This post is a short introduction to non-buddhism. It covers the basics for anyone who is not familiar with non-buddhism and is meant to introduce the main points and act as a encouragement to further reading and research. We hope to write further short texts on particular points including decision, minimal transcendence, non-buddhism and meditation, the historical Buddha, ideological interpellation, and the connection between non-buddhism and critique off capitalism. These texts will be available to the newcomer as a separate category accessible from the top bar. You can find a German version of this text on Der Unbuddhist.
Non-Buddhism originates in the work of Glenn Wallis, an American academic with a PhD in Buddhist studies from Harvard. Disillusioned with the direction American Buddhism was taking – its lack of engagement with contemporary thought, and its political quietism – he founded the blog Speculative Non-Buddhism, as a platform for a new critique of Buddhist discourse and practice. The blog ran from May 2011 to March 2014. Over that period one hundred posts were published and over 5000 comments made. A considerable number of essays were also published in non+x, an e-journal (1) that accompanied the blog as a site for longer and more in-dept exploratory texts. Among his collaborators were Tom Pepper and Matthias Steingass, both of whom contributed essays and took part in the often heated debates that almost always followed a post. All three co-authored the book Cruel Theory|Sublime Practice, published in 2013 by EyeCorner Press.
The blog was renowned for its long comment threads, (many of the comments are substantive statements in their own right) and its polemical tone. Although no longer in operative mode, it is still accessible online, and is the single most comprehensive resource for anyone interested in the non-buddhist project.
In the text Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism (the first formulation of Wallis’s contribution to Cruel Theory|Sublime Practice) Wallis formulates a critique of Buddhism inspired, in part, by the non-philosophy of the contemporary French philosopher François Laruelle. He applies the non philosophical method to Buddhism, inventing the term x-buddhism to define the varied re-iterations of contemporary buddhist theory and practice – a splitting of the one Buddhism into an unending series of modifiers – x-buddhism.
Central to the text is the notion of “decision”, an idea extracted from Laruelle.
“Buddhist cognitive decision consists in positing spatiotemporal vicissitude (samsara) as a conditioned given and contingency (paticcasamuppada) as its conditioning, fact.” (Wallis, 228: emphasis Jennings)
Decision is a process whereby reality is split into a series of opposing dyads – spatiotemporal vicissitude (samsara)/contingency (paticcasamuppada), form/emptiness, bondage/release etc. – and a prior synthesizing unity. This synthesizing unity is the Dharma, within which spatiotemporal vicissitude (samsara) is immanently given and by which it is transcendentally grounded. This structure of thought involves a circularity whereby we discover the truth of Dharma, spatiotemporal vicissitude, as the actuality of the world by means of the oracularity of the Dharma – its capacity to speak of the world while being immanent as the world.
Another way of putting this is to say that x-buddhism, by means of decision, appropriates the real to itself; proclaims itself to be the abstract re-presentation of the real in its totality. For non-buddhism this is an arbitrary move on the part of x-buddhism, since it cannot justify its transcending move except by means of its transcending move; as if a part could claim jurisdiction over the whole while remaining a-part.
For non-buddhism, x-buddhist thought is given by the real but cannot itself give the real.
“The Real is neither capable of being known or even “thought” but can be described in axioms. (Laruelle, 125)
The relationship of x-buddhist thought (or any other thought) to the Real is non-reciprocal. Thought is, rather, a part of the real and not an absolute representation of the real. Thought is mute in the very act of thinking, enunciation is mute in the very act of speaking, since thought and enunciation are direct instances of the Real. The knowledge delivered by x-buddhist thought is, therefore, nothing other than usable knowledge and has no status above either the ordinary knowledge of life or scientific knowledge.
Non-buddhism strikes at the heart of x-buddhist specularity – its self-proclaimed capacity to show the Real in its thought. It strikes at the heart of all iterations of buddhism, since the decisional move structures all x-buddhisms (in common with all systematization of thought). Paradoxically, x-buddhism, in its proclamation of the insubstantial and impermanent nature of all ‘Dharmas’ and its trope of a superior non-conceptual knowing, seems to undermine its own specular authority. X-buddhism, however, draws back from the implications of the force of its own thought and fills the emptiness it has proclaimed with the paraphernalia of its own dispensation – its endless texts, its rituals, its lineages, its meditative methodologies, its discursive uniqueness as the arbitrator of the real. In its full-blown form it calls into being a phantasmagoria of entities – Gods, demons, hero-beings, buddhas, bodisattvas, arahants, hell beings etc. etc – all of which function to fill the void it has proclaimed to be at the heart of the real.
In Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism Wallis added to the Laruellian idea of cognitive decision a second aspect: affect. In this light he defines an x-buddhist as someone who has made an emotionally charged decision for the possibility of refuge – for the possibility of escape from spatiotemporal vicissitude by way of the thaumaturgical or wonder-working capacity of the Buddhist dispensation to rescue her from the suffering of ordinary life. This thaumaturgical aura acts by positing the vague notion of a causal essence (1), that mysterious something which sets apart designated persons from the common crowd as having a quality of specialness conditioned on being able to see further, or see deeper, by means of the mastery of x-buddhist meditative techniques. In other words the affective aspect of decision carries a psychological charge in which the promise of deliverance and even exaltation is realized by immersion into a world of wonder-working ‘energies’ and specially endowed persons.
Central to the capacity to enthral is the charisma of the Guru, the living emblem of realization. To affectively decide for Buddhism is to give up one’s capacity for agency – ones capacity to work out the means and meaning of ones own destiny – in favour of subjugation beneath a power conferred on the ‘teacher’ by way of a thaumaturgical field conditioned on a narrative in which the guru has replicated the trials, victories and trophies of the mythical founder. This power is an effect of the narrative – the creation of an aura – an energetic and aesthetically alluring field of force surrounding the person of the Guru – his Charisma. To enter into the charismatic field surrounding the Guru is to be ‘taken’ by the narrative world of which the Guru is an effect .
To sum up, cognitive and affective decision works to subjugate the person of flesh and blood by means of a circular thought. By means of this thought the person enters into the closed circle of the Buddhist dispensation. From now on, she sees the world through the lens of Buddhist thought, creating a sufficiency that is both the riddle and the solution to the problem of suffering. This sufficiency need not engage with the world, its status as a cure for the illness it has diagnosed is purely a matter of thought, of the alluring vibrato circulating around the narratives of bondage and liberation into which the person has been interpellated (2).
What, then, are the consequences of this interpellation? One way of answering this is to consider that while the world into which the adept has entered is a form of religious hallucination, it is an hallucinatory process with causal consequences – that is to say it is happening to a person of flesh and blood embedded within a concrete social situation, a world of familial, social and political structures and processes. The x-buddhist system of thought for which she has made an emotional and cognitive decision will, from now on, provide the context in which she views the concrete situation. She has adopted the x-buddhist world view and will now renegotiate the meaning of her experience of the world in the light of the new perspective she has acquired. In deciding for x-buddhism she has, in other words, been willingly interpellated into an ideology.
This situation has social and political repercussions. One of these will be that in so far as the liberation from suffering is now, for her, in process, the solution to the problem of human suffering has been found and need only be made relevant for the social world by way of the extension of the dharmic dispensation to other individuals. In other words the solution to human suffering will from now on involve an intensification (for the individual) of her sense of thaumaturgical refuge and an extension of its reach (towards the suffering other). The Dharma, in other words, inevitably begets the Dharma; and the Dharma becomes not only a personal refuge, but, by extension, the only possible refuge for the innumerable beings who continue to suffer. One of the consequences of this is that the x-buddhist, as a political subject capable of exercising agency in the political realm, forfeits that agency in favour of a form of political quietism, an acceptance of the existing economic, social and political conditions as naturally given. At most such conditions are the passively construed field of operation within which the compassionate Bodhisattva exercises her vow to “liberate all sentient beings from suffering”, and not the dynamically structured social space that engenders suffering.
For one who has seen all of this what of Buddhism and Buddhist practice? For many it will mean abandoning Buddhism for some other equally circular form of thought. Most, though, will soldier on within the fold, trying, for years perhaps, to suppress the inkling that something is rotten within the Buddhist vallation. Eventually though, suppressed dissatisfaction might resurface as a disenchantment that cannot be denied, a growing feeling that the enclosed world of x-buddhist thought is not so much a refuge from suffering as a delusional attempt to barricade the self from a felt threat to its integrity. For the x-buddhist this is a paradoxical situation (considering the teaching on the insubstantiality of the self). If disenchantment intensifies, a crisis will ensue in which one sees the unassailability of the x-buddhist self as a delusion.
Wallis calls this the onset of “aporetic dissonance” (Wallis, 233), a condition in which disenchantment becomes undeniably present to awareness as ones real condition, beyond all x–buddhist hubris. At that stage a process of questioning might begin in which one puts x-buddhist postulates to the test. One has entered into a form of non-buddhist practice from within the x-buddhist vallation, in an attempt to find out if one can retrieve anything durable from the collapsing fortress.
Non Buddhism is the procedure enabling just such a program of questioning and retrieval. Glenn Wallis, in the heuristic attached to the text Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism, sets out a program through which one transforms questioning into a performative practice. Essentially this practice entails bringing x-buddhist postulates into proximity with forms of contemporary thought to break the closed circle of x-buddhist sufficiency.
Such a practice neither rejects x-buddhism or attempts to transform it. What then is the relationship between non-buddhism and x-buddhism? This is a key point and to understand it we must return to Laruelle and examine the meaning of the non in non-philosophy.
For Laruelle non-philosophy is a way of working on the material of philosophy as an instance of the real. Non-philosophy rejects outright the transcendent specularity of philosophical thought and tries to extract the transcendence from its postulates and make them usable for humans. Non-philosophy is the practice of making redundant the transcendent presumption of philosophy by exposing its arbitrary decisional structure. It does this with a form of work on the material of philosophy and not through a decisional move of its own that would install it in place of philosophy as just another Philosophy.
So too non-buddhism. Non-buddhism is a practice on the material of x-buddhism that renders its decisional structure ineffective and cancels its warrant as the transcendent arbitrator of the real. It does not, however, replicate the x-buddhist decisional move by installing itself in its place. Rather it proclaims all appropriation of the real redundant and makes all specular knowledge into a form of useable knowledge. Those elements of the x-buddhist discourse that have stood the test can take their place within a spectrum of knowledges each conditioned on the peculiarities of its own realm of investigation. Thus non-buddhism avoids creating just another iteration of x, and presents itself as just another form of usable knowledge.
Laruelle, François. Dictionary of Non-Philosophy, Univocal Publishing, Minneapolis, 2013.
Wallis, Pepper, Steingass. Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice – Toward a Revaluation of Buddhism, EyeCorner Press, Roskilde, 2013. Glenn Wallis’s contribution Speculative Non-Buddhism: X-buddhist Hallucination and its Decimation is a expansion of the above named text from 2011.
Althusser, Louis. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, 1970.
(1) Wallis introduces the concept of “hidden causal essence” in Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism (cf. p. 241; p. 141 in Cruel Theory) as used by the anthropologist Pascal Boyer (cf. too Cruel Theory p. 182-188, where Boyer’s evolutionary psychology is treated also).
(2) The concept of “interpellation” was first proposed by Louis Althusser in his text: Ideology and ideological State Apparatuses, 1970. Cf. the Wikipedia article about “Interpellation” for a quick reference. The concept was introduced to the non-buddhist discourse by Tom Pepper.