Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Various forms of Buddhism say that we create our reality with our minds. This is often misinterpreted as saying that we have the ability (some say the ‘power’) to create and change cosmic reality just by our thoughts, or consciousness. While I don’t agree with this kind of magical thinking, I do want to use this Buddhist concept to help us understand social facts.
What is a social fact? Social facts do not exist as a material reality, like chemicals or rocks. They come into existence when people behave in certain ways. We begin to create social facts by thinking and intending to behave a certain way. Then we act on those thoughts and intentions by speaking or acting. (Notice the 8-fold path here?) When we repeat those actions over and over again, it begins to form a pattern of behavior. When those patterns of behavior are repeated, they become social facts. As long as those patterns of behavior continue to be enacted and repeated, they are real, that is empirical phenomena. We can describe them, we can observe their frequency, duration, intensity and effects. Usually, these regular patterns of behavior are conditioned, that is prompted, by pre-existing social and material conditions. I am physically hungry and I lack food, so I go to the market to buy food. That’s a social behavior prompted by a preexisting material condition (hunger) and a social condition (markets), thus, a social fact.
What a Buddhist sociology says is that we create our social realities. Social realities, such as the caste system in India, are created not by gods or divine powers, by the ‘natural order’ or ‘the universe’, but by human beings whose thinking and behaviors are enacted in patterns of social relations. Social relations are created by humans and acted out in patterns. It is possible to change those patterns, and thus create new social facts, new social realities
In this vein, I think of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar who was probably the first modern Buddhist social scientist, if there ever was one. Ambedkar studied anthropology and economics at Columbia University, and was a political philosopher. Those three social sciences together constitute modern sociology. Ambedkar was trying to use Buddhism to create a new social reality in India: the end of the caste system and its replacement by a new social order of liberty (freedom to act in a new way,) equality and fraternity amongst all Indians.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has revealed this with astonishing clarity. What we thought were fixed material and social conditions, to the point of being accepted as the ‘natural order’ of things, global capitalism, has been interrupted almost overnight. This ‘natural order’ has been revealed to be nothing more than a network of complex social behaviors, each node of the network existing in dependence on all the other nodes to remain in a state of continuous enactment, to keep the pattern going. If we can stop this global social reality in a matter of weeks, we can surely create a new social reality that is less damaging, less exploitative and more beneficial than global capitalism. ‘Pandemic is a portal’ as Arundhati Roy has said.
Now I will leap to the next level of social realities: the creation of new social systems. My fellow sociologists, ecologists and economists are always concerned with the ‘next social system.’ What will the next civilization be after Western hegemony? What will the next economic system be after Capitalism? What will the next social system be after Racist Patriarchy? What will the next natural resource system be after Global Warming? We make the mistake of constantly trying to guess what’s coming next.
My answer is that the next social system is this: whatever we want it to be. After studying social systems for forty years, I have concluded that any kind of social system is possible at any time—although some might be difficult to create and maintain—and that many different kinds of social systems are already in existence around the world, although some are dominant and some are marginal.
Right now there are social systems that are capitalist (most of the world), communist (China), socialist (Cuba), social democratic (Northern Europe), fascist (Russia), green (Costa Rica), indigenous (Native North American tribes), technocratic (China again), worker cooperatives (Basque Mondragon), pre-modern agrarian communes (the Amish), tribal hunter-gatherers (Amazonian tribes), and hybrids of all of these. These are all in existence at the same time, though some are dominant (Capitalism) and some are marginal (pre-modern agrarian communes).
So after studying these, I have come to believe that we can, and we should, create whatever social reality we want to live in. We should not be dismayed that the particular social system we create is not the dominant one, although it might be difficult to sustain. Intentional communities that embrace certain utopian ideals have always been in existence. Many of these new social realities are created out of struggle with dominant systems, and not without a fight: Black Lives Matter, the Gay Rights movement. We should act with the courage of our convictions and do our best to create those new social realities for this reason: because though small and marginal, they can have a significant influence on the dominant social system. These small, marginal communities are laboratories of social creativity and experimentation. They are a living embodiment of social values and practices that could prove to be beneficial for human survival and evolution.
In June 2017, the young black attorney Chokwe Antar Lumumba was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, with 93 per cent of the vote. He pledged to make the capital of this former slave state ‘the most radical city on the planet’. Kali Akuno describes the grassroots mobilisation that launched him to office. (Resilience, Jackson Rising, May 10, 2018)
A major progressive initiative is underway in Jackson, Mississippi. It demonstrates tremendous promise in making a major contribution towards improving the overall quality of life in the city, particularly for people of African descent. The ‘Jackson Plan’ is spearheaded by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) and the Jackson People’s Assembly.
The Jackson Plan is an initiative to apply many of the best practices in the promotion of participatory democracy, solidarity economics and sustainable development, and combine them with progressive community organizing and electoral politics. (Red Pepper, April 30, 2018)
Human beings are enormously creative and generative. What we imagine, we enact; and what we enact becomes our social facts, our social conditions, and our social reality.