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THE BUDDHA IN THE POSTMODERN MIRROR:

Reflections on American Buddhism in the 1990s

I received several requests for a copy of a paper I did last year, so I thought I would just forward a copy to the list.  The paper deals with American Buddhism and Postmodern selfhood.  For those not interested in this topic, please just delete this message.  This paper has NOT been published, and anyone is free to quote it or use its ideas.  I would, however, appreciate the courtesy of letting me know if any of it will be used or quoted in any way.  When double-spaced, it is approximately 23-4 pages in length, plus bibliography.  I hope that the translation from my word processor into email has not distorted it too badly.  I would love any comments.

The Buddha in the Postmodern Mirror:

Reflections on American Buddhism in the 1990s (Dec 1994, Scott L. B. Henderson)

It has become perhaps trite these days to say that modern Western culture is changing in dramatic and unpredictable ways.  The West is arguably involved in a process of major cultural reorientation.  I will essay a particular view of this cultural reorientation with a focus on contemporary America.  The “old” cultural orientation may be called “modern” or “modernist”, and is characterized by the kind of thinking which emerged out of the Enlightenment.  Such thinking is in strong evidence in the structure of the material and social world of contemporary America.  Postmodernism, on the other hand, is staking its claims as a new orientation.  There exists considerable debate regarding just what exactly postmodernism is, and whether it is truly a new, radical discontinuity with earlier, “modernist” thinking (as opposed to a natural extension or continuation of Enlightenment thought).  My argument will not enter into this debate.  I am interested in the understandings of the world—the “picturings of reality”, if you will— which are developing in the West, and the impact these pictures have on the ability of Americans to generate meaningful lives.  I will use the term postmodern in reference to certain ideas or trends which are attempting to stand as challenges to the understandings of the world developed from Enlightenment thought.  My main focus will remain within the bounds of the (post)modern American cultural scene.  It is not my intent to suggest that these phenomena are limited to the United States--far from this.  But my experience is that of an American, and in confining the scope of my claims, I hope only to avoid generalizing about that which I am unequipped to speak.

I will argue that one consequence of the emergence of postmodern thought, and the confusion and crisis it provokes, is the attraction that certain Buddhist ideas are having for some Americans, especially within highly educated and intellectual ranks.  My primary thesis is that this is due not only to American individuals who are longingly searching for a sense of meaning in alternative religions and spiritual disciplines, but even more due to a convergence between questions and themes in postmodern and ancient Buddhist thought.  I will attempt to explore some of the similarities between Buddhist and postmodern psychology and epistemology, and will suggest that Buddhist thought speaks with particular force and relevance to present-day Americans.

In the first place, knowledge is a fundamental requirement of a culture in order to successfully assist individuals in generating //meaning//.  Culturally produced knowledge helps humans to generate a //weltbild//, or “picture of the world”, and to render a notion of where in this picture they stand.  I would argue that in the pictures produced today in (post)modern America, the self has been emphasized—pushed ever farther to the front and center.  The self has become ever more radically distanced from the other, surrounding images.  Postmodernism greatly intensifies this process.  One might even say that the (post)modern self begins, however unwillingly, to step outside the frame entirely, unable to hold any position or place in the picture.  The resulting dis-integrated //weltbild// contributes to the alienation felt by many members of American society, and severely complicates their task of generating meaning.

The daily struggles witnessed in American society are examples of how difficult and complicated a process of cultural transformation can be.  Culture provides a kind of context within which individuals seek to orient themselves and generate meaningful lives.  But pluralistic, modern American culture is a narrative in a constant state of revision.  Here, in the last gasp of the 20th Century, ultra-modern American existence is a rather unsettling picture of rootless, displaced selves.  The modern American self relocates, shifts jobs and even entire careers with amazing frequency.  The American’s extended family is thus often scattered all over the country.  The geographical and social fragmentation in America is echoed in the fragmentation of its epistemologies.  In fact, the epistemological fragmentation is likely the real root, expressing itself in the more visible aspects of culture, like politics and religious practice.  Describing the religious and political conflicts within America as “cultural warfare,” James Hunter says, “at the heart of culture ...is religion. At the heart of religion are its claims to truth about the world.  The struggle for power [in the American cultural war] is in large part a struggle between competing truth claims, claims which are by their very nature ‘religious’ in character if not in content” (58).  The very vehemence with which Americans clutch here and there for an epistemological toehold hints at the desperation, at the //Angst// of individuals who need but have great difficulty locating stable cultural knowledge with which to produce any broad or ultimate sense of meaning.  Instead of stable, uniform cultural information, Americans are confronted with a vast array of secular and religious ideologies from which they must choose and construct their world view.

Life within the American “context” is variously difficult for average Americans who are striving to fulfill within their lives the shifting and uncertain goals established for them by their cultural situation.  But the American version of //Angst// may be most profoundly felt by the social scientists and the philosophers, by the intellectuals and the ultra-educated, who are so very self-consciously aware of the depths of the postmodern enigma.  The people who make knowledge their business, after all, will be particularly vulnerable to attacks on knowledge.  And central to postmodernism is a dramatic assault on epistemology.  It threatens not only all existing foundations of knowledge, but the very possibility for any such thing as a foundation.  Anthony Giddens, although arguing cogently against the application of the term postmodernism, nonetheless provides a very adequate description of the problem to which the word refers: “...we have discovered that nothing can be known with any certainty, since all pre-existing “foundations” of epistemology have been shown to be unreliable; that “history” is devoid of teleology and consequently no version of “progress” can plausibly be defended...” (46)

If culturally produced knowledge is required for individuals to generate a picture of their world and to locate their “selves” within it, then the inability to provide any grounding for knowledge precipitates a crisis of meaning for individuals.  But beyond or before this, we must understand that the extent to which an individual feels required to generate a self may vary considerably.  If a culture sustains a high focus on the production of individuated selfhood, at least two concomitant problems appear.  First, the individual will experience anxiety to whatever extent s/he is unable, discontented with, or unwilling to produce such a self.  Second, the individual will be frustrated to the extent to which incorporating this italicized self into the larger picture of reality becomes problematic or confusing.  To clarify this, I will briefly discuss a history of self identity construction in the West, and more specifically in America.

At the outset, it must be made clear that America’s highly individualized and idealized idea of self has not held a place in the consciousness of all societies, at all times.  It is a product of Western modernity as it has come to us, including the religious, philosophical, and other ideological underpinnings which provide its basis.  There is considerable argument that many premodern societies may have frequently contained little or no emphasis on the idea of a free-standing self.  In a discussion of the self by Joseph Tamney, for example, Hawkes and Woolley are cited with the following summarization of what are generally called pre-modern or tribal cultures:

The last word in any account of early forms of society must be to insist on the subservience of the individual to his tribe....Or perhaps it would be more correct to say he was lost in it through total participation.  Men and women may have been considerable personalities, without having fully isolated themselves from the consciousness of the tribe.  Indeed, the ideal of the free-standing human being was hardly formulated before the Greeks, hardly fulfilled before the Renaissance; for these people it was remote from all experience.  They _thought, felt, _ _and acted as members of a group... _[emphasis mine] (qtd. in Tamney, 111)

A fairly common belief in America today is that “primitive” individuals enjoyed great continuity and connectedness in their lives, both within their community and in the natural world.  This conception is generally located within a narrative which sets the modern fragmented and alienating experience over against this as a perceived opposite.  While this is surely an oversimplification and a romanticization, it undoubtedly involves a fair proportion of truth.  The self experienced as integrated, and the self experienced as isolated and alienated are two possibilities within human life, as well as all the gray area between these poles.  And certainly these possibilities may vacillate even from moment to moment within the same individual.  The point is only that the self as “standing apart-from” is only one way of conceptualizing and/or experiencing a kind of self, processes that are influenced or accentuated by cultural information.

The discussion of the self by Tamney brings up two related points worthy of mention here.  First, he shows that “the [Western] belief that it is the person as such who has moral significance rather than the group... slowly gained dominance” (112).  Second, he points to a gradual development of self-consciousness over time, evidenced by such things as growing numbers of autobiographies, as well as the rise and proliferation of individual religious confessions (as opposed to “depend[ence] on the prayers of monks for salvation)” (113).  The cumulative effect is the emergence—the creation, if you will—of the Western Self.  This self has strong social, moral and religious significance.  It is increasingly idealized, and it is seen as standing fundamentally, existentially alone.

To continue, then, on a brief history of the self, we may consider religion.  Religion has traditionally been the foundation upon which cultural knowledge is constructed.  Religion in the West has contributed in its own ways to the reification and isolation of the self.  To begin with, the splitting of the world into sacred and profane realms (thought by some scholars of religion to be the defining component of religion), may be seen as the beginnings of the splitting up of the human’s world.  As a radical ontological discontinuity, it opens up a space in the consciousness of humans for their own alienation.  When the world is no longer of one piece, the stage becomes set for separation and isolation.

Further, the notion of a “soul” is an idea that has played a major role in the Judeo-Christian West.  Although this is a popular religious idea in general, it is not a universal one.  The fact that it is so often thought to be universal (notably, sometimes even among secular and supposedly “objective” Western scholars of religion) may very well be a telling example of how successful the Judeo-Christian tradition has been in establishing certain ontological presuppositions about the human self.

In America, the religious scene is and has been dominated by Protestantism, and the theological/metaphysical assumptions which underlie it.  The Protestant movement was largely a result of the rejection of the Catholic Church’s attempts to mediate between or join the individual to God.  The social, legal, and physical reality of America is permeated with Protestant religious meaning and symbolism.  Protestantism informed the Christian West that everyone is individually responsible for their relationship to the divine, and provided a work ethic which further stressed (an unavoidable ambiguity) the individual.  Such a position pushes the self to the front, reducing emphasis on the social and contextual elements of religion.  Moving forward in time a little, modern Christian theology - from Friedrich Schleiermacher to Paul Tillich and onward - has increasingly focused on the individual and the personal.  The individual’s experience of religion takes precedence over any social involvement.

Today in America, the most outspoken and powerful Christian groups are Fundamentalists and Evangelicals who proclaim that a personal, individual relationship with Jesus Christ is the single qualification for salvation.  Individualism has perhaps become the preeminent American metaphysical principle.  In his book, The American Religion, Harold Bloom claims that “America is a religion-mad country”.  Citing the 1989 Gallup and Castelli poll, he reports of Americans that “88 percent among us believe that God loves them [sic], 9 percent are uncertain, while only 3 percent say that the Lord’s affection for them is nonexistent.” Bloom suggests that the American focus on a one-to-one love relationship with God is an interpretation of Christianity peculiar to Americans (but also a few other groups, especially the Second Century C.E. Gnostics).  According to Bloom, Americans may pay considerable “lip service” to God, but they are really not so much interested in God’s divinity as they are their own.  He argues also that even those Americans who claim to reject religion, along with those who refer to themselves as religious, participate in a set of cultural religious assumptions which constitute what he calls “The American Religion”.  This Gnostic religion places a strong accent on the solitary individual:  “The American finds God in herself or himself, but only after finding the freedom to know God by experiencing a total inward solitude.... Salvation, for the American, cannot come through the community or the congregation, but is a one-on-one act of confrontation.  Though a Protestant heritage, this confrontation is Americanized...” (32)

Many nonreligious influences have contributed to the construction (and the concomitant alienation) of the modern self in America.  All of them cannot of course be investigated here, but several significant factors should be briefly added to our discussion.  Western philosophy, for example, has contributed its own pieces to the puzzle.  Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” (I //think//, therefore, I //am//), for example, is a major Western philosophical landmark, and practically a household expression.  By this statement, Descartes claimed that the first and most certain knowledge we can have is the existence of ourself, as a thinking mind.  He further argued that this was the foundation for all knowledge.  Right on the heels of Descartes, the scientific world view, born in the period of time we affectionately refer to as the “Enlightenment,” developed the idea of a strong bifurcation between subject and object, along with an attendant ideal of emotional //detachment// in scientific work.  The scientific individual (the paradigmatic “knower” in this tradition) is not only conceived of as separate from the data to be studied, but is also encouraged to maintain complete emotional detachment from all attempts to generate knowledge.  The scientific human is another ideal pervading American culture.  Research and technology are values which define Americans, not only to themselves, but to much of the rest of the world as well.

The American frontier brought us the ideal of “rugged individualism”, one that is alive and well, and still gaining.  Americans have come to venerate not only individual self-sufficiency, but individual rebelliousness, idiosyncrasy, and even outright separation of the self from all “others”.  Americans believe that they must have their own car, their own TV, their own “space”.  American bookshelves are still crammed with self-realization paperbacks from the “Me generation”.  The government’s advertisements for the army have endlessly encouraged Americans to “be all that you can be”.  And so on and so on.  Self, with a capital S.  The modern American self is elevated, even exalted.  It is into this modern self which American individuals are born today, or perhaps more accurately, that they learn they are supposed to be.

Not that Americans are really all that different one from another.  American individualism, as a cultural standard, intensifies the individual’s sense of selfhood, regardless of the extent to which this results in coincident changes in actual lived life.  In the creation of a self, what counts is what is //believed//, not what really //is//.  As Langman describes it, Americans “have now eaten almost 100 billion identical burgers, express selfhood through mass-produced fashion and mass culture fad.  Such domination is not by coercion, but by willing assent to consume the myriad products and images from which selfhood is constructed” (118).

Although some individuals and groups are affected more than others, no American can avoid the cultural focus on the self.  But far out on the cutting edge, the academic and intellectual ranks in America are boldly leading the way towards total self-consciousness and personal alienation.  To the extent that the American participates in the shift from modernist to postmodernist perspectives, self-conscious, individuated selfhood reaches a kind of zenith.  Existentialism, semiotics and the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida are classic examples of anti-modernist approaches to knowledge and meaning which impact and shatter the already fragmented American cultural picture.  We will discuss these in more detail shortly.

American Buddhism is one attempt to deal with the kinds of questions emerging within the context of a postmodern life.  There are many reasons why Americans may be attracted to Buddhism.  Among these, especially for highly-educated intellectuals becoming aware of these trends, are the parallels observable between Buddhist and (post)modern thought.  American Buddhism is an amalgam of various Buddhist strains, borrowed from various countries and traditions.  All of this has naturally taken on a distinctly American flavor.  Yet there is an ability and a strong desire (especially among intellectuals) to focus on the fundamentals of Buddhist thought, such as the “Four Noble Truths”, outlined by the Buddha as recorded in the earliest Pali texts.  There are two reasons for this.  First, lacking a long history and tradition, American Buddhism is relatively free to cast off the ornamentation and embellishment which religious traditions inevitably entail.  American culture allows Buddhism a fresh start, without many of the religious barnacles it has accumulated during its 2500 year history.  Second, highly educated Americans, as heirs of the reductionistic and materialistic bias of the Enlightenment, as well as of Nietzsche’s deconstruction of God and morality, are quick to strip away all supernatural elements.  But this slashing and flaying fits nicely with much of the Buddha’s own teachings, in which he repudiates discussions of gods and supernatural beings as fruitless for the process of liberation.  As Rita Gross, an American Buddhist, and Professor of Comparative Studies in Religion at the University of Wisconsin, sees it, “Buddhism is a non-theistic religion.... there is no external savior....  Buddhism simply lacks the categories that have so consumed the interest and energies of many other religions - Absolute Supreme Being, Creator, God... [etc.]” (137)  In this respect, Buddhism and the modern American mind are made for each other.

But Nietzsche’s announcement to the West of the death of God was not merely the demise of the supernatural God of Christianity and Judaism.  It was the death of all Gods, a recognition that every attempt to locate a transcendental anchor for the self is ultimately doomed to failure.  Existentialism cuts the human self radically free, where it is buffeted by the existential winds of historical situation.  Similarly, Buddhism also tends to reject dogma and claims to ultimate, transcendent authority outside of the individual, even including the authority of the Buddha.  In the words of the current Dalai Lama, “Buddhist thinkers take the Buddha’s words not so much as an ultimate authority, but rather as a key to assist their own insight.... the Buddha himself states that his words are not to be accepted as valid simply out of respect and reverence for him, but rather should be examined just as a goldsmith would test the purity and quality of gold...” (from Mind Science, 14) Another scholar of early Buddhism phrased it like this: “Buddhism is not oriented toward an Absolute of any kind.  There is no Absolute Truth, no Absolute God, no Absolute Ethic and no Absolutely Certain Knowledge.  In its ethics early Buddhism is essentially situational” (Payne, 94)  The anti-dogmatic nature of Buddhist thought leaves space for the skeptical, free-thinking American mind.

Nietzschean existentialism freed the self from the domination of all authority.  But after the initial joy of release wears off, the question soon comes up: freedom... to do what?  What point has any action taken in a totally relativized world?  Performance of selfhood becomes performance for performance sake.  Precisely this problem is addressed by a central insight of Buddhist psychology, the theory of //anatta//, or no-self.  The no-self notion is not, of course, that there are no such things as human individuals, but that there is no substantive or enduring self or soul to be found within the human individual.  The self is considered a creation of the human mind.  Kaja Silverman, in a very similar manner, discusses the understanding of the self from the standpoint of semiotic analysis.  “Discourse requires a subject, and... the subject itself is an effect of discourse [my emphasis]” (vii).  How far is this position from the Buddhist notion of //anatta//?  In saying that there is no self, the Buddhist doesn’t mean there is nothing there at all, but that the self is nothing other than a generated appearance lacking any underlying substance or essence.  The self is a kind of fiction, created by our minds.  If what is meant by the term discourse is speech or images and other forms of representation, then surely the stream of images and language within one’s mind is also discourse.  We might then rephrase the Buddhist position in the following way: the self is nothing more than an effect of the discourse generated in one’s mind.

It follows from such analysis that self-identity is not constructed either uniformly or continuously.  Different social situations (and especially the radically different social worlds through which the modern person must often move with precious little time for transition) require different selves to be generated, as per appropriate.  These “selves” may be in conflict or even completely contradict one another.  The problem in this lies not so much in the fact that it happens, but in the ever increasing self-consciousness of the process.  One’s self seems - paradoxically - to become detached even from oneself.  Consciously aware of self as completely situationally constructed in the various processes of discourse, the self fragments and dis-integrates before our very eyes.  The postmodern self, then, precisely to the extent that it is emphasized, evaporates for the lack of any substantiality.  “The alienated self, a commodified simulacrum of identity,” Langman writes, “is an empty shell with no interior to hide, and without defenses against the anxieties of its own weakness, or against the fluid social ties of the postmodern world” (122).  The Buddhist theory of //Anatta// seems to concur with this description of human existence.

With respect to language (or in the postmodernist lingo:

discourse), both Buddhim and postmodernism agree that language or discourse is incapable of accomplishing the objective of signifying reality.  As Klimenkova describes it: “Postmodernism rejects any claim that texts correlate with any given reality... The [Enlightenment] project of striving for truth seems ontologically ruptured, with truth being pluralized” (278).  This position is not far removed from some of the work of Nagarjuna, a major Buddhist figure from the first century C.E., who:

...systematically eschews the defense of positive metaphysical doctrines regarding the nature of things, demonstrating rather that any such positive thesis is incoherent, and that in the end our conventions and our conceptual framework can never be justified by demonstrating their correspondence to an independent reality.  Rather, he suggests, what counts as real depends precisely upon our conventions. (Garfield 220)

Zongqi has also studied parallels between Buddhist and postmodern deconstructive thought.  Zongqi compares Derrida and Seng-Zhao linguistic deconstructions and points to “many important parallels in method, strategy, and rationale between these two...” (389)  Zongqi demonstrates an amazing similarity between the manner in which “Derrida and Seng-Zhao use... lexical-syntactical deconstructions to demonstrate the impossibility of claiming ontological-theological... essence in and/or through language...” (389).

The problem postmodernism has uncovered through a deconstruction of discourse is not simply that text is hopelessly circular and self-referential, forever unable to relate to anything which transcends or stands outside of it.  The implicit, and much bigger problem, is the inter-referentiality of not only textual elements, but of everything in the human world, including the self.  No Archimedean leverage point for knowledge, and hence for a meaningful //weltbild//, may be found within a totally relativized postmodern universe.  The postmodern move away from the relatively comfortable, dualistic subject/object paradigm of Enlightenment scientific thought reaches finally a point where there is left only the postmodern subject, or perhaps a myriad of subjects.  Each of these is irremediably lost in its own subjectivism, isolated without anything to bridge to gaps between them.

If we could allow ourselves to define religion somewhat broadly, as, for instance, the “quest for ultimate meaning in human life” (Long, 58), we could say that the (post)modern self constitutes a religious crisis.  America intellectuals today are focusing upon a self which seems to become less substantial the more it is critically observed.  But the American must generate a self, and a substantial and impressive one at that.  How is this possible when all the tools for such construction are in disarray?  And how can this self (what self?) be integrated into any //weltbild// after it has been “noticed” that it is totally separate from the rest of reality?

I would propose that one great appeal of Buddhism for the postmodern American is that one of its central themes addresses these very dilemmas.  This is the Buddhist concept of non-essentialism or dependent co-arising (Sanskrit, //pratitya-samutpada//).  As one modern Buddhist scholar expresses it, “what is the Dharma [i.e., the Buddhist teaching] which we should awaken to, live and practice?  It is the law of... dependent co-origination.  This law means that everything in the universe is co-arising and co-ceasing and is interdependent with each other, that nothing exists independently; nothing has its own enduring fixed ownbeing [sic]” (Abe, 98).  Put a little differently, this means simply that reality is not composed of “things” or essences which can be separated from each other - except by an artificial process such as we perform in our mind.  The self, too, is seen as falling into this interconnected web and losing any opportunity of ever grounding itself outside of the web, unable to obtain what Derrida would call “self-presence.”  In Derrida’s own words: “Self-presence ‘has never been given but only dreamed of and always already split, incapable of appearing to itself except in its own disappearance” (qtd. in Loy, 487).  In the American Buddhist understanding, text, self and world are not self-referential because they are composed of elements which are split and isolated from each other.  Quite the opposite, in the Buddhist view, they are //infinitely// self-referential because they are completely and wholly interconnected in relationships of //infinite// complexity.

The Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh is another major voice in the contemporary American Buddhist movement.  Nhat Hanh was born in Vietnam, but was permanently exiled from his home country in 1973.  He currently lives in exile in France, and tours the U.S. frequently.  In 1967 he was nominated by Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize.  He is a prolific writer, and his many books are very popular among the current listings of American Buddhist literature.  Nhat Hanh coined the term “interbeing” to illustrate his view of the interconnected, non-dual nature of the universe.  As he puts it “we need the vision of interbeing—we belong to each other; we cannot cut reality into pieces” (103).  Nhat Hanh develops this idea of interconnectedness not merely as an arid intellectual abstraction, but as a powerful way of picturing and experiencing the world.

Since the leaf is linked to the tree by a stem, the communication between them is easy to see.  We do not have a stem linking us to our mother anymore, but when we were in her womb, we had a very long stem, an umbilical cord.... on the day we were born, it was cut off, and we received the illusion that we became independent.  That is not true.  We continue to rely on our mother for a very long time, and we have many other mothers as well.  The Earth is our mother.  We have a great  many stems linking us to our Mother Earth.  There are stems linking us with the clouds.  If there are no clouds, there will be no water for us to drink.  We are made of at least seventy percent water, and the stem between the cloud and us is really there.  This also the case with the river, the forest, the logger, and the farmer.  There are hundreds of thousands of stems linking us to everything in the cosmos.... Do you see the link between you and me?  (116-7)

Nhat Hanh’s notion of interbeing has been picked up by other scholars and students of American Buddhism and has become a recurring theme.  David Loy quotes Nhat Hanh and utilizes this idea of “mutual identity” in his discussion of “Indra’s Postmodern Net”, which Loy describes as a “metaphor for cosmic interpenetration and lack of self-presence” (482).  As Loy explains this idea, in fairly postmodernist language:

From a Buddhist perspective, the poststructural realization that the meaning of a text cannot be totalized - that language/thought never attains a self-presence which escapes differences - is an important step toward the realization that there is no abiding place for the mind anywhere.... But the textual dissemination liberated by Derrida’s deconstruction will not be satisfactory unless the dualistic sense-of-self - not just its discourse - has been deconstructed.  Without dying to itself... even a postmodern self will continue to be haunted by a sense of //lack// which seeks to ground itself in one or another symbolic fashion (506).

There is additional resonance between the Buddhist understanding of the world as dependent co-arising and the “Deep Ecology” philosophy underlying much of the American environmental movement.  Considerable theoretical, as well as actual physical connections exist between the American environmentalist and American Buddhist movements.  Deep Ecology, a term coined by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, is a kind of postmodern reaction against the more traditional views of Western biological science.  Deep Ecology’s primary emphasis is a shift from a hierarchical and rather alienating views of “Man versus Nature”, or “Man over Nature”, to a view which sees humanity as only one element incorporated within the interconnected unity of the biological world.  Such ideas are not only a part of mainstream environmentalism, but are gaining respected place in the academic study of biology as well.  Joanna Macy is an American Buddhist who has written several books about the correlations between new paradigms in biology and Buddhist themes.  Her book Mutual Causality: The Dharma of Natural Systems, is devoted to the convergences between the Buddhist understanding of dependent co-arising and General Systems Theory.  In this theory, the physical world is studied as series of systems embedded within systems, within still other systems.  Most previous biology has followed a paradigm focused on the individual organism and its “struggle to survive” in competition with other individuals.  In her book World as Lover, World as Self, Macy shows how such schemas are not merely academic strategies, but a part of the everyday pictures or //weltbilden// which people use to understand their experience of life.  Comfortably resonant with the focus on individuated identity and the competition valorized in capitalistic economics, biology has played its role in perpetuating the Western ideology of the self.  Macy describes images which have been passed down to Americans through their religious AND their scientific heritage, and which contrast sharply with the portrayals of the world given by General Systems Theory and Buddhist //pratitya-samutpada//:

Many people view the //world as a battlefield//, where good and evil are pitted against each other.... there is the sense that you are fighting God’s battle.... For the sake of your soul, whether you are a Jerry Falwell or an Ayatollah Khomeini, you are ready to destroy (6-7).

For those who have had enough of battle and destruction as paradigm, Macy argues that Buddhism suggests more useful and productive pictures.  //World as Self// is one such picture.  In Macy’s words, “to experience the world as an extended self and its story as our own story involves no surrender or eclipse of our individuality.  The liver, leg, and lung that are “mine” are highly distinct from each other, thank goodness, and each has a distinctive role to play” (13).  Such metaphors are useful in seeing how the various parts of a whole can be simultaneously interconnected and yet individual. This image is similar John Locke’s “Gaia Hypothesis”, another popular idea in American environmentalism.  Locke’s earth is viewed in its biotic entirety as an organism or body (which he metaphorically refers to in the feminine form of Gaia, the greek goddess of the earth).  Such images as Locke’s and Macy’s allow for the strong sense of individuality characteristic of the American, while yet providing a grounding for the self in the world picture.

According to the Buddha, life is //dukkha//: suffering.  This is the first of his “Four Noble Truths”.  But this word “suffering” is only one approximation of what is intended by //dukkha//.  Others have translated it as unsatisfactoriness, or turmoil (Foshay, 548).  The Buddha was claiming to point to an essential condition of human life.

The postmodern, American Buddhist interpretation of this is that we find

our human existence based in a transitory, shifting sand of self-

reference.  Every attempt to grasp at this sand frustrates us and leaves

us ultimately unsatisfied.  What could be learned if the postmodernist were to translate //dukkha// as //discourse//?  Life is discourse, is signification, is a rather disturbing stream of narrative.  But this is not life in the sense of all that is possible for humans.  For the Buddha claimed a way out of the realm of //dukkha//.

The path leading out of //dukkha// is one attempted by both the historical Buddha and a small but growing number of postmodern Americans.  The story of these two paths contain many interesting commonalities.  The Buddha (as the son of royalty) lived a life of great material wealth and power.  But this life was ultimately not satisfying to him.  He observed that hedonistic attachment to the self is not the way to any real happiness.  It is perhaps even the result of despair at the perceived inability to locate a more profound happiness.  But the Buddha, in agreement with most modern Americans, didn’t think that asceticism was any solution, either.  In fact, he saw it as as only another kind of attachment to the self, and to the worlds created in our minds.  The self became a central problem for the Buddha, as for the West.  By focusing an unwavering consciousness on his own self, the Buddha eventually arrived at what he called a “middle way”, which recognizes the self, but knows that it is ultimately empty.  In the American Buddhist view, the self, as we normally perceive it, is neither a salvation, nor can it be saved.  To the extent that we cling to it, we suffer.  Seeing oneself as inextricably embedded in the world of Being, both in the process of signification and in the silence which lies beyond and behind it, is the key to beginning a meaningful relationship with the world.

In the movement away from the subject/object model for viewing the world, postmodern thought shares with Buddhism the loss of connection between the world of lived experience and the self which is eternally constructed through discourse.  Viewed through the Derridean looking-glass, the self becomes a “signifier”, always desiring the status of “signified”.  American Buddhist thought seems to be suggesting that we can understand this Derridean desire for “presence” as the source of human suffering.  This desire is the result of still holding to the idea that there is an “objective” reality out there to be grasped by a subjective self.  Going beyond this level, to the experience which lies before the subject/object bifurcation, we arrive at the Buddhist realm of non-ego, non-duality, non-self.  These ideas are not a psychological //joining// together of subject and object, or a perceiving them as //not yet// separated, but rather experiencing the world as simply and inherently not-separate, not-dual. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s popular work Peace is Every Step, Nhat Hanh describes this anti-modernist epistomology of Buddhism:

When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it.... The word ‘comprehend’ is made up of the Latin roots //cum//, which means ‘with’, and //prehendere//, which means ‘to grasp it or pick it up.’  There is no other way to understand something.  In Buddhism, we call this kind of understanding ‘non-duality.’  Not two. (100)

American Buddhism is one attempt to deal with the increasingly bewildering and yet necessary requirement to generate a sense of self, and to locate this self within the world.  Perhaps not since the original Buddha sat down and turned his mind upon itself in meditation has the world seen such a self-conscious focus on the individual self as we now witness in American postmodernism.  The Buddha’s resolution of the problem of the self was not so much an intellectual one, as an experiencing of the world “as it really is”, before it is cut up with our minds.  Shunryu Suzuki, founder of the San Fransisco Zen Center, and author of the popular American Buddhist work _Zen _ Mind, Beginner’s Mind, points to the same kind of understanding:

You are independent, and I am independent; each exists in a different moment.  But this does not mean we are quite different beings.  We are actually one and the same being.  We are the same, and yet different.  It is very paradoxical, but actually it is so.  Because we are independent beings, each one of us is a complete flashing into the vast phenomenal world.  So when I sit, you sit; everything sits with me.  I am a part of you.  I go into the quality of your being.... Because you think you have body or mind, you have lonely feelings, but when you realize that everything is just a flashing into the vast universe, you become very strong, and your existence becomes very meaningful (106-7).

A small but growing body of Americans are finding meaning in Buddhism.  In his book Orientalism, Edward Said claims that the West is attracted to Eastern philosophy because it is seen as exotic, as a fascinating “other”.  Said is no doubt correct in his assessment of this phenomenon.  But perhaps this is not all of the story.  The Western world is developing similar techniques, and engaging several ideas remarkably analogous to fundamental Buddhist concepts.  The postmodern American situation brings a focus on the self perhaps only matched in history by Buddhist meditational, introspective psychology.  The example of American Buddhism shows that an “Eastern philosophy” might really not be so “Eastern” as one might at first think.  In the American coming to Buddhism, it seems legitimate to perceive the West as really only coming to itself.

 

 

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paper by:

Scott L.B. Henderson                                        

Religious Studies—Arizona State University

 


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