About “Speculative Non-Buddhism”

 

In music something exciting happens when traditions cross-breed.  African music’s encounter with the European tradition gave birth to gospel, blues, and jazz; Chicago and Memphis electrified blues and made it rock; Rock-a-Billy merged Rock and Country;   Bernstein melded classical and jazz and put it on Broadway; Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project furthers the cross fertilization of Eastern and Western traditions.

Similarly, Modern Buddhism (or “Protestant Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism”) continues to emerge from ongoing dialogues between East and West, traditionalism and modernity, Buddhism and science, romanticism, and existentialism.  Purists deride emergent forms as heretical, inauthentic, and watered-down. Skeptics think the emergent forms don’t go far enough in a modernist (or post-modernist) direction. Charismatic con men, hucksters, and self-appointed gurus ride the emergent wave along with a spectrum of sincere seekers, scholars, teachers, bloggers, reformers, and critics. In the midst of this ferment, Buddhist influence on American culture continues to grow (and vice versa).  According to the Pew Foundation’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, “Buddhism” (whatever that means) is now the fastest growing religion in America.

In staking out my own position regarding American Dharma – – loving practice, affectionate towards tradition, skeptical of dogma, favoring transparency, appreciating scholarship’s demythologizing of received narratives — I’ve recently come across a number of contributors to the Buddhist Blogosphere who take a position towards Buddhism somewhat more radical than my own.  I am thinking of writers like Ted Meissner (The Secular Buddhist) who is atheist where I am merely agnostic, of David Chapman  (Meaningness) who rues the incorporation of Western Romanticism into Modern Buddhism, and Glenn Wallis (Speculative Non-Buddhism), a long-term practitioner and scholar who, having found the Buddhist project “fruitlessly tedious,” makes no assumptions about the validity or value of any Buddhist practice or tenet, wishing to open everything to the “coruscating gaze” of reason.

I want to focus this particular post on Glenn Wallis, who holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Harvard.  He’s taught at the University of Georgia, Brown University, Bowdoin College, RISD, and (currently) the Won Institute of Graduate Studies, and has written a number of books including Basic Teachings of the Buddha (Random House, 2007), The Dhammapada: Verses on the Way (Random House, Modern Library, 2004),  Mediating the Power of Buddhas (State University of New York Press, 2002), and, most recently, Buddhavacana: A Pali Reader (Pariyatti Press, 2011).  Clearly Glenn Wallis knows more about Buddhism than I can ever hope to know.

I welcome Wallis’s intention to examine Buddhism dispassionately — neither as insider nor outsider — from a distance sufficient to obtain clarity, but close enough to know the material intimately.  He brings an interesting and provocative mind to the online mix.  It’s his tone, however, that I find disquieting.  He intends his gaze to be coruscating, but his voice tends toward the corrosive  —  arrogant, scornful, and dismissive of those holding differing beliefs and attitudes.  Now I’m not one of those who believes, along with Alice’s Dodo, that “everybody has won and all must have prizes.” Not all opinions are created equal — some are clearly wrong.  (As Daniel Patrick Moynahan famously observed, we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.)  It’s fine to engage in robust discussion and critical discourse, to call things as you see them.  I draw the line, however, at sneering derision that impugns the intelligence and motivation of one’s peers.  Buddhist (and Non-Buddhist!) values call us to a higher standard.

Let me cite examples from two of his recent posts on Speculative Non-Buddhism.   Wallis begins a post entitled “The Elixir of Mindfulness” with the following paragraph:

 “The mighty “Mindfulness” juggernaut continues to roll joyously throughout the wounded world of late-capitalism. And why shouldn’t it? The Mindfulness Industry is claiming territory once held by the great occupying force of assorted self-help gurus, shrinks, health care workers, hypnotists, preachers, Theosophists, the church, the synagogue, actual gurus, yogis, meditation teachers, and even—gasp!— Buddhists themselves.  Who, after all, can compete with an industry that claims to offer a veritable fountain of bounty, an elixir to life’s ills?”

 

He concludes:

 “By re-packaging age-old optimisms, the Mindfulness Industry feeds off of the multi-billion dollar addiction of the desiccated twenty-first century middle classes for anything that will lead them to the promised land of ‘well-being.’”

 

Not content to skewer would-be healers who have jumped aboard the mindfulness train without sufficient grounding in practice, Wallis goes right for the jugular in attacking its founder, stating “the vacuity of the term ‘mindfulness’ can be traced, in fact, to the vague, platitudinous, and circular definition given it by Jon Kabat-Zinn.”

Now Mindfulness is not sacrosanct.  There are plenty of unresolved questions about what to properly include in its definition, how best to measure it, differentiating state and trait aspects, discriminating active ingredients from placebo, and understanding who might best benefit from it.  There is already a substantial and mind-numbingly voluminous body of research and scientific literature exploring all of these questions.

Having followed a great deal of that scientific literature (which I doubt Wallis has), having contributed to it, having participated in an MBSR internship at the Center for Mindfulness in Healthcare, Medicine, and Society, and having had the experience of teaching mindfulness to clinicians, medical patients, and psychiatric patients over the years, I have a different perspective on mindfulness than Wallis has.  I found it to be personally transformative and of great benefit to a variety of my clients with problems as diverse as anger management, chronic pain, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative disorder.  The research literature has found it helpful in a great variety of other disorders, as well as in simply relieving stress, and has begun to explore the biological correlates of mindfulness practice, including its effects of brain structure and function and immune function.  This is not trivial work.

Nowhere, however, does Wallis acknowledge Kabat-Zinn’s depth of understanding of the Dharma, sincerity, intelligence, and commitment to the scientific method as a means of exploring the nature and value of mindfulness.  I find Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness to be perfectly intelligible and clear as a guide to practice, if not sufficiently operationalized for research purposes.   I’ve always found him, and the researchers associated with the Center for Mindfulness in Healthcare, Medicine and Society, to be open to critique and willing to follow wherever the data leads.  These are serious people engaged in a serious project.

Why the animus against them?  Why question the relationship of mindfulness practice to Buddhist practice in general?  Are Thich Nhat Hanh (who wrote The Miracle of Mindfulness and Bhante Gunaratana (who wrote Mindfulness in Plain English) not sufficiently Buddhist-y for Wallis?  Who meets his qualifications?

In the second example,  Wallis accuses Buddhism (in general) and Zen teacher Barry Magid (in particular) of “flinching” because of its/his claim that practice leads to deep joy.   Wallis begins by expressing admiration for Magid (and his teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck), but then quotes Magid’s “In Memoriam” piece for Beck in Buddhadharma:

“When students were preoccupied with transformation, she took what was in danger of becoming a toothless Zen cliché—being just this moment—and turned it into the challenge of having no hope—a radical acceptance of the totality of the present. Yet she never failed to emphasize that at the bottom of the well of self was deep joy. A lifetime of teaching about death and dying was summed up as ‘this too is joy.’”

 

Wallis, apparently, objects to all this “joy” talk, writing:

He, Beck, and all of Buddhism shore up the existential nullity…  with what amounts to an ideological sandbag: “deep joy.” The “bottom of the well” and the “deep” are not given in the equation. They are smuggled into to it by merchants of hope. They are instances of a transcendent, specular, all-seeing-from-above dharmic dream of what should be/we would like to be the case. They are not, by any means, necessarily what is. The “deep joy” at the “bottom of the well of self” is a new, uniquely self-help-obsessed-American Zen cliché; one, moreover, that flashes the sharp teeth of all “spiritual” salesmen—and saleswomen. For it locks the practitioner into the endless pay loop of should-could-want-would-like-deep-joy.”

Toni Packer, one of the teachers who has deeply influenced me, shares a great deal in common with Joko Beck.  Like Joko, she makes all of life grounds for investigation and questions the value of many traditional Buddhist practices.  She also went one further than Joko, leaving even words like “Buddhism” and “Zen” behind.  For Toni, there is truly “just this.”

I can’t remember Toni ever using the word “joy” per se, but this [1] is her interpretation of her own experience:

 “Sitting quietly, without desire or fear, beyond the sense of time, is vast, boundless being, not belonging to you or me.  It is free and unattached, shedding light on conditioned being, beholding it, and yet not meddling with it…. It is not what is seen that matters, but that there is seeing, revealing what is as it is, in the light of wisdom and compassion too marvelous to comprehend.

I suspect this description of “vast, boundless being” and “wisdom and compassion too marvelous to comprehend” is what Beck and Magid mean by “joy.”  It’s what Shabkar Tsodruk Rangdrol meant when he described the mind’s nature as “intrinsically empty, naturally radiant, and ceaselessly responsive.”  It’s quite all right to say that never having experienced what they experienced, one wonders whether their view of the way things are is real.  Its quite another to say that in presenting their own experience they are “flinching,” in other words, being intellectually dishonest and evasive.  I never thought Toni was offering up a “new, uniquely self-help-obsessed-American Zen cliché” or acting as a “spiritual” saleswoman.  She was just sharing her own experience, and her belief that if others would only look they might discover the same.

Magid responded to Wallis in this way:

 “The Buddha might have said Life is Suffering and left it at that. Impermanence is inescapable and our practice is first and foremost a confrontation with our avoidance of this reality. But Zen is not just a matter of swallowing bad tasting medicine. The experience of long sitting also opens the door of joy — when we cease our protests against life as it is we experience the poignancy and joy that life emerges changes and departs. I don’t hold this out as a carrot or antidote or promise. But it is my (and Joko’s) first hand report from the front lines.”

 

To which Wallis, in turn, responded:

“I am sure you’ll agree that each of us has to submit our own first-hand report. It’s wonderful that some reports contain descriptions of deep joy. But I can’t submit a report based on what you or Charlotte Beck or the Buddha discovers on the front lines. That report would be untruthful. Why are some first-hand reports from the front lines universalized by tradition (and its present-day teachers) as necessarily desirable, as a special species of experiential truth-telling? And what effect does it have on students when teachers make such reports openly? What are teachers doing when they do so?”

I’m sorry that Wallis hasn’t found the joy at the bottom of the well in his own practice.  I can’t imagine, however, why he questions the value of teachers reporting on their own experience as a way of pointing out what might be possible to their students.

All of this boils down to the question of what motivates our practice to begin with.  Why practice at all, unless one is seeking medicine for spiritual unease and the unsatisfactoriness of one’s life?  If the Dharma isn’t authentic medication for that, what use is it?  Does it provide us with a way of being that feels more authentic and vital?  Does it help us to develop awareness and equanimity?  Does it help us in becoming less self-centered?  Does it assist us in exploring our narrative of who we are and the way we construe the world? Do we become more compassionate in the process?  These are all meaningful questions.  We all have skin in this game.  We are in it because we are seeking something.  If some people who have been at this longer than we have report that joy is part of what we might find at the bottom of the well, is that somehow magically illegitimate?  Is that hucksterism?  Is that wishful thinking?  Why not include that in the list of things we may just discover if we persist in our practice?

Wallis loves the idea of existential courage — of facing things as they are without any sops.  But the idea that in moments of clear seeing there might be genuine peace and happiness beyond mere sensory pleasure can be part of reality too. It’s not all grimness and eat your peas.  There’s a certain degree of sourness at the bottom of Wallis’s well.

I want to contrast Wallis’s slash-and-burn style with an alternative mode of inquiry that Andrew Olendzki proposes in an article excerpted in the latest issue of Buddhadharma.

In discussing rehabilitating Protestant Buddhism Olendzki writes:

“A crucial first step in the process is to recognize that new forms of Buddhism, at their best, are based upon the creative ways of synthesizing meaning rather than on undermining the beliefs and practice of others.  In other words, while it is not okay to say that others have got it wrong and this is the right way of looking at things, it is entirely appropriate (and natural) to say, “ Here is an interesting new way of understanding things that I find particularly meaningful.”  Even if we get it wrong once in a while, better to be actively inquiring into the meaning of the dhamma at every opportunity than to passively accept tradition in a given form…. We are not necessarily better at understanding these teachings because we are moderns or Westerners or humanists or typing on keyboards.  We cannot assume the troubling bits, about miracles, rebirth, and hell realms, for example, must not be “true” and that we, of course, know better.  It is possible to hold the greatest respect for all those who think differently from ourselves, for all those who construct their own meaning of these teachings differently than we do, and simply say at some point that we are not capable of seeing it that way.”

 

Exactly.

Catch the difference in tone?  It’s possible to question, critique, and explore, without being beholden to any orthodoxy, and at the same time remain open to, and respectful of, those who hold the teachings differently.

I’ll continue to read Wallis’s blog.  He has interesting and important things to say.  It’s helpful to grapple with ideas that challenge one’s own assumptions.  He’s a member of my club — the club of Westerners struggling with the gift of centuries of Buddhist practice, devotion, and contention.   But I hope he finds a way to be more at home in the world, more happy, and  — dare I say it — more joyous.  And I hope he discovers a tone of voice that’s less prickly, less irritating, less dismissive, and — dare I say it — more consistent with Buddhist aspirations.

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  1. [1] Packer, T. (2004). The Wonder of Presence. Boston: Shambhala, p. 131