Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
model of emergence: http://www.kierandkelly.com/emergence-and-the-reverse-law/
In the spirit of post-Buddhism, I’d like to offer thinking as a tantric practice. The raison d’être of tantra is to purposefully violate the tenets of virtuous Buddhist practice, the idea being that all phenomena are essentially pure and naturally liberated. So if “thinking” is a violation of the Buddhist edict to give up conceptual thought, I offer a thinking as a tantric practice, that thinking is essentially pure, self-liberating and essential to human life. But with one condition: we must learn to think “outside the box” of Buddhist doctrine.
I get sick of pondering the same dozen Buddhist ideas over and over again. Emptiness, dependent origination, karma and rebirth, the 4 truths/8-fold path, bahavanas and paramitas, enlightenment, suffering and liberation, mindfulness, wisdom & compassion, buddhanature, impermanence, non-self, and so-on. Like enough already. These are not end points, but places to begin inquiry into one’s life. It’s time to get really post-Buddhist and start thinking outside the Buddhist box.
Buddhism offers some basic metaphysical concepts: understand that everything is empty of self-nature, impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen. Ok fine, but those concepts don’t exclude other possible concepts, nor do Buddhist teachings on meditative experience exclude other kinds of spiritual experiences. I’d like to focus on concepts like emergence, process-flow, deconstruction, critical theory, post-modernism, diversity, chaos and complexity, and a very broad notion of experience, as not just philosophical, but as spiritual ideas. I have a pretty good foundation in the basic doctrines of Buddhism, and my practice has developed to the point where I have experienced some of these things in meditation. But the limits of Buddhism should not stop you from engaging with other concepts and experiences, the “great feast of knowledge” as the Non-Buddhists say.
Question everything. Get out of the trap of thinking and teaching the same Buddhist ideas over and over again. Deliberately contradict Buddhism, critique it, deconstruct it. It’s not sacred, and it’s entirely empty. A post-Buddhist is not afraid to deliberately challenge Buddhism. If you cannot think against and beyond Buddhism, you end up being trapped by it, a slave to it. It stops being a process of open and creative inquiry and it becomes indoctrination, brainwashing. Break on through to the other side by deliberately contradicting everything it says. That’s what tantra originally tried to do, but then it became just another form of Buddhist religion. Inquire into cosmology, into the [non]meaning of phenomena. Sociology, psychology, art, science, philosophy, ecology, cosmology—these are all things that I want to continue to explore, within, against and beyond Buddhism.
A great model of what I call post-Buddhist thinking is the work of Adrian Ivhakiv and his “process-relational philosophy.” Adrian is a Professor of Environmental Thought and Culture at the Univ. of Vermont. Adrian’s interdisciplinary background includes work in the humanities, creative arts, and social sciences.
Matthew interviews Adrian in his Imperfect Buddha podcast.
“In the latest episode of the Post-Traditional Buddhism Podcast, we interview Professor Adrian Ivakhiv, who shares his thinking around an alternative perspective, one based on viewing the world as process and as always in relationship. This view has much in common with Buddhism in which a truly separate self has no place and impermanence and inter-connection form the basis for our experience.”
You can read Adrian’s shorter works at his blog, Immanence:
In the future I hope to discover more people like Adrian who are influenced by Buddhism but who have gone beyond it and incorporated it into a larger world of meaning and experience.
I contend that Buddhism doesn’t have all the answers for our lives, but it does offer a process by which we can question and test reality and make new discoveries. The Heart Sutra says that the fully awakened live, not by doctrine, but entirely by wisdom. So look for wisdom wherever you might find it. Ponder human existence and discover all the wisdom that’s there, in all its flaws and contradictions. Stop looking for the “right answer” that will “solve all our problems.” Stop looking for the magic formula that will “end all suffering” forever.
Now that I’ve redefined Buddhism for myself as a humanist spirituality, I’d like to further redefine Buddhism, or post-Buddhism, as a process of open inquiry. Radical post-Buddhism is a daring process of open and creative inquiry, a confrontation with reality, questioning everything. If everything is empty, then there are no absolute or essential truths, except the truth of emptiness-as-process, which I am now calling the path of open inquiry. Previously I have called this Meta Buddhist Inquiry (we have a study group by that name). This path is truth as process, truth as inquiry.
Emptiness refers to consciousness; it is consciousness that is empty. Thinking is empty; concepts are empty. There are no thoughts, concepts or truths that are absolute, essential or eternal. Therefore you are free to think whatever you want. This is the tantra of thinking. Language is empty of meaning except what people agree that it means. It is nothing more than a signifier. It has meaning because signifiers convey meaning; that is their function. But that meaning is relational and changeable. Meaning changes all the time, it is provisional and contingent. It could be otherwise.
I find it very sad when Buddhism is used to shut down people’s thoughts, imaginations and experiences to allow only those prescribed by the religious tradition. And how wonderful it would be if Buddhism became the great vehicle for opening up the human imagination to bold creativity and the exploration of new ideas and experiences. Stephen Batchelor calls this the “culture of awakening.”
This post, and the next one on Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, signals what I’m calling the death of “idiot Buddhism.” What is “idiot Buddhism”? Idiot Buddhism is Buddhism that refuses to think, that uses “non-discursiveness” as an excuse for lack of intelligence, a lack of creativity and imagination. Idiot Buddhism uses “emptiness” as an excuse for not thinking through the political implications of our actions—or lack of action. Idiot Buddhism lacks the courage to face the world as it is and fully engage with it. Buddhism itself asserts that the primary cause of suffering is not immorality per se, but ignorance. Critical thinking and fearless inquiry removes ignorance as the primary obstacle to enlightenment. With the path of open inquiry, I’m putting an end to “idiot Buddhism” and instigating a dynamic Buddhism that fearlessly explores the human experience.
As a path of open inquiry, all modes of inquiry are allowed. This is really a path of liberation. It begins with Buddhism, but leads beyond it. Doctrinal Buddhism is very limited, but it is aware of its own limitations and points beyond itself, to the Greater Reality. This is my view of the Mahayana. One must go beyond the limits of doctrinal Buddhism in order to really practice Buddhism. Post-Buddhism is really the fulfillment of Buddhism. It breaks through the thin protective shell of the egg and lets the fledgling eagle soar.
Buddhism as a path of open inquiry operates at different levels of reality: material reality, the body, human psychic experience, social organization, ecological and cosmological reality. Post-Buddhism as a path of open inquiry is essential for engaged Buddhism on all levels. Critical post-Buddhism courageously confronts power structures, religious dogma, and challenges all forms of social oppression. Post-Buddhist inquiry seeks out and promotes forms of wisdom drawn from the margins of human society.
For humanistic truth, I would look for what works for a given situation that is ethically conducive to the well-being of all. A humanistic Buddhism has to take into account histories and cultures of oppression, our vulnerability and suffering. It must be concerned with justice and compassion, with love and mutual support. It provides an ethical basis for human relations, for creating a humane and just society.
Traditional doctrinal Buddhism can be a kind of familiar ground, a stabilizing force that provides balance and relieves suffering. But one cannot get stuck with ‘relieving suffering’ forever. If you reduce Buddhism to just ‘relieving suffering’, then one must continuously produce “suffering” in order to continue practicing. Eventually the patient gets well and must leave the hospital. Thinking outside the Buddhist box might help us create new concepts and practices that offer more healing and liberation than traditional doctrine.
So traditional and humanistic Buddhism is something that one can always come back to—take refuge in. But then one must leave and go out again, beyond Buddhism, to post-Buddhism, to the path of open inquiry. This is the tantra of thinking, thinking outside the Buddhist box.