that it is deluded.

Those who ask for an “alternative” appear to be under the impression that some genius(es) sitting at home can figure all this shit out. But, to borrow from Western Buddhist rhetoric again, Buddhism is not philosophy (or, rather, it is not what many people apparantly think philosophy is; an isolated, individualist practice). Buddhism is, fundamentally, a social practice. This means that there cannot possibly be a final answer. There cannot be any answers, only practices. And social practices are by definition things that must constantly be acted out, critiqued, developed, explored, and challanged. Otherwise they become religious rituals, which, let’s recall, “the Buddha”, whoever he was, did not find sufficient in reducing suffering.

So let it be agreed that what we are doing here is not looking for answers, but learning to change our practices, without knowing in advance exactly what the right practices are, what the final answer is. What is absolutely clear at this point is that current dominant forms of Buddhism (and capitalism) are unsustainable. They cause immense amounts of suffering. So what are the alternatives? There are none, but the least we can do is try something else—anything else!—and see what happens.

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4 thoughts on “On Demands For An “Alternative”

  1. This is a constant refrain whenever anyone offers critique. But really, if someone’s house is on fire, are you obliged to build them another one before you tell them to get out? I don’t think you are.

    What I have argued often over the years is that what people want, when the raise this complaint, is to avoid being made aware of the negative consequences of the practices that give them comfort. They want Buddhism to provide a means of going on being good, affluent, greedy, narcissistic capitalists, with good salaries and nice houses and big SUVs, while feeling good about themselves, even feeling superior to others who don’t spend time sitting and zoning out every day.

    That is, what they want is a useful capitalist ideology, and so they complain about anything that doesn’t offer them that. If you suggest the “alternative” might be to get involved in social activism, or environmentalism, or starting a socialist political party…they would’t find this an alternative exactly because what they want is a good, easy, enjoyable ideology of capitalism. Something that makes them feel superior, and requires little real effort. Not something that makes them feel responsible and requires hard work.

    Anyway, critique just IS an alternative. It is a practice, one that has sometimes been a Buddhist practice in the past. It works to break attachments and

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    1. Indeed. Buddhists are very fond of talking about “groundlessness” etc, yet they desperately cling to the grounds of x-buddhism and consumer capitalism. There’s real discomfort in questioning your assumptions and considering the ways in which you might be deluded, especially so if you aren’t given any new ground to stand on. Of course, the problem being that any such “ground” will necessarily have to function as a way of reproducing the problematic ideology. If I gained anything from my Buddhist practice, it was learning to resist the urge to attatch to some new ground. To watch Buddhists do the complete opposite would be amusing if it wansn’t the cause of so much suffering.

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  2. What I’m hoping for is that we an produce an new “ground to stand on,” an new ideology, that is less problematic. I don’t believe all ideologies are necessarily bad—that’s why we should always examine ours to figure out if it is.

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