IBP 48: Critical Reflections on Western Buddhism

Payne 1

We reach our penultimate episode in this series with Buddhist academics. Richard K. Payne is former Dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies and Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies at Berkley. Richard also trained as a Shingon Priest, and provides interesting insight into Buddhism at his blog, Critical Reflections on Buddhist Thought.

We get stuck into a whole range of topics in the conversation, from White Buddhism to perennialism, from Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True? to mind-body dualism. We also touch on popular themes to the podcast such as transcendence, ideology and anti-intellectualism. Below you will find the article on Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism, which is discussed and it is is a must read for contextualizing some of the odd fantasies Westerners still hold onto regarding Buddhism.

Payne Traditionalist Representations PW

There is also a slightly longer introduction than usual which contextualizes this year’s output, gives a view to where we’re heading, and provides a few updates.


Richard K. Payne’s University website: http://www.shin-ibs.edu/academics/faculty/dr-richard-k-payne/

Richard K. Payne’s blog, Critical Reflections on Buddhist Thought: https://criticalreflectionsonbuddhistthought.org/

Incite Events advertised in the intro: https://inciteseminars.com/seminars-calendar/


  1. Perfect, True Buddhism is not:
    New Agey
    A Guru Scam
    Not Meditation
    Asian Psychology
    Western Psychology
    the answer to everything
    the answer to nothing
    fixes what’s wrong with people
    doesn’t fix anything
    betrays it’s own ultimate truths (Glen Wallace)
    proclaims no ultimate truth
    sells itself out to the dominant ideology
    never sells out to the dominant ideology (Tom Pepper)
    is ideology
    deconstructs ideology

    I could go on, but the point I’m trying to make is that PERFECT Buddhism is none of these things, but IMperfect Buddhism is all of these things and more. You seem to betray the premise of your own show. The premise of your show is to dig into what makes Buddhism IMperfect, which would be all the things that you reject about Buddhism. If you reject all these imperfect qualities of Buddhism as it is actually practiced, you are reaching for a PERFECT Buddhism that doesn’t even exist and never has. Instead, how about acknowledging that an IMperfect Buddhism is a deeply flawed human endeavor, that is frustratingly and infuriatingly IMPERFECT?


    • Hi Shaun,

      How are you? What a curious comment. Did it come from a reaction to listening to the Payne episode specifically, or have you been thinking about this for some time?

      The podcast takes as a given that there is no perfect anything Shaun, and considering that this is such an important recognition, it is a theme that is reiterated again and again. The podcast’s purpose is not to reject anything in particular. How would that even look? It is to critique and that it does. In this role it neither rejects or proposes any kind of true, authentic Buddhism. If you listen to more of the content, that may become apparent.

      As the host, I mainly speculate about possibilities and test some of my working hypotheses as a secondary concern following a, hopefully, intelligent engagement with guests and the pertinent themes that drive their work: I haven’t had many guests that speak to perfect, true, authentic Buddhism either, although some have clearly had strong opinions about one form of Buddhism or another. Payne and Prebish likely got the closest to doing so.

      One thing for sure is that I am constantly reclaiming our shared humanity and all its flawed human wonder in the conversations, so I can only really understand your comment as indicating that you haven’t listened to many of the episodes or have done so without really listening to what was being said.



  2. Yes it came from listening to your interview with Payne and all the previous shows I’ve listened to (although I haven’t listened to every one). And it’s a reaction to critiques of Buddhism generally, of which I’ve made plenty myself. Critiques of Buddhism seem to have this underlying theme that “this aspect of Buddhism (contemporary, western, secular, etc) that I am critiquing right now has x, y, z flaws in it (modernist, neo-liberal, consumerist, etc.) and so it is not ‘real’ ‘true’ Buddhism, so there must be some other more real, more true Buddhism out there that doesn’t have these flawed aspects in It.” It’s always pointing to some other more perfect Buddhism that doesn’t include those disparaged qualities. So that’s the Buddhist critique view. But then you have the other view, the Apologists who are always resisting any critique, defending Buddhism as absolutely real, true, authentic, etc. Rarely do you have someone who says “look, this is what Buddhism is, how it’s actually being practiced by real live people, like it or not, warts and all.” The one who comes closest to that position is Ann Gleig because she investigates Buddhism through an ethnographic methodology. She looks at “American Buddhism” and finds all this crazy weird stuff going on and says “wow, look at all this crazy weird stuff!” Of course she critiques it, but at the same time, she implicitly accepts what people are doing when they say they’re doing ‘Buddhism.’ I don’t get the sense that she’s looking for another, better Buddhism somewhere else that doesn’t have all that ‘crazy weird stuff’ in it. So it’s a different kind of critique. It’s a critique that is not implicitly looking for some other ideal of Buddhism, but just accepts that this is what people do when they say they’re doing ‘Buddhism’. Ok? It’s a social science approach rather than a doctrinal or philosophical approach. And its a pluralistic approach that accepts that a really imperfect Buddhism is going to have a huge amount of variance and diversity; it’s a dynamic Buddhism that is going to spawn all sorts of crazy weird mutations, some of which will survive, and some won’t. (originally there were 18 schools of Buddhism before the first century AD). I guess I’ve had enough of critiques that say (contemporary, western, American, secular, romanticized, traditional, perennial) Buddhism is BAD and Buddhism SHOULD BE this other ideal and flawless Buddhism that no one has ever practiced yet, except I guess (as always) the Buddha.


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