What is non-Buddhism?

Non-Philosophy: from Franꞔois Laruelle to Glenn Wallis & the possibility of non-Buddhism

Part 1

My discovery of old Frank started backwards. My first encounter with non-philosophy was through the work of Glenn Wallis, a one-time academic of Buddhist Studies turned radical educator, with a claim to being American Buddhism’s enfant terrible. Glenn originally started the Speculative non-Buddhism[i] project as a website producing intelligent critique of western Buddhism when very little genuine critique existed anywhere. In fact, the opposite was far more likely with many western Buddhists employing science to justify their enamored readings of Buddhism whilst others strove to turn Buddhist meditation into a commodity to sell to the masses. The site was built around his work and that of two primary collaborators, as well as occasional others, myself included. Where some contemplated Alan Badiou and other assorted French philosophers in often searing critique of the American Buddhist landscape and its anti-intellectualism, more often than not Glenn’s work was centered on his experimentation and application of non-Buddhism.

Initially, an heuristic rooted in the work of living French philosopher Franꞔois Laruelle, it developed into book projects; Cruel Theory, Sublime Practice, a collaboration with those two regulars, and A Critique of Western Buddhism, his mature, later, academic work on non-Buddhism. These have been followed up in 2022 with a book on non-Buddhist Mysticism. Each of Glenn’s work builds out from Laruelle’s as much an artistic endeavor as a genuine exploration of the possibility of thought in action.

For folks like me, the SNB site was a revelation: A place for intelligent critique with no taboo, no-go areas. It provided fertile ground for those seeking an intellectual refill after too long spent absorbed into the spiritually enamored western Buddhist spaces and their reverence for exotic others and promises of a new sort of salvation: The sort of spiritual chimera rooted in the mantras of “Don’t think too hard!” and “All that exist is the present moment”. Needless to say, I have become one of non-Buddhism’s practitioners and although it is odd to name myself as such (as you will see below), non-philosophy and non-buddhism are exceptional practices for avoiding the excesses of ideology, Buddhist or otherwise. They are not replacement belief systems and though identity formation may be an inevitable consequence of practicing anything seriously, I would never claim to be a non-Buddhist, or non-buddhist[ii], as it should be denoted. To be a practitioner of either is to be an allusive participant in the world of Philosophy or Buddhism with no intentions of becoming yet another good Philosopher of good Buddhist.  

It is difficult to explain what non-buddhism is in a short text like this but I will try. This is in part due to its roots in a philosophical enterprise whose context is very rich, but also to its set of terms and concepts that tend to baffle newcomers and require quite a bit of patience and determination to grasp. Ideally, a meander through both men’s heuristics would lead the way, but that would take a book, and one from both figures already exists. If we consider non-thought and non-practice as the working materials that emerge from Laruelle and Glenn’s work though, what we get are a set of working tools for engaging with Buddhism, Spirituality, Philosophy and systems of thought more broadly in an original and ultimately disruptive manner. The heuristic nature of the works point to their practicalities; an aspect often missed by the anti-intellectual crowd and critics. The description that follows looks at non-philosophy and non-buddhism with these considerations in mind though inevitably leaves a lot out. Note, there are podcast episodes if you want to explore further. A very early one with Glenn an experimental work on non-Buddhism from yours truly as well as a more recent interview with an expert on non-Philosophy John O Maoilearca.

Origins

The French philosopher Franꞔois Laruelle was born in the 1930s and has lived and worked through a great deal of the ups and downs of 20th and 21st century philosophy. He has gone through a variety of phases with his most famous work being non-philosophy, or non-standard philosophy; something which he describes as a science of Philosophy and that could be considered rightly as a Meta-Philosophy though perhaps without the capitalization. Laruelle’s non-philosophy emerges from a recognition that there was and continues to be a flaw at the heart of Philosophy that keeps reproducing itself across geographical and temporal divides. This flaw he defines as a prior decision, a form of commitment that leads to the overlay of a system of thought or practice onto the world that then gets confused for the reality it purports to describe. A fancier way of saying this is that a dialectical split is enacted through Philosophy, or Buddhism, in order to make the world an object that can be grasped.

His insight is not exactly new, but his attempt to construct a heuristic for unpacking this process is. His insistence that this process is unrecognized by those performing this split is also of import, especially as it pertains to practice. It need not be limited to philosophy either, but can be applied to any complex system that includes beliefs and practices; especially those that lead to explicit identity adoption or formation, whether that be Buddhist or the more extreme ends of political groups.

We can consider both Glenn’s and Laruelle’s works as fundamentally concerned with the questions of how we become blinded by an inability to see beyond any system of practice or group we become absorbed into or identified with, and how we go about countering such a process. Do note, however, that there is no claim that such a process can be eliminated entirely or fully transcended. To participate meaningfully in any group is not a sign of this mechanism being problematic per se for assimilation is always a feature of committed social participation. Rather, the degree to which we commit to, identify with, and speak from a given system of thought and practice is the degree to which we are captured by that system with our capacity to see the world in its variety and complexity beyond that system’s meaning making apparatus being reduced and, in the worst case scenario, lost. Cults are perhaps the stand out example of this process at the extreme. Just because such groups provide stark examples of this mechanism, though, we should not be complacent. This mechanism is at the heart of the tension that emerges in all groups, from workplace culture to mainstream political parties, from assorted clubs and educational institutes to the military. There is tension inherent in moving into groups between increasing absorption into that group and the maintenance of some form of individuality and autonomy, and the space for critique.

As a surface recognition, this may all seem obvious to intelligent readers, but when we start to look underneath that surface and dig into the mechanisms of identification, we discover a whole world of hidden challenges and habits that run through our species in its myriad social enclaves and habitats. This picks up on Louis Althusser‘s recognition that ideology is not merely the product of a dominant or hegemonic political or religious system operating in a given time and place, but is the inculcation of individuals into the social performance of norms through the internalization of the values and modes of thought, feeling and being of that ideology. From this understanding, we have a concern about the formation of individuals into alien ways of inhuman practices and the overbearing nature of conformity. From a Buddhist perspective, we have a piece of the puzzle of human ignorance and suffering.

Though we may want to avoid discussion of true or authentic selves being screwed over by external forces which is all the rage these days, we can clearly see how the more authoritarian an ideology, the less room there is for diversity in thought, practice, behavior and belief. From this recognition, we can imagine a scale of the ideological determination of individuals and subjectivity, and question the degree to which systems produce behavioral conformity and inculcate subjective or inner-conformity on that scale. To what degree is it simply a case of being complicit because the payoffs of group assimilation are highly desirable? To what degree is the extreme coercion of manipulative and dehumanizing forces at play? It is not always clear and the recognition of this process in the ‘other’ seems to make far too many complacent about the in-group traps they are also subject to. Buddhism and religions of liberation are a minefield in this regard and for those that don’t know, Buddhist traditions have long squabbled over who has got it wrong, which are the better Buddhists, and who are wasting their time in wrong-headed ideologies.

Furthermore, Althusser pointed to how much of this acquiescence to authority is unconscious and reproduced within subjects that see their ideological capture as the natural way things are so that even the question of critiquing that naturalness and normality does not arise. Such folks are often shocked and outraged when an outsider, or insider for that matter, has the audacity to critique what has been held to be transparently right, good, or true. Laruelle defined this as participants being constitutively blind to the operations of decision. If it is not clear yet, this mechanism can go some way to explaining how so many support the worst of human atrocities throughout history. Though not condoning those who do, to envision them as captured by a form of collective hallucination does go some way in pointing to something we should all be far more attentive to, especially in a polarized and troubled age as our own, where it is far too easy to make enemies.

Deciding, Committing, Separating: practice anyone?

As a practice item, it is worth returning to the key first concept in both men’s work, which is decision. This is the first serious simplification on my part as I usually rephrase this term as commitment. In committing meaningfully to something like Buddhism, or a specific ideological position, we inevitably pick up habits of thinking, feeling, and even being, which intensify the deeper we commit to or identify with the system or position. The power of religion is that its practices are in many ways designed to produce precisely what Laruelle critiques; subject transformation in line with doctrinal norms, adoption of powerful beliefs, and commitment to a journey of salvation. Powerful absorption into group meaning making is extremely rewarding. Where one may feel revulsion, skepticism and something akin to an allergic reaction, another will experience a return home, mystical union, the power of far deeper human connection and clarity of purpose. We all desire such things and they mirror in many ways our tribal roots.

The problem, or the benefit for the true believer, is that strong identification tends to lead to a person becoming increasingly captured by the system. With a bit of imagination we can imagine they are becoming a part of its collective sentience. What is perceived and experienced through that system is taken as a complete, self-contained system that solves the endemic problem of understanding our complex world and how to live in it. The individual loses a part of their capacity to think, perceive and feel beyond the system of capture as they move more fully into it, yet gains certainty, clarity, and shared meaning. This can be evidenced through the perversion of the world’s inherent complexity and its division into narratives of over-simplification and us versus them. From Jehovah’s Witnesses to conspiracy theorists, the same mechanism plays out.

Almost every ideology, even very sophisticated, historically aware ones end up over-simplifying the world. Simplification is part and parcel of commitment (decision) becoming the unconscious pillars that contain the subjective reality of the group and the individuals in it. In the case of Buddhists, a simple example if that they see the world as samsara; a world divided between the suffering and the liberated. Though it may be better to suggest that as practitioners of a prior decision, they actually samsarify the world as they split the world from its complexity into a binary of simplification.

Philosophically, it goes deeper than mere ethics. The person becomes a performer of a recognized identity in the group, and a participant in the meaning making and co-forming that is integral to the group’s stability and survival. Therefore, the epistemological framework and metaphysical assumptions that are rooted in the ideology become a source of necessary alignment and needed adoption. Hierarchies within groups are typically built around deepening degrees of alignment and enforcement: The head of the ideology being the master assimilator and representative of the original decisional act.

Scissors anyone?

Laruelle pulls a second meaning out of the French term, which is scission: a cutting away or separation from. This amplifies the question of commitment making it additionally a separation from the wider world of meaning, or reality (for us humans). An enclosure of sorts is created through this separation, and the wider world becomes acted upon through and from that enclosure. Laruelle speaks of philosophers ‘philosophising the world’ from their philosophical stance: Glenn of Buddhists ‘buddhifying’ it through their talk of samsara, karma, emptiness, meditation and enlightenment. Thus even systems of knowledge or liberation become means for overlaying the world with a kind of collective imagination or fantasy. You could call it a story, or a telling, but identity formation and the calibration of the subjective to new ways of being, feeling and thinking goes far deeper than mere narration. If anything, we might stretch it further out towards a form of collective hallucination.

All this talk may seem a little paranoid

Well-educated westerners may be under the illusion that they could not possibly fall for such a mechanism. Yet a quick rundown of the assumptions they hold to and the decisional forms of commitment that are implicit in their lives, would begin to show how they and we are all absorbed into shared acts of meaning making and overly-simplistic binaries: we are all works in progress after all and no resolution to these issues exists. Though the absorption may be minor, we are participants in ideologies nonetheless and those ideologies, when unquestioned, always appear as natural, as given, as right and in possession of the truth. A natural response to all this may be a return to practices of liberation. Yet the question of freedom remains deeply problematic and the divisions between freedom and escape, knowledge and delusion and other assorted goodies are hardly resolvable issues. They require sustained thought, analysis, reflection and investigation, and that’s just the entry price.

The aftermath of the recognition of this mechanism in group and individual identity formation and performance might better be a recognition of entrapment. As a species rooted in the physical; the body, the Earth, histories, the confines of birth and death, entrapment or restriction are part and parcel of the human condition and we would do well to build a more nuanced and mature appreciation for our physical limits as a species. Instead of returning to a simplistic dichotomy, or scission, of freedom and entrapment, immanence and transcendence, escape and imprisonment, we could perhaps start to explore more fully the reality of embodied entrapment and social commitment and re-evaluate what it means to foster, protect and build ideologies of freedom and commitment to our physical reality, messy human history and imperfect methods of making sense of each other.

Those reading this may not like this last suggestion and may be tempted to reach for escape, a non-ideological plane of freedom, or push harder for some of the more, at least in appearance, realistic models of human freedom proffered by Buddhism or neo-Advaita. It is not for me to say whether you should or should not act in such a manner. I would simply suggest that the confines which capture and entrap can be divided between those that are negotiable and non-negotiable with much decision and commitment being the basis for a practice of liberation, not from, but into the world at large. A practice that can emerge from the kind of insight offered up by these two gentlemen is rich. There is ripe ground for taking apart and deconstructing the assumptions we hold, the beliefs we nurture, and the behaviors we exhibit. Tracing their history, unpacking their inconsistencies, and seeing just how superficial our grasp of a core idea or belief we have long held to is, is a form of practice of liberation. The difficulty for many Buddhists, spiritual types, and philosophers, is that they too often hold to the idea that they are already practicing Liberation when often their liberation is a performance of an idea of liberation that is, in truth, subverting the world into a hallucination, and is, in practice, a form of entrapment.

There are a slew of conceptual tools for starting to think this process through; conceptual over-reach, over-interpretation, ideological capture, in-group consensus, tribal mentality, infectious beliefs, mass hysteria, cultural contagion, peer contagion, and assimilation. These are, in many ways, our shared attempts to make sense of what happens when we are absorbed into group meaning making and identity assertion to the point of no-longer recognizing our hallucination as a hallucination, or our collective tendency towards hermeneutic addiction as a staple of human psychology.

Part two goes into Buddhism more fully with heuristic tools in hand and even suggests some applications in coaching.


[i] https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/  

[ii] non-buddhism is denoted without capitalisation. This is a small but important symbolic gesture designed to indicate that non-buddhism is not yet another reformulation of Buddhism. Laruelle makes this move with his non-philosophy. See either heuristic for more details.