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This means that a person has lost unquestioning faith in Buddhism and that it no longer represents a guarantee of salvation.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.