Warming up with non-Buddhism


Considered controversial for his attacks on the failings of contemporary Buddhists to take their Buddhist claims seriously and for their appeasement of global capitalism, Glenn Wallis has elaborated a number of concepts useful for understanding what drives some folks to dramatically change their relationship with Buddhism. Drawing a great deal on philosophy and critical theory, Wallis has constructed a critique of Buddhism as much informed by his own academic background (he holds a PHD in Buddhist Studies from Harvard University), as his own dissatisfaction with the failings of Western Buddhism to live up to its ideals. Whatever one might make of his approach, Wallis’ writing is of immense value to anybody interested in deconstructing Buddhism and identification with it. His original work represents a treasure trove for those intellectually dissatisfied with Buddhism and already in the advance stages of a relational break with it. Those becoming increasingly disappointed with Buddhism may find themselves in a state of what Glenn defines as ‘aporetic dissonance’:

Aporetic Dissonance: An affective condition. The believer‘s discovery within himself or herself of a dissonant ring of perplexity, puzzlement, confusion, and loss concerning the integrity of Buddhism‘s self-presentation. It involves an apprehension that buddhistic rhetorics of self-display are but instances of acataleptic impassability. This ring is the signal for aporetic inquiry. Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism

The language Glenn uses can be challenging to those less academically inclined but, basically, he means a person starts to feel a form of discomfort or dissatisfaction towards his or her tradition, or Buddhism in general. Something starts to feel off and ideas that were once awe inspiring seem to be incoherent or even make believe. Practices that produced positive feelings may start to produce indifference or ongoing frustration. There is a process of separation between one’s own sense of integrity and the Buddhist ideas or practices being presented and the romance begins to fade, leading to:

Ancoric loss. An affective condition. The irreversible termination of hope that ―Buddhism indexes the thaumaturgical refuge adduced in its rhetorics of selfdisplay.  Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism

This means that a person has lost unquestioning faith in Buddhism and that it no longer represents a guarantee of salvation. This is an interesting condition for it initially appears to contradict many Buddhist teachings. The notion of salvation is usually thought of as being incompatible with Buddhism, isn’t it? And didn’t the Buddha tell us to rely on ourselves? Isn’t Buddhism a religion of immanence strongly opposed to notions of transcendence, whether in the form of heaven or union with the godhead? Those are fair questions but they remain at the theoretical level. Various manifestations of Buddhism do hold to the notion of heaven. But more interestingly, perhaps, at the experiential level, we are driven to hold onto our existence and are constantly seeking to transcend experiences we wish to avoid. We are patterned creatures that resist the implications of the core insights of Buddhism too with meditation practices even becoming a means of escape or respite from reality; an ascent to heavenly realms, perhaps. What’s more, in adapting itself to middle-class concerns and the capitalist model for distribution, Western Buddhism is increasingly being modelled as compatible with self-development and the pursuit of happiness, which sets up a number of contradictions. It is easy enough to see how happiness can be a form of transcendent escapism and its pursuit a form of refuge, especially if a practitioner has been infantilised by expectations of happy-ever-after enlightenment. Appearance, interpretation and reality are in constant tension. What we imagine Buddhism to be may be different to how it is actually practised. Its idealised image is never truly faithful to the imperfect human’s creations and acts that stem from them. Ideals do not match those imperfect forms, whether it be a tradition obsessed with ideas of purity or authentic lineage, or our own imperfect attempts to live up to ideals. If we humanise the whole affair, we are left to see how the insights of Buddhism have played out in our lives and whether they still make sense in our struggles and striving.

We can draw once again from this that a person needs to have had some degree of personally meaningful engagement with Buddhism before a post-traditional approach starts to make sense. Such an approach can be used to find a sober basis for re-engagement with Buddhism as a depositary of potential, in its core themes, its meditation practices and first person accounts of meditational development. The formulation of such re-engagement is not monolithic and does not need to lead to the revival of a specific type of Buddhism, though for some it may, or a single, pre-determined outcome. By its very nature, post-traditional implies a break from whatever tradition was followed beforehand and an initial unwillingness to go through another disappointing relationship with yet another Buddhist ‘partner’. One may feel a desire to be pragmatic, to meditate still, and may continue to find value in some of the Buddhist teachings which still resonate and so the relationship would continue, but on different relational terms.

Ancoric loss can signal a total break from Buddhism, but it may equally inspire the more utopian to explore the formulation of a human theory of liberation in line with the best developments in contemporary thought and understanding: that is to say, one that does not isolate spiritual practice from the wider world and the immanence of our shared existence on this planet. This would necessarily mean abandoning consistency with historical Buddhism as a source of reliable refuge for a less predictable engagement with the tenets of liberation, interdependence, decay and birth, an ethical life and the pragmatics of mind-training through one’s own efforts and inquiry. This is where the third option comes into play. In recognising how Buddhism as ideology inculcates followers to adopt the identity of a good Buddhist and reframe their personal concerns within a Buddhist framework, a person becomes suspicious of their personal investment in the Buddhist world. This suspicion allows the individual to question their motives and to look at Buddhism under a new light. Instead of rejecting what was or grasping anew in a desperate attempt to reclaim lost magic, the individual would place Buddhism back into the world where it is seen in relationship to the wider world of human knowledge, no longer isolated in its own special landscape. The distance between what is idealised and what constitutes the nuts and bolts of our daily existence has to then be reduced. This is not the easiest undertaking to take. A very small number of Western Buddhist teachers have recognised this need, acknowledging that the brilliance of Buddhist ideals often silences the concerns and preoccupations of the individual, but they are in the minority and the trades offs they make to address this may be insufficient for many. It is often up to the individual to struggle along, perhaps frustrated by a lack of intelligent alternatives and the new dominance of superficial approaches such as meditation apps, online courses, and mindfulness advertised as the latest magical cure for everything.

Approaches that bring post-traditional elements into play are still in their infancy and primarily carried out by individuals and sporadic small groups. There are already a number of Western Buddhisms, although as far as I can tell, many are still romantically saturated with their Eastern precedents and many of the more secular leaning configurations appear caught in the fantasy of true, original Buddhism and exhibit too often a subtle snobbery towards later, historical innovations. Considering the admiration for rational thought, secular values and empiricism in secular circles, this is perhaps understandable. The Anglo-American tradition of thought values simplicity, straightforwardness and rational argument, and earlier forms of Buddhism appear less messy and complex than later manifestations such as Vajrayana. Buddhism in all its ages clearly holds value, however, and later developments are at times a response to the limitations or inadequacies of former schools, in much the same way that philosophical approaches such as empiricism have themselves been demonstrated to be limited. That said, the concern herein is not to destroy or provide judgement of such forms but rather highlight the ignorance that lies in uncritical engagement with them and present an alternative means for engagement for those concerned with renegotiating their relationship with Buddhism.



  1. Matthew, I’ve enjoyed reading your recent work on ideology…and so on. Also, your writing is so clear, especially in contrast to the following:

    There is a great deal here which I find very engaging and need to think about much more. One of my immediate thoughts was that the ‘idealogical entrapment’ seems to arise out of a misunderstanding of principle and function, which is something discussed by David Chapman (who I also find very interesting).

    One of the best illustrations of these misunderstandings can be found in devotional practices. So many buddhists take these practices at ‘face value’ and completely distort the practice in order to entrain themselves to a form which they perceive as being somehow attractive (i.e.: the devoted student, or the committed meditator). The ‘sincere’ practitioner fails to ask what are the underlying principles & assumptions which justify the practice, and as such gain no perspective as to the implications of those assumptions and principles.

    This sort of unquestioning participation may seem harmless enough, but to me it seems to run in parallel to the mechanism which leads to radicalisation – which most people consider horrific. To me, although there are obvious asymmetries, it is just as radical to exit ‘consensus reality’ by committing a suicide attack as it is to commit ‘suicide by retreat’. Radical – not necessarily in a pejorative sense – but as a kind of bifurcation of the network of shared human experience. Terrorism is only a hop skip and a jump away for someone to give up whole years of their life to attaining ‘complete and perfect awakening’. But for many sincere buddhists a whole year in retreat is completely ‘rational’ according the the ideology which they have become entrained to, particularly under the assumption of ‘future lives’. What’s a year in eternity? Meanwhile, they might have brought children into this world which are going uncared for, or maybe they are making it increasingly impossible to find a job once they’re out of retreat. I’m sure there is value to be found in extended retreat, but probably not when coupled with the idealogical frameworks which reflexively create and justify the impulse to do such a thing.

    Anyway….lots to consider. Thanks for asking interesting questions.


  2. I’m interested in following up on your invitation to explore Buddhism as an ideology. About the best explanation of ideology I have read is Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970, 56 pages). (I tried to reduce jargon but stay close to the text.) In his essay, he makes several claims about ideology:
    1. For Marxists, “ideology is conceived as pure illusion, a pure dream, i.e. as nothingness.”
    2. Althusser’s claim is that ideology has a specific function: “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” The key word is imaginary, e.g. hoped for, symbolic, ideal. What is represented in ideology is an imaginary representation of the world and an idealized relationship to it.
    3. Ideology has material existence in the actions of the participant, or subject, habituated as practices. . . these practices are governed by the rituals in which these practices are inscribed, within the material existence of an ideological [state] apparatus.
    4. Ideology is constructed by the category of the subject and for subjects. Ideology has the function of ‘constituting ‘ concrete individuals as subjects.
    5. The subject is constituted through mirroring the subject, by which he recognizes himself as the Subject of the ideology.
    6. Religious ideology is addressed to individuals, in order to ‘transform them into subjects.
    7. A subject is both free to choose and also subjected to ideological authority. “In the ordinary use of the term, subject means: (1) a free subjectivity, a centre of initiatives, author of and responsible for its actions; (2) a subjected being, who submits to a higher authority, and is therefore stripped of all freedom except that of freely accepting his submission.”
    8. The reality in question in this mechanism, the reality which is necessarily ignored in the very forms of recognition (ideology = misrecognition/ignorance) is indeed, in the last resort, the reproduction of the relations of production.
    9. In sum, Althusser asserts that the function of ideology is to impose an imaginary representation over the subject’s experience of the real conditions of existence, in an imaginary relationship of the subject to a world as a symbolic ideal. This function requires the transformation of participant into “subject”, as subjected to the authority of the ideology. The result is that the real world, or relation to the real conditions of existence, are ignored.

    So, how is Buddhism an ideology? When it imposes an imaginary (hoped for symbolic, ideal) relationship of its subjects to an imaginary version of the world, which obscures the real relations and conditions of existence.

    Does contemporary Buddhism do this? By and large, yes, by offering a ‘Buddhist bubble’ that offers only idealized simulations of the real world; artificially constructed “direct experiences” of that idealized world; shallow, ritualized relationships between members of a sangha; ideological excuses (dharma) and practices (meditation) that justify ‘checking out’ from the real conditions of existence.

    The chief mechanisms for ‘checking out’ are the doctrine of emptiness, which says that all phenomena are empty, therefore the (non-existent) individual is not subjected to any ideology; ideologies are mere concepts which have no real existence. The practitioner is thus “liberated” from the trappings of ideology.

    The dharma of emptiness functions as an ideology because it operates as a “cloaking device” that vanishes the ideologies, state power, and material conditions of existence. It renders the real conditions of existence invisible and substitutes and imaginary relationship to an imaginary dharmic universe.
    Buddhist ideology promises the transformation of the Buddhist “subject”, the practitioner as “exceptional” who obtains the idealized state as fully awakened, so long as they subject themselves to the ideology, the teaching hierarchy and the practice.

    Meditation is the material practice of this ideology that enables the subject to temporarily ‘check out’ from mundane reality and obtain the idealized, exceptional state.

    It could also be said that dharma is capable of doing the opposite: of deconstructing the imaginary world of the subject, deconstructing all ideologies that obscure the relations of production, including Buddhism itself. Critical Buddhism (Hakamaya) only substantiates a critical approach to both ideology and Buddhism: ’only that which is critical is Buddhism.’ A non-traditional Buddhist approach is purposefully critical and liberates the practitioner by deconstructing ideology and revealing the real relations and conditions of existence.


  3. Just to help you avoid wasting too much time, a few comments on Althusser.

    First, it is essential that he uses the term “imaginary” in the specifically Lacanian sense. It does not at all refer to any representation of the world, and certainly has nothing to do with things like hope or some kind of ideal. Althusser is explicit that ideology is not at all a representation of the world. The imaginary is not symbolic, but for Lacan is something like the felt sense of something, the bodily experience of it (thing “image”, not “fantasy” here).

    Second, it is crucial to understanding Althusser’s definition of ideology to grasp that he is arguing agains the posiiton that ideology=misrecognition/ignorance. Since it doesn’t attempt to represent one’s conditions of existence (World) it cannot be a misrecognition–instead, it is a practice in which one lives within those conditions.

    If you go back and reread, having clarified these points, I think you’ll see that the essay is saying something completely different than your initial reading. It’s both as simple and as difficult as the concept of dependent origination. Good luck!


  4. I suspect that the best way to get beyond traditional Buddhist “beliefs” and cultural trappings is to simply practice awareness meditation w/ an inquiring mind. When things begin to fall apart, as all belief systems do when looked at w/ awareness, then we can actually experience enlightenment. Yes, this always brings up the question of what exactly is enlightenment, and that question is unanswerable. You know it when you experience it is all I have found out. For some it’s one thing, for others it’s another, but it is simply being one w/ the universe. Instant karma. Beyond thinking, before thinking. See, it cannot actually be caught in words. It is not permanent, we are always slipping back into patterned behavior and our old delusions, but as we go on w/ an inquiring attitude that slowly dissipates. We become more stable in our lives and in the world.

    Basic awareness meditation )following your breath) and keeping mindfulness as best we can when we leave the cushion seems to do the trick. It’s not a particularly fast path, although for some it may be. For others, we’re talking decades. That may sound discouraging, but we aren’t going anywhere! We still live our lives, it’s not as if anything is put on hold, or worse, seen as an end to a goal. The Big Payoff. That’s a sure way to get no pay off..Practicing w/ a group and having access to a teacher are often helpful things. Not required, but certainly helpful. Even if all one got was a social structure, that is something positive. But, you need the right group/lineage and teacher. If not, better to practice on our own, none being better than the wrong one(s).

    Ironically, one of the best ways to have a socially conscious, non traditional practice is to start w/ traditional meditation and have a sangha and teacher. Zen is fundamentally as non traditionally Buddhist as you could ever get (once you discard the religious and cultural trappings). When I say teacher, I mean someone that has “wised up” and simply points the way, not someone that directs you to a goal or has any special sort of wisdom beyond being adept at their practice and life, which in the end is THEIR life, not ours. They’re an authentic person sans beliefs.

    As Ken McLeod told me, we need a teacher because “we need someone to tell us what the back of our head looks like”. Having someone to see us objectively or from a different perspective than how we see ourselves is beneficial (not required, just helps a lot).The sangha can also perform this function. Or even a good friend of no particular spiritual leanings. A sangha keeps us honest. We have to deal w/ people we may find annoying and who may find us annoying. Left to our own devices, we will set up a practice just the way we want it to be, which may sound fine, but the last time I checked, the world does not actually work that way. Life presents challenges and compromises, as sometimes we have to do what we don’t want to do.


    • Hi Steve,

      Thanks for your comments. You seem to have found an approach that works for you, which is great.

      If you continue on with the posts here, you will see that I consider it all to be rather more complex that some of your assumptions seem to indicate. I additionally find problematic your notion of Zen as non-traditional and your ideas on enlightenment need unpacking. I will explore the whole idea of enlightenment further in a future post and that will hopefully illustrate why.

      To respond indirectly to Tom’s comments again in making a final point, I hold that ‘sangha’ is a non negotiable aspect of human practice. That is to say, there is no ‘path’ without other humans to interact with. Sangha in this case is the world of human and non-human entities, which may or may not have anything to do with Buddhism. The best ones I have found so far have not been at all Buddhist. Anybody able to find someone capable of skilfully pointing out blind spots is lucky indeed and from what I can tell Ken has done great work in that area. I would add that a good psychotherapist is more often than not far better at fulfilling that role than your average Buddhist teacher. The material in this series indirectly explores why in both cases.



  5. I will explore the whole idea of enlightenment further in a future post and that will hopefully illustrate why.

    Would be nice and it’s overdue. Like other vacuous notions wobbling around in your approach “enlightenment” certainly needs some pimping… although I wonder if this really can lead somewhere. Perhaps take some advice from Deleuze: Fuck enlightenment a tergo and see if you can father a monster.


  6. Hi Matthew, thanks for the podcasts on non-Buddhism; they were great. We had some dialogue last year about enlightenment, where I questioned the merits of Buddhist practice. I’m an ex-Buddhist. I recently started meditating again after a break of a year. My decision was prompted by an Alexander Technique class (I have back and neck issues), which unexpectedly threw me into a state of mind that was familiar to me from meditation. I was interested to see if I could benefit from the practice outside the confines of Buddist theory. At first I tried to practice merely for the sake of practice. I naively thought that meditation could be context free and enjoyed for its own sake, much like you would enjoy dancing or singing in the shower. But meditation actually exposes you to what is going on in your mind in a stark manner – you used the phrase sobering, which is quite apt. It’s not necessarily enjoyable, although there are times when it can be blissful. It seems to me now that one can’t help contextualise the activity – as Glenn points out – to commit to it. The question is what kind of frame makes sense. At the moment, I am playing with the concept that meditation – by virtue of being sobering – prompts us to act in the world in a more sensible and helpful way. I realise that there are all sorts of additional postulates lurking there about what it means to act sensibly and compassionately, but I think it is a more helpful frame than the tradition Buddist focus on enlightenment and the mindfulness fad for feeling good and blissed out. For me, this us very much a work in progress and if it doesn’t stack up over the long term I may abandon meditation again, but I am very interested in your perspective. You have mentioned that you use meditation in your coaching wit ex-Buddists, how the you frame and contextualise the practice for them ?


    • Hi David,

      Thank you for the kind words: glad you enjoyed the non-Buddhism series.
      There’s a lot that could be said in response to your question about meditation and I should mention that we will be dedicating a future podcast episode to discussing meditation using a number of critical tools with possibly a big name guest to respond to our critique. For now, as time is short, I’ll make just a few short comments.

      Firstly, you should appreciate that counselling and coaching always begins with the person in need. I have a range of theoretical models that I work with but it’s basically a person-centred approach. I am not teaching meditation exclusively but using it within that context so if a persona asks about it out of curiosity or because they have had previous experience then I will always start by examining how the person perceives meditation; its value, form, outcomes and significance. I need to unlock the conceptual framework that the individual brings with them to understand what baggage they are carrying in the form of expectations and assumptions. I would then start by unpacking all that and bring the whole concept of meditating into a humanistic framework with a focus on the pragmatic implications of engaging with techniques as forms of personal discipline that typically lead to both expected and unexpected results.
      I am really into stripping meditation techniques of their esoteric value and this involves a revaluation of the language used to describe what’s going on and goals and outcomes within that humanistic framework. This can take 5 minutes or a number of conversations.

      Secondly, I tend to categorise meditation as at bottom a relational practice. A lot of meditation instruction seems to me to be based on an implicit assumption of dualism: I am here doing this thing and out there is phenomena or I am a failed person and out there somewhere is salvation in the form of enlightenment or a peaceful mind. I see this division as generally unhelpful. I don’t go much for the ‘all you need to do is sit’ camp either. I generally see techniques as tools that can enable different qualitative relationships to experience. In this regard, basic techniques of focussing, expanding, including, distancing, penetrating, questioning, opening and so on end up being communicative gestures that are enacted through a technique. Personal psychology comes into play at this point as we are patterned creatures. The techniques have pragmatic ends so that each must be matched to a person’s circumstance and the dominant patterns they use to navigate experience.



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