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Buddhadharma : Spring 2019
110 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY The ambitious scope of Wallis’ critique is really in some sense to free Buddhism from itself. Wallis proclaims that, “‘Bud- dhism’ indexes an historical failure to unleash the force of its very own thought.” That is to say, Wallis asserts that despite the radically liberatory potential of Bud- dhist insights into reality, these potentials are lost when Buddhism becomes just another form of ideology, another system of philosophy. Wallis charges that Bud- dhist thinkers dangle the transformational recognition of emptiness, selflessness, and suffering–desire as core features of reality, turning those terms into what Wallis, fol- lowing Laruelle, calls “first name[s] of the Real.” Yet despite the fact that Western Buddhism “possesses consequential Real concepts for critiquing ‘own experience,’ or, in a Buddhist idiom, for seeing things as they are,” Wallis says that Western Buddhist figures “exhibit a curious habit of evading the full consequences of these concepts.” Wallis asserts that this is “not merely an occasional lapse. It is, rather, a defin- ing feature of Western Buddhist identity.” Moreover, he says, “The outcome of this habitual evasion is effectively to nullify the concepts’ theoretical or critical func- tion, rendering Western Buddhism as little more than a one-dimensional self-help fix.” In Wallis’ estimation, Western Bud- dhist thinkers inevitably, even congenitally, turn back from direct insight into the Real. In so doing, they domesticate Buddhism’s critical concepts, turning even “emptiness” (shunyata) into a tool for promoting “well- ness,” or finding one’s place within the sys- tems of domination in which we currently live. Wallis therefore articulates his mission in this book as helping Buddhists “recover that critical function.” Wallis identifies some exceptions to his damning indictment of the “failure” of Buddhist thought. For instance, he sug- gests that certain Chan and Zen masters cut to the heart of the matter he wishes to address. He gives a shout out to Dr. B. R. Ambedkar as an example of someone who used a particular imagined vision of Bud- dhism (a Buddhist “World”) in an emanci- patory way. Nevertheless, Wallis repeatedly returns to his core assertion that “‘Bud- dhism’... names an obstinate containment of potentially vital human goods. The end result is that Buddhism everywhere func- tions as a conservative protector of the social status quo, however toxic, and as an ideological fortress spawning subjects whose treasured goal certainly appears to be to remain unscathed—in some sense or another—by life’s vicissitudes.” Problematically and confoundingly, however, Wallis seems to want to apply this critique not only to the spokespersons of Western Buddhism who are his initial targets, but to something less historically or socially specific that he calls “Bud- dhism.” It is of course a familiar point that there is no single “Buddhism,” and that the many Buddhisms in the world, both living and historical, host diverse philosophical, commentarial, social, and ritual possibili- ties. Wallis himself repeatedly notes this fact. But he explicitly insists that he wants to dig below what he sees as the particular- ist evasions often offered by Western Bud- dhists and scholars of Buddhism to get at what he sees as a core Buddhist philosophi- cal problem. He wants his critique to stick, and he warns readers (if not in so many words) not be tricked by Western Buddhist apologists bearing details. Yet this principled position leads Wallis to eschew particularity (of people, stories,