The Mindful Cranks

Where using your mind is not necessarily a bad thing

Episode 13: Glenn Wallis - A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real

Glenn Wallis holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Harvard University's Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies. His training was mainly philological, concentrating on Sanskrit, Pali, and Tibetan Buddhist literature. Glenn has been concerned with how to make classical Buddhist literature, philosophy, and practice relevant to contemporary life. Since the early 1990s, Glenn has taught in the religion departments of several universities, including the University of Georgia (where I received tenure), Brown University, Bowdoin College, and the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Won Institute of Buddhist studies.

Glenn Wallis is the founder and director of Incite Seminars. As he describes it, “Glenn founded Incite Seminars as a very personal response to the escalating social inequality, intensifying racial unrest, and eviscerating techno-consumer capitalism that he increasingly witnessed all around him.” Incite Seminars was thus founded on the conviction that education in the humanities offers us a means to recognize, resist, and counter the forces of personal alienation and social division—forces such as hopelessness, bigotry, passivity, and self-delusion.

In this episode, David Forbes and I discuss with Glenn the ideas in his recent book, “A Critique of Western Buddhism” (Bloomsbury, 2018). We cover a wide range of topics, some from his provocative blog, Speculative non-Buddhism, such as the “Elixir of Mindfulness.

Our conversation dives into a critique of Western Buddhism via Laurelle’s “non-philosophy” – in our case, “non-Buddhism.”  Glenn helps us to understand  such notions as the Principle of Sufficient Buddhism, “decision,” the “organon,” and how Western Buddhism backs away from the potency of the Real.  Typical Western Buddhist concepts such as wisdom, emptiness, anatta (no-self), “the Dharma” – ideas which could be forces for thought and transformation – are turned around, and returned to the safe and familiar shores of the already known. Western Buddhism seems to suffer from a perpetual parapraxis – a series of misturnings – that relegates it to a form of spiritual self-help, ensuring its entrapment in a self-sealing echo chamber. Thinking things through is itself a form of practice/praxis. Glenn joins us in challenging the common tropes of the mindfulness movement – particularly Jon Kabat-Zinn’s diagnosis that our ADD Nation is suffering from a so-called “thinking disease.” Turning this nonsense on its head, we discuss how thinking – how a force for thought – can cut through the tendency to stay ensnared in the World, liberating thinking for a counter-subject formation that resists capitalism and the neoliberal order.

Photo credit - Karen Kirchhoff/LOUD! FAST! PHILLY! from Joseph A. Gervasi’s interview.

Music credit - Rule Worshipper, from Ruin’s album He-Ho/Fiat Lux

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