Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
This talk by Guhyapati is a brilliant analysis of the current ecological, economic and political state of the world, what social movements have to offer towards social and political transformations, and the role of the Dharma in those transformations.
I am with Guhyapati all the way up to the very end where he discusses a response from a Buddhadharma perspective. He takes a critique from Unger’s book on The Religion of the Future, that Buddhism is not poised to be a religion of the future that could usher in a new ecological era. Like Thanissara in Time to Stand Up, he correctly identifies what’s wrong with Buddhism. He explains why Buddhism, as a religion, is inadequate, and for largely the same reasons: Buddhism’s response to the suffering of the world is to (1) reduce one’s own personal suffering; and (2) see the suffering of the world as “illusory, empty, impermanent” such that we can only transcend this suffering through attaining ‘nibanna’ or ‘ultimate enlightenment.’ Guhyapati even correctly identifies how Buddhism has to change in order to be a viable candidate as a ‘religion of the future.’
Guhyapati rejects the early Buddhist goal of the arhat as a personal escape from samsara, and turns to the Mahayana, which proposes there is ‘no difference between samsara and nirvana.’ He argues cogently that this doctrine supports active social engagement with the transformation of the world. Furthermore, Mahayana points to the intertwined liberation of all sentient beings; we cannot effect our own liberation unless we work for the liberation of all. Guhyapati then offers the Bodhisattva ideal as a model of social engagement.
All of this I agree with, until Guhyapati identifies the particular doctrines of the Mahayana that are supposed to lead to collective liberation: Madhyamika and Yogacara. He says that Madhyamika fails because it is too wrapped up with “emptiness” and points to an escape from the suffering of the world. He proposes that other major doctrine of the Indian Mahayana, Yogacara, was a doctrine that balanced the Madhymika’s extreme view of emptiness.
Yogacara says, in a nutshell, that our experience of the world is created entirely in our minds. Yogacara is the “mind only” school, that the only thing that is real, phenomenologically, is what is created in our minds. My objection is that Yogacara is only concerned with the world that we experience, and what I experience of the world is only a tiny fragment of the larger planetary and universal world that actually exists in material reality.
So this is where I totally disagree with Guhyapati’s thesis on the Buddhadharma: neither Madhyamika nor Yogacara is of any practical use for ecological transformation because both philosophies do not address our material practices in the world. Unless we develop a dharma that addresses and transforms our material practices, Buddhadharma will have no effect on the development of an ecological transformation, and could even contribute to our failure to deal with ecological crises.
The Mahayana sutras that describe the Bodhisattva ideal propose that we should work for the liberation of all beings, but then, as in the Diamond Sutra, turn that idea completely on its head and insist “but there are no beings to be saved, anywhere.” This is the Mahayana, which like so many other forms of Buddhism, admonishes you to save the world, and then pulls the rug out from under you by saying “but there is no world to be saved.” Unfortunately, though the Bodhisattva ideal is wonderful, the doctrine that it leans on is completely unworkable.
The place to begin with a Buddhist approach to material practices is in the body, because it’s the body that is entirely material, immediately real to us, and totally dependent on the material conditions of our environment. The Buddha’s teaching in the Shorter Discourse on Emptiness shows that ‘mind’ is not an ultimate or eternal reality. ‘Mind’, or consciousness, is dependent on the body, the body is dependent on the environment,i.e. our material conditions, and is therefore as conditioned and impermanent as everything else.
Here’s where I would look in the dharma for support for ecological transformation: all discourses that describe philosophies and practices with the body and the mind as integral with the body. That would point to the early Pali Canon, including the Abhidharma. But what I would take from the Abhidharma is not the literal step-by-step deconstruction of sensory experience, but the general model of deconstructing, and reconstructing, the physical and sensory world that we live in.
Second, I would look at those approaches to Dependent Origination that interpret it as a model of empirical inquiry and causality: “because this is, that becomes; this ceasing, that ceases to be.” In particular, I would build on versions of Dependent Origination that emphasize the interconnectedness of all beings and all elements in the universe. Joanna Macy’s dharma of “mutual causality” as systems theory is the best example of this interpretation.
Then I would, yes, look to the Mahayana and the Bodhisattva Ideal for more support for social engagement and ecological transformation. That would also include some tantric practices. But I would look primarily to Hwa Yen, from the Avatamsaka Sutra, which describes the interconnectedness of all phenomena through the metaphor of ‘Indra’s web’. It is here that the Bodhisattva Ideal is connected to a network of relationships, materially and ethically, through which human actions are collectivized and connected to each other, to all sentient beings and to planetary systems.
In order to develop a Buddhadharma that has the capacity to support an ecological transformation, we must prioritize (privilege) the body, interconnectedness, interbeing and intersectionality, interdependence, and an empirical model of dependent origination, dharmas that connect with and transform our social and material practices.