My final reflection for the "Buddhism and Modern Thought" class. It came at the end of a series of reflections, each as distinctive as the person whose reflection it was, just before our final experience of mindful commensality.
You’ve been getting my reflections in the class follow-up e-mails throughout the semester (with this we should hit 10,000 words, not to mention all those links), so I won’t recap those… beyond noting how often I said “thanks.” I meant it then and I mean it now. Thanks for signing up at this god-awful or maybe bodhisattva-blessed time, and thanks for showing up week after week. Every seminar, but in some ways especially a seminar like this one, is an example of the generation of knowledge by a group, but that works only when people show up. You didn’t just show up, you amazed and sometimes alarmed me with your early morning alertness. I’ll come back to this group energy at the end.
I could give you the bigger story of this course again—
-- how it started as essentially a modern western thought class (the role of imagined and encountered eastern others in the history of western thought is an important story, rarely told, but this wasn’t the time for it)
-- how it was shaken up by bell hooks (beyond bourgeois Buddhisms!), and
-- how we’ve shaken it up in turn (ten syllabi almost make a flip-movie!).
I daren’t make predictions for what its next iteration will look like, but this feels alive to me in a very rare and special way.
I’m tempted to review some of the important Buddhist categories we’ve encountered, and make some final points about them:
-- the 4NT [Four Noble Truths], which I think we finally got after turning them three times (like the cup in Japanese tea ceremony), though I remain convinced that anyone who claims to be abiding with the truth of dukkha intellectually probably isn’t
-- upaya, which it’s become clearer to me presupposes the existence both of great ignorance and of beings who have broken through it: it can’t just mean appropriation or application in new circumstances, and it’s certainly not available for self-medication
-- interdependence, something both critical and distractingly vague: remember Thanissaro Bhikkhu vs. McMahan (and the distinction we perhaps never dwelt on long enough between those Buddhists who are really about breaking free of this world and those who are trying to make a home in it)
-- anatta, as Hsiao-Lan Hu argues, is another way of thinking about pratitya samputpada: awareness of the sedimentation that makes you you connects you/reveals you are connected profoundly to others who are embodied and humanized or dehumanized the way you are: it’s not just that the wall between self and other (or self and world) fades away but that we discover there never was something “inside” it distinct from the rest.
But final reflections are for trying to hold on to things we’re particularly keen not to lose, so here are some things I learned that I want to make sure I don’t lose sight of:
-- Buddhism is and isn’t about the individual: work on the “self” is central to it, and/but it’s the way not only to discover true interconnectedness but to ground agency which works around rather than into the hands of the dukkha-engines of “self” … our brief metta sprint gave the teensiest taste of that. And from Alice Walker and Thich Nhat Hanh I got that part of the interconnectedness discovered and owned here involves our ancestors
-- “Modern Buddhism” isn’t white and it’s not just western. (Resist the lure of the idea that Southern, Eastern and Northern Buddhisms have now been complemented and completed by a Western Buddhism with a face like mine). Marilyn Ivy’s “cooeval modernities” idea provides a template for a better approach—it’s what we did with our Buddhism in the Modern World presentations, and it took us (me!) places I hadn’t been before, a very different, complicated and productive way of thinking about the interdependence of Buddhism and modernity
-- Also from the Buddhism in the Modern World presentations (I had to do the reading for all regions, though you can too!) I’ve come to a deeper understanding of the question of Buddhism and politics. In a word: we won’t take Buddhism seriously until it becomes politically salient. Currently its lack of a political shadow in the West makes it seem the quintessential niche phenomenon—a celebration of nichiness—which corresponds all too well with the liberal western understanding of religion as something private, whether the private tending of wounds or the private cultivation of self. Buddhism is no more a private religion than any other, and we’ve only just begun to understand how its ways of structuring public life and engaging political power might unfold in our shared modern world
-- Buddhist-inspired art needs to be part of the picture. The nationalist context of the export of Zen aesthetics from Japan needs to be taken seriously (but again, we have to be as searching in our interrogation of western Buddhisms) but the effect of Suzuki’s and others’ ideas on artists isn’t just part of the story of modern culture but of the story of Buddhism too. In particular it may help us imagine and enact an ethics and a politics beyond the dukkha-engines of self and other (individual, tribal, national, species)
-- Finally, and this I learned from Thay [Thich Nhat Hanh], some parts of Buddhism’s work on/with the “self” work well, maybe even best, in groups. Think of how our 20-minute circumambulation of the block of 10th-11th/Fifth-Sixth was followed by one of our most intense engagements with the depth of the problem of dukkha. Don’t skimp on your jewels, you need all three: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The group project/experience may not be an accidental part of learning about all those things we’ve been exploring.
I have a tendency to relate everything back to the seminar experience… there, just did it.
Let’s finish with tangerines. But this time let’s marry our mindful tangerining with two other practices we saw in the film about Thich Nhat Hanh: the smile and the shared group experience. So eat it mindfully, but look at others as you’re doing it, savor this group we’ve had the pleasure of being part of. And smile.