“What are we to make of Western Buddhism?”
So Glenn Wallis begins the introduction of his new book A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real. Semantically, this question may be viewed as asking two quite different things. The first way to view this question is to read it diagnostically or perhaps sociologically: “How should we understand what Western Buddhism is?”
The second is to take the question literally: “What can be made—manufactured—of Western Buddhism? Can anything be made of it at all, or has it so utterly decayed into an embarrassment of an anti-intellectual circus? A Critique takes to the task of answering, or at least proposing answers to, both of these questions, simultaneously presenting an absolutely devastating critique to Buddhism while yet forgoing final judgement as to Buddhism’s ultimate veracity.
There are a number of approaches one could take in waging a critique of Western Buddhism. The ones that have been taken thus far have all operated from one of two positions; the first being from within Buddhism itself (the reformist critique) and the second from without Buddhism (the deconstructive critique). This has led to essentially endless iterations of the same few critiques, repackaged in different rhetorical forms. Much of the writing on this blog fits either of these categories. What is stimulating about Glenn’ critique, originating from the work at his blog Speculative Non-Buddhism and laid out systematically in this book, is that it takes an altogether fresh direction, one which operates neither from a reformist nor a deconstructive agenda.
In A Critique, Wallis is not attempting to explicate Buddhist thought so as to restore Buddhism to the glory of an historical Buddha’s ideological authenticity, nor is he aiming to reject Buddhism altogether. In fact, it is precisely the former two exercises that he wants to expose as being a problem with Buddhist discourse—and indeed, in a sense, philosophical discourse—in general. As such, A Critique functions in some sense as a kind of socio-philosophical survey of Buddhist thought, the goal of which is simply to demonstrate how Buddhism as such functions ideologically and, moreover, to suggest innovative ways of using Buddhist material rather than of creating new forms of Buddhism itself.
Having read through the book a second time I can say without hesitation that A Critique of Western Buddhism is one of the most important books ever written on the subject of Buddhism—certainly the most important in the decades since Buddhism has established itself as an ideological resident here in the West. It is also probably the most difficult book ever written on Buddhism. Any Buddhist practitioner used to the sluggish dross found in your local Barnes & Noble Religion or Psychology/Self-Help section will no doubt find this work either seriously disillusioning or impenetrably incomprehensible; there is no alternative. Those who are aware of and resonant with previous critiques of Western Buddhism will find it both actively challenging and refreshingly stimulating.
The structure of the book itself is important; it is divided into three parts, each consisting of several chapters. I have decided to review the book more or less as it is structured, focusing on what I take to be the key points presented.
A quick note: While I do not expect much of the reader other than good-faith engagement, curiosity, and willingness to consider other ways of conceptualizing their spiritual practice, there is one thing which I consider to be absolutely necessary for such an engagement to be more than a waste of time. We must agree, at the outset, that our interest in Buddhism stems from a commitment to reduce the suffering of sentient beings here and now on this planet. (The previous is a sentence that is itself problematic within the context of a Buddhist blog, in that it inevitably appears as an attempt to “point toward” the Real, as we shall see.) I therefore expect that the reader is not interested in relying on any deities, fairies, or magical powers, only on human practice. Most Buddhists I’ve encountered will insist on as much. They will say that this is what Buddhism is all about: the concrete, here-and-now of human suffering. But I most often find that they inevitably flinch from this instance and retreat into otherworldly transcendence, often unaware that they are doing so. This is, in fact, a big crux of Wallis’ critique. Let us then set the intention to do whatever we can to avoid such a flinch.
Without further ado… on to the review!
In the first chapters, Wallis exerts great effort in carefully, though briefly, raising a number of common critiques against Western Buddhism, following them up with the assertion that, valid and important as these critiques are, they are not the critique of his book. The opening chapter, “The Snares of Wisdom,” consists largely of discussions regarding Western Buddhism in consumer culture, Buddhist Modernism, the corporate “hijacking” of mindfulness (i.e. McMindfulness), Western Buddhism’s complicity with neoliberal and capitalist ideologies and aims… all of which should be familiar to readers of the Speculative Non-buddhism blog.
My favorite part of the Wisdom chapter is when the old mighty rhetorical trickster named “Wisdom” is dragged out in front of a jury—though it is not one consisting of its robe wearing, bell-ringing, chanting-and-ohm-ing peers. No, the trickster must here face up against the likes of Žižek (“Wisdom is the most disgusting thing you a imagine”) and that little old logical foundation known as the law of non-contradiction. A high crime of Wisdom rhetoric is that it “is a shape-shifting zombie,” making the Wise Master “unbeholden to the conventions of every day speech,” and therefore unquestionable, since she is “excluded from the economy of symbolic exchange.” Glenn, contrary to a previous review which appeared in Lion’s Roar magazine, provides quite a bit of primary source material from the Buddhist field to show how spoken wisdom is really used to speak of… well, nothing at all.
Yet the poverty of Wisdom critique is, in Wallis’ view, mere low-hanging fruit. This and the other above themes (Western Buddhism and neoliberalism, New Age Idealism, ego-psychology, and so on) have been covered extensively elsewhere, and Wallis wants to argue that these critiques are not as decisive as the Laurellian critique, on which the book is founded, could manage to be. I would like to point out that, while this chapter mostly reiterates the already-existing body of critiques against Buddhism, and thus mostly serves as something like a review or warm-up chapter to the rest of the book, I think it serves as a perfect set-up for the very important double question posed toward the end of the it, which is answered in the later parts of the book:
What kind of subjectivity are we dealing with when we deal with contemporary Western Buddhists? That is, what conditions have given shape to the people who in turn give shape to Western Buddhism?
This double question is essential to the topic of Buddhism. If we keep in mind that we are, as humans, always operating within ideology, and that our subjectivity is produced through material-social conditions in the world, then this should prove quite helpful later on when we get into the more exotic concepts appropriated by Laurelle, which are later employed in the book.
In starting to read the second chapter, “Specters of the Real,” I couldn’t help but imagine the tropey image of a psychoanalyst’s office. Laying with its back on the couch you have Buddhism; Wallis, wearing Lacan’s iconic bow-tie and Freudian cigar in hand, occupies the analyst’s chair. Buddhism has got some serious issues to sort out. It has been on a continuous repression spree that has erupted in a neurosis of intellectual and moral bankruptcy everywhere it has stepped foot. Glenn is arguing here that Buddhist thought contains within it concepts of the Real. (Recall that the Real is that which is currently representationally excluded, omitted, disallowed, from a given symbolic system.) However, “the noun ‘Buddhism’ indexes an historical failure to unleash the force of demanding thought, much less emancipatory thought” which Buddhism claims for itself. Though little should be needed for anyone who has spent any time at all engaging in Buddhist communities, Wallis provides ample evidence of the term “sunyata” (translated by him as void, nihility, zeroness) being the favorite buzzword of Western Buddhists. And yet, sunyata can never, for the love of Buddha, ever actually mean what it in fact means. Buddhism’s own term for the Real must be disavowed: “burrowed within the celebratory life-affirming discourse of contemporary Western Buddhism is the destabilizing presence of ‘the rhetorical unconscious.’”
What, then, is Buddhism’s psychosocial diagnosis? Here the first explicitly Laurellian concept is put to work in the critique of Buddhism: “the principle of sufficient buddhism.” When I first learned of this heuristic from Glenn’s earlier writings, it became immediately clear to me that not only had I been unconsciously adhering to the principle for my whole x-buddhist career, but that so was every single member, teacher, and even causal practitioner of every single Buddhist community I’d ever spent time in. My initial impression of Buddhism upon subjectification, as it was informed by the likes of Joseph Goldstein, Sam Harris, The Buddhist Geeks—all of the “hip” Dharma crowd—was indeed that “Buddhism presents an extravagant, seemingly endless, inventory of items bearing on human existence.”
The principle of sufficient buddhism is an assumption, or something like an operation, that poses Buddhism as the primary epistemic repertoire and cognitive lens through which to assess, well… literally anything. We may easily roll our eyes at the quacks writing books about how the Buddha predicted quantum theory and how neuroscience is only now, 2,500 years past schedule, merely discovering what the Buddha had already said before the discovery of germ theory. But who among us hasn’t at one point or another indulged in a bit of fantasy regarding Buddhism’s capacity for illuminating the human concerns of psychology, ethics, and knowledge? I would argue that the first step toward becoming disenchanted with Buddhism—a key destination along any honest path of ideological or spiritual inquiry—is the recognition of, and thus the cessation of, one’s before invisible adherence to the principle of sufficient Buddhism. That requires understanding how this sufficiency is posited, and Glenn spends a good deal of (necessary) ink detailing its function.
Crucially, such sufficiency is self-posited, for it “dictates that Western Buddhism, in every inquiry into or contestation of of knowledge, intractably posits itself, it’s own premises, values, recommendations, conclusions, and so on” [emphasis Wallis’]. Think “digital dharma” movements (ala Buddhist Geeks et al.), which assume that Buddhism is uniquely prescient and relevant to regulating modern technological life; environmental Buddhisms and engaged Buddhisms (ala Thich Nhat Hanh et al.), which assume that Buddhism provides the best possible insight into matters of social justice; and so on. When this heuristic is applied, I would agree with Glenn that this principle of sufficiency can be see operating everywhere in the Buddhist world, even unconsciously.
Related to the principle of sufficient buddhism—and we’ll jump ahead a bit for the sake of cohesion—are the other two main Laurellian concepts employed in Glenn’s critique. The first is the term “x-buddhism,” which is meant to point to the singular identity shared by all forms of Buddhism. “[Buddhism] (i) splinters into innumerable variables (as some x), and yet, somewhat counterintuitively (ii) it repeats itself incessantly (as Buddhism).” Wherever the term “Buddhism” or “Western Buddhism” appears in the book, it should be read as “x-buddhism.” What is shared between all x-buddhisms is an operation termed decision, another central concept from Laurelle. Decision, briefly, consists of a scission of immanence into part immanence and part transcendence. That is to say, in the case of x-buddhism, the x-buddhist system of thought presents itself as bearing on immanent human concerns, and yet, in order to justify its own descriptions and prescriptions, it must in the end ground this bearing transcendentally—and, in this case, that transcendental grounding is “the Dharma.” As such, x-buddhism is both circular and self-grounding. “The Dharma” posits an articulation of the immanent world that is epistemologically guaranteed by itself: “Specularity ensures that the world becomes, for the Western Buddhist, the mirror of Western Buddhism.”
For myself, the concepts of decision and specularity are the most decisive part of the entire critique, for it exposes an operation that is at once central to Buddhism at large and, by definition, unconscious to it. The Buddhist looks at suffering and sees dukkha—with its entire intertwined symbolic apparatus— reflected back to him. She looks at desire, and sees taṇhā—with its entire intertwined symbolic apparatus—reflected back to her. Crucially, moreover, decision is performed unconsciously on the part of the x-buddhist subject. The book contains a much more detailed and helpful description of decision. For our purposes, I want to turn to a concrete example of what Buddhism does through both decision and its claim to sufficiency.
In the third chapter Glenn takes on Buddhism’s claim to some privileged articulation of the Real. Glenn points to a number of Buddhist concepts, such as anatman (translated as self-void), dukkha-taṇhā (translated as suffering-desire), and sunyata (translated as nihility), which Buddhism “[holds] to index . . . a feature of reality so fundamental to human existence” that our only hope at liberation is coming to understand them clearly. But Wallis argues that Buddhists invariably refuse to grant the implications of the very terms they articulate. For example, let’s return to the example of sunyata. Wallis shows how this “emptiness” is pretty much always turned into the opposite after being articulated by Buddhist teachers. Whereas emptiness denotes a dark infinite void at the heart of all phenomena, “emptiness”—which inevitably becomes “fullness” when wielded by Buddhists—denotes an idealistic field of potentiality, a buddha nature, or something along those lines. For Buddhists, emptiness becomes something to be celebrated rather than being conducive to disenchantment:
Having bored perhaps too far into emptiness for ideological comfort, our teachers, bound too quickly and too easily into the opposite direction, toward the fullness of some-thing along with its incumbent idealist cure.
This “misturning” of a term pointing to a Real, or as Glenn alternately refers to it as a Buddhist “parapraxis,” happens just as well with the other examples. Note that anatman is generally taken by Buddhists to mean atman, and the suffering that constitutes human existence (as diagnosed by Buddhism itself) is oddly replaced by Buddhists with an assertion of the inherent beauty of life, of “direct experience” and “the present moment.” In pointing out this flinch Glenn makes perhaps one of the most ambitious claims in the book, which I will consider important enough to quote at length (all emphases Wallis’ own):
I hold that what I am highlighting here amounts to a discovery, one that, moreover, will be replicated by readers of Western Buddhist material who employ this heuristic of the [parapraxis]. To be clear, I hold that the reader will make this discovery for himself or herself with every single Western Buddhist instantiation . . . No author writing under the signifier Buddhism, including its numerous subsignifiers, such as Western Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Secular Buddhism, Mindfulness, and so on, is exempt from my assertion. The reason . . . is that the misturning is, it turns out, endemic to the very identity of “Buddhism.” . . . the parapraxis of misturning is a sine qua non of Buddhist teaching, thought, and practice.
Again, this is quite an ambitious claim, yet I must say I have yet to find any counterexamples. This kind of flinch from sunyata, from anatman, and from dukkha is characteristic of every single Buddhist book or teaching that I have ever come across in my entire life. Furthermore, every single critical review of A Critique thus far flung out of the flailing machinery of the x-buddhistic decision mill has failed to point out a single instance of an x-buddhist material’s failure to perform such a parapraxis.
This brings us to the most interesting and important parts of the book, the chapters on non-buddhism and practice. Here Glenn turns our attention to the second reading of the question posed at the very beginning of the book, pointing to an innovative way of using Buddhist material. There’s no easy way to say this, but I am skeptical that anyone who properly considers themselves a Buddhist will be able to stomach what Glenn is proposing here. Only after the requisite disenchantment with Buddhism is discovered—which is synonymous with a discovery of decision, sufficiency, and the principle of specularity—can one even begin to understand, let alone practice, something like non-buddhism. Yet, in my view, if Buddhist material is to be tenable at all in the court of critical human ideological practice—indeed, if it is to survive—it can be used only after being put through the Laurellian process of rendering it insufficient and axiomatized. Glenn does not want to do away with Buddhist material altogether; that is all too easy. The common response to non-buddhism that questions why its advocates don’t merely shut up about Buddhism if they don’t think it is sufficient precisely misses the entire point here. The point is that, like Buddhism, no system of thought is sufficient. And yet, contrary to much of Buddhist rhetoric, we are stuck with thought. And we are, moreover, lucky to be stuck with thought, for it is only through thought that we can be the kinds of animals we are: human beings who can communicate symbolically and create social practices which collectively reduce suffering. Glenn does in fact argue that Buddhism contains useful thought, but it is (possibly) useful, and not sufficient. So he proposes using Buddhist material, but only axiomatically, which is to say as-if it is what it claims it is—a system of thought capable of indexing a Real (or Reals) of human reality. It is not a matter here of deciding on the correctness/incorrectness of Buddhist thought, for “[t]he antimony correct/incorrect requires a decision both in the weak version of deciding for or against some theory of x, and in the strong version of necessarily grounding, whether explicitly or not, that decision in criteria that are not given in the x.” That is to say, to accept or to reject Buddhist thought as “correct” requires some (excess) transcendental grounding, which is, recall, what we want to avoid. What would it look like if we used Buddhist material not under the assumption of sufficiency, yet in a way that allows us to “[unleash] the full force of its liberating thought?”
To imagine such a usage, Glenn invites us to consider a way of engaging with Buddhist material—indeed, any symbolic material—as “stranger subject[s].” Admittedly, it often fails to remain clear to me exactly what such stranger subjectivity would entail, even moments after I feel I have grasped what Glenn, and Laurelle, are pointing toward. What is crucial is that the stranger subject has not, “like some sort of secular mystic . . . seen the face of the inscrutable Real and thereby obtained stranger enlightenment.” In the x-buddhist image of thought, the x-buddhist subject is defined by a symbolic apparatus that aims to determine the Real, rather than acting from the Real. While the x-buddhist’s “dukkha” aims to determine the human Real of suffering, the stranger’s—or the non-buddhist’s—“dukkha” operates from the opposite direction, in that it is constrained and determined, in the last instance, by that Real. Where I get tripped up, and I think this is somewhat in line with Tom Pepper’s disagreement with Glenn over Laurelle, is that I am tempted to say that, in fact, it is precisely the symbolic “dukkha” that constructs both the x-buddhist subject and her suffering—which is to say, her Real! If our ideologies are what construct our subjectivity, what does it mean to act with a directionality from the Real, as opposed to the Real being determined, as the subject is, by the ideology which constructs the latter? What is perfectly clear to me is that I am, as a subject, at least partially, constructed by capitalism. Any Real which is an effect of capitalist ideology—the aporias, contradictions, etc, that arise from it—is determined by capitalism itself, and hence any sense that could be made of these things will necessarily have to employ capitalist ideological symbolism, though there are certainly other discourses which could shed more light on those aporias (in fact, those would be just as necessary). Even so, my interpellation into a new discourse is simply picking up another ideology and another symbolic network.
Perhaps the point is to perpetually be suspicious of any such symbolic network’s claim to sufficiency, and to be on guard and alert to its decisional apparatus. For me, this has been the most useful parts of Laurelle—and Glenn’s—work. As an x-buddhist—given x-buddhism’s specularity—when I experienced suffering, I experienced dukkha. There are two ways to understand this. One could say that what I experienced was the human Real of suffering which is independent of x-buddhism’s symbolic overdetermination of it, as “dukkha.” That is to say that dukkha, as a symbolic ideological item wrapped in the veil of sufficiency, attempted to lay claim to what it has no jurisdiction over as a representational—and hence, insufficient—thing. Another way to view this, however, would be to say that the symbolic apparatus of x-buddhism, in its construction of me as an x-buddhist subject, was also constructive of that very experience of suffering. That is, I could not have experienced that suffering were it not for its construction by the ideology of x-buddhism. This is where I find myself stuck. I’m not sure if I’ve made this distinction clear, but to me it is one which is absolutely decisive in determining what it would mean to practice without falling prey to atomist assumptions.
A buddhofiction—from Laurelle’s philofiction—is the name Glenn gives to such a usage, or non-usage, of x-buddhist material. A buddhofiction is, in Genn’s words, “an ideology constructed out of x-material run through the anti-decisional machinery and slapped with the warrant of insufficient.” I really like the idea of buddhofictions. I’ve found it very useful, and I enjoyed the examples given at the end of the book which, to my mind, were the most perplexing and fascinating portions of it. If we agree that x-buddhism is already fiction, then the concept of the buddhofiction presents a novel kind of practice. X-buddhism is merely fiction with decision, while non-buddhism is fiction without decision. I’ve enjoyed toying around with writing buddhofictions myself. And yet, the lingering question still remains as an itch that seems impossible to scratch: what is it that we are actually doing when doing such a practice? From my own couple of first attempts at writing buddhofiction, I can say that I found it to be an interesting exercise to use Buddhist material in an “insufficient” way. The freedom allows for the construction of material that could not be constructed under the gaze of decision and sufficiency. At the same time, each attempt, at the end, left me feeling disappointed. Perhaps it is something that, as a practice, must actually be practiced. Perhaps the dissatisfaction comes from the fact that there are simply not many people who understand what a buddhofiction even is, as evidenced by the comments on both my pieces and the other buddhofictions on Glenn’s site.
In any case, I’m left wondering whether the sense of insufficiency in my own attempts at non-buddhist practice is something to be mourned or celebrated. There is a very jolting concreteness and finality to the kind of disenchantment Glenn masterfully sparks with his writing, and which comes with critical ideological practice (and, one might argue, Buddhist practice) on the whole. In any case, there is one thing I absolutely cannot say: that it hasn’t been a hell of a ride, and that this book hasn’t been a significant part of my own development in practice—whatever that word may mean. I genuinely believe that engaging with A Critique should be a part of any serious and self-aware Buddhist practice. I initially suspected, as I’m sure Wallis did, that most Buddhists will simply be incapable of grasping his arguments. This suspicion has since been evidenced by the reviews that have come out since the book’s publication. My guess is that this is because most practice Buddhism as a form of therapy, whereas the kind of practice that is required for an authentic engagement with this critique is one whose aim is to remove ignorance (an ostensibly Buddhist goal). The mistake is in assuming that these two things are synonymous—that is, that stripping ourselves of our illusions is a therapeutic enterprise in the sense of being productive of a a state of well-being. On the contrary, having our illusions exposed should often, if not by definition, be an uncomfortable experience. One must therefore be willing to risk inevitable discomfort in order to really engage with the material in this book. What I think I can easily promise, however, is that such discomfort, if allowed to do its work, will be more rewarding than any of the self-affirming Positive Buddhism material that A Critique of Western Buddhism unfortunately shares a genre with.