Why the Buddhist Blog Title?

This project has little to do with Buddhism as most people think of it.

But it is essentially Buddhist as I understand Buddhism.

So although I plan to use it to think through some points necessary to a book I’m writing that will barely mention Buddhist thought directly, I see no reason not to use my old blog.  Anyway, it was there and waiting so it saved me creating a new one.

To sketch out briefly my take on Buddhism, I would say that Buddhism began as a critique and rejection of the practices reproducing the existing relations of production.  The maintaining of the household fire, for instance, and the use of sacrifice as the means of organizing food production and distribution, were clearly both important to maintaining and reproducing a particular way of meeting human needs.  They were, then, ideological practices. So, Buddhism began as a rejection of the naturalness of these practices, and opened up the possibility of alternatives for organizing human society.  It may be true that Buddhism has rarely served that purpose since, but it has occasionally done so.

The task I am undertaking here is questioning and hopefully denaturalizing our own way of life, and therefore I am hoping to point out the sociality of many practices we usually take to be natural, to not be up to us.

I won’t often be discussing Buddhism directly, but I want to preempt a complaint I often heard in the past (see my contribution to the book Cruel Theory|Sublime Practice). That is the complaint that I am not being an “authentic” Buddhist, that I am somehow refusing to fully accept the true otherness of Buddhist concepts when I use them in conjunction with Western philosophy. That somehow this is imperialist and an offensive form of cultural appropriation, in violation of the modern Western law of multiculturalism.  And so I should pursue my work without mention of Buddhism at all, using only Western philosophical concepts.

There are two ways this accusation is usually made. The first is that I don’t address the one true revealed Buddhism, but some distortion of it made by Nagarjuna, or Shinran, or some Western translator of Buddhism. This I take to be the Moron’s approach (see previous post), and one not worth seriously addressing.

The second is the accusation that there is an unbridgeable gulf between Eastern and Western culture, and to use Eastern concepts to address Western problems (sometimes, but not often, this is put in terms of ancient versus modern problems) is an evil act of distortion and oppression of someone else’s culture.  This I will respond to here, briefly…and then not again on this blog.

To begin, it is ridiculously naïve to assume that Buddhist practice is now or ever was anything other than an ideological practice.  To assume that it would be possible to fully adopt an ideological practice of one form of social production while living in another is patently absurd.  A practice meant to enable a transformation from Heian to Kamakura Japan, for instance, certainly cannot be put into practice in contemporary American/global capitalism.  To think that is could, or should, is shockingly historically naïve—yet I have heard the claim from many professors of Buddhism that to do otherwise is somehow offensively imperialist.

All Buddhism, just like all Western philosophy or literature, should begin by recognizing the social and historical problem a particular concept or practice was meant to address. We do this all the time with Western thought—see, for instance, Seaford’s book Money and the Early Greek Mind, or the classic by M.I. Finley, The Ancient Economy.  Both of these books try to demonstrate how very alien ancient Greek concepts are to our way of construing the world.  Yet we would never consider it an act of cultural oppression to make use of Plato or Aristotle in our thinking through a problem today.

We would, however, never want to try to reproduce the slave mode of production in which Aristotle thought—and to do so, to live our lives as slave owners in a slave culture, would be the only way to fully “inhabit” Aristotelian thought, to “feel” his concepts as naturally as we do our own.  Just like living in a horrendously oppressive and violently misogynistic society would be the only way to fully “inhabit” the way of being in the world produced by Tibetan Buddhism.  We certainly don’t want to do these things.

So, the point is, all Buddhism should bemodernist Buddhism. Any kind of Buddhism pretending to be anything else is sadly confused and deluded. The goal of Buddhism is to reproduce, or re-produce, the existing relations of production. We can always only do that with the relations of production we currently inhabit.

So yes, my version of Buddhism is yet another re-interpretation, not reproducing “authentically” the intent of the original practices. Because to reproduce them would be stupid. We don’t have a Brahmin hegemony to displace right now, and mimicking practices meant to do that would be sublimely foolish.

And we don’t need to be “culturally sensitive” to others, any more than we need to have our own culture revered and reified.  There is a subtle, always unnoticed, assumption, universal among university professors of Buddhism, that somehow the ideological practices in which some culture is reproduced are beyond reproach or criticism, somehow in the very genes or souls (take your pick) of the practitioners, and must be protected from the harsh glare of critique. But if you try to point this out to them, they will passionately, even angrily, deny the assumption…then go right on making it. This is a subtle form of racism, assuming that members of other cultures cannot survive the kind of rigorous critique and demands for transformation we subject our own culture to all the time. It assumes that while we freely choose our culture with our superior intellects, no non-Western culture (or Western subculture for that matter) has this capacity. Their cultures are assumed to be more of the nature of an animal’s instinctive behavior.

If Buddhist concepts are to be treated with the same respect as Western concepts, without the patronizing assumption that they are somehow essentialist expressions of the deep nature of Eastern people—the assumption that Easterners are in some sense a different species from us—then the only way to show that respect is to treat Buddhist thought no differently from ancient Greek thought.  Both are startlingly alien to us, but from both we can learn something that can help us respond to our current problem.

And that, after all, is what I want to do here.  To respond to a real human crisis threatening to extinguish the human race.  I don’t want to respond to it by foolishly reproducing the ideological practices suitable to a thoroughly different historical situation.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn lessons from ways of responding to other kinds of real social problems.

Anyone accusing me, or anyone else, of failing to fully think the otherness of Buddhism is just pathetically attached to the delusion that Buddhism is some kind of special entity completely different to any other kind of human discourse or practice that has ever existed anywhere.  Such accusations will easily find a home on many Buddhist blogs and websites—so post them there.  Here, I will simply recognize that you are a moron (again, see previous post) and silently delete the comment.  I’m only interested in hearing from fellow imbeciles.

Similarly, if anyone wants to suggest that I am misrepresenting any concept in the history of Western thought, don’t waste your time.  We don’t live in the same world as Aristotle or Spinoza or Kierkegaard, and so while we can understand their concepts we can only ever use them differently than they did, in response to our own situation.

It is a bad situation. There is great chaos under heaven, but unfortunately in our case that doesn’t make the situation excellent.  My generation has failed miserably, sold our children’s future for gadgets and cars and McMansions and fat 401Ks.  It’s time to begin thinking about how to undo some of the damage we have done.

Being “Authentically Buddhist” is just another way to avoid this responsibility until it is too late.

The goal here is to be able to subject whatever cultural practices we encounter to critique.  The distinction to be made, I would argue, is not between “authentic” and “Western appropriation,” but between those adoptions of Buddhist concepts meant to help reify and naturalize our particular capitalist assumptions of the world, and those meant to denaturalize them.  We don’t, of course, need to abandon any practice we recognize as socially created, despite popular opinion to the contrary. We can very well be strongly attached to and motivated by practices we know full well are completely arbitrary.  The real puzzle is how to become more attached to and motivated by practices that are in our best interest, and how to abandon those that are not. This, I am suggesting, is a problem of the aesthetics of ideology—something I’m going to try to make clear over the next year of reading and writing.

Now that I’ve set this aside, I won’t discuss it again. I will simply proceed to writing up my notes and thoughts along the way, as a way of thinking out loud about the book I am writing.

(Next up will be a brief discussion of OOO.)

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