What is non-Buddhism?

An essay

Non-Philosophy: Franꞔois Laruelle to Glenn Wallis & non-Buddhism

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 started the Speculative non-Buddhism project as a website producing intelligent critique of western Buddhism, built around his work and that of two primary collaborators, and occasional others, myself included. More often than not, his work was centred 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 work on non-Buddhism. These have been followed up in 2022 with a book on non-Buddhist Mysticism.  

It is difficult to explain what non-Buddhism is in a short text like this. 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 that require patience and explanation to grasp. 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 Glenn’s work points to its practicalities; an aspect often missed by the anti-intellectual crowd and his critics. The description that follows looks at non-Philosophy and non-Buddhism with these considerations in mind and inevitably leaves a lot out.

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; something which he describes as a science of philosophy. Laruelle’s non-philosophy emerges from a recognition that there was and continues to be a flaw at the heart of philosophy: one that keeps reproducing itself across geographical and temporal divides. His insight need not be limited to philosophy, but can be applied to any complex system that includes beliefs and practices, and in my opinion, especially to those that lead to explicit identity adoption or formation. We can consider both Glenn and Laruelle’s work thus as fundamentally concerned with the question of how we become blinded by an inability to see beyond any system of practice we become absorbed into or identified with. To participate meaningfully in any group is not a sign of this mechanism being problematic per se. 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 completely lost. As a surface recognition, this may all seem obvious, 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.

Deciding, Committing, Separating

From this, we arrive at a key concept in both men’s work, which is decision. Now, here is the first serious simplification on my part. I usually rephrase this term as commitment. In committing meaningfully to something like Buddhism, or a specific ideological position, we pick up habits of being, thinking and feeling, which intensify the deeper we commit to or identify with the system or position. Identification can then lead to a person becoming seriously captured by the system and eventually evolves into a practitioner of what is experienced as a self-contained system. They become a performer of a recognised identity in the group, and a participant in the meaning making and co-forming that is integral to the group’s stability, and even survival.

It goes deeper.

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. What’s more, this commitment is not fully recognised or understood by those doing the committing, thus it remains hidden from practitioners and disseminators alike, making the group constitutively blind to the underlying process underway. Though such behaviours may be seen most clearly amongst religious cults, or extremist groups, this process can be found in all collective forms of social participation to varying degrees. The greater the meaning proffered by the group, the greater the degree of capture on offer.

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 hallucination.

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 recognising our hallucination as a hallucination, or our collective tendency towards hermeneutic addiction as a staple of human psychology.

Buddhism at odds with itself

What makes Buddhism such an interesting case for analysis from this perspective is its foundational narrative of liberation through the cessation of suffering, and its many variants on the questions of emptiness, no-self, nirvana, consciousness, equanimity, universal compassion, Buddha-nature, and so on. As Glenn has pointed out time and again, these concepts are labels for promising insights and potential practices, but far too often they fail to label the ‘real thing’, being substituted instead for all kinds of concepts and then practices that lead to the subversion of the disruptive and radical implications each concept points to. They become a codified means for forming group consensus around fundamental questions which the wider world may disagree with strongly, or for which profound doubt is the norm in the world out there, and for good reason, yet the group is so certain to have all the answers to.

An initial step for appreciating why non-Philosophy/Buddhism might be fundamentally important is to appreciate complexity and multiplicity. A Buddhist sangha may indeed be a social space for reducing suffering, gaining insight, building compassionate community, and thank goodness if it is. But it may additionally be a site of social formation and training into ways of being that cause a split from the reality of complexity that the community is situated in and potentially defending itself from. The two can be simultaneously true, and this is one reason why a practitioner experiencing dissonance within a given sangha can find it so hard to navigate the feeling that something is amiss when the world betrays the sangha’s stories, or a practice’s promised outcome fails to materialise. Buddhism is explicitly on the side of the good and so filled with enviable good qualities that it can cause an uncomfortable split in those who suspect that the compassion may only be skin deep, and the wise teacher just as dysfunctional as everyone else.

This brings us to a shift that Laruelle and Glenn’s works seeks to avoid. Getting beyond dichotomous thinking and behaving is a major piece of the project of non-philosophy and non-Buddhism. You could consider both as pointing at a third way of sorts. The practitioner who finds value, meaning, and much to like about Buddhism need not find himself cast onto a fork in the road with one path leading to the abandonment of Buddhism and the value experienced within it, the other to a resignation to the community norms and suffocating of the dissonance and doubts about the group’s claims or social practices. The project of both thinkers is rooted in a desire to find the proper distance from Philosophy or Buddhism so that total rejection, or total adherence, need not be required. To build a space away from the identity formation, inculcating, entrapment or assimilation on the one hand, and detachment, abandonment and rejection on the other are considered twin features of a continued enthrallment to the system. For a non-practitioner thus, the invitation is not to give up on Buddhism, but rather build a radically different kind of relationship with its ideas, practices and practitioners so that that the potential within its teachings is explored anew, as transformative rather than merely formative.

Depending on the degree of capture and the nature of one’s romantic commitment, this process may require some serious disruption. This is not necessarily a violent act, though destroying myths, fantasies and behaviour patterns that are false and dehumanising might ensue. Renewal, revitalisation, innovation and liberation tend to require a serious break from what came before: a pattern we see in most new, creative movements that emerge in any field. This is partly why such a practice is challenging: It requires a recalibration that goes beyond mere acquiescence or petulant rejection or destruction. It is, to return to the theme of complexity, simultaneously an extremely delicate operation, and a vigorous break from what was held to.

The World and Buddhism at large

At this point, you might be thinking so what? Why should any of this matter? Two responses emerge; one regarding Buddhism, the other the world at large. A cursive glance at our polarised world really ought to put such a question to rest, but if not, consider how performative identities are all the rage these days and span the political spectrum from right to left, filling much of the space in between. Reactionary identities seem to have sprung up in response to the solidification of identity politics in modern western culture so that we have dialectics of identity groups reacting and feeding off each other’s collective neuroses, blind spots and hallucinations. The internet has led to the deepening of the hyperreal condition of our age with meaning found, located and performed through behaviour that runs from isolation to marathons of outrage: a take on the problematic dichotomy the non- seeks to get beyond.

The reactionary speed of Twitter reflects the hyper-sensitivity of these identities and the incapacity of folks to disidentify from ideological positions and engage with something we might call our shared reality. Hyper-positionality could well describe our social moment and it has convinced too many of our fellow citizens to engage in an odd form of Second Life. One large-scale change we would need to restore some sanity to wider society involves developing the capacity to see beyond identity performance and dichotomies, and non-thought and non-practice could become tools for attempting this in the social spaces we inhabit. From this, we might imagine a non-pedagogy, a non-politics, and so on. In each case, the non- works to decouple creative minds and potential from entrapment within dichotomies that are merely the production of commitment to, or the fancier term, decisional matrix of an ideological system.

As for Buddhism, Glenn would argue that even a Zen Buddhist engaging in ordinary enlightenment and seeing the world as it is, is actually seeing the world as Zenified and performing a zenification of ‘ordinary enlightenment’. Buddhism, whether as mindfulness or any other contemporary variant of traditional Buddhist pathways, when blind to this mechanism becomes a system incapable of seeing its blind spots. As a consequence it is also incapable of genuine liberation, instead becoming a system for training individuals and groups into the performance of Buddhist identities and the shared hallucinations that accompany them. Much of the critique aimed at Buddhism from the less inhibited western intellectual points to the limitations of relying on Buddhist doctrine for a mature appreciation of our ongoing epistemological and ethical challenges. Analysis of core Buddhist teachings often reveals holes in claims and ontological assumptions shown to be flawed by other knowledge systems. Buddhism, like many forms of philosophy, claims to be a complete means for knowing the world, understanding and living within the world, and does so with so much confidence that it fails to see the gaps in its own claims. This failure leads to a sort of blindness and the subsequent performance of ideas within a mirror world of Buddhism.

Survival Strategies of Avoidance

Western Buddhist teachers and practitioners often employ strategies when this recognition starts to become unavoidable; the two most common being further assimilation and then universalization. The former should be familiar to many well-read western Buddhists or critics of Buddhism. Philosophy, Psychology, Cognitive Science and other fields of research, and academic disciplines are folded into the Buddhist frame. Rather than become genuine critique with the potential to revitalise or destabilise, and thus bring about change or a rethink, they become resources for reframing and justifying pre-existing positions of belief and practice. Change is superficial and concerns appearance or survival adaption.

The second is an easy trick found most often amongst utopianists and idealists: aspects of Buddhism are universalised to avoid the specifics of critique. For example, enlightenment or interdependence are taken as perennial truths with Buddhism providing a piece of the pie so that the critique does not really count. Because the practitioner goes meta in their conceptualisation of the concept, it ceases to be restrained by specific social and historical critique: it is kind of like a get out of jail card. Essentially, it is an avoidance strategy through abstraction, or dissipation. Buddhists groups will even do this in private with claims that, “Our version of teaching X does not have those problems found in other Buddhist group, which are less authentic anyway.” You get the picture, right?

What next?

Part of the process for exiting the decisional bubble, or matrix, or trap, or self-delusion – choose your metaphor – is to decodify the over-reach of a system of meaning making that you have been committed to and embrace the wider cultural environment within which Buddhism, or a philosophy, or political identity are situated in. It also means democratising the sources of knowledge and insight you draw on. Rather than place them into competition (more dichotomies), they become a collection of means that participate in the process of attempting to understand, think, and practice beyond parochial perspectives, with Buddhism being just one of them. This is not the same as pick-and-mix spiritual materialism; rather, it is an attempt to go further with the materials of practice and work with decision as an integral part of all forms of social practice. It is asking Buddhist teachings and practice to open up to insights from the wider world as playmates and not as aggressors or inferior interlocutors, and for Buddhism to be changed as a consequence in unexpected ways.

I tend to think that many marginal figures throughout the history of philosophy, Buddhism, and other traditions that at core have meaning making taking place, exist at the margins in order to avoid the decisional (commitment) trap. The insight Laruelle points to is in many ways intuitive. Those with strong identities who arrive at a system of thought and practice are often the least likely to be assimilated into it. Buddhism has been a site of alternative religion, philosophy and place for addressing psychological hang-ups, hang-over, weaknesses and desire since its arrival here in the West. Coupled with the instability and change of late stage modernity, the liquid nature of identity formation means that folks have all too often been willing to flow into forms of Buddhist identity formation and commitment. Inevitably, Buddhism reflects wider society and so, with hindsight, it seems inevitable that many western Buddhists would slip happily into becoming performative Buddhists in order to avoid the anxiety inducing consequences of taking Buddhism’s most powerful insights seriously.

And, why not? The dissonance that propels many to avoid or leave Buddhism does not trouble everyone. For those that it does, tools and practice items from the non- world may represent the raft that Buddhism is so often intended to be.

The Heuristic and Getting Started

The heuristics put together by these two gentlemen name the consequences of the dysfunction laid out above and provide means for thinking anew the worlds of philosophy and Buddhism. They are works in progress. There may be more to add and refinements to make as folks engage with them as tools and concepts to be applied. For us here, Glenn’s work is more pertinent. Rooted in Laruelle’s original work, it takes an interesting approach to applying non-philosophy to Buddhism, tailoring and expanding as necessary to make it work as a means for liberation from its decisional matrix and identity formation processes.

The terminology is extravagant, flamboyant and often perplexing. In a way, this is actually important. The words chosen disrupt facile reading and represent an alien way of thinking about and perceiving Buddhism and one’s self as a Buddhist, or practitioner of Buddhism. You could argue that this is a preventative measure: It stops an easy assimilation of the conceptual tool box into the Buddhist fold or a pre-existing quasi mystical take on the practising life. For some, the full heuristic may be rather amusing as within it are the apparently contradictory elements of playfulness and deadly-seriousness. For our purposes, I will describe briefly three items we might say come first.

Aporetic Dissonance, Inquiry, & Loss

The critique in this article points to identity formation processes that are in many ways dehumanising. This is clearly not the intentioned outcome of western Buddhism in its many forms but is part of the unconscious nature of such processes and the inadequacy of Buddhists to identify them. Aporetic Dissonance is the first heuristic item I will share and refers to an irresolvable or irreversible internal contradiction that can occur over time in practitioners who find themselves at odds with the identity formation taking place within a given Buddhist group or alignment. This dissonance eventually becomes impossible to ignore, though initial attempts may be made to do so.

The unconscious defence mechanisms of complex social organisms mean that critique and aporetic dissonance are contextualised within the organism. Doubt may be explained away as a temporary blip, recast as an obstacle to the teachings to be banished, or given as a sign of weakness in the practitioner, who is inevitably the one at fault. A sense of dissonance with the language, practices and ideas of the group may be recast as issues rooted not in the group but in the ego, the self or the grasping at one’s own individual identity, thus further alienating the person from their own instincts and inquiry.

Many western Buddhists have sought to quieten the dissonance themselves by changing Buddhist tradition, and no doubt this has worked for some. Others retreat into their own home-brew formula of Buddhism and carry on with that as isolated practitioners. Many, if not most, up and leave. In some cases, the dissonance becomes a new kind of legend that leads to creation of a new hybrid form of Buddhism, which itself in time becomes yet another decisional machine.

Non-Buddhism sees dissonance as the departure point for inquiry, loss and investigation rather than abandonment. It is a kind of entry card to the recognition and practice that ensures. As calm-abiding sits as the start for insight practice in many schools of Buddhism, so aporetic dissonance and inquiry become the starting point for disruption, critique and a rupture from assimilation into a Buddhist identity. Dissonance turns into loss when the recognition that no return to the way things were is possible and the attempt to grab onto a quick fix is seen as futile. This can be a traumatic experience for some. Yet without this process of change, of acceptance of loss, and of resignation to difference, the work of non-Buddhism will make little sense.

Coaching Applications

The final stretch is now in sight. I want to spend the last few words on the application of all this insight in the coaching context. Why coaching? In many ways, coaching is the most democratic of the therapeutic interventions on offer with even the idea of therapy being negotiable. It is also a form of practice that when done well, responds specifically to the person, with whatever they bring becoming the material that directs the work that follows, work that is agreed upon and created with the coach. There are many models or styles of coaching; passive / active, motivating / perspective gaining, emotional / rational, systematic / spontaneous, spiritual / secular, to name a few.

In this context, what matters is the initial dissonance. If non-Buddhism is about navigating the sweet spot between total abandonment, and a recalibration of one’s relations with Buddhist ideas, practices and materials, then coaching can support that process and make it far smoother and rewarding. It provides and encourages a visit to the Great Feast and a plateau in which hierarchies are exchanged for a ripe landscape of possibilities, interactions and materials to work with and build practices from.