Adapted from an article on the Imperfect Buddha website
My first encounter with non-philosophy was through the work of Glenn Wallis, an academic of Buddhist studies turned radical educator with a claim to being American Buddhism’s enfant terrible. Wallis originally started the Speculative Non-Buddhism project as a website producing intelligent critique of Western Buddhism when very little genuine discourse was to be found, with many Western Buddhists employing science to justify their readings of Buddhism and others striving to turn Buddhist meditation into a commodity to sell to the masses. The site was built around his work and that of two primary collaborators, with occasional input from others, including myself. While some of the contributors explored Alain Badiou and other assorted French philosophers in a searing critique of the American Buddhist landscape and its tolerance of anti-intellectualism, Wallis’s work often centered on his experimentation and application of his new concept of non-buddhism.
Initially a heuristic rooted in the work of living French philosopher François Laruelle, non-buddhism developed into several different book projects by Wallis: Cruel Theory, Sublime Practice, a collaboration with Tom Pepper and Matthias Steingass; A Critique of Western Buddhism, his more mature, academic work on non-buddhism; and his most recent book Non Buddhist Mysticism. Each of Wallis’s books builds on the work of Laruelle and represents an artistic endeavor, a genuine exploration of the possibility of thought in action. For folks like me, the Speculative Non-Buddhism website was a revelation—a place for intelligent critique with no taboos or off-limits topics. It provided fertile ground for those seeking an intellectual refill after spending too much time absorbed in spiritually enamored Western Buddhist spaces and their reverence for exotic others or promises of salvation if one meditates enough. It challenged spiritual myths such as “Don’t think too hard!” and “All that exists is the present moment.”
For me, non-philosophy and non-buddhism are exceptional practices for avoiding the excesses of unthinking Buddhists or Buddhism as ideological formation. Non-buddhism and non-philosophy are not replacement belief systems but forms of practice. Though identity formation may be a consequence of practicing anything seriously, I would never claim the title of non-buddhist.
The “non-” in each should denote why. To be a practitioner of either is to be an allusive participant in the world of philosophy or Buddhism with no intentions of becoming whatever passes for a good philosopher or proper Buddhist. Non-buddhism is denoted without capitalization, and this small but important symbolic gesture indicates that non-buddhism is not yet another reformulation of Buddhism. Through Laruelle’s and Wallis’s descriptors of non-thought and non-practice as applications for critically taking part in different analytical traditions, we get a set of working tools for engaging with Buddhism, spirituality, philosophy, and systems of thought more broadly in an original and ultimately disruptive manner.
The origins of non-buddhism
The French philosopher François Laruelle was born in the 1930s and has lived and worked through many of the ups and downs of 20th- and 21st-century philosophy. He has gone through various phases, his most famous work being non-philosophy, or non-standard philosophy, something that he describes as a science of philosophy, which could be considered as meta-philosophy, though Laurelle would dispute this. Laruelle’s non-philosophy emerges from recognizing that there was and continues to be a flaw at the heart of philosophy that keeps reproducing itself across geographical and temporal divides. This flaw he defines as a prior decision, a form of commitment that leads to the overlay of a system of thought or practice onto the world that is then confused for the reality it purports to describe. This could also be described as a dialectical split enacted through philosophy (or religion, think Buddhism) to make the world an object that can be grasped.
His insight is not exactly new, but his attempt to construct a heuristic for unpacking this process is. His insistence that this process is unrecognized by those performing this split is also important, especially as it pertains to practice. It need not be limited to philosophy, either. It can be applied to any complex system that includes beliefs and practices, especially those that lead to explicit identity adoption or formation, whether Buddhist or the more extreme ends of the political spectrum.
We can consider both Wallis’s and Laruelle’s works as fundamentally concerned with how we become blinded by an inability to see beyond any system of practice or group we become absorbed into or identify with and how we counter such a process. There is no claim that such a process can be eliminated entirely or fully transcended. To participate meaningfully in any group is not a sign of this mechanism being problematic per se, for a degree of assimilation is always a feature of committed social participation. Rather, the degree to which we commit to, identify with, and speak from a given system of thought and practice is the degree to which that system captures us with our capacity to see the world in its variety and complexity beyond that system’s meaning-making apparatus being reduced and, in the worst-case scenario, lost. Cults are perhaps the stand-out example of this process at the extreme.
Just because such groups provide stark examples of this mechanism, we should not be complacent. This mechanism is at the heart of the tension in all groups, from workplace culture to mainstream political parties, from assorted clubs and educational institutes to the military. There is a tension inherent in moving into groups between increasing absorption into that group and maintaining some form of individuality, autonomy, and space for critique. The world of Western Buddhism does not escape this process.
As a surface recognition, this may all seem obvious to many of you. Still, when we look underneath that surface and dig into the mechanisms of identification, we discover a whole world of hidden challenges and habits that run through our myriad social enclaves, Buddhist or otherwise. This picks up on Louis Althusser’s recognition that ideology is not merely the product of a dominant or hegemonic political or religious system operating in a given time and place but is the inculcation of individuals into the social performance of norms through the internalization of the values and modes of thought, feeling, and being of that ideology. From this understanding, we are concerned about the formation of individuals into alien ways of inhuman practices and the overbearing nature of conformity. From a Buddhist perspective, we have a piece of the puzzle of what causes so much human ignorance and suffering.
Though we may want to avoid discussing true or authentic selves being screwed over by external forces, we can see how the more authoritarian an ideology, the less room there is for diversity in thought, practice, behavior, and belief. From this recognition, we can imagine a scale of the ideological determination of individuals and subjectivity, and question the degree to which systems produce behavioral conformity and inculcate subjective or inner conformity on that scale. To what degree is it simply a case of being complicit because the payoffs of group assimilation are highly desirable? To what degree is the extreme coercion of manipulative and dehumanizing forces at play? It is not always clear. The recognition of this process in the ‘other’ seems to make far too many complacent about the in-group conditions they are also subject to.
Buddhism is no different in this regard. Buddhist traditions have long been at odds over who has got it wrong, who are the better Buddhists, and who are wasting their time in wrong-headed beliefs and practices, i.e., ideologies.
This acquiescence to authority is unconscious and reproduced within subjects that see their ideological capture as natural so that even the question of critiquing that naturalness and normality does not arise, summed up in the ever-present phrase “this is just how it is.” Such folks are often shocked and outraged when an outsider or insider critiques what has been held to be transparently right, good, or true. Laruelle defined this as participants being constitutively blind to the operations of decisions. This mechanism explains how so many support the worst human atrocities throughout history or put up with manipulative or abusive teachers. Though not condoning those who do, to envision them as captured by a form of collective hallucination does go some way in pointing to something we should all be far more attentive to, especially in a polarized and troubled age as our own, where it is far too easy to make enemies and ignore one’s own shortcomings.
Dismantling an ideological commitment
As a practice item, it is worth returning to the key first concept in both men’s work: decision, otherwise known as commitment. In committing meaningfully to something like Buddhism or a specific ideological position, we inevitably pick up habits of thinking, feeling, and even being, which intensify the deeper we commit to or identify with the system or position. The power of religion is that its practices are designed to produce precisely what Laruelle critiques: subject transformation in line with doctrinal norms, adoption of powerful beliefs, and commitment to a journey of salvation. Powerful absorption into group meaning-making is extremely rewarding. Where one may feel revulsion, skepticism, and something akin to an allergic reaction, another will experience a return home, mystical union, the power of far deeper human connection and clarity of purpose. We all desire such things, and they mirror in many ways our tribal roots.
The problem, or the benefit for the true believer, is that strong identification leads to a person becoming increasingly captured by that system. With some imagination, we can entertain the idea that they are becoming a part of its collective sentience. Then, what is perceived and experienced through that system is taken as a complete, self-contained system that solves the endemic problem of understanding our complex world and how to live in it. The individual loses a part of their capacity to think, perceive, and feel beyond the system of capture as they move more fully into it. As this is covered up by gains in certainty, clarity, and shared meaning, what is lost is often forgotten. This can be evidenced through the perversion of the world’s inherent complexity and its division into narratives of oversimplification and us versus them. From Jehovah’s Witnesses to conspiracy theorists, the same mechanism plays out.
Almost every ideology—even sophisticated, historically aware ones—oversimplifies the world. Simplification is part and parcel of commitment (decision) becoming the unconscious pillars supporting the subjective reality of the group and its individuals. In the case of Buddhists, a simple example is that the world is seen as samsara—a world divided between the suffering and the liberated.
Philosophically, it goes deeper than mere ethics. The person becomes a performer of a recognized identity in the group and a participant in the meaning-making and co-forming that is integral to the group’s stability and survival. Therefore, the epistemological framework and metaphysical assumptions rooted in the ideology become a source of necessary alignment and needed adoption. Hierarchies within groups are typically built around deepening degrees of alignment and enforcement, with the head of the ideology being the master assimilator and representative of the original decisional act.
To highlight this process of meaning-making and identification with the system, Laruelle utilizes the French term scission, meaning a cutting away or separation from. This amplifies the question of commitment, separating it from the broader world of meaning or reality. An enclosure of sorts is created through this separation, and the wider world becomes acted upon through and from that enclosure. Laruelle speaks of philosophers ‘philosophizing the world’ from their philosophical stance. Wallis speaks of Buddhists ‘buddhifying’ the world through their talk of samsara, karma, emptiness, meditation, and enlightenment. Thus, even systems of knowledge or liberation become means for overlaying the world with a kind of collective imagination, narrative, or fantasy. You could call it a story or a telling, but identity formation and the calibration of the subjective to new ways of being, feeling, and thinking go far deeper than mere narration.
The well-educated may be under the illusion that they could not possibly fall for such a mechanism. Yet a quick rundown of the assumptions they hold to and the decisional forms of commitment implicit in their lives would begin to show how they, and we, are all absorbed into shared acts of meaning-making and overly simplistic binaries. We are all works in progress, after all, and no final resolution to these issues exists. Though the absorption may be minor, we are participants in ideologies, nonetheless. Those ideologies, when unquestioned, always appear as natural, as given, as right, and in possession of the truth. A natural response to all this may be a return to practices of liberation. Yet the question of freedom remains deeply problematic, and the divisions between freedom and escape, knowledge and delusion, and other assorted goodies are hardly easily resolvable. They require sustained thought, analysis, reflection, and investigation, and that’s just the entry price.
The aftermath of recognizing this mechanism in group and individual identity formation and performance could also be seen as the recognition of entrapment. As a species rooted in the physical—the body, the Earth, histories, the confines of birth and death—entrapment or restriction are part and parcel of the human condition. We would do well to build a more nuanced and mature appreciation for our physical limits as a species. Instead of returning to a simplistic dichotomy, or scission, of freedom and entrapment, immanence and transcendence, escape and imprisonment, liberalism or conservatism, we could perhaps start to explore more fully the reality of embodied entrapment and social commitment and reevaluate what it means to foster, protect, and build ideologies of freedom and commitment to our physical reality, messy human history, and imperfect methods of making sense of each other.
A practice that can emerge from the kind of insight offered up by non-buddhism is rich.
There is ripe ground for taking apart and deconstructing the assumptions we hold, the beliefs we nurture, and the behaviors we exhibit. Tracing history, unpacking inconsistencies, and seeing just how superficial our grasp of a core idea or belief we have long held is a form of practice and liberation. The difficulty for many Buddhists, spiritual types, and philosophers is that they too often hold to the idea that they are already practicing Liberation when often their liberation is a performance of an idea of liberation that is, in truth, subverting the world into a hallucination, and is, in practice, a form of entrapment and absorption into group meaning-making and identity assertions. To them, I would suggest that the confines that capture and entrap can be divided between the negotiable and non-negotiable, with much decision and commitment being the basis for a practice of liberation not from but, rather, into the world at large.