Thursday, June 27, 2013

Buddhism and postmodernity

I've edited some excerpts from Batchelor's essay "Buddhism and postmodernity." This is some rather poetic prose which reminds me of Wilber when he's at his best.

"A postmodern world that takes for granted the plurality and ambiguity of perception, the fragmented and contingent nature of reality, the elusive, indeterminate nature of self, the arbitrariness, inauthenticity and anguish of human existence, would seem to fit Buddhism like a glove. [...] The element of postmodernity that potentially promises Buddhist voices access to contemporary culture is implicit in Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard’s simplified but seminal definition of ‘postmodern’ as ‘incredulity toward grand narratives.

"If Buddhists find themselves in sympathy with postmodern incredulity towards grand narratives, then they might be compelled to imagine another kind of Buddhism altogether. They will try to rearticulate the guiding metaphors of Buddhist tradition in the light of postmodernity. [...] The key notion in such an endeavour would be ‘emptiness.’ For here we have a notion that shares with postmodernism a deep suspicion of a single, non-fragmentary self, as well as any ‘transcendental signified’ such as God or Mind. It too celebrates the disappearance of the subject, the endlessly deferred play of language, the ironically ambiguous and contingent nature of things.

"Proponents of the doctrine of emptiness, at least from the time of Nagarjuna, have been subjected to the same kind of criticism as postmodernists receive today. They too have stood accused of nihilism, relativism, and undermining the basis for morality and religious belief. And not only from non-Buddhists; the concept of emptiness is still criticized within the Buddhist tradition itself. The history of the idea of emptiness has been the history of the struggle to demonstrate that far from undermining an ethical and authentic way of life, such a life is actually realized through embracing the implications of emptiness.

"The emptiness of self, for instance, is not the denial of individual uniqueness, but the denial of any permanent, partless and transcendent basis for individuality. The anguish and uncertainty of human existence are only exacerbated by the pre-conceptual, spasm-like grip in which such assumptions of transcendence hold us. While seeming to offer security in the midst of an unpredictable and transient world, paradoxically this grip generates an anxious alienation from the processes of life itself. The aim of Buddhist meditations on change, uncertainty and emptiness are to help one understand and accept these dimensions of existence and thus gently lead to releasing the grip.

"By paying mindful attention to the sensory immediacy of experience, we realize how we are created, moulded, formed by a bewildering matrix of contingencies that continually arise and vanish. On reflection, we see how we are formed from the patterning of the DNA derived from our parents, the firing of a hundred billion neurons in our brains, the cultural and historical conditioning of the twentieth century, the education and upbringing given us, all the experiences we have ever had and choices we have ever made. These processes conspire to configure the unrepeatable trajectory that culminates in this present moment. What is here now is the unique but shifting impression left by all of this, which I call ‘me.’

"Moreover, this gradual dissolution of a transcendental basis for self nurtures an empathetic relationship with others. The grip of self not only leads to alienation but numbs one to the anguish of others. Heartfelt appreciation of our own contingency enables us to recognize our inter-relatedness with other equally contingent forms of life. We find that we are not isolated units but participants in the creation of an ongoing, shared reality.

"A postmodern perspective would question the mythic status of Buddhism and Agnosticism. In letting go of ‘Buddhism’ as a grand, totalizing narrative that explains everything, we are freed to embark on the unfolding of our own individuation in the context of specific local and global communities. We may find in this process that we too are narratives. Having let go of the notion of a transcendental self, we realize we are nothing but the stories we keep telling ourselves in our own minds and relating to others. We find ourselves participating in a complex web of narratives: each telling its own unique story while inextricably interwoven with the tales of others. Instead of erecting totalitarian, hierarchic institutions to set our grand narratives in brick and stone, we look to imaginative, democratic communities in which to realize our own petits recits: small narratives. Such a view is inevitably pluralistic."

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