Buddhism, Non-Buddhism: The Speculative Turn


Okay, I admit it I’m not a Buddhist. Let’s get that out of the way. I studied Northern Shaolin forms of Gung Fu under Sonseang-nim Chul Wu Jung. Recently I posted a naïve post on Zen Buddhism not knowing anything of current philosophy, literature, or issues surrounding the practice or non-practice of Buddhism. I soon learned that was a mistake. I learned that current thought has a great deal to say about Western appropriations of Buddhism. This is a beginning article in my search to understand what is occurring under the rubric of Non-Buddhism and Speculative Non-Buddhism. I discovered nothing on the books section of Amazon.com. I found a search on Google to uncover a site run by a gentleman Glen Wallis, who with a few others offers information across a broad spectrum on the topic of Speculative Non-Buddhism. Wallis himself tells us that he is not a “Buddhist”  of any sort, and has written several books and articles on various aspects of Buddhism. You can find further information at his website and in this interview.

First thing I read was the Warning. The first thing Glenn tells us is that “this blog is to inspire people to reorient themselves to Buddhism in the ways discussed here. Given the place of “Buddhism” in this project (namely, as “non-buddhism”), that reorientation involves a radically, even disasterally (we make up bad new words, too), reordered relationship to Buddhist values and institutions.”

He then tells us “You can’t reorient yourself until you’ve spent some time orienting yourself. So, you might want to stop reading and go meditate, or recite the Heart Sutra, or visualize your perfect guru. After a few more years’ worth of Dharma talks, you should be open to my message.” We’ll assume he’s legit. Otherwise we might assume his a wise-cracker who is ironically setting us up for what comes next. I suspect the latter.

Because he next tells us “For those of you who have explored the Buddhist globe, from the tropical Achans to the mountainous Zens, read on! If you have been practicing, if you have been paying attention, then you know that Buddhism has been taking you on a grand ride. Buddhism is, after all, just a vehicle, right? A few, no some, no most–bullshit!–virtually every single human being who hangs his/her shingle as “Buddhist teacher” would like you to believe that Buddhism is itself the goal. Buddhism is not the goal of Buddhism (according to Buddhism); liberation is. Abandon the raft! etc., etc.”

So we can see Glenn has a definite point of view toward Buddhism. Let us remember that as he said he’s “been an observer of Buddhism in North America and practitioner of Buddhist-style meditation since 1975,” yet not an actual Buddhist. So one has to ask the obvious question: If one is not a Buddhist but an Outside observer and one who has practiced a style of meditation that resembles but may not be a “Buddhist-style meditation” can one truly speak of Buddhism? Would it be an intellectual exercise only? Would it give us a detailed as he suggests “warehouse of critical and constructive tools”. Tools as he suggests that are intended to be used for speculation on Buddhism, or, more properly, on what he calls “non-buddhism””?

One will ask of a traditionalist coming upon this site whether the information it presents would be of value or not if the author is not a practicing Buddhist? I’ll assume for the benefit of doubt that his is a purely intellectual and critical approach to as he says, “Buddhism in North America” rather than the full spectrum of Buddhism proper in all its variants. We will see what comes next.

He suggests a link: Before You Read. So let us go there and see what it says. What you will discover if you have already clicked on that link is nothing concerning Buddhism itself, but rather a myriad of quotes from various cultural literati, quotes from the famous street artist, Bansky, on to William Blake up too Paul Muldoon. Poets, artists, philosophers, playwrights, capitalist inventors, etc. What I got from the quotes is the sense that here we are dealing with a well-read Western intellectual who knows the base line of radial dissent in most of the thinkers in the past couple hundred years. There was an obvious missing quote: nothing at all from Buddha, or any other Buddhist that one could readily identify. I’ll assume the warning is that the site your about to read is not about Buddhist authors, but may have more to do with Western thought and philosophy. Shall we proceed?

Next we follow a link that says: What is non-Buddhism? Well it is for certain. Glenn throws us into current Continental theory with the likes no less of François Laruelle who has given him impetus for his specific formulation of “non-buddhism.” Strangely right off the bat he will align his form of non-Buddhism with Laurelle’s non-Philosophy saying it is “akin to non-Euclidean geometry”. Explicating on this further he says,

The difference between Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry lies, of course, in the behavior of a line. Euclid’s fifth postulate assumes parallelism. In upholding this postulate, along with the other four, Euclideans radically limit the field of possible forms. Rejecting this postulate (though preserving the other four), non-Euclidean geometry envisions, so to speak, radical new possibilities; namely, it permits elliptical and hyperbolic curvature.

The emphasis here is on “radical new possibilities” rather than mathematics per se. As he’ll say in the next statement: “Non-buddhism,” as I conceive it, makes no decision about (1) what postulates properly constitute “Buddhism,” or (2) the value, truth, or relevance of any of the claims made in the name of “Buddhism.” Now we are getting somewhere. It’s as if suddenly we’re situated in a site or space of Buddhism in such a way that we cannot know or understand what Buddhism is, nor can we trust any of those who purport to be authorities on Buddhism. It is as if we are in a situated space or non-space where everything has been polished clean of all references to both our conceptions of “Buddhism”, as well as any references to the vast literature both Western or non-Western on this ancient system.

We learn that non-Buddhism is outside the fold, that those who work such critical tools are neither rebellious nor uninterested, but are rather concerned with the uses of the teachings of Buddhism being neither accountable nor beholden to its normative appeal. Instead non-Buddhism seeks to suspend the structures that constitute Buddhism, mute the very vibrato of the Buddhist believer’s resonance, and open up the non-Buddhist to as Glenn states it, “fresh resonances”.

So in this sense Glenn, not being a Buddhist, seeks an intellectual and (non)philosophical opening to Buddhism as an outsider, as a non practitioner. One might question if what we will gain by this is nothing more than a Westerner purveying the textual folds of Buddhist thought, rather than the inner-spirit of its Buddhist practitioners. But we’ll leave that aside for now.

Ultimately we come to the crux of Glenn’s project. He tells us:

Why am I engaging this project of speculative non-buddhism? I am doing so because I see a need—now, more than ever—to begin stemming the swell of western Buddhaphilia.

So his project’s main task as he states it is to “lead to the end of Buddhism as we know it. And what might arise in its place? We will never know until we, as the literary protagonist named the Buddha or Gotama is made to put it, let the collapsed house lie in shambles.”

So his project of non-Buddhism is a destructive critique and undoing of Buddhism in the contemporary world.

I’ll need to take up other aspects in a future post. I honestly wonder if his real task is to demystify all the symbolic entrapments that modern Western forms of Buddhism have clothed it in, commercializing it into ritual and practice that has more to do with subterfuge and economic prestige; or, is his task just that – an intellectual of the West seeking to deconstruct and annihilate a vast system he deems unnecessary, overloaded, and masticating on the secular gullibility of Western enthusiasts. Either way there is a sense of destructive energy here. As he says in closing,

“Am I full of paradox and contradiction? Of course I am!”

Visit his site: https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/

I’ll take this up in another post to see what the “speculation” is in speculative non-Buddhism. I read another article by Tom Pepper, another author on the site, on the anti-intellectualism in most Western appropriations of Buddhism. I’ll add that as well, seeing that he finds analogues in Badiou and Zizek among others for certain concepts between the various threads of non-Buddhism. He’ll attack a stream of anti-intellectualism that castigates both the study of Buddhist literature and philosophy, along with a seeming retreat into mystification and affective or bodily practice over intellectual exercise. But we’ll see that in an upcoming post.

5 thoughts on “Buddhism, Non-Buddhism: The Speculative Turn

  1. Q: What did the Buddhist monk say to the hot dog vendor?

    A: “Make me one with everything.”

    The hot dog vendor prepares the hot dog and gives it to the monk.

    The monk pays him with a $20 bill.

    10 minutes go by and the monk asks “where is my change?”

    The hot dog vendor answers: “Change must come from within”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this recently: Post-Buddhism stands for the radical notion that I as the practitioner am the sole authority for interpreting the Buddhist teachings and applying them in my life. Since there is no grand narrative in Buddhism that anyone can lay claim to, I have the right and the authority to decide what those teachings and practices mean to me. I am responsible for my own awakening, and thus I am responsible for interpreting the teachings in a way that I deem relevant to my path. Lamas and senior teachers may claim to have the authority of lineage to explicate the “true meaning” of the teachings, but they do not have any more authority than any other scholar or reader, or the average practitioner. I will not defer to the authority of any esteemed teacher of any lineage to tell me how to practice the dharma or what they mean to me. I may learn from many different teachers, and I may study many different dharmic traditions, but ultimately, I decide what those teachings and practices mean in my life. (
    https://engagedbuddhism.net/2016/05/04/post-buddhism-no-grand-narrative/ )

    I felt I was reading a Lutheran

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Are you the new person drawn toward me?
    To begin with, take warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose;
    Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?
    Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?
    Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy’d satisfaction?
    Do you think I am trusty and faithful?
    Do you see no further than this façade, this smooth and tolerant manner of me?
    Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?
    Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya, illusion?

    Liked by 1 person

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