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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.