Show Notes 9.2 Glenn Wallis Interview
Why would a modern day Buddhist engage with the work of non-Buddhism? Why bother to be forced to question your relationship with Buddhism? Why risk destabilising the status quo? Why not carry on as usual? If the last episode didn’t convince you, maybe the man who started the thing will.
The instigator of the non-Buddhism project graces the Imperfect Buddha podcast with his presence and with such rich material and such a sharp mind, we couldn’t contain everything in a single episode. Glenn’s interview straddles two episodes and the development of ideas across them. The humanity shines through and for those who may have been unsettled when approaching the revolutionary work at the Speculative non-Buddhism site, the content of the podcast may be surprising.
This is not to say there has been any loss of the sharp critique many will be familiar with, non-Buddhism has work to do and there is no shying away from its powerful insights. Part of what emerges in our discussion is the need to go further: to question, to reflect, to delve, to think it all through and appreciate the limits of what we know, and pretend to know.
Throughout, we talk about the speculative non-Buddhism heuristic and expand on many of the topics we touched on in our last episode. We also cover the how of applying non-Buddhism as a form of practice and to thinking critically about Buddhism, the relationship between the individual and society, and the changes that can take place when non-philosophy is applied.
Glenn Wallis Bio
Glenn holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Harvard University’s Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies. His scholarly work focuses on various aspects of Buddhism. For a long time, he was concerned with how to make classical Buddhist literature, philosophy, and practice relevant to contemporary life.
His recent work is best summed up in the title for a book he is currently writing for Bloomsbury: A Critique of Western Buddhism: The Self-Help Myth with critique drawing from François Laruelle’s non-philosophy and Peter Sloterdijk’s anthropotechnic.
Since the early 1990s, he has taught in the religion departments of several universities, including the University of Georgia (where he received tenure), Brown University, Bowdoin College, and the Rhode Island School of Design and the Won Institute of Graduate Studies.
Imperfect Buddha episode 9.1 on non-Buddhism: https://soundcloud.com/post-traditional-buddhism/91-imperfect-buddha-podcast-meets-non-buddhism
Speculative Non-Buddhism website: https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/about-2/
Glenn Wallis’ personal site: http://glennwallis.com/
Non + X journal: http://www.nonplusx.com/
Ruin interview: http://www.lionsroar.com/meet-ruin-the-first-buddhist-punk-band/
Cruel Theory Sublime Practice: https://www.eyecornerpress.com/?p=418
Episode music by Bristol (UK) based post-punk band Idles. Follow the links for more great music and tour dates;
Give us David Chapman!
Eventually, even that may happen. For now, enjoy his mention on nearly every episode!
Give us David Chapman!
Great interview, thanks. Can you please elaborate more on the concept of looking “out” as opposed to “in” ?
There seems to be a Buddhist meme that looking in will eventually provide insight on what is out there. Writing that down the contradiction seems evident.
Anatman points toward an artifical distinction of in and out. I wonder if meditation has largely “done it’s job” by that point. Is meditation limited to looking in ?
I’m interested if meditation can lead to an experience of the processes that construct the self. I suspect the process of identification is so profoundly a part of being an animal that we can only hope to re-orient it, not eliminate it.
Another angle I’ve had some success with is Jung’s concept of Shadow and Shadow Work. This can offer an analytical method for reframing contemplation. It is still looking in but provides a different framework than Buddhism, seeming to embrace many experiences that Buddhism tends to avoid.
Often when I think of meditation it is in the context of insight meditation or mindfulness. Contemplation reminds me that we can combine meditation and critical thought. It makes me think of koan practises (that I’ve not done). Meditating on a question without being distracted by answers seems a profound way of thinking.
This is a theme we will touch on in the next series of episodes which will be looking at post-traditional Buddhism so I’ll keep my reply short. It’s such a rich topic so there’s much that could be said but speaking from my own experience, I would say that the dichotomy of looking out and/or in is fundamentally flawed. They are merely directions for looking, perceiving and enquiring. They are not ends in any way. Looking in is often categorised as navel gazing for good reason but it doesn’t have to be a retreat into the magical self.
As far as meditation is concerned, there are a multitude of ways of conceptualising and then practicing and this goes for the notion of inward or outward looking. I see meditation as most interesting when it’s based on the elaboration of one’s experiential relationship to immediate experience, which can initially appear to be directed inwards or outwards. In this case, this dichotomy can become a basis for creative exploration in which the internal/external distinction is used to gain perspective on one’s experience; what is me/mine, what patterns are underlying my difficulties, attachments, frustrations, etc, are aspects of self worth exploring, deconstructing and liberating. But, such a divide is a tool or method that eventually runs its course. It is certainly most useful when coupled with dialogical inquiry, which could be used to deconstruct the patterns of mental and emotional content. This may resonate with the Jungian practice you mentioned. Elaborating further on any of this really only makes sense in the context of a specific practice with a specific intent.
As for identification, well, there are liberational practices that provide specific forms of freedom from. I believe we can continue to disidentify until the impulse of self remains as that and appears quite transparent. We certainly can’t escape our physiology but there is tremendous room for movement. You might want to take a look at a piece I wrote related on this:
As for contemplation, I believe it’s highly underrated and poorly used by most Buddhists who use it to affirm Buddhist truisms, or retreat into the self. It’s an incredibly powerful practice when coupled with training in attention, focus and deep honesty.
Regarding SNB and critical Buddhism generally: is it possible that critical non-Buddhists are just as perfectionistic about Buddhism as the many x-Buddhist devotees that they (we) critique? Are we critical of Buddhism because we unconsciously expect it to be perfect, to have all the answers, to solve all our problems, to deliver us total enlightenment? And yet because we know that Buddhism fails to do any of that, then we critique it to shreds or reject it completely? Are we angry because Buddhism fails our ideals and expectations? Is it possible for us to be satisfied with a “good enough” Buddhism? Not a “sufficient” Buddhism that has all the answers, but a “good enough” Buddhism that is at least in the ballpark of ‘good enough’ answers to life’s difficult questions? and that maybe points the way to where more questions and answers can be found?
I don’t think so, Shaun. I think there’s too much willful blindness in a practice so steeped in tradition. Willful blindness may be too harsh a term, but I mean to describe the way in which one must accept certain presuppositions to become part of the community, however Westernized or balanced between east/west it claims to be. The only way in my opinion to fully engage with the whole variety of human knowledge/experience and the ‘Dukkha’ that Buddhism set out to address is to take a step back from all the context and presuppositions where Buddhism formed and try and see what holds up even under scrutiny from outside perspectives, notably critical theory. This is not to expect perfection of Buddhsim but rather to take as axiomatic the assumption that any system that has been around for that length of time is likely to have built up all sorts of fantastical distortions of an honest, and ultimately holistic experience of one’s humanity, the mind’s tendency to escape hardness or difficulty being what it is (a second axiom, perhaps).
I agree with you there, Corey, that critical theory is where we break down the ideals (ideologies) that construct the willful blindness of a mythical Buddhism. But I think what we discover in the process is our own unconscious needs and expectations for a perfect, ideal salvific-messianic Buddhism. Disillusionment with that brings us back to ourselves and to our own natural human capacity for truth-seeking and realization. That in fact we never had to practice anything like institutional Buddhism because ‘we are the buddhas we have been waiting for.’
tl; dr is, I enjoyed the 2 podcasts, this one and the follow up, the world needs radical voices to make sense of what dharma means in the 21st. And I think there are also some serious gaps in covering the topic because teachers have presented counterarguments to many of these literally identical points for hundreds or thousands of years.
Both parties expressed moments of insight. Matthew’s remark to the effect `this is our problem not just my problem’ (I forget the exact words) sounds like a helpful point of consensus. I was surprised at certain omissions with regard to the relevant canonical positions, a long tradition of favorable treatment of non Buddhism and non philosophy – Nagarjuna (c 200) “I have no thesis”, Bodhidharma’s “nothing holy” (c 500), Mazu’s “Not mind, not Buddha, it is not a thing” (700s), Linji’s “kill the Buddha” (800s), Zhaozhou’s “no” (canonized by 1000 or so). Though short the hridaya (heart) sutra has the record for non-everything, the Chinese character for no and un- and non- occurring umpteen times. Yet the Chan/Zen curse against turning inward: “corpse eating ghouls under the black mountain” is at least a thousand years old. I like Glen’s intimate engagement with the realities on the ground and his anti-authoritarian voice is sorely needed, but he seemed confused about Buddhist perspectives on nihilism (they’re mostly pretty strong against it) and about schisms that split over what is and isn’t real (time and space seem to be real). Also recent translations of manuscripts unearthed in the 20th century have transformed understandings of the outcome of the sudden vs. gradual awakening debate he mentions (790s). Matthew, if I read you right, you know as well as I that sudden happens and debating about it is silly. You can’t browse that shelf and not glance across a history of ecstasy. Besides, Gautama himself supposedly said it could happen after one week of meditating (Satipatthana Sutra).
Glen said something about whether someone should necessarily be happy about their enlightenment certificate…an excellent question I’m glad he brought up. I thought of Nishida Kitaro’s “I was not so delighted” (around 1900). And I recall a karate student writing on a forum around 10 years ago that `enlightenment wasn’t worth it’ because he had hurt people. Glen also questioned whether peak experiences have persistent effects; the Zen slogan “ordinary mind is the way” (possibly 700s) was one early criticism of esoterica. Now also, in one of these episodes, Matthew, I think you indicated that on occasion when hearing a deficient dharma talk you felt or imagined the impulse to conk the teacher on the head. Again is it too obvious to mention Huangbo’s striking Baizhang (c. 800), which is part of a damned important narrative in Chan and Zen that touches on nihilism, shamanism, whether there is cause and effect (amazingly, a hot topic in physics nowadays), and the moral responsibilities of teachers.
Whenever I see traffic at the intersection of Buddhism and critical theory I am often surprised that it’s oblivious to the matter of hihan bukkyo (critical Buddhism) e.g. Hakayama’s “Buddhism is criticism”, and Hakayama’s critics are themselves no slouches either. The matter of teachers’ moral deficiencies and responsibilities is well trodden ground, and in particular the critique of corporate Zen dates, I believe, to the 1980s, you’re participating in a process not voices in a wilderness, though it’s understandable it if seems so. The same matter also touches on the confluence of interests between imperial power and the Buddhist monastery, Confucians and such said much the same 1500 years ago I think. I certainly welcome the current treatment of these topics, you’re filling a vital need. There’s just a certain lack of context.
Near the end of the 2nd podcast Glen gets all materialistic in the last what, 15 minutes maybe longer. Materialism is not immune from the same criticism that damns all systems of metaphysics, namely that they don’t work. Yeah, yeah, western Buddhists misuse modern physics. So does everyone else. I could say the same about ideologues on the left and right misusing materialism, which they think means determinism, and determinism is known to be wrong by now (when’s that next Geiger counter click going to happen exactly?). Worse for materialists, right now best anybody knows, hell yes there’s spooky action at a distance. Hard to come up with an interpretation of materialism for that. Any comeback ends up being a bunch of equations – strictly about probabilities mind you – and those seem to refer to some principle that governs materials, as opposed to being a thing that consists of them.