Reprise: Toward a Non-Buddhist Contemplative Practice

Reprise: Toward a Non-Buddhist Contemplative Practice

Glenn Wallis

November 23rd, Monday, 6-9 PM EDT. Online.

This session will involve a delicious dollop of theory and practice. Specifically, we will work together toward two goals. The first goal is to theorize a form of meditation or contemplative practice along the lines of Laruellen-inspired non-buddhism. The second goal is to formalize that practice as a repeatable performance. We will also spend time doing the practice. The following text introduces some preliminary thoughts on the project.

The purpose of Buddhist meditation is to facilitate the process of human awakening. An obvious question arises: awakening from what and to what? The traditional Buddhist answer is from an unaware acquiescence to the status quo viewpoint, and to “things as they are” (yathabhutam). So, how are things? Buddhism tells us that if we would but look more carefully, we would see that they are, empty, impermanent, and painful. Meditation, we are asked to consider, is precisely the heightened form of that looking and seeing.

Emptiness, impermanence, and pain are thus considered the three primary “marks” or characteristics of existence. Here’s how they hang together. Because (i) all phenomena—from a sub-atomic particle to the cosmos itself—lack an essence or a durable, immutable core (i.e., are empty of inherent existence) they (ii) follow an inevitable trajectory from arising to continuance to dissolution to disappearance. The instability, insecurity, and precariousness of such impermanence (iii) engenders persistent pain. This pain manifests on a continuum from barely perceptible irritation to agonizing torment, but most often is experienced at some intermediate register at what Freud calls “everyday unhappiness.” Crucially, such pain is an ever-present feature of experience, felt even in pleasure and joy.

As a kind of rudimentary phenomenology, this traditional account is certainly useful. In over forty years of involvement with the practice, I have repeatedly observed practitioners make drastic, long-term beneficial shifts in perspective, affect, and behavior. I believe that this is due, in part, to the accompanying techniques of concentration and calming. And yet, I have also come to the conclusion that, to fulfill the promise of “awakening” in a sense that is adequate to a heightened social awareness, something like a “non-buddhist” practice is required.

“Non-buddhist meditation” refers to a “mutated” form of traditional Buddhist contemplative practice. I consider this mutation to be useful for three reasons. First, it dislodges the practice from its idealist-individualist ideological scaffolding, and buttresses it with a materialist-communalist one. Second, it removes untenable, dogmatic Iron Age assumptions, and replaces them with theoretically credible and self-critical ones. Third, it disables the dominating, over-determining principle of sufficiency that courses through the traditional form, and, in its place, enables a persistent, robust, and fecund democracy of thought.

For those of you who have practiced traditional forms of Buddhist meditation, non-buddhist meditation will seem familiar. This is particularly true for styles such as vipassana, Insight, anapanasati, Zen shikantaza, and even contemporary mindfulness. (If none of these terms mean anything to you, no worries—this seminar will include crash-course explanations.)

But such familiarity can also serve to obscure significant differences. A major claim of non-buddhist practice is that it is permeated by the spirit of the original to catalyze awakened subjects (buddhas) in the world. It differs, however, in one significant regard. The traditional desire driving contemplative practice is the instigation of a cataclysmic shift in this and that isolated consciousness. The desire of non-buddhist practice, by contrast, stated somewhat poetically, is “emerging fit for the clash with Hell/the World.” Such “emergence” requires a sturdy and explicit ideology of cooperation.

Readings: “Stranger Sutra” (this will be our “root” text); Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca, “Performance Philosophy: An Introduction.” It would be useful to be familiar with the Trash Theory series of posts:

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