Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
I just started working at a climate research think tank at Worcester State University (yay! I got a job!). It’s called Climate Action Research Network. Our mission is to produce research that generates climate action. Practitioners of Action Research have very specific meanings and methods for how they define ‘action research’ (see Action Research+ Journal for more specifics). Generally, it means that we as researchers learn from people as they practice in different fields, tasks and ways of life. We observe and collect a ‘people’s wisdom’, the wisdom cultivated by the practitioners themselves. We collect their wisdom and insights with them and share them with others to facilitate ‘best practices.’ This made me think a lot about different kinds of wisdom that different cultures generate.
Buddhism is a particular culture that generates a particular kind of wisdom. To sum it up, I would say that Buddhist dharma is the wisdom of non-dualism. Non-dualism has many meanings and forms: emptiness, interdependence, dependent origination, shunyata, interconnectedness, karma, rebirth (in some sense as ‘interlinked ways of being, doing and becoming’), oneness, wholeness, inseparability, and so forth–there are many, many ways to define Buddhist non-dualism. Generally, it’s a philosophy and world view that values integral wholes rather than parts, does not ascribe essential existence to the parts, but only to the whole, which is ultimately indivisible.
Buddhist wisdom is only one kind of wisdom. There are many other kinds of wisdoms in human and ecological cultures. (Yes, think about that: each species has a culture and ecosystems are inter-linked collections of cultures). There is indigenous wisdom, the wisdom of thousands of indigenous peoples who have persevered their wisdom and ways of life for thousands of years. Each of these wisdom cultures are very distinct and interconnected with the lands and ancestors they come from. There is also Black wisdom, the wisdom of peoples of African descent, created and preserved in diaspora conditions around the world. There is women’s wisdom, queer wisdom, and trans wisdom, the wisdom of various genders. There are the wisdoms of all the earth’s religions, including Buddhism. There is the wisdom of the sciences, the wisdom of ecology, the wisdom of healers and the wisdom of the arts.
When the Non-Buddhists speak of the ‘great feast of knowledge’ that Buddhism should participate in, they often limit that ‘great feast’ to Continental philosophy, as if that is the only other wisdom out there besides Buddhism. I’ve rarely if ever heard critical Buddhists and non-Buddhists talk about ‘the people’s wisdom’, the wisdom of countless diverse cultures.
When we limit ourselves to only Buddhist dharma, we are limited to only one kind of wisdom, the wisdom of non-duality. It’s no wonder it often feels like Buddhism cannot speak to so many of the crises and issues we face today. Non-dualism is a form of wisdom that is not the most relevant in many circumstances. When applied, it always yields a particular result: non-dualism. That’s not always the most relevant or useful kind of wisdom for many situations.
We need to open ourselves up to the whole university of ‘the people’s wisdom’, and learn from all of it: indigenous wisdom, Black wisdom, women’s wisdom, eco-wisdom, the artists wisdom, the healer’s wisdom, queer wisdom, and so forth. I’d rather see western Buddhists let go of clinging to only Buddhist wisdom and learn from all the cultures of wisdom that have been developed on this planet. We need a rich ecosystem of diverse wisdoms in order to survive and evolve.