Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Editor: The following post is an attempt to sketch out a post-modern use of the dharma that is not religious, or even “spiritual.”( It’s a rough sketch, so expect lots of edits over the next few weeks.) Personally, I use the dharma as both a heuristic device and as a humanist spirituality. But the purpose of my post here is to show that the dharma is an effective tool of analysis that anyone can use to investigate the world, regardless of beliefs.
I’m developing a post-buddhism in earnest that is really going to take Buddhist modernism pretty far. I no longer see Buddhism as a set of beliefs. I don’t even see it as a set of practices that will relieve suffering. Psychology relieves suffering, that’s why I listen to Josh Korda. I see it as a heuristic device that doesn’t even require “belief” at all, or holding on to “views.” It’s like Marxism. I don’t “believe” in Marxism. But I do use Marxism as a heuristic device to help me analyze power relations in capitalism. Marxism favours the working class, and the oppressed. Marxism helps me view power relations under capitalism in terms of their effect on the working class and the oppressed. It helps me analyze the capitalist system as a system of unequal power relations and exploitation. So even though I don’t “believe” in Marxism, I use it as a tool of analysis to help me see the capitalist system in a critical way.
Buddhism can be used the same way, as a heuristic device, as a tool of analysis. Buddhist philosophy is quite alien to western culture. Practicing Buddhism often gives one a sense of estrangement from what is otherwise a familiar world. As a heuristic device, that is one of its greatest advantages. Instead of being put-off by its alien sensibilities, I use that sense of estrangement to help me look at the world in a totally different way. Buddhist analysis is often posed in the negative; it’s the null hypothesis. You think, typically: “I exist, and there is a world.” The null hypothesis is that neither of those assumptions are true. So you put them to the test. Thinking of the self as non-existent makes you think really hard about what the “self” really is. Thinking of the world as “empty” makes you question everything you know, or think you know, about the world. I don’t have to believe in the doctrines of non-self or emptiness, but I can use them as a heuristic device to challenge my assumptions about myself and how I view reality. But I also don’t have to cling to those doctrines as “views.” They are not my beliefs, I just use them as analytic tools. That’s one of the practices of post-Buddhism. This allows you to stop believing in Buddhism as some kind of magical incantation that is going to solve all your problems, end your suffering and make you feel good all the time (nirvana?). Engage in contemplation and question your assumptions about reality, question everyone’s assumptions about reality.
David Loy’s work, Lack and Transcendence, (2000) has been very helpful for looking at the dharma from a post-modern perspective. He presents the dharma as unresolved paradox. He begins with the dilemma or question: is there a self or not? Are we ‘self’ atta or ‘not self’ anatta? Usually what we try to do is resolve the duality and the dilemma, or question, by resolving it one way or the other, that there is a self or there is no self or not self. What David Loy says is that our real problem is that we don’t experience a real, truly existing solid self. We experience ourselves as constructed and therefore not real. So we keep trying to do things to make ourselves feel real. We try to resolve the dilemma by objectifying ourselves into concepts or things that makes us feel more real: professions, accomplishments, wealth, relationships, legacies, identities, group membership, social status, celebrity, etc. But none of these things help us to resolve the dilemma that we simultaneously feel real in the physical sense, because of our sensory experience of the world through our senses and perceptions—and the ego’s sense of not being real (not self), because it is fragmented, momentary, and socially constructed. What David Loy says is that the real problem is not that we don’t know the true nature of ourselves, but that we cannot resolve the dilemma; it remains unresolvable. And the answer is not to try to find an answer either way, but to let it be unresolved. Don’t try to resolve the dilemma one way or another, neither as ‘self’ or ‘not-self.’ Learn to live with the lack of resolution.
The same with all other dualities that we experience and suffer from. We don’t have to resolve the paradox of shunyata. It’s not that we don’t know the true nature of reality, but that we cannot resolve the question of wether the universe is real or not, or full or empty. Shunyata doesn’t define reality, it is a heuristic device that helps us break down our usual conceptions of reality. Shunyata is itself only a concept that also must be discarded. Let the paradox remain a paradox. In the end, the question of the ultimate truth of reality, whether it is full of objects or full of emptiness, is an unresolvable question. That ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form’ is an unresolvable paradox. The trick is to let it remain unresolved. This is true both on the scientific level and the philosophical/cosmological level. Science still can’t fully explain how ‘something comes out of the void.’ ‘Even the vacuum of space is roiling with virtual particles and quasi particles and new particles, continuously arising and dissolving in and out of the void.’ That’s as far as science has taken us. Let go of answering the question, and dwell in the questions, not the answers, because there are no final answers. All the tension of the unresolved paradox provokes you to keep asking questions, keep investigating and interrogating everything that we assume to be true.
According to David Loy, the ‘middle way’ is the unresolvability of dualisms. As one author put it, “we are not trying to realize a ‘Oneness’, but to live with the tension of unresolvable dualisms” and even ‘polymorphous perversities’, as Foucault called them, “perverse” meaning “different from what one would normally expect”. Using dharma as a heuristic device means that I can apply the dharma to the world “out there”, to society. It’s an essential tool for a Buddhist social science. The dharma is not limited to personal salvation, a religious experience, or a self-help program. It’s an incisive heuristic device that is useful for telling us something about the world.