Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
It’s time to get into some hardcore cultural critique. “America Number One” by Consolidated from the album The Myth of Rock, (original video dates from 1990) is a blistering political critique of American culture; as such, it is a critical dharma. This article attempts to push the boundaries of critical dharma into new areas of estrangement and homelessness, practicing with discomfort and alienation, taking refuge only in an intuitive sense of direction on the road less travelled.
If we are going to truly practice non-self, we have to stop focusing our practice solely on ourselves, on the well-being of the individual, and focus our dharma and practice on the collective, on society. —SB
Ambedkar Buddhism: The Navayana
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar offered a critical social theory and critical collective practice, critiquing social structures at every level, from community to State. Ambedkar was critical of hierarchies of social positions: caste, race, class, gender, labour; critical of power relations, from dominance to the revolutionary use of power. He was critical of religion and ideology, and critical of economic (and thus ecological) inequalities and imbalances. Today, the Dalits of Maharashtra and Mumbai practice critical social Buddhism as a means of self-empowerment and political liberation. Some Buddhists in the South Asian scene have said ‘enough with politics; Buddhists must practice ‘spirituality’, not politics’. But what if they’re wrong? What if spiritual politics is the most profound form of spirituality?
A Tantric Approach to a Politics of Culture
A few years ago I wrote an article called “Outcastes as Activists: A Tantric Approach to Engaged Buddhism.” That leitmotif needs to be extended in new directions. A tantric approach to engaged Buddhism focuses on process and dialectics (critical Buddhism) as much as topic, issue and content (topical Buddhism). Tantra produces a collective culture, a resilient and resistant culture, a counter-culture. A tantric approach to the politics of culture critiques cultural products and institutions from a dharma perspective. Tantric political culture rebels against cultural norms, not through pleasure, but through passion and protest. Cultural production is a collective process and practice. By producing, critiquing and transforming culture, we create the social network necessary for a collective movement. Out of culture, a collective can produce a movement that will transform power structures. A tantric approach to social action transforms the culture, and thereby transforms power relations in society.
Did the Buddha Practice a Critical Dharma?
What did the Buddha do that was truly liberating? (1) He critiqued and rejected the major religious institutions and movements of his day, the Brahmans, the Vedic ritual and caste system, the Upanishads, which are the philosophical treatises of the Vedas, and the other Sramana sects. (2) He critiqued and rejected, by giving up his own warrior caste status, the political power structures of the tribes and monarchies, and instituted a radical consensus democracy in his sangha. (3) He critiqued and rejected many of the popular philosophies of his day, and presented a philosophical and spiritual viewpoint that was based on a commitment to inquiry and dialogue to discover truth; and a radically relativist world view and rejected all absolutes. (4) He got rid of all religious and cultural constraints that impeded people’s liberation. (5) He did not pursue religious extremism; instead he devised a broad ‘middle way’ that was diverse, culturally relevant, humanistic and achievable. (6) The Buddha critiqued, rejected and abandoned private property and greed and instituted the sangha as a Commons, which included lay adherents as well as monastics. (7) He thoroughly attacked and supplanted the caste system within his sangha, and with some hesitation and compromise, ordained women, that is, he tore down and replaced the social inequalities of his day and instituted radical social equality. (8) He rejected superstition and ignorance and engaged in the relentless pursuit of empirical knowledge, i.e. provable and reality-based truth. (9) He critiqued and condemned violence in the strongest possible terms and demanded peace.
The Buddha critiqued and rejected consumerism, greed, addiction and the aggrandizement of the individual. All his methods promoted the healing and well-being of the individual person, but the cumulative effect was to produce institutions and cultures that transformed society. Through the cultivation and promotion of pro-social virtues: loving-kindness, compassion, non-judgment, rejection of dogmatic and fundamentalist beliefs, he developed pro-social attitudes and behaviors that are necessary to create a humane society.
Was Buddha’s way meant to afford comfort or create a condition without discomfort? If you had to leave your family and home, own nothing, eat once a day and beg for food, wander endlessly in strange places with nothing but the clothes on your back, critique and reject everything you’ve ever believed in and every religion you’ve ever practiced, with only a few fellow travelers as friends, would you be comfortable? So why does contemporary Buddhist practice consist of creating a condition of anesthetic painlessness and numbing comfort for practitioners?—SB
What we need to do today to equal the Buddha’s social practices is do exactly what he did: challenge every major social, religious and political institution of our day, and where possible, replace them with social processes based on equality and shared power; practice a wholistic approach to ecology as the radical interdependence of the ‘human realm’ with all other spheres of being; critique and challenge every religious and philosophical system, including Buddhism itself; critique and challenge the knowledge systems of our day and engage in the relentless pursuit of empirical truth; institute radical equality, economic commons and peace.
A critical dharma and critical practice works on creating a collective and transformative culture and we need to accomplish this through the interdependence of networks. We need to work from an ideological foundation of ecological interdependence and approach the climate and ecology crises as a radical confrontation with material reality. We need to confront the ecological suffering of all species, especially sentient animals, and the ecological, economic and social suffering of human populations,
If nibbana is the extinction of self-centered grasping and clinging to the addictive and the comfortable, then nibanna is the extinction of the anesthetic and the comfortable, embracing what is uncomfortable. Per Buddhadasa, it is the end of dukkha as self-inflicted suffering, the suffering of the ego wanting things to be self-satisfying and pain-free, to be other than what they are.—SB
So I begin again today with ‘turning the flower outward.’ Though mainstream Buddhism is an inward-looking religion, Post-Buddhism is an outward-looking project, looking in from without, from outside the mainstream institutions, working from the margins both inwards and outwards. As with critical Buddhism, I begin again a practice of dharma without Buddhism. I assert that practicing Buddhism is not about Buddhism, but about everything else but Buddhism. It is anatta, not-self.