Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
[photo of earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, 2015]
Archaic Buddhism is in ruins, but we can sort through the ruins of the past to find things that we might need to create a future spirituality.
The problem with Buddhism as it’s practiced today, East and West, is that it’s backward looking, always looking to the past, trying to locate and preserve ancient teachings as ‘authentic’ and ‘original’. It’s a strain to apply archaic teachings to the world today, because we live in a vastly different world than the Buddhists of the Indian Subcontinent 2600 years ago. Because the technological future is coming at us so quickly, subsuming the present, we need a spirituality of the future.
I define spirituality as a way of relating to self and world. What I like about people who meditate, or contemplate ‘the spiritual’, is a couple of things. First, they develop introspection, the capacity for self-reflection. People who are self-reflective are less likely to project their issues on other people, or blame others for their own problems. They are less likely to act out of rage, hate or fear. They are more likely to be gentle, fair, and reasonable. They tend to have a better understanding of their own motives and reactions, so they are better able to understand the motives and reactions of others. Second, they tend to take into account many sides of an issue; they can incorporate the grey areas into their perspectives on the world. It doesn’t matter if they develop this capacity for self-reflection and perspective-taking through meditation, contemplation, prayer, psychology, life experience, or reasoning. All that matters is that they develop and employ these capacities.
A member of my Twitter sangha, Dan Garfield sums it up: “But if I tell you that my understanding of the dharma is that it values rejecting extremes, integrating opposites, and transcending oppositional dualisms, do you think I’m on the mark or am I missing something?” This is the kind of nuanced perspective-taking that improves human relationships. How you acquire that capacity, through which doctrines or practices, doesn’t matter; all that matters is that you acquire that capacity and use it.
Another member of my Twitter sangha, Monica: “Nonduality doesn’t eradicate duality…it holds it. Duality is still real. To pretend otherwise is spiritual bypass.”
Another member of my Twitter sangha explained ’emptiness’ better than anyone else I’ve ever read, as “the non-duality of emptiness and form.” If you look at something that has material form, it is also empty. If you pick up, hold, touch, taste, smell, and feel the weight of something that has material form, that is also empty. Emptiness and form are inseparable.
I’m also a dedicated environmentalist and advocate for climate justice. In order to advocate for life on this planet, I have to appreciate the material world, the world of organic matter, of living beings, the empirical science of species and eco-systems. In order to appreciate and protect the living world, you have to appreciate its material existence.
So that is why I am a Buddhist Materialist, because I embrace the materialism of the natural world. That is why I also practice with the ‘raw material’ of the sensate world, the world of culture, of music, art, literature, of everyday material and cultural experience.
I read the science fiction classic, Stranger in a Strange Land, published in 1961 (the year of my birth), about a human who was raised on Mars but comes to earth, and starts a new religion based on his Martian culture. Valentine Michael Smith’s religion looks remarkably like the hippy new age spiritualities that were about to flower in American culture in the mid-60s. The Martian religion features ‘free love’, water-sharing, telekinetic powers, and most famously, ‘grokking.’ Author Robert Heinlein invented the verb ‘to grok’, which is to ‘get’ or understand a communication or situation in an intuitive way. That verb made it into the vernacular in the 60s and is still used today. Heinlein’s book foretold a future spirituality, albeit by less than a decade, but it was prescient nonetheless.
I want to create a science-fiction form of Buddhism. Call it Cyborg Buddhism. I think I’m already well on my way to doing that. I have almost a dozen articles that are entitled “Buddhist Futures”, and Cyborg Buddhism will probably be the next one. I’m not talking about Cyborg Buddhism in the sense of Transhumanist James Hughes, who is interested in technological enhancement of the human being to create a state of ‘enlightenment.’ I’m using Cyborg as Donna Haraway defined it in The Cyborg Manifesto. (A quickie from Wiki):
Haraway begins the “Manifesto” by explaining three boundary breakdowns since the 20th century that have allowed for her hybrid, cyborg myth: the breakdown of boundaries between human and animal, animal-human and machine, and physical and non-physical. Evolution has blurred the lines between human and animal; 20th century machines have made ambiguous the lines between natural and artificial; and microelectronics and the political invisibility of cyborgs have confused the lines of physicality.
Haraway highlights the problematic use and justification of Western traditions like patriarchy, colonialism, essentialism, and naturalism (among others). These traditions in turn allow for the problematic formations of taxonomies (and identifications of the Other) and what Haraway explains as “antagonistic dualisms” that order Western discourse. These dualisms, Haraway states, “have all been systematic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of color, nature, workers, animals… all [those] constituted as others.” She highlights specific problematic dualisms of self/other, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial, God/man (among others). She explains that these dualisms are in competition with one another, creating paradoxical relations of domination (especially between the One and the Other). However, high-tech culture provides a challenge to these antagonistic dualisms.
Haraway’s cyborg theory rejects the notions of essentialism, proposing instead a chimeric, monstrous world of fusions between animal and machine. Cyborg theory relies on writing as “the technology of cyborgs,” and asserts that “cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism.” Instead, Haraway’s cyborg calls for a non-essentialized, material-semiotic metaphor capable of uniting diffuse political coalitions along the lines of affinity rather than identity.
So I’m proposing a Cyborg Buddhism along the lines of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto that uses fuzzy logic and blurs the boundaries between humans, animals, matter and information. I also appreciate Haraway’s political project of building coalitions based on affinity and interdependence rather than identity.
I want to practice a Cyborg Buddhism that values and appreciates the material-organic world, that sees the non-duality of the body-mind and the material-organic world. I want to practice a Cyborg Buddhism that values and appreciates the non-duality of human and animal, the Human Mammal. I want to explore the incorporation of information technologies—what I call ‘culture’—into our brain/minds/bodies, how that creates and changes our perceptions, relationships, cultures and societies. We are already more-than-human beings: we are mineral-plant-animal-human-culture beings, so I want to practice a Cyborg Buddhism that works with mineral-plant-animal-human-culture as the site of practice. I want to mindfully experience the ordinary, the mundane, the immanent reality, and yet I also want to experience the fantastic, transcendent, mythical and science-fictional layers of reality.
I want to practice a Cyborg Buddhism that is not a purity-project, obsessively focusing on a singular teacher, sect or tradition; that is not an orthodoxy, but a meta-doxy, a hetero-doxy and a poly-doxy; that understands the interdependence of Buddhism with all other cultures, ideologies and religions, that blends cultures, religions and ideologies, that utilizes the fuzzy logic of blending, of blurring boundaries.
Cyborg Buddhism…in the beginning…