—On Glenn Wallis and Speculative Non-Buddhism
(provoked by Wallis’s article, On the Faith of Secular Buddhists)
The hardest thing I ever did was walk away from Buddhism. It had saved my sanity and my life. After decades of self-destructive behavior, I’d found myself at home in the arms of the Tibetan Diaspora. After years of isolation, I’d felt I belonged.
Like many converts however, I came in time to see that the lineage-holders were just human, that Buddhism was just another religion. Perhaps the biggest lesson I’d learned from my adventure was that no matter which labels I adopted or rejected, in the end I’d have to depend on my wits.
Easier said than done. That tidy explanation didn’t end my emotional dependency. Even as I left my Buddhist teachers and friends, I still felt driven to rationalize my move in the eyes of the Buddha. It was childish, but there you are. I make no apologies for it.
I turned to the Pali Canon, the least disputed of all Buddhist scriptures, and found my justification. The Buddha, I convinced myself, would approve of my position. I even found citations about “no two monks taking the same path,” and so on.
Such is myth and the way we use it. It helps us through our baby steps. I was deeply attached to the story of the ‘historical’ Buddha. I still think it’s a great story.
There was a time when I thought I’d explored it to the point of destruction. I realized that separating the myth of the man from his history was beyond me — probably beyond anyone. I’d never disentangle my projections from the accumulated weight of two and a half millennia of religious scholarship. I thought that mattered.
What makes scholarship religious is the deliberate agenda of making reality fit the theory. It’s the very opposite of the scientific agenda, which is to abandon any beliefs that don’t fit reality. The Dalai Lama himself pays lip service to this notion, though he’s really in no position to enact it.
As time passed, I identified myself as an ‘ex-Buddhist.’ At first I felt rather brave, as if I was stepping into a formless dimension without structure or refuge. When I started teaching and needed a label, ‘ex-Buddhist’ conveniently described me as having being molded by Buddhism but no longer beholden to it. It caught the eye of people in similar situations, as well as those who were curious about Buddhism but didn’t want to join up. So it did what needed to be done. That’s what labels are for.
Imagine my consternation then when my friend Glenn Wallis inadvertently removed the first letter from my nice term to formulate his own: ‘x-Buddhism.’ This was his way of describing every Buddhist experiment — ‘x’ stands in for Tibetan, Zen, Western, Secular and whatever other form you can think up. He called his own project, ‘Speculative Non-Buddhism.’
Wallis is a brain. Since setting up his new blog he has methodically dismantled one x-Buddhism after another in a series of highly intellectual posts. His points of logic are well thought out. They’re energetic, seemingly powered by the momentum of his punk rock past. He skewers anyone who claims the authority to speak on behalf of the Buddha. He is tireless, unstinting, rational, ruthless and rude about it. He delights those who have been disillusioned or embittered by one form or another of x-Buddhism. He recently dismissed criticism of his tone as irrelevant.
As far as I can make out, Wallis intends Speculative non-Buddhism to be x-Buddhism’s alter-ego, perhaps even its conscience. This sleight of hand is precarious, however, for how could it not be yet another x-Buddhism? No matter how vociferously Speculative Non-Buddhists attack x-Buddhists, they too are a strip off the old block. They define their field of interest using the noun Buddhism and attaching their own adjectives. Speculative Non-Buddhism is informed by various ways of adhering to or rejecting the historical Buddhist tradition of ideas and practices. It speaks to an audience of Buddhists and ex-Buddhists. Who else is interested?
Wallis’s recent criticism of Secular Buddhism as being just another faith has provoked some people to defend Stephen Batchelor, who is perfectly able to defend himself – should he so choose. Perhaps though, he won’t.
In a conversation I had with Batchelor the day before Wallis’s post appeared, we considered the question Why Buddhism, and mutually lamented our dependency on Buddhist terminology. In that conversation Batchelor implicitly endorsed many of Wallis’s points. Just last year I confronted Batchelor when he described himself, without any adjectives at all, as a Buddhist. “But of course,” he said. “I have no trouble with that.”
As someone who’s been an ex-Buddhist for thirty years and counting, I know my position is troublesome. But let’s not get bogged down in labels.
It all comes down, of course, to practice. Unless I’m missing something, we all — Buddhists, x-Buddhists and Speculative non-Buddhists — have at one time or another sought in Buddhism something non-intellectual. We wondered, “Here we are; now what?” The fact that we might have answered this from Western sources is beside the point. We went to Buddhism, which answers the dilemma at great length, engagingly, provocatively and practically.
There lies our common ground: we all turned once upon a time to Buddhism.
The question raised by Wallis’s latest blog post about Batchelor and ‘his’ Secular Buddhism is this: is there something unique in Buddhism that substantially distinguishes it, say, from the philosophy of Socrates, Thoreau or even Eckhart Tolle.
Wallis’s answer is no and he’s right. To identify Gotama and his thoughts as ‘special,’ is religious, anti-scientific and wishful thinking, plain and simple.
Wallis therefore identifies Secular Buddhism as just another x-Buddhism, one more victory for myth and faith. Batchelor may be trying to establish a Buddhism divorced from wishful thinking, but in fact is creating another religion based on transcendence, personality, intellectual uniqueness, self-sufficiency and righteousness. Secular Buddhists are sticking their heads in the sand when they should be exploring further afield. How could they not study and debate Aristotle, Hume, and Parfit; the Stoics and Epicureans, Descartes, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein? Why would they ignore Emerson, Thoreau, Montaigne, Pascal and Nietzsche?
All this assumes that everyone else is engaged in the same intellectual exercise as the Speculative Non-Buddhists. I was attacked on their website for being ‘lazy,’ when I used the Buddhist metaphor of an end to views. I was called an idiot and, to my utter horror, accused of being an actual Buddhist. When I had the temerity to respond to my attacker I was told off for ‘hating’ him.
Such is the fate of non-Speculative Non-Buddhists. And such are the dangers of criticism for criticism’s sake. When divorced from exploration and creativity, criticism becomes self-righteous and humorless. It also becomes strangely visceral.
It’s not exactly Wallis’s fault that a commenter on his blog described Batchelor and Secular Buddhists as ‘third-rate New Age, self-help gurus,’ but it’s curious that he let this sort of hyperbole pass. He is the moderator, after all. He asks for comments from friends and foes alike, but does nothing to stop dissenters being shooed or even scared away. Serves them right perhaps, for being sissies.
Wallis’s attacks on x-Buddhism are stridently intellectual. There’s no trace of the old young Wallis who became ‘Buddhist’ in the first place. Am I wrong in assuming that, like most of us, he did so to explore the illogicality of existence?
In his May 2012 article he demonstrates that Secular Buddhism is a faith ‘indistinguishable from every other system of religious belief,’ and comments, ‘The grounding of an “ism” in faith is neither new nor interesting.’ Wallis’s faith lies apparently in The New, aka the old Enlightenment project of Progress.
We’ve all been steeped at one time or another in Buddhist philosophy, all bumped up against the bleak limits of rationalization. We’ve all hoped there’s more to life than logic, ideas and points of view. Have the Speculative Non-Buddhists abandoned that hope?
They attack every x-Buddhism as ‘mythical.’ Nowhere do they explain what’s wrong with myth. Presumably it’s bad because it’s illogical.
Oh really. They’re no fun.
I understand bitterness. When I left the Tibetans, I was furious. How dare they not live up to my expectations? How childish it sounds to phrase it like that, and yet that’s how I felt for years. Perhaps the Speculative Non-Buddhists are in the same boat. They certainly seem to avoid the psycho-social dimension of life, seeking certainty in intellect, as if cyclic existence is just for idiots.
Wallis’s intellect is capacious and dazzling. He seems to believe it will lead somewhere new; therein lies his faith, perhaps. However, my bet is that his intellect is just as circular as yours and mine. Where will thoughts ever lead but back on themselves? They have their uses, but to reformulate them as New and Improved is just one more mind game, in fact a very old one. Ideas are tools of communication, not tickets to freedom. Sooner or later every decent idea is hijacked by yet another Quixotic search for meaning in a meaningless universe.
So what’s the alternative? Wallis attacks those who, recognizing the limits of logic, turn to myth. To treat myths as logical may be foolish, but to reject them as ‘untrue’ is philistine. To know them for what they are is to invest in the possibility of non-literal meaning — plain experience for some, transcendence for others, but in either case the meat and potatoes of life.
Myth is mankind’s basic currency of communication, shared by our ancestors around the campfire. It’s a vehicle of practical wisdom, not abstract theory. Wallis has fallen into the trap of thinking that logic trumps myth. We need both.
We don’t have to study every thinker any more than we have to think every thought. The task at hand is to live — and why not live enjoyably? No one has ever come up with a better raison d’être than love, and yet so many are distracted by the pursuit of truth. Being right is overrated.
Secular Buddhists are just trying to gather their lives together without dogma and, in most cases, without spending their days and nights immersed in heavy tomes of polysyllabic run-on sentences. To say there’s no difference between them and religious Buddhists is to abuse plain language in the name of intellectual perfection. It’s silly.
The Speculative Non-Buddhists are right. How dreary. More to the point, so what?
About the Author (Author Profile)Stephen Schettini is The Naked Monk — writer, blogger and teacher of Mindful Reflection. After eight years as a monk in the Tibetan tradition he decided that ritual, tradition and belief were an unnecessary burden, and returned to secular life. He remains an admirer and student of the historical Buddha without any Buddhist affiliations.
Sites That Link to this Post
- SBA/Stephen Schettini: “So What?” « Kritikos & Bodhi | May 15, 2012
- Secular Buddhism « Noise and Haste | May 17, 2012
- After One Year « Speculative Non-Buddhism | June 4, 2012
- Are Buddhists Stupid? « Speculative Non-Buddhism | June 8, 2012
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