Presented as a rational, scientific, and practical religion, modern Buddhism appears to have all the answers. Even the secular forms of mindfulness promise ever-increasing practitioners that Buddhist meditation will provide the solutions to all their mental, emotional, and spiritual issues. But is there a problem with all of this?
In his new book, A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real, scholar Glenn Wallis argues that there is, and that Buddhism as we know it "must be ruined." On March 11, 2019, Wallis was in conversation with HDS professor Charles Hallisey at the Center for the Study of World Religions.
Glenn Wallis holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Harvard University's Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies. He is the founder and director of Incite Seminars, in Philadelphia.
Charles Hallisey is the Yehan Numata Senior Lecturer on Buddhist Literatures at Harvard Divinity School. His research centers on Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, Pali language and literature, Buddhist ethics, and literature in Buddhist culture.
CHARLES STANG: My name is Charles Stang, and I am the Director here at the CSWR. Thank you all so much for coming out this evening. And then a special thanks to Dr. Glenn Wallis, my colleague Charlie Hallisey from HDS, and Randy Rosenthal for putting this evening together. Randy is going to introduce our two speakers this evening. It just falls to me to introduce Randy. But before I do that, may I perform the liturgical action of reminding you to silence your cell phone so that we don't have a musical accompaniment to this conversation. And also if those of you who are new to the center and you're interested in learning more about our programming, you can sign up to my left there under that Korean gong or whatever that is. I'm not sure. You can sign up for our newsletter. You can also, of course, do that on our website.
So without further ado, I give you Randy Rosenthal. Randy Rosenthal is a alumnus of the Divinity School and is currently teaching writing here at the Harvard Extension School. And he will give our two speakers a proper introduction. Thank you again.
RANDY ROSENTHAL: So first, thanks to Ariella Ruth Goldberg and Professor Stang for green lighting this event. I mainly wanted to put it together so I can hear Professor Hallisey and Glenn Wallis talk. But rather than inviting them to my living room, I figured to have a public event so everyone else can benefit from it, too. And by the looks of you, it looks like a lot of people are interested. So that's good.
So I first came across Glenn Wallis with his translation of the Dhammapada. And to me, it's the most penetrating of all versions I've read. Rather than rely on standard terms and phrases, his fresh language cuts deeply, turning text into scripture. And anyone who's taken Charles Hallisey's class knows what that means. For example, Glenn's translation of verse 41 reads, "soon for certain, this body will lie on the ground, cast away without consciousness like a useless log." Pretty cutting. And then I like this verse, 237-238. "You are now advanced in age. You are proceeding toward the presence of death, and there is no dwelling place for you on the way. You have no provisions for the journey. Fashion a lamp for yourself. Strive quickly. Become skilled. Toxins cleansed, free from stain, you will no longer undergo birth and old age."
In the acknowledgments section of that book, Glenn wrote, "Charles Hallisey taught me how to read. I hope that what I've written in this book reflects a little of what I've learned from him." And many of us here knows what that means. So Charles Hallisey is the Yehan Numata Senior Lecturer on Buddhist Literatures at Harvard Divinity School. His research centers on Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, Pali language and literature, Buddhist ethics, and literature in Buddhist countries. He is the author of Theragota: Poems of the First Buddhist Women and is currently working on several more books, which I'm sure many of us would preorder right now if we're able to do so. So hurry it on up.
He has won Harvard Divinity School's Outstanding Teacher award twice in 2013-14 and 2015-16. And to quote Dean Hempton when he presented Charlie with the award for the second time, "to win one teaching award may be regarded as brilliance. But to win two looks like sucking up to the dean." He then congratulated Charlie on "this very well deserved, if slightly greedy, award."
For 40 plus years, Glenn Wallis has been actively surveying the Buddhist landscape. He has a PhD in Sanskrit and Indian Studies from Harvard. And he's a scholar and translator of Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan text. Wallis has taught at Brown University, the University of Georgia, Bowdoin College, and now teaches at Penn State Abington. He is the Founder and Director of Insight Seminars and is the author of several books, including Basic Teachings of the Buddha, Mediating the Power of Buddhas, and most recently and what we're here to talk about, A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real.
He's studied with ahjans in Thailand, rinpoches in the Himalaya, and roshis in Japan, yet he doesn't wear robes obviously or call himself a Dharma teacher or even a Buddhist. This is in part because after everything, Wallis has concluded that Western Buddhism must get ruined. A critique of Western Buddhism may be disturbing, if not infuriating, to anyone who considers themselves Buddhist or studies Buddhism. But "ruin" is the key word in the book. It's also the name of a punk band that Wallis co-founded in 1980. But as he explains, ruin doesn't refer to destruction or annihilation. In his usage, it describes a return to an unkempt state.
Wallis begins by arguing that Western Buddhism has been shaped by Enlightenment, Romantic, and Protestant thinking. He claims ancient legitimacy while ignoring the irrational aspects of the early Buddhist scriptures, such as the stories of Buddha's magical powers, his teachings on rebirth, and the prevalence of yakas, devas, and a host of other invisible beings. Today, the Buddha is depicted as an empirically minded scientist, and Buddhism has been praised as the most scientific of religions.
Because of these and other doctrinal alterations, especially those focusing on well-being, Wallis writes that Western Buddhism has become the perfect ideological supplement to rabid consumerist capitalism. That's what I said, wow. That is, Buddhism as we know it is inseparable from the neoliberal ideology in which it has flourished. In its packaging and marketing of itself, Wallis argues that Buddhism negates the very teachings it aims to convey. As he writes, the history of Western Buddhism is one of evading the consequences of its own thought. That is, we don't want to accept Buddhism's most fundamental truths, such as there's no such thing as self and that all of this is suffering.
But Wallis is not trying to be provocative simply to stir up the pot. His critique comes from his deeply sincere desire to salvage something real from the ruins of what has become Buddhism in the west. He emphasizes he is not trying to recapture some pristine, pre Western Buddhism, nor is he advocating a return to Buddhist orthodoxy. Rather he suggests a kind of Buddhist anarchism, which he calls "non buddhism" with a lowercase b. Through non buddhism, Wallis argues we can ruin edifices of Western Buddhism and can then work with the profound teachings that remain. He hopes his view can stimulate some deep thinking. Wallis will now read from a section of his book, and then he and Professor Hallisey will have a conversation about its ideas. I hope you enjoy their talk as much as I do.
GLENN WALLIS: Thank you all so much for coming out. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much, Randy, for initiating this, Ariella Ruth for doing so much of the work to get us here, and Charlie for being Charlie. Charlie gave me extraordinarily difficult task as he always does, and maybe I'll save it for later, and that was to say what he is to me to you. And I'm going to need some time for that.
First, I think it would be very, very helpful if I read from a section of the book that I think Randy very astutely identified as a good kind of summation of some of the arguments and themes in the book. So I will read a short section. It should take no more than 10 minutes. But for those of you-- which I assume most or all of you-- who are unfamiliar with this book and my work, it should prove useful to the subsequent conversation that we're going to have. I'm trying to find it.
I just re read this whole book, which was a very strange experience. It helped me to realize how difficult the book is and how strange it is, because I was reading it as a reader for the first time. You write a book. You read it a few times to get it right, to get published. And you put it on the shelf, and you start with the next thing. This time, I pulled it off and read it. Are you looking up the pages? I forgot. It reminded me of an experience I had as a teenager walking through the city of Philadelphia. One day, I turned the corner on Chestnut Street, and I see this idiot staring at me in the paned glass window. And I just wanted to punch him, he looked so asinine. And then a split second later, I realized it was me. And it was a very profound experience of somehow creating some separation from yourself. And there was a similar experience I had read in this book. Oh, chapter four, OK. Thank you.
OK, this is from the chapter called non buddhism. Buddhism is a magnificent creation. It is truly, to say it in a Buddhist idiom, a brilliant mandala wrought of the most precious jewels exuding a healing fragrance, distilling a pain dispelling nectar. Buddhism is a juggernaut of compassion thundering throughout the world, crushing the endless sorrows that consume sentient beings. Ever since the Buddha set in motion two and a half millennia ago, Buddhism has been trumpeting the warning that our world, like our minds, is an inferno. It has never ceased to marshal its considerable apparatus of concepts and practices. in this human struggle to quench that fire. More recently and closer to home, Western Buddhism has continued this grand project, skillfully calibrating its firehose to target more effectively our lives and our times. And yet something is amiss. Something is at work within Western Buddhism not only to hinder, but to pervert its course.
Early in the book, I made several points about this perversion or reversal, and I'll review those here. One-- it occurs at the micro level of foundational Buddhist concepts. Two-- it is intrinsic in that it is constituted as reversal by values posited from within Buddhism itself. Three-- it alters Buddhism's identity as a science or theory of imminent and materialist own experience to that of a conjurer of transcendent and idealist worldview. Four-- it transforms Buddhism from a bold bearer of the good-- I put question mark after that-- news about the human real into an apostle of a new age apocalypse. Five-- as such, the reversal constitutes a misturning, a maneuver performed in the spirit of enlightenment of, that is to say, a deeper and fuller clarification of its ostensible discoveries about human being, only in the end to have a stand face to face with a contradiction or a platitude posing as wisdom.
I call this reversal a conceptual power praxis for reasons that bear on the next step toward my critique of Western Buddhism. The term itself belongs to psychoanalysis. Why not just use a Buddhist term such as pravritti as David Lloyd did earlier in the text? After all the two terms, connoting as they both do something like the reversion of an action, are similar enough. The reason that I use the psychoanalytic term should be clear with a quick review of how the Buddhist term functioned within Lloyd's argument. Recall that he employed it to mark the transformational reversion from no self as "the festering hole at my core" toward "a life healing flow which springs up spontaneously." So the turn is from this festering hole at our core into some sort of affirmative life healing flow.
From where might this spring? Bear in mind, too, that Lloyd is illuminating the Buddhist real of subjectivity without essence, substance, or any other stabilizing basis. So unlike another philosopher I treated, Timothy Morton, Lloyd is cautious not to posit some thing, however shimmering and ephemeral as a source of the life healing flow. Thus, all Lloyd can really offer is that it springs from "I know not where."
While such language of an unknowable x that the teacher nonetheless knows is a standard authoritarian move in an obscurantist mystical rhetoric. It does not in itself disqualify the move. From Plotinus to Freud, from Hegel to Beckett, the discourse of the real is permeated by a mood of impossibility. Lacan, for instance, speaks of the real as "the essential object that isn't an object any longer, but there's something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail." Does a statement like this differ all that much from nonsense famous teaching to the wandering Joshu that while "not knowing its most intimate," ultimately the way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing.
Alenka Zupancik refers to the seemingly inherent impossibility of either knowing or not knowing, which is still dualistically coupled to knowing, of course. The real, or the way in zen speak, as imminent inaccessibility. She continues the point of Lacan's identification of the real with the impossible is not simply that the real is some thing that is impossible to happen. On the contrary, the whole point of the Lacanian concept of the real is that the impossible happens. This is what is so traumatic, disturbing, shattering, or funny about the real. The real happens precisely as the impossible.
With the examples I gave of Western Buddhist treatment of no self, suffering, desire, and emptiness, of terms that I treat earlier in the book, I tried to show that there, too, the impossible happens. The decisive difference, however, is that in Western Buddhism it happens through the banishment of the real, the very Buddhist appointed real itself. The real concept, once installed in Buddhist form, is ordered to about face, to double back, to reverse course, and retreat post-haste. In its place is installed a more consoling, co-operative affirmative of even more impossible happening, such as a life healing flow, real pleasure and happiness, or an infinite plenitude.
With psychoanalysis to draw a contrast, the real as productive non object, the real as that lacking any possible mediation is the object of anxiety par excellence. The difference is consequential. Where Buddhism flinches and shores up against the full implications of its thought, psychoanalysis follows the evidence farther into its murky circuit. For Western Buddhism, the flinch entails a healthy adaptation to reality, the alleviation of stress, and even the end of suffering. Of course, it also means collusion with the political and economic status quo that, like it, places the blame for success or failure, happiness or misery on the degree to which the individual is able to recognize his or her vulnerability, adapt to the circumstances, and master resilience through an internalized practice of mindful letting go.
For psychoanalysis, this means the perpetuation of the disease. For our capacity for enlightened living is forged not within the furnace of an individual consciousness, but within the severe circuitry of the social nexus. Where. Buddhism shares with psychoanalytic practice the belief that it is a search for truth, only the latter admits "and the truth is not always beneficial." As Lloyd highlighted, the Western Buddhist result does indeed follow from a paravritti, from a reversion or turning around. The turning along with its result, however, is of the nature of a power praxis because it constitutes a recoiling that includes a reversal of judgment, such that the original state of affairs does not take effect. These are all synonyms for both parapraxis and paravritti-- recoiling, reversal of judgment not taking effect.
What does take effect is that the critical reader, like the astute psychoanalyst and perhaps the attentive meditator, suspects that a second undesired sense is being added to the intended one. That's why I call it a conceptual parapraxis. OK, so now there are five basic points that I review. And I think it would be useful to hear these. So to explain the purpose of the rest of the book, I emphasize some points that I made earlier. Here goes.
One-- Western Buddhism thinks Western Buddhism represents a momentous effort sustained over centuries and in multiple cultural contexts to understand and improve our human condition. Its thinking, however, is not sufficient. It is not merely the case that Western Buddhist thought exhibits the kinds of contradictions-- aporia, parapraxes, and so on-- that I've been attempting to demonstrate. All grand systems of thought arguably do so. And that is not in itself invalidating. The fact of insufficiency, however, in the case of a unitary authoritarian form of thought like Buddhism is in a quite particular sense seriously disabling.
This is good news. Not only does this fact not spell the doom of Western Buddhism or Buddhism, it augurs a form of thought that corresponds more closely to the vital potentialities of humans that Buddhism itself labors to articulate for. It is crucial to bear in mind, however, that this form of thought is not a new iteration of Buddhism. I'm not interested in reform here. It involves, rather, an attempt to answer the question posed at the very beginning of the book. I think it's the first sentence of the book. What are we to make of Western Buddhism? Toward this end, we leave Western Buddhism as it is and take it seriously. But in both cases, treat it as raw, human cultural material rather than on the sufficient terms that it itself demands.
As Marjorie Gracieuse warned us-- I used a statement of hers about the goal of critique throughout the book, and so I'll mention it here. She says the purpose of a critique is to wrest vital potentialities of human beings from the artificial forms and static norms that subjugate them. So as Marjorie Gracieuse warned us, such an endeavor is not easy. Like forcefully unarming a hostage taker, it requires arresting. As my usage, however cursory, of ideas from philosophy, psychoanalysis, literature, and so on were intended to demonstrate, what is required for arresting is an extra Buddhist supplement, a form of thought outside the sphere of Buddhism's overly determinant self positing influence, or what I call throughout the book from under the punctilious gaze of Buddhist mastery.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I found the work of contemporary French thinker Francois Laruelle offers unusually effective tools for dismantling authoritative forms of thought, excising their mother lodes of sufficiency, and de potentializing their subjugating force. Equally, however, Laruelle offers tools for reconstituting humanly useful fictions or fabulations from this dismantled material. And I just want to say that I use those tools for a kind of decimation or dismantling of Buddhism. But I'm always careful to say throughout, the purpose of dismantling or creating a ruin from this exquisite edifice called Buddhism is to see it in a more creaturely light. There you go.
Charlie's going to translate all that.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: First, let me say that I have laryngitis. Glenn is used to this. When I told him I have laryngitis by email, he said I remember you getting it. I've been getting it for 30 years. As I talk, my voice should loosen up a little bit. Let me also just set to the side one thing that maybe some people are expecting or coming with anticipation of, that there will be some fisticuffs between Glenn and myself. Steve Brown wrote to me and said he has $50 on me.
GLENN WALLIS: I'm betting on you, too, Charlie.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: I would say that's not going to happen, in part because I just have a tremendous amount of admiration for what Glenn is doing. And I'm hoping that our conversation will convey something about that. So let me just begin with an observation that one of the most curious parts of those accounts of the life of the Buddha that I never get away from is that after the Buddha's enlightenment, the first person that he meets on the road, he goes up to the person and says I'm enlightened. And the guy says maybe so. Good for you. And goes on.
Now there's a certain way that what Glenn is doing is as if that guy has come back. He's been thinking about that encounter, and he hasn't gone the way of all the other people that the Buddha went on to teach-- the gang of five, all the other disciples, the historical edifice of Buddhism. But this guy that we don't hear from again doesn't stop thinking about what happened in that encounter. I just want to emphasize the word with the encounter. And we don't hear in the history of Buddhism what that encounter meant for him. But we might say that encounter had something to do with him starting to be challenged to think about the true and the real. And what Glenn in some ways is doing is returning us to that initial moment. The Buddhist tradition has never forgotten, never denied that the initial encounter was this man who didn't say let me be devoted to you. He simply said maybe so and then went away, and we can assume thought about it.
So in a certain sense, for me the great thing of reading Glenn's book, struggling with it-- it's not easy. He read the easy bits to us. One of the things about it is that we start to see something getting to that initial moment, not in a sense that it is the first moment temporarily. But it's some moment that always is the initial one to extend to something further. We don't hear that a lot in terms of Buddhist studies, trying to figure out what is that initial moment in which there's always something further. And we don't hear it very much in terms of the practice of Buddhism.
Always, we're after that initial moment. And what we can say is in some sense, Glenn is struggling to help himself share with us how to come back to that initial moment. In the title of the book, there's two parts. One that is the big one, a critique of Western Buddhism is celebrated in the title of this conversation, the case against Buddhism. Beneath it is another title, ruins of the Buddhist real. And I would say those two parts of the title are equally significant. And they'll have different appeals for different kinds of people. So critique of Western Buddhism, a case against Buddhism is one thing. For me, the ruins of the Buddhist real is probably more important. You can say the critique of Western Buddhism, the case against Buddhism is to clear the ground, to get to something about how do we drop the adjective Buddhist real and just say the real?
Karl Barth, a Protestant theologian earlier in the 20th century, had the very strong statement Christianity is unbelief. It's an attack that Christianity was not what Christians were meant to be about. The critique of Western Buddhism, the case against Buddhism, is in a certain sense a Barthian statement. Western Buddhism is not what the Buddha was meant to be about. The person who went the other way that we didn't hear about it, he got it right. It's unbelief-- something is wrong.
I'll just say my attraction to the second part, the ruins of the Buddhist real, may be idiosyncratic to me. Sometimes when I try to make sense of myself as a student of Buddhism, what's good for me-- accidental, contingent-- that the first person who started to teach me about Buddhism did so in a way that I would say oh, how unusual it was. It was a man from Sri Lanka, a great Buddhist thinker, a translator of the Dhammapada whose translation is better than yours.
GLENN WALLIS: I'm sure it is.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Mahinda Palihawdana. One of the things about his introduction to Buddhism that he gave to a 19-year-old me is that we read very little Buddhist texts. We mainly read Meister Eckhart, in which he gave a commentary on it. I wish I knew enough to understand and to repeat all the things that he was doing in front of us. But the main thing he was saying to us when I look back was, to me and to others in the room, I'm not interested in your attraction to exoticism. I'm interested in the real and how to see the real. And your attraction to things being different-- go somewhere else.
Part of what you see in Glenn is a similar kind of I'm not interested in exoticism. I'm not interested in a historical thing of difference. There's something else here in front of me. In the sense of a ruin, one of the meanings of a ruin is something that connects past and present. For me reading Glenn's book, struggling with it, was also to be kind of stunned by the presence of a 19-year-old me that was being introduced to Buddhism at that time, but also discovering the American philosopher and poet Charles Olson. And what I went back to was his great book review essay Equal, That Is, to the Real Itself. And I just want to read the first paragraph of that book review, because when I went back to it I would say what he's saying about Keats and about Melville sounds like Glenn Wallis to me as well.
In the year Melville was born, John Keats walking home from the mummers play at Christmas 1819-- and afterwards, he had to listen to Coleridge again-- thought to himself, all that irritable reaching after fact and reason. It won't do. I don't believe in it. I do better to stay in the condition of things, no matter what it amounts to-- mystery confusion doubt.
Let me just point out there's no commas between those words. Olson is pushing the English language. Mystery confusion doubt is not three separate things but one thing. It has power. It is what I mean by negative capability. That statement of Keats walking home, thinking to himself all that irritable reaching after fact and reason, it won't do. I don't believe in it. I do better to stay in the condition of things, no matter what it amounts to.
Olson also, in another statement where he was talking about what he identified in the ancient Mayans, that they had a great expression. They were hot to get down the way it was. I would say that's true of Glenn Wallis. He's hot to get down the way it was. And all that irritable reaching after fact and reason, of interpretation of Buddhist philosophy, Buddhist thought, the history of Buddhism-- what I make a living doing-- it's irritable. And it won't do. It does certain things, but it doesn't get us far enough. There's two parts to what Glenn is doing, a clearing of the ground, a critique to make a place to remind ourselves that there's something else that we we're called to do. And where we're called to do it from may not come from the history of Buddhism, an idea of the Buddhist real, but it comes from the real itself.
And just to try to say Buddhists have known that. They've heard that call of the real itself. And then there's been a history of Buddhist ideas, too. But that's not the same thing. So in that, to say those two aspects, one is how do we prepare ourselves to set aside all that irritable reaching after fact and reason, to prepare ourselves to listen to the call of the real? And what do we do with that? And what we see from the story of the biography of the Buddha is that the call of the real in Olson's phrase is mystery confusion doubt, which in the story of the life of the Buddha was expressed, maybe so. It's not yes, it's a maybe so.
Now one of the things to just have this is to say, oh. One of the things that we may think in a room like this, in a school like this, is that what faith is, what religious life is about is convictions, commitment. But it may be that, no, it's in the space where you say, this just can't possibly be so.
When Glenn was-- when he was reading, he was talking about the impossibility of the real. You may say, oh, that's the space that those of us who are trying to understand human religiosity, we want to go there to understand how people listen to the impossibility of the real and not overcome that impossibility and say, oh, this is how it is. And what I'm hoping at the end of this conversation this session is that people will want to read Glenn's book. The price of admission is high. It's an expensive book, damn expensive.
GLENN WALLIS: Coming out next year for about $30, so you can wait.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Still damn expensive. And all this stuff about capitalism and print capitalism, what? All right. Randy got me my own copy. You're not worth it. I wouldn't pay $130, but I'm hoping that people will want to read it and to say, oh, the price of admission is high, both in terms of the language that is used, trying to force other kinds of things.
So what I want to do is to just start some of that because Glenn, for whatever reasons, has some unusual terms. So I'm just going to ask that conversation will start now. What the hell do you mean? So what's x-Buddhism? Is it x-Buddhism in the singular or x-Buddhisms in the plural?
GLENN WALLIS: It's not E-X. It's just X. And real quick, or you want to-- do you want to-- oh, you want me to explain?
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Help me.
GLENN WALLIS: I just want to hear you talk, man. You joined this.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: What is x-Buddhism, and what is non-Buddhism?
GLENN WALLIS: OK, x-Buddhism is a term I came up with to identify a plurality within a single set or a consistency, a singularity that takes on numerous plural forms-- that is, Buddhism, as many scholars have also often noted, it has certain-- all different forms of Buddhism have certain family resemblances, things that identified as Buddhist, as opposed to as something else. There's something there. There's an identity going on there that we can all recognize as Buddhist.
And yet, there are numerous, numerous, numerous manifestations, iterations, of just what that is. So that's what the x is. The x is the cultural, linguistic diversities, et cetera, temporal, spatial, and the Buddhism, lowercase B, is this thing with a very particular identity, which I think we're going to talk about as we go on-- identity which Charlie has very well articulated already, but we can speak more about that.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Let me restate it. Professor Robson here studies East Asian Buddhism. I study South Asian Buddhism. Both are x-Buddhism. So we can put anything in front-- Tibetan Buddhism, modern Buddhism, Western Buddhism.
GLENN WALLIS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Just an infinite number of things. I remember one time I was giving a talk, and someone wanted to disagree with me. He couldn't remember my name. So he just said, how would I-- then again, oh, Holloway, whatever the hell his name is, I disagree. So one of the things you could just say is that x-Buddhism is whatever the hell it is. You know what I mean, right?
GLENN WALLIS: Well, it's not that I don't like it. It's that I-- yeah, yeah. I have issues.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: You hate it, but not in an offensive way.
GLENN WALLIS: I have issues with it. Yeah. Yeah.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: I have issues.
GLENN WALLIS: Well, OK, he's-- OK. OK, we're getting real here. Yes. I think I actually-- Charlie's pushing me in a good place that I like. I actually think it perpetuates a kind of violence on the human. So in a sense I do hate it. I'm angry at it. And it's Buddhism doing something it has no business doing.
And I say that not from the outside but from the inside of Buddhist postulates and premises themselves. It's an imminent critique. I'm using Buddhism's own seemingly best face to critique it. So thank you, Charlie.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Now, non-Buddhism.
GLENN WALLIS: Non-Buddhism is what happens once we perform certain operations on this specular, authoritarian, unitary system of thought called Buddhism. I think this unitary, authoritarian system of thought has a kind of-- is very, typical Charlie, brilliant, I think. I wish you'd told me this earlier, this equation of, what I'm doing with the guy who dismissed the Buddha-- Buddha comes out of the forest. He's awakened, he's shimmering and glimmering and glowing.
And he's like, I am-- very pompous, Pali poetry-- I am the awakened one. And the guy's like, whatever. Actually, the guy says, whatever, bo, which I translate as bro. So whatever, bro. But obviously this guy was deeply, deeply affected by this encounter, this event. It stayed with them.
But interestingly, as Charlie points out, he resisted. And this is getting to the what non-Buddhism is-- this guy resisted the-- he was-- there was a seduction there because Buddha was a powerful figure in the story. And he was just coming out, fresh off this awakening experience. You know it hit this guy.
But this guy did not want to be captured. All of these gurus trying to sell me a bill of goods, I'm going to resist. I'm effective. I'm going to think about it for the rest my life. I'm going to resist it. So Buddhism does something as a particular form of ideological capture that seduces the person-- captures the person's desire for happiness, whatever, nirvana, stress-- lack of-- freedom from stress or whatever, whatever all this stuff it promises, an ideological system promises.
It captures the human being's desire, brings the human being into an institutional system of subject formation. You're captured. There's a lot more going on there with this. There's also this kind of conceptual, emotional, affective capture that happens.
This is what disturbs me about Buddhism and about unitary systems of thought. So the non is, what happens once you perform certain operations on the Buddhist material? The point is not to say, oh, Buddhism, just a bunch of nonsense, or it's just another-- just another authoritarian monster. The point is to see what is of value there, to rest vital potentialities of humans.
I determine Buddhism has a lot of that going on, has a lot of good shit going on, you know? But to rest those vital potentialities from the artificial forms and subjugating norms or artificial forms, and what's the other one? Whatever norms that subjugate the person, that capture the person, that's in a nutshell what non-Buddhism is. It's what's left over once we've depotentialized a certain kind of ideological capture or I would even say harassment that is endemic to systems of thought like Buddhism.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Again, I'll just restate.
GLENN WALLIS: Thank you, please do.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: It's a very striking proposal, that kind of at the foundational moment of the story, the life of the Buddha, we have two trajectories that are set in motion-- one with this guy who says maybe and goes his own way, and then the other, in which we know the names of the people. And that's what creates Buddhism. What you're proposing is that the guy who said maybe got it right. And the people who said yes, sir, got it wrong.
Now, people like me, and I taught you, I make a living talking about the people who said, yes, sir. And so you say, oh, I'm in the position, that whole saying, error is error. But the history of error is scholarship. And so one of the things that you could just say, oh, I'm just talking about the history of error.
And it's a very bold claim, an important claim. Is there room in the study of religion, is there room in the study of Buddhism, is there room in Buddhist life and practice, for someone to go back to this initial moment and say, oh, we're back there at the wellspring? And in a certain sense, the Buddhist tradition in East Asia recognizes this in the story of the transmission to Maha Kassapa by-- the Buddha is preaching. And he holds up, silently, a flower. Kassapa smiles, and that's the direct transmission.
So there's almost as if you're saying, oh, that account of that a flower does not talk, that this other kind of transmission. But it's not something about a direct experience that is being claimed here. But it's something that happens in the moment-- the initial moment of doubt, mystery, confusion.
Let me just-- one of the things you say, oh, there's two things going on here. One is clarify and push away the history of error and redescribing it. And that's for the sake of this other return to the initial moment. So amid the errors, you have some strong words here that just are useful for people to know. When you say sufficiency, what do you mean?
GLENN WALLIS: I'm going to say first, I'm really happy that you point out, these stories, Kassapa and so forth, because that kind of points to the idea that I'm doing an imminent critique, which is that idea that I'm getting it from-- this trajectory is presenting within Buddhism itself. Sufficiency--
CHARLIE HALLISEY: We're just a closet Barthian-- You know, this is just Protestant Buddhism all over again.
GLENN WALLIS: Sufficiency is the idea that-- sufficiency is a major, major issue in Buddhism or any sort of unitary system of thought. It's how these systems of thought operate and hold together is they claim a kind of sufficiency that they are what you need to attain this mastery, this wisdom, this all-important knowledge about the consciousness, the self, the person, the cosmos, life and death. That's how these systems of thought are so adept at capturing the desire of people, is they claim a kind of sufficiency that they are all you need, ultimately.
And there's a lot of debates within Buddhism about whether the Buddha's omniscient or not or just what does he know, what does he withhold? And I say that Buddhism-- that the principle-- I call the principle of sufficient Buddhism is a kind of argument for a kind of omniscience, that, it's not an omniscience that I know everything, that Buddhism knows everything all at once, but that if you point Buddhism in the direction of some phenomenon, like nowadays, therapy, addiction, the nature of stress, whatever, its cataloging will start kicking up and calculating just what's going on and what needs to be-- what needs to happen to alleviate the pain or suffering in this situation.
That's what sufficiency is. Sufficiency is the principle in which this book operates. There's another principle called decision that we'll come to. But another way to think about non-Buddhism is Buddhism, minus sufficiency. It's using Buddhist ideas, Buddhist first names for the real, no-self emptiness, dependent origination, and so forth, but minus the sufficiency. Does that help a little bit?
That that's all you need. I have a concept in here-- a conceit, really-- called the Great Feast of Knowledge. And I imagine in this Great Feast of Knowledge that the Buddha, and the bodhisattvas and the arhats are all arrayed in their attire and their weapons, their conceptual weaponry. And then they come to the Great Feast of Knowledge, where all the disciplines of human culture, in biology and literature and the arts and sociology, all sitting around having conversations and discussions about, what is desire? And they all discuss it from the different perspectives.
At the door-- at the door of that Great Feast of Knowledge, the Buddha and his entourage, they have to put all their attire in the cloakroom. And they have to walk in there stripped of all their aristocracy and the regency that we all know the Buddha presents himself with. This is another idea of stripping of sufficiency. And he goes and he talks to, say, biology about the nature of desire, how it must-- desire functions like this, this is what it is, this is its cause. These are the ramifications of desire. These are how you can ameliorate it.
And biology says, why would you want to do that? Desire is what propels life, desire is this powerful reproductive force, et cetera, et cetera. So the Great Feast of Knowledge is another way of talking about the stripping of sufficiency.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: I would say that, for myself, as someone within Buddhist studies, whenever I see someone, an academic, writing about the Buddhist perspective on the human genome on--
GLENN WALLIS: Quantum physics.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Yeah, what does Buddhism have to say about gene editing? Nothing. This is one of the things that-- it has to have something to say. You'd say, oh we can go and ask, find out, as Buddhists, what do you think about gene editing? And they say, I don't think about it. You pause and say, oh well, I need to say something.
And so then you use certain basic principles so that anything that comes, you can give a Buddhist perspective on it. And that idea of sufficiency is just talking about-- in certain sense, it's a kind of conquest. Anything that's there, Buddhism is able to kind of conquer it.
GLENN WALLIS: Yes.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: And you'd say, it's not just Buddhism, and this. Can you just briefly say what you mean by decision?
GLENN WALLIS: Decision is another major concept operating here. I get it from Francois Laruelle who-- well, forget what he said. I'll just explain how I use it. Decision-- OK, just the hardest part of this book is the part on decision.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Hard to say.
GLENN WALLIS: You skipped over it.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: No, I didn't skip over it. The other parts were hard too.
GLENN WALLIS: When I reread it, I thought, oh, man, this is hard. But it makes sense. It somehow makes sense. I'm going to try to keep it really simple. Decision is this. Decision is a splitting that occurs that-- OK, so Buddhism offers all of this knowledge and all of these methods of realizing the imminent nature of our experience, the phenomenal world.
It claims itself-- in fact, the secular Buddhist conceit is that it's all about empiricism and the methodology of science. And this idea is in Buddhism that Buddhism presents the idea of the all, the sutta of the all, the sabba sutta, it says that everything I know, I know through my senses. And anything beyond that is another sort of eminent critique here that anything beyond that is going to get you into trouble.
So Buddhism has this idea that it's about phenomenality about imminence. And yet in order to really establish that fact sufficiently such that Buddhism is not just another ruly participant at the Great Feast of Knowledge but is actually-- has a kind of mastery and regency and aristocracy that is required for it to be Buddhism, it requires a transcendental concept in which the imminent principle is grounded, and that I took as the transcendental concept in Buddhism, the Dharma.
So the Dharma is this kind of vault of cosmic knowledge that gives warrant to Buddhism's claims of phenomenality and imminence. That's a real, real problem. Science could never do such a thing. Science would be no longer science. If it grounded its imminent-- if it grounded its observations of imminence, of the imminent world, in some sort of transcendental signifier, that would not be science. It would be some sort of visionary science, maybe a new agey science or something.
So I hope that makes sense. The decision is the fact that Buddhism wants to be a system of knowledge that explains the phenomenal world, the world imminent to human beings. And yet, in order to do that and to have its status as a unitary, specular system of thought, it has to ground that in the transcendent something, and I call that something the Dharma. Does that makes sense?
It's really troublesome for a system of thought. I mean, Laruelle shows that philosophers themselves do this, that they always-- they always have some sort of transcendent concept that grounds and warrants-- provides the warrant, stamps the warrant of the system. I hope you see how that's a problem, because for the system to be doing what it says it's doing, like a science, it must remain imminent. It cannot then have recourse to this transcendent operator. And Buddhism does that again and again and again. It's part of the-- we talk about x-Buddhism. It's part of the identity of Buddhism is that it's cut by this transcendence.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: What I might add to it is that, way I'm understanding what you say about decision is that in the spaces where I come up against my own not knowing, I try to set that not knowing aside by making the decision to apply something to this. To give an example, a friend of mine who's an activist in Israel, he tells a story about trying to help some Palestinian farmers on the West Bank to get to a well with their sheep.
They've been given by court order that they have-- they have a right to the water in this well. Was there with them, and almost immediately, security forces show up. And they say, you can't be here. He pulls out the judgment of the court. And he says, the judgment says that they have a right to the water in the well.
The soldier says, they have right to the water in the well, but they don't have a right to be on this land over here. And my friend says, this is crazy. What do you think they're going to do? Helicopter over to the well with the sheep? How are they going to get to the well if-- you know?
And so the commander says to him, crazy? Yeah, it's crazy. Those shepherd are crazy. You're crazy. I'm crazy. Those rocks are crazy. The rock-- the well is crazy. Everything here is crazy. That's why I follow orders. And one of the things he would say, that's decision. When everything is crazy, you say I follow what something else is saying.
And then one of the things you could say, oh, the real comes to us in this guise as mystery confusion doubt. Our response always is going to have recourse to decision to try to overcome that. And the confidence in sufficiency will say, of course.
GLENN WALLIS: He understands this book better than I do. This is really good. Another aspect-- another aspect of decision, Charlie just reminded me--
CHARLIE HALLISEY: I want royalties.
GLENN WALLIS: I'm not-- you think I get any royalties with these things?
CHARLIE HALLISEY: There's a lot of them. 15%.
GLENN WALLIS: You got-- yeah, you got the book. That's already plenty. Let's see here. Charlie just reminded me of an important aspect of decision that's a lot less fancy but one that I just described. But it's just as much, if not more, kind of productive of something. That is, decision also means just making a decision for the Buddhist version, the result or claims.
What is stress? What is something? What is desire? What should I do? Decision is becoming this kind of reflexive subject that already decides for the Buddhist answer to the question. So it means something on that simple-- on that very simple sense as well. Yeah, there's something else you said there. Slipped my mind, though. Yeah.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: I want to allow time for people who have come to have a chance to pummel you. So let me just ask one other thing.
GLENN WALLIS: OK.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: And this is about the case against Buddhism. I recall, in the 1980s, during the heyday of liberation theology in Latin America, that a pronouncement came from Rome that the people have a right not to be disturbed in their faith. Now, you may not like Western Buddhism. It may not be for you. But why do you have a right to disturb them in their faith?
GLENN WALLIS: Oh, you're asking me that, oh. I thought it was--
CHARLIE HALLISEY: There's two answers to that question. One of them's wrong.
GLENN WALLIS: That's a great question. I get asked that a lot. And I mean, some form of--
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Let me put it another way. Where do you get off?
GLENN WALLIS: Well, I would say-- my quick answer is, my mother was suffering back pain. First thing I did was similar some Sharon Salzberg CDs. I mean, it helps her relax her back. I mean, it does. It works. The problem with Western Buddhism isn't that it doesn't work. It's that it does work.
That's the problem. So one way I argue this is that-- his name's slipping my mind. Chaim, you might know, the young man. He died recently. He was in his 40s. And he wrote about medications and depression and psychology-- this essayist, slipping my mind. Anyway, it doesn't matter.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: When in doubt, just say Foucault.
GLENN WALLIS: Yeah, yeah, Foucault said, yeah. Yeah. Foucault said, there's nothing wrong with treating depression, but there's a lot wrong with the pharmaceutical industry that fuels et cetera, et cetera. There's nothing wrong with driving to work. But there's-- and I'm not going to pooh pooh that, but there's a lot wrong with the automobile industry tied to all that.
I'm critiquing this at this kind of macro level. I meditate. It's a powerful, beautiful practice. I employ Buddhist concepts in my life reflexively, but in a non-Buddhist manner, stripped, to a great extent, from--
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Wait, wait, wait, wait. We just have to be really careful when you say the non-Buddhist manner because that can be heard in different ways. It's in a non-Buddhist manner.
GLENN WALLIS: Right. Yeah.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: And you're not saying not--
GLENN WALLIS: Yeah. Yeah.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: It's a positive thing, non-Buddhist.
GLENN WALLIS: Yeah, that's a pos-- non is not an anti or not. It's not non capital B Buddhism, like something other than Buddhism. It's a neologism that means Buddhism that has gone through-- has been run through, minus the decision and sufficiency and so forth. I mean, no self-emptiness.
These are powerful human concepts that, as Charlie mentioned, serve very much to allow us to stay in the condition of things but not when they're loaded with Buddhist postulates. So I value Buddhism very much, but in the way, do we really know his name? The nameless one values him.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Yeah. And one last thing. Do you have, like, a short statement to say about the real?
GLENN WALLIS: I'm not Michael Stone, this fellow at the beginning of the sutta who didn't trust the Buddhist claims.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Mr. Maybe.
GLENN WALLIS: Mr. Maybe.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: McMaybe. A simple statement. What would you say about the real?
GLENN WALLIS: Oh. The real is an idea on the human thought.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Is it an idea?
GLENN WALLIS: The real is a non-- is a concept.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Is it a concept? Where's a real?
GLENN WALLIS: It's not real. It can't-- you can't claim existence. Beginning with Plotinus, who posited the real, the one. And he said, in order to make sense of the world, we need some concept. But this concept cannot be in existence. It cannot have multiplicity or factors in it because that would just make it another thing, but we need-- we see an orchestra there. And there are many, many people playing many, many different instruments, making many, many different sounds.
And yet it's a one. There's a one there that does not exist, and we need this one in order to talk about an orchestra. Of course, his one would eventually become the good-- the god of neoplatonism, neoplatonist Christianity. But my point is that it's an idea we get in psychoanalysis that there's something-- there's a real-- there's something that is occurring that is profoundly productive of this event right here, but it's something that's not given in our linguistic system.
It's something that's unnamed. But it's something that is deeply productive, and human culture produces forms of practice-- psychoanalysis, sociology, economics, whatever-- that tries to identify just what this is. The problem with a lot of systems of thought, systems of thought that don't have-- aren't inscribed by the non, is that they start making proclamations about the nature of this real.
And the whole point of this non-Buddhism is to acknowledge the fact. So I say somewhere that the problem with Buddhism is not that it resists the real but that it resists the reals unrepresentability. The Buddhism is constantly making statements about the nature of the real. So it points to emptiness as a kind of sentiment of the real.
But it starts telling us all about what emptiness is. Emptiness never remains empty. It's all this fullness of life, et cetera, et cetera. It talks about no self, which is a beautiful concept. It starts explaining the nature of subjectivity, rather than selfhood, that we're formed through material causes as human beings. And then all sudden, Buddhism starts telling us the nature of the self. Yeah, so I think I lost my train of thought. That's probably a good thing.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: Which is illustrating your point.
GLENN WALLIS: Oh, the real. So no wonder. I'm talking about the real, no wonder. It's something in human thought that tries to allow us to capture something about human existence that is true and real but to try to avoid the kind of ideological layering that occurs around systems of thought about that real.
I mean, it's hard to say. It doesn't-- it can't exist. You can't see it. We're not talking about a thing that exist-- this isn't a new form of mysticism, that I figured out how you can now access the real. The point is that the arrow-- systems of thought point the arrow into the real.
What is the real of human pain? Well, Buddhism can talk about that in terms of dukkha. The whole point here is to say no, the real of human pain has produced Buddhism. So the arrow goes the other way, and it's perpetually foreclosed. It cuts it off. it's unrepresentable to Buddhism.
So to me-- I actually was having dinner with some friends once, and they were-- two of them are mathematicians. And I told them, my new book, I invented a great formula and they really took exception to that when I told them what the formula was. But the formula is, it's no longer Buddhism, the real of pain, the real of emptiness.
The formula was, the real, foreclosed, arrow, Buddhism. So in other words, the real is something that has produced all of this. It's something operating-- at some point-- Laruelle has this beautiful experimental text. It's called, "On the Colors of the Black Universe."
And in there he talks about the earth. The earth is out in which we live. It's the material forms of everything that we all know. Within this-- on this earth, there are worlds. He always used a capital W. A world is a kind of ideological overlayering of the earth. It's a world that we're al-- you can be captured, you can be interpolated into.
But beyond all of this is the black universe. It's empty, it's dark. It contains all things, right? And yet it is nothing, and nothing adheres to it. In a way, that's a way of talking about a human real. It must be foreclosed because if it's not foreclosed, you just start introducing new kinds of ideology masked as truth or something like that.
What is the real? I mean, I-- read the book. I mean, you won't know what the real is because-- I will say this last thing. In the work I'm doing, the real must be posited axiomatically. You can no longer-- I'm exiting out of the game of trying to identify what the real is. I'm positing it axiomatically.
And axiom, remember, is just a proposition for something that allows us to do a certain kind of work. It always has the implicit statement of, as if, or do as if, or if this were the case. So Laruelle-- like, we talked about psychoanalytic real or the literary real of being kind of an empty signifier at the heart of totalizing systems of knowledge, the empty signifier, which itself undoes the totalizing system of knowledge, we're not interested in that anymore.
We're interested in stating the real axiomatically and observing the kind of production that occurs if we practice from the real or alongside of the real, rather than into the real or towards the real. It's an axiom. It's an axiom in thought and practice that allow-- that we can bump our heads against on the way to some sort of transcendental idealism. That's another way of thinking about it.
CHARLIE HALLISEY: I just returned from Sri Lanka, and a very common expression when someone's saying things like-- Glenn was just saying is oya boru kiyanava, you're lying. So what I've known about Glenn since I first met him is that he is a liar in the best sense of that profession. But he's also, in the spirit of the title of his book, he's the real deal. And so looking at someone who's trying to take seriously and think through stuff and always assuming, oh, this stuff makes sense, even if I haven't made sense of it yet is a-- I would say it was an inspiration to us all. So thank you very much.