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.

Nothin’ exists outside the podcast

If things were simple, word would have gotten around.”  Jacques Derrida

I am currently engrossed in Peter Salmon’s recently published biography of Jacques Derrida and rather enjoying its stroll through the life of one of the most challenging and notorious philosophical thinkers of the last century. Derrida’s thought is infuriatingly complex for almost everyone, and his ideas have been put into the service of all manner of ideological project due, in part, to its slippery nature. Today’s guest is not unlike Derrida in his capacity to confuse, frustrate and outright annoy. His work on non-Buddhism has been cast as mental masturbation, over-intellectualising, and other playground insults that usually indicate the hurler is of the lazy sort when it comes to firing up the old intellect. “To practice!” such insult throwing folks might encourage us; just sit, breathe, pay close attention to the abdomen, nostrils, upper lip, mantra, image, subtle state, emptiness, bliss, and, whatever you do, don’t think too much, don’t explore thought, don’t engage it, keep it at bay, bring attention back to the breath, the sweet spot, right there. That’s it, now rest.

This is a vision of practice: A very fine one. Lovely. Great. I adore it myself.

But thinking is a practice also. And avoiding thinking is a practice too. And both can be put in service to all manner of goal; many of which we have spoken to and critiqued in the life of this podcast. There’s also more. Some folks have discovered it. And it is something quite remarkable. Developing meditative capacity can actually lead to a far more robust capacity to think, to reason, to elaborate theory, to think deeply and broadly, and to share company with the great minds of any practice tradition (in the very broadest of senses of practice). Silencing the mind can actually enable clarity, presence and sharpened senses to engage with the tentacles of thought as liberating, insight-exploring, creative wonder, and as the recognition that real problems emerge from poorly developed thought and its unthinking application.

But, for those thinking all this is rather obvious, this process should not merely provide the ground for the confirmation of Buddhist insights (as so many popular books on Buddhism and science have sought to do), but rather act as a leap off point into the Great Feast and its many, many, unfinished, human projects. Awakening out of self-absorbed narcissism, of the sort Buddhism specialises in addressing on a good day, can mean that the exploration of human knowledge, past, present, and potential future, can become an endeavour that no longer circles around the ‘I’ as locus of meaning, or Buddhism as the source of final, sufficient knowing. Thought instead can begin to liberate, and help us to identify better its many formed sufferings and entrapments, and support and perhaps even create new dharmas. For Buddhism is not up this task on its own in case you don’t happen to know.

77. IBP: Gregory Kramer on the Practising Life

And so it goes on. This is our second episode in the new practice series. In the meantime, I had something of an allergic reaction to social media, and the internet more broadly. Despite a pretty disciplined relationship with digital life, I had something akin to an epiphany mid-January and realised that in my own way I had got caught up in maintaining what I am increasingly thinking of as the synthetic real.  The digital life is seductive in ways that are not always easy to identify and like many insidious forces in this world, it can creep up on you in unexpected ways. What this means long-term is anyone’s guess. For now, I have reduced my internet time drastically, with time spent on social media cut by 90% and I am thrilled by the results. If such concerns orbit your life too, you may want to check out Jaron Lanier’s work on social media.

Our guest this time is Gregory Kramer, insight meditation teacher since the 1980s, he has developed a practice called Insight Dialogue; A sort of interpersonal meditation practice. Gregory teaches meditation, leads retreats and has written two books on Buddhist practice. The first on Insight Dialogue, and the second released in 2020 called A Whole Life Path.

Gregory was candid in his answers. There are powerful moments in this episode that arise as we venture down the path of the deeply personal nature of practice. Gregory’s work is rooted in early Buddhist traditions yet he lives a house-holder’s life. His commitment to the practising life is evident throughout.

76. IBP – Chenxing Han: Be the Refuge, Asian Buddhism in America

Photo by Sarah Deragon

Asian and Buddhist and living in America: Does any of that matter? Those focussed in on practice and not much else regarding Buddhism might proclaim a resounding no. Others, all too aware of the tendency of western practitioners to ignore culture, and Buddhism beyond the meditation cushion might instead bellow forth with a resounding yes! Whatever your take, today’s guest Chenxing Han has written a book that fills a gap in our collective understanding, and appreciation of the role of Asians in making, shaping and living western Buddhism.
Be the Refuge is not merely another book obsessed with race and social justice, however. Those themes do appear but it is more than another product in the polarised times we live in. Yes, some of the buzz words and concepts are there, but this book is as much a work of poetry as it is a research project designed to illustrate the often sidelined role of Asians in making and shaping Buddhism in the West.

If more than two thirds of U.S. Buddhists are actually Asian American, perhaps it’s worth becoming more aware of them, right?

Be the Refuge is both critique and celebration, countering the erasure of Asian American Buddhists while uplifting their stories and experiences. The Oriental monk, the superstitious immigrant, the banana Buddhist: dissatisfied with these tired tropes, Han asks, Will the real Asian American Buddhists please stand up? Her journey to answer this question led to in-depth interviews with a pan-ethnic, pan-Buddhist group of eighty-nine young adults.

Weaving together the voices of these interviewees with scholarship and spiritual inquiry, this book re-envisions Buddhist Asian America as a community of trailblazers, bridge-builders, integrators, and refuge-makers. Encouraging frank conversations about race, representation, and inclusivity among Buddhists of all backgrounds, Be the Refuge embodies the spirit of interconnection that glows at the heart of American Buddhism.


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