Saturday, May 03, 2014

Essais sur le dāna

Today's symposium of the Princeton Buddhist Studies Workshop on dāna was lots of fun. A roomful of interesting Buddhologists, from all manner of disciplines and working on every era and region of Buddhist history - and me! You might not have thought one could have a single conversation about such different civilizations and periods but we did, though the ground was starting to crumble under our feet by the end of the final discussion. A good crumbling, though! The continuities of Buddhisms (and the nature of "Buddhism") are good questions to face.

We seemed able to bring together phenomena from so many contexts because of the seductive power of important modern theorists (all French!) on "the gift": Marcel Mauss, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida.

But while dāna is etymologically linked to le don, the various things we discussed turned out to be more loosely related, if related at all. Are lay offerings supporting monastics (what Maria Heim calls "gifts of esteem") really the same kind of thing as bodhisattvas helping suffering beings, perhaps by sacrificing their bodies for them (Heim calls these "gifts of compassion"? By the end of the day I had a long list of terms with question marks next to them: gift? offering? giving? generosity? merit? donation? charity? endurance? sacrifice? It may be that these all (except the last two) exhibit the paradoxical "logic of the gift" (in short: it's impossible) but even these are not always and obviously dāna. Were we associating them because they are all (supposedly) unreciprocated transfers of things?

In my two interventions - respondent to the second panel, and then, with the other two respondents, offering some summary observations at symposium's end - I ranged all over the place, but expressed the hope that Buddhist traditions offer a way beyond the impasse of the logic of the gift. This was just a hope (and is neither a rationalization nor an excuse for the way in which dāna culture routes charity to the socially privileged) but I grounded it in a few discussions which had shown the almost infinitely fruitful way in which dāna has been thought to operate. Even poorly chosen dāna poorly given to a barely appropriate recipient is thought to have the potential to transform everyone involved. And if you transfer the merit of a good action to someone - your parents, say - you get merit for that, which you can then in turn transfer, and on it goes.

More profoundly, I suggested, Buddhist traditions are more up-front about the existence of disparities in human relations, and might be able to give us correctives or alternatives to modern western ethics premised on egalitarianisms posited only in the abstract. That was poorly formulated - needs more thought. (Better words in the first ¶ here.) But it seemed a well-received gift to the Buddhological proceedings!

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