In the Spring 2019 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Annabella Pitkin reviews A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real by Glenn Wallis.
“Western Buddhism must be ruined.” With that ringing sentence, Glenn Wallis throws down his challenge to readers. In his provocative new book, A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real, Wallis takes on the complacencies and complicities of what he identifies as Western Buddhism and offers a rigorous philosophical remediation: “ruin,” in the special sense in which he uses the term. Drawing on Continental European philosophical traditions, in particular the contemporary French thinker François Laruelle, Wallis attempts to open new critical and philosophical possibilities from within Buddhism.
Wallis’ distaste at what he identifies as Western Buddhism’s neoliberal accommodations and consumerist desires clearly fuels the urgency of his mission. He skewers a range of contemporary Western Buddhist developments, ranging from the corporate mindfulness movement to timely examples of hypocrisy and violence, such as sexual predation by Buddhist teachers and genocidal attacks by Burmese Buddhists against the Rohingya in Myanmar. Yet this book aims to offer more than a simple critique of the manifestations of Buddhist malaise. Wallis here tackles what he sees as a far deeper problem, a fundamental evasion within the heart of Buddhist thought. Wallis suggests this evasion is not limited to recent Western iterations of Buddhism, although in his view the form of Buddhism he calls “Western” is home to some of its most egregious manifestations.
The ambitious scope of Wallis’ critique is really in some sense to free Buddhism from itself. Wallis proclaims that, “‘Buddhism’ indexes an historical failure to unleash the force of its very own thought.” That is to say, Wallis asserts that despite the radically liberatory potential of Buddhist insights into reality, these potentials are lost when Buddhism becomes just another form of ideology, another system of philosophy. Wallis charges that Buddhist thinkers dangle the transformational recognition of emptiness, selflessness, and suffering–desire as core features of reality, turning those terms into what Wallis, following Laruelle, calls “first name[s] of the Real.” Yet despite the fact that Western Buddhism “possesses consequential Real concepts for critiquing ‘own experience,’ or, in a Buddhist idiom, for seeing things as they are,” Wallis says that Western Buddhist figures “exhibit a curious habit of evading the full consequences of these concepts.”
Wallis asserts that this is “not merely an occasional lapse. It is, rather, a defining feature of Western Buddhist identity.” Moreover, he says, “The outcome of this habitual evasion is effectively to nullify the concepts’ theoretical or critical function, rendering Western Buddhism as little more than a one-dimensional self-help fix.” In Wallis’ estimation, Western Buddhist thinkers inevitably, even congenitally, turn back from direct insight into the Real. In so doing, they domesticate Buddhism’s critical concepts, turning even “emptiness” (shunyata) into a tool for promoting “wellness,” or finding one’s place within the systems of domination in which we currently live. Wallis therefore articulates his mission in this book as helping Buddhists “recover that critical function.”
Wallis identifies some exceptions to his damning indictment of the “failure” of Buddhist thought. For instance, he suggests that certain Chan and Zen masters cut to the heart of the matter he wishes to address. He gives a shout out to Dr. B. R. Ambedkar as an example of someone who used a particular imagined vision of Buddhism (a Buddhist “World”) in an emancipatory way. Nevertheless, Wallis repeatedly returns to his core assertion that “‘Buddhism’… names an obstinate containment of potentially vital human goods. The end result is that Buddhism everywhere functions as a conservative protector of the social status quo, however toxic, and as an ideological fortress spawning subjects whose treasured goal certainly appears to be to remain unscathed—in some sense or another—by life’s vicissitudes.”
Problematically and confoundingly, however, Wallis seems to want to apply this critique not only to the spokespersons of Western Buddhism who are his initial targets, but to something less historically or socially specific that he calls “Buddhism.” It is of course a familiar point that there is no single “Buddhism,” and that the many Buddhisms in the world, both living and historical, host diverse philosophical, commentarial, social, and ritual possibilities. Wallis himself repeatedly notes this fact. But he explicitly insists that he wants to dig below what he sees as the particularist evasions often offered by Western Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism, to get at what he sees as a core Buddhist philosophical problem. He wants his critique to stick, and he warns readers (if not in so many words) not be tricked by Western Buddhist apologists bearing details.
Yet this principled position leads Wallis to eschew particularity (of people, stories, places, practices, philosophical systems) to a remarkable extent, even as he acknowledges the claims of such particularity. He generally chooses as his interlocutors a specific kind of Western Buddhist generalist (or occasionally a Pali iteration of the canonical Buddha) and then generalizes from these examples, while insisting that his criticisms extend to all “Buddhism” (whatever that is). Wallis offers sophisticated asides about the vast complexity of Buddhist identities and forms, and the artificiality of affixing labels such as “Zen,” “Tibetan,” “mindfulness,” “Theravadin,” and so on. Yet the reader may be left feeling that the tumultuous and contentious living worlds of Buddhism in our present moment have gotten elided into what at times appears a smooth philosophical surface, ripe for critique to be sure, but also strangely silent.
To put it another way, where are the people in this book? Wallis has his interlocutors, and he moreover offers a promising turn to narrative (“buddhofiction”) in the book’s final sections, but the characters and people featured here often function more like theoretical abstractions. Ideas and terms frequently float free of people. A historical or anthropological intervention might enrich this abstraction, though Wallis takes pains to make clear that this is not his project; perhaps it is unfair to ask this of him. Nevertheless, this is an unpeopled book. And as such, despite his engagement with his chosen interlocutors, at points the reader comes away with the sense that the only voice we really hear is Wallis’ own.
For some readers, Wallis’ polemical clarion cry will be a thrill. Wallis’ biography on his websites and dustjackets alike note his punk rock musician credentials, his Harvard PhD, and his years as a college and university professor. This book at its best combines the blunt humor and combative energy of punk with a well-practiced, familiar ranging between Pali sources, Continental European philosophy, Zen koans, and trenchant critique of the neoliberal order of things. Those who have found Wallis’ previous work fruitful will find much to excite them. This new volume offers a more complete, in-depth, detailed, and fully worked out presentation of Wallis’ theory, sources, and methodology, and also draws out in more depth both his critique of Western Buddhism and the implications of that critique.
Readers who are encountering Wallis’ project for the first time, on the other hand, may be put off, not so much by his critique of modernist, Western Buddhism (which echoes and builds in various ways on the work of major scholars of Buddhist modernism including David McMahan, Donald Lopez Jr., Heinz Bechert, and Jens-Uwe Hartmann, and may echo concerns that Wallis’ readers already bring to the table) but by the need to enter into the conceptual system and vocabulary of the French philosopher Laruelle that Wallis so wholeheartedly embraces.
At several points, Wallis acknowledges that he is turning to philosophical tools that lie outside of Buddhism and that some readers may find jarring. He defends his extensive use of Laruelle’s work by asserting that “Paradoxically…we cannot look to Buddhism—to its teachers and defenders, to its commentaries and explications, to its communities and organizations—to assist us in removing its auto-erected bulwark of resistance.” That is to say, Wallis argues that precisely because of the slippery nature of Western Buddhist avoidance of the true impact of terms like “emptiness,” it is necessary to bring in outside reinforcements. These must be of a type that Western Buddhist philosophy cannot domesticate. Wallis chooses the “non-philosophy” of Laruelle for this purpose.
Laruelle’s work is little known in the US, and a review of this length cannot fully engage its idiosyncratic vocabulary and conceptual approach. In brief, though, we might say that Laruelle attempts to undo what he sees as the violence, denial, and conceptual dominations baked into the systematic structures of European philosophy. Laruelle offers the possibility of what he calls “non-philosophy,” a term that implies both a freedom from and an ongoing alternative to essentializing and totalizing philosophical systems. Wallis takes up Laruelle’s work in this regard as a powerful tool for rethinking Buddhism.
One might wonder as well, of course, if Wallis has tilted too far to the extreme of emptiness/nihilism in his presentation of Buddhism’s core liberatory potential. Wallis himself confronts this possibility—indeed, he addresses it head-on and attempts to disarm it by refusing to accept nihilism as a term of critique. He suggests several times that perhaps the problem for the character of the Buddha in Buddhist sutra literature, and for Buddhists more generally, is that they don’t have the courage of their own insight into emptiness. Instead of the liberating critique that dissolves all transcendental constructions, they circle back to reaffirmations that set up an ideological or theological “World of Buddhism,” to use Wallis’ terms. Yet for some readers, Nagarjuna’s famous remarks about the dangers of misgrasping both emptiness and snakes may come to mind. To the extent that this book seals itself hermetically within a certain philosophical range, it may be Wallis’ insistence on the emptiness side of the Two Truths (in Nagarjuna’s terms) that is to blame. Although Wallis explicitly reminds readers about the central place of ethics and compassionate action, in particular at the end of the book, compassion and ethics are often eclipsed in the emphasis on emptiness.
Curiously, an enthusiastic embrace of emptiness as the most interesting thing Buddhists have on offer is not unique to Wallis. This move is intimately connected to the historically situated Western Buddhist (Protestant, modernist) embrace of meditation as the best thing Buddhists do. To be sure, Wallis himself addresses such modernist presentations of Buddhism and meditation directly, in a sophisticated way. And yet repeatedly in this work, one has a sense that other things many Buddhists do have fallen by the wayside. Wearing amulets, reciting mantras, seeking out divinations, prostrating, making offerings, praying—these Buddhist repertoires and the people who participate in them disappear or appear beside the point (or worse) in Wallis’ critique. These Buddhist repertoires are trumped by meditation, ideally on emptiness, as the “real” sine qua non of true Buddhism. In that sense, Wallis’ critique here, as well as this book, themselves constitute a deeply Western Buddhist project.
Taken as a whole, the book is trenchant, confounding, and often exasperating. Wallis presents what is clearly the result of years of sustained reflection and philosophical struggle. In many ways, the book registers as a labor of love—a love of words, a love of the Buddhist vocabulary of emptiness and selflessness, and perhaps also a love of philosophical battle. At points this book also reads as a record of love dismayed, by the failures and inadequacies of what Wallis terms “Western Buddhism.” Readers will be challenged by it, on many levels.