A new essay by Jayarava (Compatibility Issues 3. Buddhism) is a brilliant analysis of the cultural role of Buddhism in the world, past and present. Jayarava argues that the Buddhist worldview is epistemological, in other words, a description of our experience of the world, and how we know what we know (espistemology) rather than a collection truth statements about the absolute or objective reality of the world (ontology) (which btw, makes it phenonomenological as well as espistemological.)
I encourage you to read Jayarava’s article in it’s entirety, so I will only copy a couple of paragraphs here:
But [compared to imperial Western Enlightenment] things were no better in Asia or India. Buddhist nation states routinely denied citizens basic rights and freedoms, they substituted the kinds of religious ideologies that made subjects content to be subjects. The idea of karma was used to undermine Buddhists’ sense of agency in the present, by insisting that what is happening now is a fate predetermined by how we lived our previous lives. We need to be clear that traditional Buddhism seeks to turn back the clock and take us back to a medieval worldview. The risk with this is that we relinquish the basic freedoms wrested from the church and put an ecclesiastical hierarchy back in charge. The level of sycophantic deference directed towards “venerable” monastics suggests that many Buddhists are all too willing to be subjugated by them. Just as it’s important to resist the rise of the far-right in France, the “moral majority” in the USA, and the right-wing nationalists in the UK or India, we have to recognise the regressive and backwards social and political organisation associated with Buddhist nation states and Buddhist monasticism. . . .
We offer a vision of human potential; a practical path for realising that potential; and a community of people who want more from life than mindless consumerism and blind obedience to the dictates of commerce. These are our gifts (ratna) to the world. If we were more aware of the limitations of these gifts (particularly the powerful constraints on who can achieve their potential) and of what we don’t offer (an ontology; politics), then I think we would be in a stronger position. Perhaps we can boil it down to the idea that, at our best, Buddhists offer a way for people to experience a powerful sense of interconnectedness; something they crave, but which modern life does not provide. Let’s not allow ideology to get in the way of giving our gifts with an open hand.
First, Buddhism is a religion, and like all religions, offers the emotional security of belonging to a tribe. But if that’s all Buddhism has to offer, then it isn’t offering anything different than any other religion. In the last analysis, what all religions have to offer is comfort from the existential dilemmas of life and death, and the security of belonging to a tribe. But tribalism is precisely the social dynamic that is holding the entire human species hostage to racial and religious conflict, hatred, violence and war. If humans are going to survive as a species and evolve towards becoming a species that thrives on cooperation within ever-tightening ecological limits, then we have to get beyond tribalism. Detachment from a group identity is a first step toward creating a universal connection with people who are very different from us.
Second, what Buddhism has to offer to the world is not only the possibility of transcending tribalism (through careful application of the doctrine of emptiness), but a very sophisticated view of interconnectedness (dependent origination, interdependence interbeing, etc.) that is essential for an ecological worldview. We have reached our ecological limits within the biosphere. In order for humans to survive as a species, with all other species, we must develop a profoundly ecological worldview, and we must be able to put that worldview into social and global practice. We must create an ecological culture and society. We must renounce consumerism and economic growth as the aims of a healthy society and embrace our ecological limits, which means producing less, consuming less, and wasting less. The Buddhist renunciate tradition supports the renunciation of private property and self-aggrandizing consumption. But the Buddhist tradition of interconnectedness, not only with humans of all kinds, but with all forms of life on the planet, is the sine qua non of a worldview that will enable us to survive our ecological crisis and create a new global culture that is life preserving and life enhancing. The Buddhist tradition of holding property in common supports the nascent worldview of The Commons, a form of social exchange that challenges and replaces both Capital and the State.
I have worked in the environmental movement for the last 20 years, and I can tell you from personal experience that the Abrahamic/Monotheistic religions don’t offer anywhere near the theological support for an ecological worldview as the Buddhist doctrine of interdependence. Pope Francis is doing his best by elevating St. Francis as the patron saint of ecology, but outside of a devotional practice (I was raised a Catholic), I’m not sure it’s going to teach the world how to see our intrinsic interdependence with all life forms and the biosphere. Buddhism has this capacity in spades, but has yet to realize its fullest potential, theologically and politically.