78. IBP: Glenn Wallis on Practice & Anarchism

Glenn’s Bio

I hold a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Harvard University’s Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies. My training was mainly philological, concentrating on Sanskrit, Pali, and Tibetan Buddhist literature. For a long time, I have been concerned with how to make classical Buddhist literature, philosophy, and practice relevant to contemporary life. So, much of my work stems from that concern.

I have written books and articles on various aspects of Buddhism. Some of this work is intended for the public, some is more specialized. I have also practiced for many years in several Buddhist traditions, including Vipassana, Dzogchen, and mainly Soto Zen. At various periods in my life, I have led meditation groups and offered retreats.

My recent work is best summed up in the title of my recent books: A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real Bloomsbury). This critique draws from François Laruelle’s non-philosophy. The blog I founded in 2011, Speculative Non-Buddhism, contains many essays, by me and others, that reflect this critical direction. My most recent book, An Anarchist’s Manifesto, signals my intention of bringing anarchist values to bear more explicitly on my work.


  1. U seem to be painting Buddha dharma with tje single brush of Thereveda. Also your comments on emptiness reveals to me a lack of real understanding of shunyata.

    On Sun, 21 Feb 2021, 11:38 pm The Imperfect Buddha, wrote:

    > Matthew O’Connell posted: ” It’s interesting to think that the Imperfect > Buddha podcast was really motivated into being by a dearth of critical > material on contemporary Buddhism. Some noted academics were putting out > books, and papers on Buddhism and philosophy could be found o” >


    • Hi Ravi,
      I’m not sure what a ‘real’ understanding of shunyata would be. There are, of course, many understandings of the concept, and then there is meaningful experience that can and is interpreted in many ways, sometimes within the framework of a tradition.
      I’m not proposing a relativist position but merely stating that a single, real understanding is usually a sign you are using a given interpretation or definition to over-ride a more complex reality.


  2. Also in Vajrayana..practice is am integral part of study inquiry, debate , testing experimentation, amd challenging both teachers and teachings. U seem to ignore this.


    • Hi Ravi,
      Sure, study is common in many Buddhist traditions. The point I am making is that it is often circular, involving the study of its own tenets, practices and beliefs only; nothing wrong with that, as I state. I merely suggest that once Buddhism has been understood as part of the very human tendency towards ‘decision’ that study beyond Buddhism is necessary.


    • But does such “testing experimentation” and “challenging of both teachers and teachings” ever truly happen in Buddhist circles? My own experience is that serious limitations of such “testing” practices kick in rapidly, if they’re even ever genuinely engaged at all. Another observation is that “testing” only happens within pre-determined parameters, which has the inevitable result of creating a predictable outcome: orthodoxy, the status quo, prevails. This is not “testing” in the robust, risky sense I would like.


      • Glenn,

        Certainly most Buddhist practice is meant to avoid serious challenges—but that doesn’t mean it always and everywhere did so. Perhaps Kamakura Buddhism was seriously challenging when it began, but certainly by the 20th Century Shin and Zen functioned as ideologies of Japanese fascism. When a practice is reified, it tends to become an ideological practice.

        I expect you would agree that the “robust and risky” challenging you encourage at Incite would become nothing but reification if the practices you engage in were still being done, in the same way, in a hundred years. Even ten years from now, we’ll need different practices if we hope to produce serious critique of the status quo.

        What I’d like to hear more about is the exact process involved. How do you know that you are producing this “robust and risky testing”? The suggestion that you are may be where Jeff sees the belief in an “eagle’s eye view.” What practices ensure that you are not reproducing assumptions and commitments you cannot make explicit? (I believe we can, in fact, do this “making explicit,” so I am not. suggesting that you are kidding yourself if you think you’re doing it—the postmodern insistence that this cannot be done is the worst kind of reactionary ideology.)

        At the same time, I would suggest that you also limit certain kinds of “testing” and set parameters for questioning. This isn’t a bad thing—it is necessary for any project. You may do it in more subtle ways (simply not engaging certain questions, shifting the focus, rhetorical adroitness, etc.), but without doing this no project, ideological or critical, can ever get anything done. That is, the big question, for me, is: is your project ideological or critical/scientific? Both, I think, are necessary and good—so long as it is made clear what kind of project is being undertaken. Once we realize this, then we are left with the big question: what kinds of practices exactly allow for true critique in our present situation? What practices work to produce effective ideologies?

        But that’s enough out of me. Interesting podcast! I rarely make it all the way through these—as I’ve said, I have some kind of peculiar inability to listen to someone talk who is not present. I’d rather read a text. Speaking of which, I hope you’ll write something for Imaginary Relations some time soon!



  3. Pardon my intrusion, but I wonder if there is a “you’re both right” response to this discussion? I can suggest one, in my own peculiar idiom.

    Perhaps what Ravi has in mind is Buddhism as the practice of making explicit? That is, Buddhist practice takes ideological practices and discourses as its material, and attempts to make explicit the assumptions and reifications not noticed in those discourses? In this case, it would not necessarily “need” any “study beyond Buddhism, since it’s object is by definition external to its own practice. This could be one understanding of Buddhist thought—for instance Nagarjuna.

    On the other hand, what Matthew seems to have in mind is the use of Buddhist practice exactly to produce and reify ideologies (i.e., “decision”, in Laruelle’s idiom). In this case, it certainly does require “study beyond Buddhism” to avoid simply reproducing human suffering while working hard not to notice it is doing that.

    My experience is that Buddhism in the U.S. always, without exception, does what I take Matthew to be assuming Buddhism does. So it always does need some kind of interruption from a discourse which allows the “making explicit” mentioned in the podcast. But there may be Buddhist practices outside the U.S. (I don’t know much about this) which don’t suffer from this problem—and which would likely suggest that the very idea that there are “many understandings” of the concept of shunyata is as absurd as there are “many conceptions” of the nature of the Sun: there may be many conceptions, but there’s only one correct one and we should try to figure it out. As Buddhism is practices in the U.S., however, shunyata/emptiness is merely a floating signifier in the service of ideological production, and so discussing it becomes pointless, we just have to leave it as a matter of opinion.

    I may, of course, be completely wrong about what each of you has in mind—the discourse of comments tends to prevent clarity of expression.


    • That’s a rather fine and tactful summary. I can add Europe to the mix of the ideolgocially challenged, at least as far as my own experience and observations go, but would be rather suspicious that Buddhism anywhere would be free of such a challenge. I can’t help but think that Nagarjuna’s thought would be dragged into the role of idealogical performance by its mere presence in a religious tradition with all its baggage, history and norms that work to form subjects in idealised images.


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