academia, Anne Monius, Glenn Wallis, Karl Barth, Melford Spiro, religion, Siddhattha Gotama (Buddha), Walpola Rahula
Glenn Wallis has recently produced a fascinating new piece of “Buddhist theology” called the Buddhist Manifesto. The document first strikes me for what it tells us about the process of writing about Buddhism today. Wallis, like me, was once a Buddhist-studies academic in a fairly standard mold: PhD from Harvard, assistant professor at the University of Georgia. (I was offered his old job at Georgia, and turned it down because the offer given would have required me to teach twice as many courses as he did, for less total pay and no chance of tenure.) I had read the major work he produced in that capacity: Mediating the Power of Buddhas, a study of a seventh-century Buddhist Sanskrit ritual text called the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa. Mediating the Power of Buddhas offers a close and careful reading of this particular text. But one is left wondering at the end: why was this written? It avoids historical context, attempting instead to “enter into the world” within the text, which makes it difficult to learn much from the study about the text’s historical period and its contemporaries (say, Śāntideva). But it also avoids constructive philosophical engagement with the text – asking how it might challenge our current ideas about the world and how to live in it. If one can get neither history nor constructive application from this study, what can one get from it?
My critique of Wallis’s older work is hardly limited to Wallis; one could make it about a great number of works produced in contemporary religious studies. Anne Monius encouraged her students to ask of the texts and rituals they study: “Why bother?” and “So what?” Why do people bother doing this, and what is its significance for their culture? What she never asked students was to turn those same questions on ourselves: ask of our own work, “Why bother?” and “So what?” But it seems to me like these are the most pressing questions to ask of a work like Mediating the Power of Buddhas.
No such problem exists in the Buddhist Manifesto! Here, we find a call to arms, a clear vision for Buddhist life and thought, intended to transform Buddhists’ own understanding of themselves and their tradition. And no surprise, Wallis published this after he left Georgia and took a position at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies – a new postsecondary institution focused on applied Buddhist teaching, the integration of Buddhist thought and practice. A document like this would have been laughed out of court in any of the major academic journals pertaining to Buddhism. From what I observed of Wallis’s old department at Georgia, if he had published this before receiving tenure there, I’m betting he never would have attained it.
I am delighted that Wallis has found an environment where he can speak up and say the things that really matter, and I am very encouraged that he has published the Buddhist Manifesto. In a spirit of sympathetic cooperation, I’d like to investigate some of its claims further.
The upshot of the document is to draw a distinction between “Gotama,” the original or ultimate Buddha, and “Buddha,” an imagined figure created by later tradition. It proceeds in what I think is the spirit of Walpola Rahula, attributing to Gotama a view that looks very much like what I have called Yavanayāna Buddhism: a heavy emphasis on meditation, and a criticism of “religion.” “Religion” here refers to the colourful rituals, stories, temples, paintings which everywhere form a component of Buddhism as it is practised, but which Wallis, like Rahula, takes to be inessential. (Wallis, with refreshing frankness, acknowledges the beauty of these “religious” phenomena but is concerned about them as a distraction from the more important projects of meditation and awakening: “I love it all! Don’t you? But can we ask: at what cost, our love?”)
But what makes this figure of Gotama; how is he different from the Buddha known to “religion”? What makes Wallis’s manifesto different, and what I think distinguishes him from the likes of Rahula, is that Wallis does not try to claim that his Gotama is the person we will find historically at the beginning of Buddhist tradition if we use academic historical methods to separate out the original from the later accretions. (He is moving away, then, from the kind of approach taken by the Jesus Seminar.) He recognizes that, given the data, such a project is likely not even possible:
I will begin by saying that I am not interested in the old philologists’ project of separating out the original (good) teachings of Gotama from later (bad) accretions. Given what we now know of the textual history of the Buddhist canons (e.g., that they are heavily edited translations of older oral compositions), that project is no longer viable. (p2)
But if not on the basis of historical accuracy, then on what ground do we separate “Gotama” from “Buddha” – and follow the former rather than the latter? As far as I can tell, Wallis identifies his fundamental premise, his first principle, as this: “Gotama was an unsurpassed scientist of the real.” Gotama, here, seems almost to be defined as that figure who had the most important things figured out. Most of what Wallis says takes off as demonstrative argument from this first principle. But why should we accept it? What is the dialectical argument that would lead us to this first principle?
Wallis says his premises – the one about Gotama above and those which follow from it, such as a distinction between Gotama and the traditional Buddha – are “obvious, fair, and accurate.” All of these terms are debatable; as my recent posts on “common sense” should indicate, I’m rather skeptical of appeals to the “obvious.” More important overall seems to be Wallis’s following claim for these premises: “They constitute our starting point as Buddhist practitioners.” (p3) And later he adds “It is so basic to Buddhism that it hardly requires comment.” (p5) Here Wallis’s strategy reminds me of Protestant theologian Karl Barth, who starts with the assumption that his readers are all Christians and doesn’t bother addressing any others, so that the fact of that Christianity can be the opening point for debate. Wallis, speaking to Buddhists, asks: what constitutes your Buddhism? What is the purpose and the point of it – and how much of your practice actually has to do with that purpose?
I daresay that most Buddhists throughout history, and even most Buddhists alive today, would identify their Buddhism very differently. One thinks perhaps of the Burmese Buddhists found in Melford Spiro’s anthropological study Buddhism and Society, for whom interactions of the Buddha were first about magic spells for mundane purposes and secondarily about acquiring good karma; awakening was a distant goal. Such Buddhists, I think, are in some sense the proper target for Wallis’s arguments. It would be fascinating to see their responses to claims like his – defending a more aesthetic or more ritualized Buddhism. So far, too much of that defence has been left to outsider scholars, people who do little more than point out the fact that far more Buddhists in history have been concerned with ritual and stories than with meditation. Wallis raises a fair point, which those scholarly works do little to answer: maybe those Buddhists are wrong.
“Gotama was an unsurpassed scientist of the real.”
The claim is absurdly bombastic and is affirmed without a particle of evidence!
“Unsurpassed scientist”? Gotama “the scientist” unsurpassed even by the likes of Copernicus, Newton, Pasteur, Einstein, and Jonas Salk? Certainly not!
“Scientist of the real” makes very little sense. There is no such thing as “the real”. There are many real things. Which real thing or category of real things was Gotama an “unsurpassed scientist” of? I have no clue!
A scientist, at the very least, makes a discovery of, or helps in the discovery of, a verifiable, hitherto unknown phenomenon, or a verifiable, hitherto unknown truth about a phenomenon. Gotama meets neither of these criteria for a scientist.
His claim that “life is suffering.” is an absurd identity statement. If he meant that suffering is a fact of life, that’s hardly a discovery, not to mention a scientific discovery. Any peasant in Kapilavastu would have known that suffering is a fact of life.
His claim that desire is the cause of suffering is also hardly a discovery. He seems to have committed a fallacy of causal thinking here. From the fact that I have a desire prior to an experience of suffering, it doesn’t follow that desire is the cause of suffering. If you explained to a peasant in Kapilavastu that his desire for rain caused the suffering produced by a season of famine, you would be guilty of a false cause fallacy.
If the second “noble truth” isn’t a case of false cause fallacy, it is certainly a case of hasty generalization since there are many cases of suffering which have nothing to do with desire.
Commonsense tells us that it is thwarted desire which causes some instances of suffering. And suffering varies in kind and strength depending on the kind and strength of thwarted desire. Commonsense also tells us that thwarted basic needs, e.g., for food, shelter, a mate, etc., also lead to suffering.
Commonsense tells us that there are instances of physical suffering or pain which are not caused by thwarted desire or need, e.g., a migraine, or an attack of neuralgia. These forms of intense pain or suffering have nothing to do with desire or need and everything to do with the structure of the body.
Desire, when fulfilled, is also the “cause” or a necessary condition for pleasure, enjoyment, and joy in many instances. So, if you get rid of desire (that’s not logically or psychologically feasible anyway!), you also get rid of some forms of pleasure, enjoyment, and joy.
The third “noble” truth claims that desire can be eliminated, and that, therefore, suffering can be eliminated. Here we have a false premise and a non-sequitur. Desire cannot be eliminated because there are too many of them and their occurrence is not always under our control. We don’t chose to have all desires we have. We just have some of them, in just the way we just have certain feelings, due to factors beyond our control.
Further, even if we could eliminate desire, that would not put an end to all suffering since many intense forms of physical suffering have nothing to do with desire. The Buddha’s own case of suffering and dying from dysentery proves this if we assume that he “eliminated” all desires!
In fact, that assumption is false. He had a desire to found a “sangha” and propagate the “dhamma”. He had a desire to show others the path to “nibbana”. He had an aversion ( a desire not to have or do something) to admitting women to his “sangha”, and so on. The physician himself is a walking example of the falsity of the proposed cure!
The fourth “noble” truth requires for its practice a whole brood of desires! Enough said about it!
Perhaps, Glenn Wallis could consider urging the Nobel Foundation to award a posthumous Nobel prize to Gotama for being an “unsurpassed scientist” in the venerable field of “the real”!
Amod Lele said:
I see you’re still relying on “commonsense” here, Thill, which, as usual, is neither common nor sensible. “Commonsense” as you have defined it tells us nothing of importance, and I see little reason left to listen to any further points that rely on it in their reasoning. This was an important reason for my series of four posts on the subject; I wanted to give the subject the investigation it deserves. But based on your comments there, I am increasingly thinking that the concept as you define it means nothing at all.
In the comment in which you define “common sense” at greatest length, you offer three different things that it coud refer to, with no discussion of how they relate to each other or add up to a single coherent concept. (If you cite “family resemblances” as a reason to use the concept anyway, you will do a lot to convince me that Wittgenstein is a noxious toxin that should be expunged from philosophy at all costs.) Even if we are to assume subscript points to clarify that one of those meanings is being used, it still does little to help us. To go back to the example which you have yet to answer, it is an evident “fact” about the natural world (commonsense1) that the sun goes up and goes down. It is also a wrong “fact.” Either common sense tells us the sun does rise and set, in which case common sense can easily be mistaken and the fact of a statement’s being common sense is a useless point that tells us nothing of its truth, or common sense merely tells us that the sun appears to rise and set, in which case philosophy merely needs a theory of error to explain common sense and the errors it produces (such as the false belief in sunrise and sunset that derive from this appearance).
In either case, what “commonsense tells us” is worthy of suspicion. We learn no more from the sentence “Commonsense tells us that there are instances of physical suffering or pain which are not caused by thwarted desire or need, e.g., a migraine, or an attack of neuralgia.” than we learn from the sentence “There are instances of physical suffering or pain which are not caused by thwarted desire or need, e.g., a migraine, or an attack of neuralgia.”
And yes, I know I haven’t said anything about the substance of your comment here (for indeed you could delete that troublesome phrase and the main point would stand), but this point seemed worth pressing on.
Amod, I think we need to resolve the “commonsense question” and move forward with the inquiry at hand.
Your main objection seems to be that commonsense is not infallible. As you put it, “common sense can easily be mistaken and the fact of a statement’s being common sense is a useless point that tells us nothing of its truth…”.
If something is not infallible, does this entail that it is not reliable?
Compare the objection that ordinary, normal perception is not infallible, i.e., what we see may not exist, raised against an appeal to perception to determine whether there one glass of wine or two glasses of wine in front of us!
But the fact that perception is not infallible, that there are optical illusions and so on, does not entail that what you are perceiving now is an optical illusion. It is surely logically possible that what you are perceiving now is an optical illusion, but this has no importance whatsoever in this context.
Does the fact that perception is not infallible, that there are optical illusions and so on, render it probable that what we are perceiving now is an optical illusion?
Not at all! To make a good inductive argument here, your sample size must be good enough and it is not. Optical illusions in the real world are rare. That’s why they are striking. They stand out against a backdrop of overwhelming number of examples of the veracity of ordinary, normal perception! Hence, the fact that ordinary, normal perception is occasionally “out of sync” with reality does not even make it probable that our perception now is “out of sync” with reality.
All this applies mutatis mutandis to the reliability of commonsense! The fact that it is not infallible does not support the conclusion that it is not reliable!
I admit that my concept of common sense is broad, but I think that it does justice to the complexity of that concept.
I had grouped under the rubric of “commonsense” three distinct sets of elements based on some of the senses in which we use “common sense” in English: a) ordinary knowledge,
b) ordinary ways of knowing (perception or observation, reasoning by simple deduction and induction
c) ordinary standards of reasonableness (“street smartness”, elementary prudence, proverbial wisdom).
I use “ordinary” here in contrast to, but not necessarily in opposition to, “special”, or that which is based on special training, e.g., items of scientific, technological, or aesthetic knowledge, scientific, technological, or aesthetic ways of knowing, and scientific, technological, or aesthetic standards of reasonableness. I also use “ordinary” in contrast to and necessarily in opposition to “extraordinary”, or that which runs counter to the ordinary, e.g., the paranormal or supernatural, ESP.
Thus, to say that “common sense tells us that P” implies that we don’t need special scientific, technological, or aesthetic training, or paranormal perception to know that P. Hence, it is not a vacuous claim.
Amod: “the fact of a statement’s being common sense is a useless point that tells us nothing of its truth…”
This is contrary to ordinary usage of “common sense” in which to say that P is “common sense” is to say that it is senseless to doubt or challenge P. But is this ordinary usage of “common sense” justified?
An appeal to common sense, i.e., ordinary knowledge, ordinary ways of knowing, and ordinary wisdom, does tell us, in W’s parlance, that we have reached “rock bottom” in our process of justification of a claim or proposal and that, therefore, “our spade is turned” when we try to dig further.
Unless we have evidence or good reasons to the contrary, the appeal to common sense in defense of a claim or proposal implies that the claim is reliable or plausible and that the proposal is practically sound.
If follows that if a claim or proposal contradicts common sense, the burden of proof is squarely on those who advance that claim or proposal.
michael reidy said:
It were an atrocious pun but a true report to call Glenn’s essay a pallid canon. Behold the exsanguinate Buddha, no fainting arhats, no twirling flower, no dakinis, no nothing. Of course they would be still there as cultural markers but without the force of supernatural beliefs which gave rise to them in the first instance. Meet Mr. Boodha, teacher of meditation, pastor of a clear light chapel of self-improvement.
Scientist of the real, a singularly inapt metaphor since the ‘real’ is unknowable in that tradition – gate gate, parasamgate. He is not to be girded with the alb of investiture, the white coat of true science, a small matter of subjectivity or something. Catch that fainting arhat.
Amod Lele said:
Well, the “maybe” in the last sentence is important: I’m not saying in this post that a traditional aesthetic or ritual Buddhism is wrong, but that the weak defences of Buddhist-studies scholars do little to support the contrary view. I think it is very important that someone – especially someone with good academic credentials like Wallis – come out and advance this position. I would like to see more actual Buddhists come out and defend the traditional rites – in a way that actually responds to arguments like Wallis’s. I haven’t seen that yet. Maybe I haven’t been looking enough.
You may be genuinely startled to know that Wittgenstein would be your best ally on this point! LOL
According to W, the ritualistic contexts of “religion”, among other contexts of religious practice, endow many religious claims with a meaning and significance they would lack divorced from those contexts.
I walk the line between Michael Reidy and Amod Lele, here. A culture that would cultivate awakening cannot divest itself of all the rites, because sans rite there is no vehicle for awakening. But one cannot mistake the rite for the goal. I am (as I understand you, Amod) in agreement with you that reducing Buddhism to anthropology is a big yawn. But we are human beings, and we sort lentils and make pottery and beget children; these are either dross to be ignored or raw material to be transmuted.
Amod Lele said:
I’m not sure that “sans rite there is no vehicle for awakening” – depending, at least, on how narrowly one defines “rite.” If one identifies meditation as a rite, Wallis is not criticizing that rite, at least. Monasticism might play a similar role, more directly related. But the colourful temples and the chanting and the jātaka stories – do we need those to be awakened? Maybe not.
On the other hand, something would surely be lost without them. In theory, Buddhism proclaims itself, more or less, to be a pure Ascent tradition, especially in the non-Mahāyāna. But in practice, the aesthetic pleasures of the Buddhist world – for which Wallis understandably proclaims his love – seem much more at home in a Descent that celebrates this world and its various pleasures. If the only sensible purpose in a human life is to rid oneself (and/or others) of suffering – as so many classical Buddhist texts suggest if not proclaim outright – I agree with Wallis that these things may not be conducive to that goal. But perhaps those texts too are wrong, and some worldly pleasures are worthy ends in themselves even if they end in suffering or nonexistence.
Is it sensible to set oneself the goal of overcoming suffering? Experiences of suffering at some time or other, and due to some cause or other, are inevitable for any complex form of life capable of feeling pain. Hence, it is absurd to seek to overcome suffering either for oneself and/or for others.
As Wittgenstein remarked in the Investigations, grief or suffering is “a pattern which recurs with different variations in the tapestry of life”. “May All Sentient Beings Be Free of Pain!” is, unfortunately, an absurd wish because it will never be fulfilled.
“…some worldly pleasures are worthy ends in themselves..”
Yes, and some pleasures, e.g., enjoyment of great art, are solvents for suffering!
I found the Wallis article neither a scholarly article nor an article much informed by Buddhist practice. As far as I can tell, it is in the spirit of the views of Westerners from the 19th century who would call Tibetan Buddhist practitioners “Lamaists” and view Tibetan Buddhism as a corruption of “true” Buddhist teachings. Or, more charitably, the views of someone like Edward Conze who is devoted to one school (such as Mahayana in Conze’s case) to the exclusion of others.
It is too bad because there is a subject here that is worth discussing. The actual core of Buddhist teachings is so simple and the process of Buddhist practice is a “letting go” and recognition of things “as they are”. This is surprisingly difficult to do. And the experience of “emptiness” in meditation is so inspiring and transforming that it can generate an attachment that becomes an obstacle. The attachment can affect institutions as well as individuals. There is a wonderful young Tibetan teacher, Anam Thupden, who analogizes the experience of emptiness to ringing a bell — the emptiness is the sound. Then the attachment to the experience is like venerating the bell and wrapping the bell in brocade — it can then no longer make a sound. Ritual can be like that.
But Wallis’ article doesn’t really appreciate this. He takes a very narrow view of what qualifies as meditation and a selective view of what is Buddhist teaching of substance and what is “flamboyant ritualism”. Wallis goes so far as to entirely dismiss the fundamental Buddhist concept of “upaya” or “skillful means” as a “clever ploy” designed to allow later generations of practioners to say and do “whatever they wanted” and to disregard Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings.
Then he goes on to reject the whole of Mahayana teachings and Vajrayana teachings — throwing out thousands of years of history of the Buddhist cultures of Japan, Vietnam and Tibet with with a wave of the hand. I’m afraid I have to say that the article is an embarrassment and Wallis seems to be something of an idiot.
I found mildly amusing, albeit simplistic and too snarkily-“gotcha”, this video:
which does a little disenchanting to drive home the point that Buddhism (or rather, Gelug Tibetan Buddhism, to be specific) is not just, as Wallis complains people seem to think, “anything goes.”
michael reidy said:
In its own way Glenn’s exercise is an attempt at decluttering or getting back to basics. This tendency arises in every religion, it’s the move towards radical simplicity. The Quakers are the exemplars for the Christian tradition, it’s just you and the Holy Spirit, which makes them barely Christian strictly speaking. The Hindu Brahmo Samaj was an attempt to get the proliferation of gods under control but it never really took. Just take a look at the gopuram of any temple. Judaism in the Reformed version eschews the regulations of the Orthodox but there’s plenty left over. Even the agnostics and the atheists have their rituals, their good books and papers, political correctness as the liturgy of the left. But to remove the supernatural from religion is like a bread recipe that leaves out flour.
Amod Lele said:
Or is it like a cake recipe that leaves out flour? That’s delicious!
MR: “But to remove the supernatural from religion is like a bread recipe that leaves out flour.”
Or like removing gimmicks from a circus! You will be performing to an empty hall without those gimmicks!
There are deadly and atrocious consequences associated with these supernatural “gimmicks” of religion. I just read in the news that 40 people were stoned, hacked to death, and burned in the streets in Haiti because they were suspected of being Voodoo priests responsible for the Cholera outbreak in that unfortunate country. You can read more here:
Woolly-headed liberal romanticism about Voodoo apart, there are deadly consequences flowing from those sorts of irrational beliefs in the supernatural. There has been a rise in killings of those suspected of using Voodoo to spread cholera in Haiti.
For the latest info on this, go to
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“(I was offered his old job at Georgia, and turned it down because the offer given would have required me to teach twice as many courses as he did, for less total pay and no chance of tenure.)”
You turned down a job offer? Are you kidding? I hope you realize or remind yourself of the grim and brutal academic job market realities facing those with terminal degrees in their disciplines. There are many with PhD’s from prestigious schools and programs who will probably never find a tenure-track position in a university or college in their lifetimes! Ponder this prospect deeply! Indeed, it is not absurd to forecast that within a decade or so tenure itself will become a thing of the past!
If you are at all interested in ensuring that your time, effort, and commitment to obtaining a terminal degree in your discipline is not a waste in practical terms, and, again, bearing in mind that a failure to land a tenure-track position for the rest of one’s life is a likely outcome for so many, I would gravely suggest that you take the first reasonably good tenure-track job offer which comes your way!
Amod Lele said:
Two responses to this, Jabali108.
First, that offer was one of four I received that year, so there was no choice but to turn down at least three of them. None of these offers was tenure-track. The offer for Wallis’s job at Georgia was the only one that lasted more than a year; but the university was still free to dismiss me at any time without cause. Given the economic climate that quickly followed (this was early 2008) and the obvious penny-piching involved in creating the job in the first place, I would be surprised if that job even still exists now. I would very likely have accepted the Georgia offer if I had not had any others. But two of the other positions I was offered, despite being for only a year, offered me far more favourable terms.
Second, and far more fundamentally, at this point I am hoping that my PhD is a “waste in practical terms.” Almost everything you say about the job market (grim and brutal, tenure becoming a thing of the past, etc.) is entirely true, and that is exactly why I have now decided to wash my hands of the whole endeavour. I look forward to living a healthy human life whose conditions I can choose, not an overworked and underpaid life thousands of miles away from everyone I love; and to acquiring skills valued enough that I can be treated with dignity and respect for them. I don’t regret my PhD at all; it has given me the chance to pursue the philosophical reflection that I love, in venues such as this. But I no longer think of it as having any of the practical employment benefits in which, it seems, North Americans tend to assess every human activity. A humanities PhD is a wonderful opportunity to spend many enjoyable if hardscrabble years thinking about the things one loves most. But to my earlier self who thought a humanities PhD would be worth it for its practical employment value, and to anyone else who still thinks such a thing, I must ask: how can someone so smart be so dumb?
More thoughts on these matters here and here.
I can assure you based on personal experience with alternatives that if one’s goal in going for a PhD is to pursue a vocation of teaching and research (and it is not necessary that this research issues forth in papers for publication in academic journals) in conditions of reasonable financial security and an enviable annual amount of leisure, then an academic appointment leading to tenure, whatever its challenges and drawbacks, is the best fit.
It is also important to free oneself from subjection to the assumption that the “research-oriented” four year college or university is the best fit.
Having taught at a wide range of institutions, I know that not all institutions pursue or enforce a publish or perish policy when it comes to tenure. There are many institutions which give primacy to teaching. Some also offer flexibility in the choice of one’s teaching modality (online, hybrid, etc) and schedule. Some institutions only require that you teach a certain amount of sections and don’t mind if you teach only two courses per semester each with a couple of sections. This certainly gives one plenty of time to pursue research interests.
Don’t forget the benefits of a sabbatical, funding for research and attendance at conferences, or seminars, summer institutes, etc.
The advantages of an academic appointment in an institution which offers these benefits and others mentioned earlier outweigh those of many alternatives if you are interested in a living a life devoted to scholarly and contemplative pursuits.
To abandon the search, however arduous or harrowing it may be in the present, for this sort of an appointment is an abdication of prudence.
In order to surmount the treacherous barriers on the way to the groves of academe of the Mleccha and find one’s niche within it, I think Chanakya, rather than Santideva, would have a great deal of relevance.