Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Healing the world

My "Buddhism and Liberal Arts" advising tutorial continues to be a blast. In principle we've been working our way through a chapter of Hsiao-Lan Hu's This-worldly Nibbana: A Buddhist-Feminist Social Ethic for Peacemaking in the Global Community, but, as ever, our discussions have been wide-ranging. Hu challenges traditional Buddhists and many new agey western Buddhists to think socially rather than individually about practice and effect, which aligns nicely with the activist culture of our college. But she also argues against "oppositional" thinking, even when thinking about oppression, directing us instead (with inspiration from peace and conflict studies founder Johann Galtung) to look beyond actual violence to the structural violence that makes it possible, and beyond structural violence to the cultural violence that makes it seem natural. (Good politics even for non-Buddhists, methinks.) Oppositional thinking is ineffective politically, she argues, but also bad for those thinking and acting in those terms, as it takes them into the territory of the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. It's a rich, dense, exciting book - a bit advanced for people without much background in Buddhist studies, perhaps, but full of useful provocations and sources. A mere meditation-for-wellness view of Buddhism looks pretty wan in its light - which was my intention in assigning it.

Nevertheless, the pleasure of this gathering for me has been precisely the experience of a non-academic engagement with Buddhism, and wellness and meditation are the concerns of several of my students. When I invited that masterful Tibetanist to join us a few weeks ago I thought he was liberating them from this concern, but that just goes to show how unmasterful I am. Remember I thought that he had parried a question about Buddhism changing your brain by evoking the monstrous beating heart of a lama who had grown extra arteries to cope with heart disease - surely we didn't want Buddhism messing with the core of our fleshly being like that, I thought! I thought it was supposed to be grotesque, but not, it turns out, the student who asked, who today told us he has found hope in it for healing a number of serious medical conditions he's recently and suddenly encountered. Buddhism interests him precisely for its promise to work "on the cellular level," knitting his broken body back together.

I suppose, with Hu, I have a similar hope for the social body... How much we can learn from each other! We have another visitor next week, a Vietnamese meditation leader and researcher on mindfulness practices in organizations. Is it OK to be having so much fun?

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