Sunday, August 09, 2009

Stephen Batchelor - Buddhism and Postmodernity

Here is a great article from Stephen Batchelor on the emergence of a post-modern Buddhism in the west. I tend to agree with Batchelor on his vision of Buddhism without the religious elements, although I know a lot of other Buddhists have issues with that approach.

After reading this article, go check out his interview with pseudo-guru Andrew Cohen - it's quite fun to see Cohen trying to push his version of enlightenment and Batchelor shoot it down. It's clear who the "real" teacher is in this discussion.

Buddhism and Postmodernity

This essay appears as part of “The Other Enlightenment Project,”Stephen’s contribution to Ursula King (ed.). Faith and Praxis in a Postmodern Age. London: Cassell, 1998. It was first delivered as a paper at a conference celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Bristol.

A postmodern world that takes for granted the plurality and ambiguity of perception, the fragmented and contingent nature of reality, the elusive, indeterminate nature of self, the arbitrariness, inauthenticity and anguish of human existence, would seem to fit Buddhism like a glove. Yet this is nothing new. Western advocates of Buddhism, from Schopenhauer onwards, have all tended to be impressed by the compatibility of its doctrines with their own way of seeing the world.1 Kantians saw the views of Kant in Buddhism, Logical Positivists those of Bertrand Russell, just as today Deconstructionists behold the unravellings of Jacques Derrida. Within the last hundred years the teachings of the Buddha have confirmed the views of theosophists, fascists, environmentalists and quantum physicists alike. Then is Buddhism just an exotic morass of incompatible ideas, a ‘Babylon of doctrines’ as the 16th century missionary Matteo Ricci suspected? Or is this another illustration of the Buddha’s parable of the blind men who variously interpret an elephant as a pillar, a wall, a rope or a tube depending on which bit of the animal’s anatomy they clutch? There may well be as many kinds of Buddhism as there are ways the Western mind has to apprehend it. In each case ‘Buddhism’ denotes something else. But what is it really? The answer: nothing you can put your finger on. To fix the elephant in either time or space is to kill her. The elephant is both empty and perplexing. She breathes and moves--in ways no one can foresee.

This fluidity has enabled Buddhism throughout its history to cross cultural frontiers and adapt itself creatively to situations quite different from those in its lands of origin on the Indian sub-continent. (The most striking example being that of its movement nearly two thousand years ago to China.) This creative process requires Buddhism to imagine itself as something different. It entails adopting compatible elements from the new host culture while at the same time critiquing elements of that culture which are at odds with its own Buddhist values. So it is hardly surprising that Buddhists today would not instinctively home in on elements of postmodernity that resonate with their own understanding of the Dharma. The danger is that, for the sake of appearing ‘relevant,’ they sacrifice the equally vital need to retain a lucid, critical perspective.

The element of postmodernity that potentially promises Buddhist voices access to contemporary culture is implicit in Jean-François Lyotard’s simplified but seminal definition of ‘postmodern’ as ‘incredulity toward grand narratives.’2 The grandest of all these grand narratives for Lyotard and others is the European Enlightenment Project itself: the certainty of human progress through reason and science, which began in the 18th century. As soon as conviction in this myth wavers, a host of other assumptions are thrown into question. Through focusing on change and uncertainty rather than assured continuity, through emphasizing contingency, ambivalence and plurality, postmodern thinkers have come to hear voices of the Other: those the Enlightenment Project has either suppressed, ignored, or disdained: women, citizens of the Third World, non-European systems of thought such as Buddhism.

As a Buddhist I find myself reading erudite texts on themes such as the nature of the ‘self,’ which explore ideas quite familiar to me as a Buddhist yet fail to make even a passing reference to the fact that this kind of analysis and discourse has been pursued in Asia for more than two thousand years. I sense at these times what women must feel about texts that blithely assume a male perspective as normative. The habit of treating the ‘East’ as Other is a deeply engrained European trait that goes back at least as far as Euripedes and is ironically perpetuated even by postmodern writers. Yet there are signs of change. After the usual Eurocentric analysis, Galen Strawson concludes in a recent article, ‘The Sense of the Self:’ ‘Perhaps the best account of the existence of the self is one that may be given by certain Buddhists.’3 Note the hesitation: ‘Perhaps...,’ ‘...may be...,’ ‘...certain Buddhists...’ (not all of them of course).

Whatever features of postmodernity may be apparent in Buddhism, it would be foolish to describe Buddhist thought as ‘postmodern’ -- for the simple reason that Buddhism has undergone no phase of modernity to be ‘post’ of. Buddhist cultures have evolved according to the grand narrative of their own Enlightenment Project. Consequently, two broad but opposing trends can be seen in the way Buddhism encounters contemporary Western culture.

In recognizing, on the one hand, the breakdown of the grand narratives of the West, Buddhists might seek to replace them with their own grand narrative of enlightenment. This is explicit in the stated goals of at least two of the most successful Buddhist movements in Britain today: the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), who aim to create a ‘New Society’ founded on Buddhist principles, and Soka Gakkai International (SGI), who seek to realize ‘Kosen Rufu’ -- the worldwide spread of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism.4 Although both organizations are contemporary reformed Buddhist movements, from a postmodern perspective they remain entranced by the legitimating myth of a grand narrative that promises universal emancipation. If a defining trait of our times is indeed widespread loss of credibility in such narratives and their inability any longer to compel consensus, then such ambitions may be doomed to frustration.

Yet, on the other hand, if Buddhists find themselves in sympathy with postmodern incredulity towards grand narratives, then they might be compelled to imagine another kind of Buddhism altogether. They will try to rearticulate the guiding metaphors of Buddhist tradition in the light of postmodernity. An attitude of incredulity would itself tend to resonate more with the metaphor of wilderness than with that of path, with the possibilities of unbounded landscape as opposed to the secure confinement of a highway.

The key notion in such an endeavour would be ‘emptiness.’ For here we have a notion that shares with postmodernism a deep suspicion of a single, non-fragmentary self, as well as any ‘transcendental signified’ such as God or Mind. It too celebrates the disappearance of the subject, the endlessly deferred play of language, the ironically ambiguous and contingent nature of things. Yet in other respects it parts company with the prevailing discourses of postmodernity. Meditation on emptiness is not a mere intellectual exercise, but a contemplative discipline rooted in an ethical commitment to non-violence. It is not just a description in unsentimental language of the way reality unfolds, it offers a therapeutic approach to the dilemma of human anguish.

Proponents of the doctrine of emptiness, at least from the time of Nagarjuna, have been subjected to the same kind of criticism as postmodernists receive today. They too have stood accused of nihilism, relativism, and undermining the basis for morality and religious belief. And not only from non-Buddhists; the concept of emptiness is still criticized within the Buddhist tradition itself.5 The history of the idea of emptiness has been the history of the struggle to demonstrate that far from undermining an ethical and authentic way of life, such a life is actually realized through embracing the implications of emptiness.

The emptiness of self, for instance, is not the denial of individual uniqueness, but the denial of any permanent, partless and transcendent basis for individuality. The anguish and uncertainty of human existence are only exacerbated by the pre-conceptual, spasm-like grip in which such assumptions of transcendence hold us. While seeming to offer security in the midst of an unpredictable and transient world, paradoxically this grip generates an anxious alienation from the processes of life itself. The aim of Buddhist meditations on change, uncertainty and emptiness are to help one understand and accept these dimensions of existence and thus gently lead to releasing the grip.

By paying mindful attention to the sensory immediacy of experience, we realize how we are created, moulded, formed by a bewildering matrix of contingencies that continually arise and vanish. On reflection, we see how we are formed from the patterning of the DNA derived from our parents, the firing of a hundred billion neurons in our brains, the cultural and historical conditioning of the twentieth century, the education and upbringing given us, all the experiences we have ever had and choices we have ever made. These processes conspire to configure the unrepeatable trajectory that culminates in this present moment. What is here now is the unique but shifting impression left by all of this, which I call ‘me.’

Moreover, this gradual dissolution of a transcendental basis for self nurtures an empathetic relationship with others. The grip of self not only leads to alienation but numbs one to the anguish of others. Heartfelt appreciation of our own contingency enables us to recognize our inter-relatedness with other equally contingent forms of life. We find that we are not isolated units but participants in the creation of an ongoing, shared reality.

A postmodern perspective would question the mythic status of Buddhism and Agnosticism. In letting go of ‘Buddhism’ as a grand, totalizing narrative that explains everything, we are freed to embark on the unfolding of our own individuation in the context of specific local and global communities. We may find in this process that we too are narratives. Having let go of the notion of a transcendental self, we realize we are nothing but the stories we keep telling ourselves in our own minds and relating to others. We find ourselves participating in a complex web of narratives: each telling its own unique story while inextricably interwoven with the tales of others. Instead of erecting totalitarian, hierarchic institutions to set our grand narratives in brick and stone, we look to imaginative, democratic communities in which to realize our own petits recits: small narratives.

Such a view is inevitably pluralistic. Instead of seeing itself in opposition to other grand narratives that seem to contradict or threaten it, Buddhism remembers how in its vital periods it has emerged out of its interactions with religions, philosophies, and cultures other than its own. This reminds one of the traditional Hua-yen image of the Jewelled Net of Indra: that vast cosmic web at the interstices of which is a jewel that reflects every other jewel. Today this image suggests the biosphere itself: that vast interdependent web of living systems that sustain each other in a miraculous whole. Which brings us back to the metaphor of wilderness as an image of a postmodern, postpath practice of Buddhism.



1. See Andrew P. Tuck. Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship: On the Western Interpretation of Nagarjuna. New York/Oxford: OUP, 1990.

2. Jean-François Lyotard. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Tr. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986, p.xxiv. I have translated Lyotard’s grands récits as ‘grand narratives’ rather than ‘metanarratives’ as found in this English translation.

3. Galen Strawson. ‘The Sense of Self.’ London Review of Books, 18 April 1996, pp. 21-2.

4. For further information on these organizations, see Stephen Batchelor. The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. London: Thorsons, 1994.

5. See, for example, S.K. Hookham. The Buddha Within: Tathagatagarbha Doctrine According to the Shentong Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhaga. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

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