New book is out. A Critique of Western Buddhism

I will reserve my critique of his new book, since I haven’t read it and I do not know how his views have changed and evolved since 2013.

However, it’s likely that it has some similarities with his views as expressed in his well known 2013 article, Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism.

It is available on his site as are other articles

I wrote a short critique of it awhile back,
it is on dhammawheel if anyone is interested.


Interesting, since a lot of critique from Wallis and his ilk focused on how “x-buddhism” reinforces traditional structures of economic and social power.

I would love to read a book about this subject! There is still far too little of Buddhism in philosophy. But the problem is finding philosophers with a deep enough understanding of Dhamma. Philosophy is just so specialized.

Unfortunately I’m still way too much of a beginner in the Dhamma to even try writing this myself. (I’d need to learn Pali for starters.) But I do know enough to say that there is a meaningful book to be written about the subject, especially if it were written sympathetically to both traditions.

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Are you familiar with Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s treatise “Buddhist Romanticism” –

– which surveys cultural-historical sources for what he takes as Western reshaping of Buddha teachings into its own paradigms. He covers much the same ground you mention (the Germanic authors / philosophers, emphasis on philosophy of religion – the Table of Contents gives an overview), but I sense largely from secondary sources.

With some background myself in cultural history, I find his case credible. In case you’re familiar with it, or take a look at it, I’d be curious as to your opinion…


Would you want to include Husserl and Merleau-Ponty?

Much lately on scandals in “respected” academic publishing (thinking in particular of the medical field). And not to mention the flourishing industry of enterprises which will “publish” anyone’s “academic” or “research” material – no questions asked, no peer review, etc. – for a price.

(btw: Here’s an amusing recent contribution in the field of meta-analysis in “evidence-based” science / medicine:
Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma when jumping from aircraft: randomized controlled trial)


I’m a philosopher and Hume scholar, and from time to time I have tried to draft a book describing my personal view of the dhamma, including philosophical analysis of the most challenging and profound parts, as they appear to me at least.

But I’m ambivalent about the project, and often find my heart isn’t in it. I tend to think there is already too much philosophy and view-mongering in the Buddhist tradition, and most of it is exactly the kind of papañca, and entanglement in thickets if views, the Buddha recommended we avoid if we are serious about seeking liberation and peace. It’s not clear to me the world needs any more books on Buddhism.


That would be interesting, as Edmund Husserl, in the 1920s, ran across Karl Eugene Neumann’s German translations of much of the Pali Nikaya-s and was very impressed, finding correspondence between the Buddha’s teaching and his own Transcendental Phenomenology, specifically in its aspects as not just philosophical theory but a method of practice, of mental training (“purification”, if you will). He contributed an essay to a collection commemorating Neumann after his death, which wasn’t translated into English until the 1990s. That essay was published, with commentary by one Fred. J. Hanna, in “The Humanistic Psychologist, 23, Autumn 1995” – available online (

I downloaded a copy, from a discussion in another “Dhamma” discussion group, as I spent a lot of time studying Husserl (and Hegel’s Phaenomenologie des Geistes) back in college days.


I’ve had similar thoughts that a proper philosophical investigation of some higher points in the dhamma could be great but also instantiations of the very problem the Buddha was pointing out.

I only have a B.A. in Philosophy and therefore consider myself a kind of certified dilettante, but I think there is something quite rich in his teachings on the All as the six sensory fields, the problem with projecting beyond that, the lust for existence or non-existence, the passages where the Buddha says that the catuskoti does not apply to a Tathagata, and the passages where the Buddha says that one who is liberated cannot be reckoned or measured (e.g. MN 72 & Snp5.7).

I think there is a sense in which projecting beyond sensory experience to try to find an “Absolute” or some nature of nibbana in propositional thought is a symptom of bhavatanha or vibhavatanha and that the Buddha is telling us to shut up at the deepest level and thereby experience a craving-free peace that is not even dependent on knowledge. Just allow what has arisen to cease and do not grasp some further idea that there is something or nothing left, seeing this as just another looping into the cycle of cognitive grasping. But explicating on this could be seen as just another ring around the rosie, and once that happens, well then ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Perceiving in terms of signs, beings
take a stand on signs.
Not fully comprehending signs, they
come into the bonds of death.
But fully comprehending signs, one
doesn’t construe a signifier.
Touching liberation with the heart,
the state of peace unsurpassed,
consummate in terms of signs,
delighting in the peaceful state,
an attainer-of-wisdom
makes use of classifications
but can’t be classified. - Iti63

But to put myself closer to topic, my understanding is that Glenn Wallis has some beef that western Buddhism perpetuates capitalism and oppressive structures through cozy ideas and that’s bad. Also that he and his fellow ilk in that subset of the ‘intelligentsia’ believe that it is important to find radically new ideas that require hella obscure language because the very ways we speak commonly close us off to other associative possibilities that could allow radical change in the individual and more importantly society/the collective. Or something like that. And so it’s really hard to understand them.


Might a book like this one lead people into the thicket of views? Perhaps. And yet I feel as though certain parts of western philosophy positively helped me out of the thicket of views, and at least helped to point me a bit more in the direction that I now have. It was an exciting process, and one that I might want to document for my own benefit. Though I do see a possible drawback to publishing it, if I ever did try to write it. I would need to think long and hard about whether it would help or hurt others.


“…Today, the Buddha is depicted as an empirically-minded scientist. These and other doctrinal alterations, argues Wallis, represent the troubling upkeep of Buddhism’s facade.”

IMO people make this point because they confuse materialism (a contemporary metaphysical notion) with causality (the idea that modern science actually runs on).

DN 15 contains what is, possibly, the earliest known account of a counterfactual causal model (dependent origination). (@DKervick, counterfactual causality was suggested by Hume as well IIRC?).

Anyone who wants to write a book or article about Buddhism and Western philosphy might do good to point out that the teachings laid out in the EBTs have a higher standard when it comes to being explicit about the causality of the phenomena under investigation, than much of contemporary social science.

A different philosophical point is that, one could, for example, read SN.19:

…“This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality—upon the notion of existence and the notion of nonexistence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world…

as a rejection of ontology in favor of causality, which is essentially the history of modern science (giving up figuring out what things ‘are’ for figuring out how they behave instead).



One thing worth noting: look at any of the major recent philosophy books on Buddhism or Buddhist philosophy. There are several interesting monographs and anthologies by Siderits, Carpenter, Gowans, Garfield, Keown, Westerhoff and others. All quite interesting. But notice what is missing. None of them contains a major dedicated discussion of suffering.

But the core of the Buddha’s teaching is the cultivation of insightful understanding into the nature and causes of suffering! And then the teaching of a path to the end of suffering, along with a difficult to grasp conception of what that end of suffering consists in! How can any study that almost completely ignores suffering claim to be an account of the Buddha’s philosophy?

Philosophy in general has had a terrible time dealing with suffering. Perhaps philosophers, with their rage for intellectual order and their disposition to repress, avoid and disparage the reality of their human emotions and even their own bodies, just can’t handle the truth. The poets and dramatists are much better folks to turn to for an understanding of the many, many varieties and details of human suffering, and for insight into how suffering arises.

Western philosophers in particular have generally sought to organize their accounts of Buddhist philosophy around their own culturally conditioned understanding of what the various fields and subfields of philosophy are, or should be. They often seem to me to be missing almost the entire point.


I really really must find a way to put this on a T-shirt.


From the imperfect Buddha podcast (speculative non- buddhsim):
‘This episode tackles a complex but thoroughly important topic, namely non-Buddhism. A theoretical project/applied critique of Buddhism as ideology; as an unintentional prison. This work gets at the heart of what’s missing in Buddhism and Buddhist discourse; a failure to understand the collective formation of selves. Due to such, Buddhism operates at the level of the individual and the abstract mythical landscape that is the six realms. It fails to understand the collective formation of selves and the omnipresent role of ideology in the mass suffering and ignorance that grips our species. Non-Buddhism is here to wake Buddhists up to this ignored and uncomfortable reality.’

Why is this called “non-Buddhism”? It seems to be another critique of Buddhism, of which there are many kinds already available.

Because he’s strongly influenced by a french chap called Laurelle who invented an equally strange moniker for his thought, “non philosophy”


Also, why does he think it is only “western” Buddhism that must be ruined? If it is a mistake to be committed to what he calls the “principle of sufficiency” - not very clearly expressed in the interview, but apparently something like a prior commitment to the idea that one’s evolving outlook must remain recognizably Buddhist, however it changes - then why is this not a mistake also for non-“westerners” as well?

This is one of the things I had trouble understanding when I read some of Wallis’s earlier stuff. Apparently, he used to really dig Buddhism, and he devoted his career to studying it. Maybe he used to think of himself as a Buddhist. Now he doesn’t dig Buddhism as much, and thinks all of the various Buddhist outlooks are deficient in some way. Fine. That happens. But why, instead of just saying “I’m not that into Buddhism anymore”, does he think the whole “west” has to have its versions of Buddhism “ruined”? Seems a bit megalomamiacal.

The idea that Buddhism is deficient because it ignores the ills that pertain to our social and political life, or the ideologies that guide that life and torment us, is hardly new. The Buddha’s stark approach to the social sphere and, and all of those tormenting political or ideological views and obsessions, was to renounce the former and then practice to let go of the latter. This approach to life does not appeal to everyone.


It would seem that Buddhism must please everyone and be everything to everyone. If not it’s a failure. People’s desires of one thing are innumerable and I wouldn’t be surprised if Buddhism can’t please even one person all of the time. You’d end up with a situation in which Buddhism is there in all but name. Anyone is free to do whatever they care to do but does it have to be under the Buddhism banner?


I had a quick look at ‘Nascent speculative non buddhism’ on research gate. In the conclusion at least, I think he is just saying ‘X Buddhism’ should be evaluated in the same way as cognitive psychology or neuroscience. X Buddhism being the particular brand.

Commendable effort Javier but I think Wallis is picking up on a few trends. For example ‘the thaumaturgic sangha’ -thaumaturgic meaning magical. I have had a long association with Sangha but now I question the need for this kind of dependence. It was emotionally based and it has not been a productive association. Bhante Sujato at least is offering a different approach with the development of this site so anyone can contribute ideas.

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