01 September 2016

Me and Glenn Wallis

I wrote this on Google+ in 2014 and updated it in 2016. I felt it was important to me to record my encounter with Glenn Wallis. I'm republishing it here to make it easier for me to find.


30 march 2014. I happened to notice this morning that the inimitable Glenn Wallis had devoted a blog post to lambasting me and my approach to Buddhism in Feb 2014. It was not always so. Glenn and I started corresponding sometime around 2008 (the surviving emails I have from him date from then). In May 2008 he wrote:
"I just checked your blogspot. Really wonderful -- informed,  intelligent, thought-provoking. I will be experimenting with  the form for a while. I am hoping (but, I have to admit,  somewhat doubtful) that I'll form some sort of  critically responsible community. We''l see." [sic]
"Hope to stay in touch with you. And I look forward to  digging in to your essays more deeply."
He contacted me. He cultivated my friendship. It was flattering, as I still thought of him as an academic and I still generally admired academics at the time, and still had some kind of academic aspirations myself.

We did keep in touch. In 2011 he passed on an opportunity to write a commissioned article in a journal, thus allowing me to be published in his stead. His email of 23 Sep 2011 read:
"Greetings my friend! I wonder if you might be interested in taking on the following assignment. I was asked to write a response, in an ecumenical journal, to a Christian trying to make sense of anatman vis a vis "personalist spirituality." I am attaching the article; see below for the instructions for the response. If you would like to do it, I will recommend you to the editor. I don't won't to do it because I cannot in good faith represent a Buddhist perspective."
This became the article:
'Facing Death without a Soul: A Response to George Adams'. Journal of Ecumenical Studies. 47(2) 2012: 282-287.
I asked for his feedback on my essay before finally submitting it to JES and he wrote back (31 Oct 2011):
"I like the presentation of your response to Adam's. It's sharp, focused, clipped to the essentials, bright. You were much more generous to him than I felt inclined to be; though that is not to say that you don't tell him--and your readers--where he has gone wrong."
"Thanks for taking on the assignment, and for proving to the editors my claim of your mastery (like the craftsman, remember?)"

Again, it was all very flattering.

The article was commissioned a few months after Glenn started Speculative Non-Buddhism, his blog criticising BuddhistsOne of the first posts on SNB was an enthusiastic recommendation of my blog and in particular my post looking at the work of Thomas Metzinger. And as I read the recent denunciation of me, I felt a bit nostalgic. I went looking for that blog post of his and could not find it. It does not appear on the list of posts on the present blog. Fortunately the internet archive do have a copy. It was published on May 4, 2011: https://web.archive.org/web/20111030052200/http://speculativenonbuddhism.com/tag/jayarava/ 

At that time my blog also featured in the "blogroll" in the sidebar of SNB. I was nominally part of the incrowd. At the time my work was tagged as "Comparativists, Constructivists ". The new critical post is filed under "Critics, Interpreters, Speculative Non-Buddhist, True Believers." And it's not me that is the Speculative Non-Buddhist or Critic in this case.

I never really got what SNB was about. I never understood the arguments - they were and are couched in relentlessly elitist and obscurantist terms. I never understood the hostility involved in the debates. I never understood the rage against a system that, to the best of my knowledge, has done no harm to him. Indeed it's furnished Glenn with a career (As far as I know he continues to teach Buddhism)! But having someone like Glenn cultivate my acquaintance was flattering so I hung around and tried to engage. After all we were both critics of traditional Buddhism, we ought to be able to find common ground, right? I commented and to begin with met with a certain amount of indulgence.

As time went on Glenn seemed to become more and more concerned with not being understood and not being heard. He became more strident and vehement. The discussion frequently became entrenched and then there was no possibility of dialogue. There was all the durm und strang and inflation of any lone revolutionary. Glenn rejected the thoughts of all but a chosen few. Often he and his sidekick, Tom Pepper, often resorted to personal abuse, dropping any pretence of intellectual discussion. Others followed the leaders. After a year or so I found I could not participate at all without being met with abusive personal comments. Pepper would simply start abusing me as soon as I made any comment whatever. I'd gone from golden boy to leper, though without any great change on my part.

In 2013 Glenn complained about being banned from the Secular Buddhist Association website and blocked by the Twitter accounts of mainstream teachers. He had been trolling SBA and I guess Ted, who runs the site, had just got sick of it. Glenn obviously had no interest in furthering the aims of SBA and he was unwilling to argue on any but his own terms. He just wanted to tell everyone that they were wrong, and "fucking stupid" to be wrong and not realise it. It's quite a tedious and puerile stance to take. I wouldn't want that in my online community either.

I happened to read that complaint and made a few comments in response. I took the dismissive tone that Glenn routinely used with others and found that it was extremely unwelcome. He was clearly enraged by my comments. It was a real mistake to assume that because he was routinely rude and contemptuous of others, that he would not have a typical human response to being treated that way himself (and therein is a powerful life lesson!). He actually pursued me beyond the comments on his blog post, posting personal abuse on Twitter, so that I too blocked his account. And from my end made a complete break with him and his fellow SNBs.

I'm not sure at what point Glenn deleted his recommendation of my blog and removed the link to it from the blogroll. But sometime in the last couple of years he tried to eliminate any impression that I might once have been considered worthy of a pat on the back.

I think I can say that I am known for my polemical and iconoclastic writing as much as anything. My blog has long been about challenging traditional Buddhism and consciously coming terms with modernity - at least since Professor Gombrich opened my eyes to a whole new world when I attended his Numata lectures in late 2006. I know that I have a small following for this reason and it's probably why Glenn was attracted to my writing in the first place. Since 2005 I've published almost 500 essays. I have no illusions about being a great scholar, but I'm confident in my body of work and stand by it. So I'm not too bothered if Glenn doesn't like me any more or criticises me these days. The fact that he wants to disavow his earlier connection is quite funny really.

I think perhaps Glenn saw my critical methods as directed towards anarchy. They are not. One or two other rebels have made this mistake in the past and been angry with me as a result. I'm happy to call myself a Buddhist and to be a member of a Buddhist Order. It helps to give my life structure and meaning. And my life is always in need of order, structure and meaning. Without it I'd be a goner. Literally.  I'm grateful for the good things I get from my association with the Triratna Order and try to be tolerant of the bad. It's not always easy, but I'm committed. For life. I'd certainly like to reform Buddhism, reform the Triratna Order, and claim a place at the table of serious commentators on Buddhism. But as a Buddhist. Not as a non-Buddhist. I'm quite comfortable with this, so I don't feel the need to make common cause with secular Buddhists or with speculative non-Buddhists or lone vigilante internet Buddhists. I plough my own furrow, within the field of the Triratna Buddhist Order. I'm not apologising or asking permission. My writing stands on its own merits.

I'm not much interested in evangelism either. I don't care if other people want to take up my lifestyle. I don't live this way because I think it's best for everyone, I do it because all things considered, it's best for me. I have constraints that don't apply to most people, but I don't talk about it much and most people on the internet don't seem much interested in me as a person so it doesn't come up. In a way I'm happier writing about ideas anyway.

I wanted to note these thoughts down somewhere other people could read them. To put Glenn's antipathy in context from my point of view. To note that once he was an admirer and perhaps even a kind of virtual friend. I find it a bit sad to now be just another target for his futile rants. But such is life.

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