78. IBP: Glenn Wallis on Practice & Anarchism

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 occasionally that made sense to a non-academic audience, but accessible, critical material that connected theory to practice was minimal.

The Buddhist Geeks podcast had taken a sort of technological turn and I found it not at all interesting and soon realised I was listening to no podcasts on Buddhism at all. As I tend to do, due to some character fault or some such thing, I rolled my sleeves up and took care of a need: I assumed that if I was after something more intellectually stimulating and responsive to the obvious problems that were visible in the world of contemporary Buddhism, and spirituality, then there would be other like minded folks out there too.

Roping my old buddy Stuart into the thing was great and I enjoyed our conversations, research and analysis. Since his departure, the podcast has taken various turns and turned some of those turns into happenings: They are the culmination of much thinking, meditation and practice. 

Two figures have been on the podcast more often than any other and were in different ways the inspiration for those turns. They are both important figures for me and have helped me along in my own practice immensely (directly, and indirectly). Both gave me a way to reconnect to Buddhism after almost abandoning it entirely ten odd years ago.

It would be easy to consider Hokai Sobol as the practice side of a couple with today’s guest, Glenn Wallis, making up the theoretical member. Anyone who knows these two even a little would know that to be an absurd notion. Both are highly intelligent, deep thinking, practising folks and they have been on the podcast so often because they think differently and are fiercely independent in doing so. Although I have got most of the guests from my wish list on over the years, I would still like to wrestle these two into a conversation on the podcast some day. You never know.

In the meantime, Glenn returns to talk about practice and share his take on the practising life in line with our other guests in this year-long practice season. Is it likely he will be offering advice on how to get your thumbs in the sweet spot for mudra work? No. Is it likely he’ll be sharing his own take on mastering the Jhanas? Nope. But no one would be daft enough to expect that from him. Practice forms are infinite and forever tied to our human condition and it is to those avenues of inquiry that we stroll in our conversation. We discuss the non-buddhism practice group, Incite, and his latest book on Anarchism; a topic I challenge him on.


  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.


Leave a Reply to Matthew O'Connell Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s