Sunday, June 24, 2012

Buddha estranged: Ruin & Glenn Wallis

I stumbled upon Glenn Wallis' music after I reviewed his compilation "Basic Teachings of the Buddha" on Amazon US. Far from the quick introduction that its title or brevity may suggest, it's a challenging, iconoclastic confrontation against speculation and "Buddhist Hybrid English" which interferes with our understanding of what the earliest Pali texts convey about dharma. Similarly, his hardcore punk ethic, as in the band interview at "The Worst Horse: The Sub- and Pop-Culture Buddhist Site" reveals Wallis and his Philadelphia comrades as committed--for Wallis from the age of fifteen--to a principled combination of outreach and testimony. Inspired not only by MC5, Stooges, and Motörhead, Ruin covered simpatico Leonard Cohen more than once, and they managed to edge towards rock during their stint from 1980-87, before debt wore them down.

I'd never heard of Ruin, although last year when reviewing for "Interface: A Journal of Social Movements" Gabriel Kuhn's straightedge-anarchist anthology Sober Living for the Revolution, I lamented in a footnote left out of its scholarly incarnation Kuhn's exclusion of any religious or spiritually oriented bands. A priori, as Kuhn set his nonsectarian sXe parameters, but I wondered how many punks had turned towards Buddhism, as some did to Krishnacore. I'd written recently on testimonies of Noah Levine's "dharma punx" and Brad Warner's "hardcore Zen." Levine's a decade behind me, recovery from his Santa Cruz skate-punk juvie-detox rite of passage underwritten as Asian Grand Tour. Warner emerged from mid-Ohio's collegiate shadows. Levine's return to dharma (his father's a prominent Taos teacher) seemed after his hardcore hijinks, while Warner's band Zero DFX appeared not to share his own direction, started when he'd started at Kent State. Back then, regions mattered. Philly or Akron's basement draws might stay "the unheard music" out here in L.A.

I found Wallis' own websites. I learned of his hardcore punk roots. A radio interview delves into Ruin's Nichiren practice, as of the (anti-)Reagan years. Two LPs, He Ho & Fiat Lux, languish out-of-print, along with an anthology. I searched online but it's vanished from MP3, impermanent.

I'm intrigued by his German and Harvard-trained, yet raw and passionate, approach as "an observer of Buddhism" towards a secularized, skeptical non-Buddhism aligned with my own academic formation and internal orientation. I agree with his warning that advises those new to Buddhism to take time to learn about it for a few years, and then to come back to his site. I make an analogy of a mature artist able to challenge the treasured canon after he's studied it lovingly--and rebelliously. 

Reviewing "Basic Teachings" (2007), I wrote how it jibed with my take on Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist." Now, I'm glad I read Batchelor first. Wallis today veers decisively away from any parallels to Batchelor; Wallis has contrasted "an aporetic-speculative argument with one that seeks to stoke Buddhism's charism." Both have stared down over decades the Pali texts; Wallis wearies of a secular search for canonical verity. He rejects the "recovery of a lost truth" by secular Buddhists and he rejects the historicity of its "Protagonist."

Wallis elaborates: "I think that I have arrived at my Speculative non-Buddhism view in large part because of the fact that it continually dawned on me that sitting—session after session, sesshin after sesshin—was empty of the complex representations that Buddhism insisted on." In an existential sit with my (similarly non-labeled if non-Buddhism="acid" and "subtraction" as Wallis sharpens his incisions into the dharmic subject) meditation mentor, albeit committed to the "recollective awareness" ("anupassana") of the Skillful Meditation Project, he mused: The Buddha uses [or he's ghostwritten with] language based on his experience. How do we express our distinct experience?

Wallis now rejects what he christens as adjective-laden "x-Buddhisms"--he identifies "buddhemes" as endemic labels with which we obscure its this-worldly teachings. Can dharma's syntax be "shorn of its transcendental representations"? He's sick of pursuing a "shell game" that keeps admiring its own reflection; he wants to shatter its illuminated mirror. It's an "archaic relic", a sop to modern vanity. He wants to "empty the dharmic dream". He prefers Charlotte Joko Beck's "no hope" and his own "unhitching" from the Buddhist bandwagon. He's "breaking apart the dharma raft," on a barren shore.

His eponymous website's files reveal speech and silence, "Ovenbird" his poetics and meditation. He confronts, after three decades-plus of practice, "this tedious tessalation called 'Buddhism.'" He links to his record of sound (see below). He penned an eloquent commentary on the "noble truths"[sic]. He's dogged but wry. He teaches "devastation". Peering into the SN-B arena, I've no dog (or bet) in this x-Buddhist fight. I like his self-summation: "The older I get, the more I shrug my shoulders."

My blogroll's added Speculative Non-Buddhism: creative criticism of Buddh-ism. This flips (a bird to) the paradigm. Wallis emphasizes in "Basic Teachings" the Buddha's sensory-grounded dharma, opposed to untenable speculation. Perhaps at times--as he and the Buddha warn--papañca proliferates on SN-B. Wallis calls that forum a stoa, where he's "interrogating a pathologically nice tyrant." The Buddha warned of the "fifth hindrance" of doubt, a "a tiger-infested journey" resolved by deepened commitment to dharma. Wallis' liberation from this path may draw critical inquirers to enter back into doubt's stream, unbewitched. SN-B delights in a call to "pump up the polemos" by ethical polemics.

Yes, Buddhism may roam anarchic. SN-B opens up a "what-if" thought experiment. The Buddha encouraged followers, once across the river, to abandon even the dharma, as a raft's burden. SN-B's seekers wish to reach the opposite shore, where they can "let the collapsed house lie in shambles"

Yet, might they drift in samsaric miasma back to the other shore where the rest of us shuffle? Wallis quotes Kafka: "Beyond a certain point there is no return. This point must be reached." Steve Hagen defines "the dark end of 'duhkha'--existential angst"; SN-B traffics in blunt dialogue. Harsh tonic, a fire alarm to wake us up. Dissidents explore an amplified, profane, if ludic, ens sacra. Lately, they wonder: “Can Buddhist practice be the one place where we are still allowed to open our eyes to the truths that shape our lives everyday? Can it teach us not to hide from the truth inside a cloud of incense, mindfully experiencing our bodily sensations?” Has Buddhism ultimately failed the human?

A gompa as mosh-pit, where Situationists, Crass, Beckett, and Heidegger resound as blooded participant-observers face off agonistically. Bob Mould wrote in his memoir (my review) how Hüsker Dü envisioned punk to be for such--shy spectacled misfits, the gays, the art crowd, those at the edge of the crowd--as much as L.A.'s mohawked who gatecrashed, in poses I stepped aside from, wearing glasses as I did, soon after. With a jolt, SN-B's an antidote to anemia. ("Ipecac"?) Its philosophical level's steeply elevated. Tenderfoot climbers seeking vertiginous vistas may not acclimate easily to its exposure at rarified heights. But we can gloss our topographical charts. We can call upon scholarly Sherpas as guides. Maps lure us, goad us, sway us into braving thinner altitudes.

SN-B's heuristics remind me of epistemological lamas shouting demystifying, dadaist disputations citing Slavoj Žižek more than Śāntarakṣita. Interlocutors extend Professor Wallis' investigation into what--or what does not-- underlie the "hybrid" formulations we've imported or imitated. Wallis delights in "theory-fiction" and his "Before You Read" demands to be done. Peeking out from my medievalist training and Irish-language regimen to suss out linguistic walls and gaps far from my native habitat, I admire Wallis' "lyrical and aggressive" direction into derivations, where they've blurred and warped over time and translation. These commodify the branded export of/as the Buddha.  Given my interest in how dharma's marketed and transmitted West (as in Ireland) via such "x-Buddhisms," adding my (post-)punk leanings, my lurking's a bracing if disorienting encounter.

The Existential Buddhist ("dharma without dogma") critiques Wallis' own "corrosive" SN-B claims; he and others respond over three weeks of testy inquiry, three Monty Python allusions; "Rainer" muses on Wallis' punk motivations among 95 comments nailed to EB's cyberdoor. Dana Nourie sums up "Basic Teachings" in the generous resources of the Secular Buddhist Association. After I drafted this, I found valuable, pointed debate in a SBA exchange via Stephen Schettini with SN-Bers (You can search its wordcloud for entries by Wallis, now a defector approaching escape velocity from any dharmic "vibrato" as I revise this draft. Again, as SN-B generates dozens or hundreds of comments per post, so I've been trying to keep up as comments replicate. I barely grasp the day's thread, before it unravels like Penelope's loom.) Before the Pali texts he rendered as "Basic Teachings" (advanced as they are), before his "pathless path" of aporia, Wallis translated the text that got him started decades ago, the Buddha's "verses on the way," as the Dhammapada, in rounded resonance.

I've reviewed Valerie Roebuck's didactic austerity in her Penguin edition in 2010. Wallis at anarchic fifteen had read the superseded Juan Mascaró version. If I had ruminated in a high school of a far different sort, what might I have pursued for my doctorate? I had glanced into the bardo early in my dissertation but I had to return from Tibetan "psychonauts" to Catholic Europe. Purgatory's ideological and literary echoes, still, resonate as my karmic what-ifs. Would I have blazed another trail earlier, East not West, with or without the jolt of first musical and then intellectual energy that punk's arrival sparked? Hard to tell, as my companion post confides, given I grew up next to a dog kennel by the rail tracks. Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O'Connor, Joyce, Kafka, Tolkien, Borges, Beckett: my ur-texts. Given my reluctance to limit or define myself now by any ideology, who knows. Did Warner or Levine in 80s hardcore forays cross-country know Wallis? They may've mentioned him in their memoir-accounts without my being clued in to Ruin or his later scholarship.

As for his band, Ruin reminds me of O.C.'s Adolescents' debut with anthemic, bucking, propulsion, while embedding--as if Martin Hannett-haunted--Mancunian post-punk shards honed into uneasy tempos, swaying lyrical shifts. Later emanations, gleaned from my limited access to a videostreamed 1986 show, demonstrate a Dead Kennedys lurch; reunion concerts resemble a lysergically enhanced Big Black--albeit clad in white. The glyph Wallis drew in a trance, spacing out at Temple U. in 1980 (I studied religious themes in lit at L.M.U. that same year: the design reminds me of not only the Aryan sun symbol but a solar wheel within "noble" Brighid's Imbolc cross/ Cros Bríd) is their logo.
Ruin opened once for Boston's own The Volcano Suns. Roaring, pummeling pop-punk; skewed, melodic, rambling, mocking albums mixing Mission of Burma's intelligence with raucous, sophomoric wit. And, is there a Buddhist nod(-off) in their title (cover below; see review) of record #2, "All Night Lotus Party"? Find out more in my next post as I dive into Ruin's shards, mornings after. He ho, let go.

"The Buddha, our guide, becomes a stranger;/ The Dharma, our doctor, goes mad;/ The Sangha, our friend, weaves bloody tapestries./ Might hidden treasure lie in ruins?/ Our ruin is a ruin because of treasure."
"The Pessimist Club" where Anonymous' post raves: "Ruin were incandescent. They were otherworldly -- phantoms, ghosts, bewildered gods. White clothes, black light, darkness, candles." And perhaps (not) again, being the same moniker, raves the soundboard guy at a reunion show: "they are a nuclear bomb brought to a knife fight.."

1 comment:

Matthew Joseph O'Connell said... Here's an interview with the man should anybody still be interested in the SNB project.