Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Hu's on First

What does non-self looks like? Today we learned it looks like this:

Hsiao-Lan Hu brought "Buddhism and Modern Thought" to this profound insight. Hu's This-Worldly Nibbana offers a compelling alternative to the common Four Noble Truth-centered depiction of Buddhism. Together with her new project on Avalokitesvara (above), it gave us an exciting new vision of what Buddhism offers - and demands.

I called our session "Hu's on First" for more reasons than the irresistibility of the pun. In their famous baseball routine Abbott and Costello may prove to have been bodhisattvas - a lesson in anattā and social kamma! But it was also only with Hu's description of the persistent failure of Buddhism to combat gender and class hierarchy in Asian history (in the reading for Monday's class) that we really faced the First Noble Truth, the truth of dukkha. Doctor, heal thyself?!

Can it really have taken us until our twenty-second class to arrive at square one? Most presentations of Buddhism start with the First Noble Truth! We encountered the Four Noble Truths early on, too (though our first Buddhist category was upāya). But you'll recall that I ensured they came with a wobble. Walpola Rahula recommends that those new to Buddhism start with the Fourth Noble Truth (Noble Eightfold Path) and proceed to discussions of meditation and engaged lay practice, before looping back (as needed and if necessary) to the first three Noble Truths and the puzzles of anattā. You don't start with suffering but with practice. Hu puts the point plainly: the Buddha may have shared the Four Noble Truths in his first speech, but it was to seasoned ascetics. Most people aren't ready. They'll misunderstand it or be laid low by it.

(As I suggested when we read Rahula, Perhaps we aren't able to face the overwhelming reality of dukkha before we know from experience, however elementary, that there is something we can do about it, however difficult. Likewise the doctrine of anattā, which is not only paradoxical but paralyzing if we don't already know from experience, however limited, that and why and how we cling to the idea of a perduring soul - and that we don't have to.)

In Hu's account, the central concept is pratītya samutpāda, which she translates as "interdependent co-arising." This is something you might begin to understand through meditation - or through reflection on ways in which your subjectivity and sense of self have been shaped by your culture, things well observed in reflection on what we actually do. She deftly braids classic Buddhist analysis of the "five aggregates" with constructivist feminist accounts of the non-naturalness of gender. What had seemed given, even predestined, is now revealed as the performed artifact of a culture and of your socialization in it - a socialization which, you realize in seeing it, leaves you some options in contributing to or disrupting the "sedimentation" (a concept from Judith Butler) which gives things the appearance of a perduring identity (self).

There isn't always much space for agency, but there is always some space - and this is enough to turn kamma from fate into freedom. Tracing the ways things you had taken for your "self" in fact reside in contingent cultural practices, discourses and structures beyond you, you are at once dislodged from them and brought to the realization that they are shared with others, who may suffer from them just as you do. Your participation in norms and patterns such as gender strengthens their seeming solidity not only in your life but in that of others; refusing to participate weakens their hold not only on you but on others. "The twin central teachings of Buddhism, non-Self and interdependent co-arising, are actually the same concept stated from two different angles" (65). Your freedom from a fated "self" and your responsibility in compassion for others are experienced together.

It's a truly wonderful interpretation - I hope many more people discover it! And I can't wait for Hu's new project to come to fruition. In it she explores the story of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin in Chinese, Kannon in Japanese), whose boundless compassion leads him (her in China and India) to assume whatever form is needed to get through to a suffering being. Thirty-three such forms are enumerated in chapter 24 of the Lotus Sutra, that important locus of upāya. Scholars have analyzed the gender switch as Akvalokitesvara moves from the Indian to the East Asian cultural sphere - another fascinating story. But Hu's analysis takes us a crucial step farther, finding in Avalokitesvara's facility with appearing in whatever form or gender is required a model for all of us.

When I first heard Hu present this material at AAR two years ago, it seemed ingenious, a revelation. Today I appreciated that it provides an answer to a crucial question arising from the understanding of pratītya samutpāda, anattā and kamma. If I have no "self" to be true to, how shall I decide which of my available selves to perform in any given situation? A queer theorist might speak of the exploration of new pleasures here; Hu speaks of ethics. Like the bodhisattva many a Buddhist vows to become, Hu suggests we allow compassion to guide us. Not who am I? but whom does the other need me to be?

Beautiful! And a strong enough sense of agency, and responsibility, in the concrete situations of our lives that we might be able to contemplate the First Noble Truth without looking away. As Rahula suggested, you can get there - when you are ready for it - only if you first enter the Noble Eightfold Path, which comprises not just wisdom but ethics, and thirst-weakening and compassion-strengthening meditation. We can't take down the system of dukkha (or leave it, and all other sufferers, behind) but, once started in responding in our own engaged way, we might as well continue!

Costello: Well then who's on first?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: I mean the fellow's name.
Abbott: Hu.
Costello: The guy on first.
Abbott: Hu.
Costello: The first baseman.
Abbott: Hu.
Costello: The guy playing...
Abbott: Hu is on first!
Costello: I'm asking YOU who's on first.
Abbott: That's the man's name.
Costello: That's who's name?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: Well go ahead and tell me.
Abbott: That's it.
Costello: That's Hu?
Abbott: Yes.
(watch the whole abhidhammic exchange here)

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