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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Secularisation of the West (and world) or in-depth Christianisation?

The following is a follow up to my post in this discussion thread on a Buddhist forum about the points of agreement between Buddhist and Stoicism. You may need to read the initial post to contextualise this, but probably won't need to if you are already familiar with Foucault's explication in his lecture series of 1981/2 The Hermeneutics of the Subject of how the ancient Greek maxim of the epimeleia heautou or 'the care of self' that had once served as the orienting precept for the more well-known maxim of the gnothi seauton or 'know yourself', had over the long history of Western culture and philosophical tradition but culminating in roughly the 'Cartesian moment', slowly been devalued and forgotten, such that 'know yourself' is today valued as the sole principle for approaching the question of truth, the pursuit of knowledge, and the relation of self to self and others.

[This is a quote of the previous discussant's post] Sooner or later there has to arise reconciliation with one's own western culture and its roots. So it is good to reveal ubiquity of wisdom and to abandon the myth of "the wisdom of the east" and the myth of "the one and only wise and holy guy".

[My response]

Indeed. According to what is suggested by Foucault's research on the history of the relation between (ways of approaching) truth and subjectivity, we ought to perhaps be more mindful about the progressive narrative of 'secularisation' that is widely accepted as an unassailable truth in the history of the Western liberal political tradition, or Western culture more generally. Adopting an understanding of conditionality that is not dissimilar to the general logic of dependent co-arising, his work suggests that the 'Cartesian moment' and its ongoing effects are dependent upon certain conditions, underpinned by certain Western Christian theological understandings of the pastorate that are today articulated as a seemingly 'secular' political rationality and embodied in the 'systemic structure' of (neo)liberal forms of govern-mentality, which like the Christian pastorate has to deal with the question of how to best tend to every individual member of the population within a certain territory - in other words, modern forms of political power has to engage in a central task of policing, regulating, and managing 'individualisation' not dissimilar to how Christianity requires its members of 'the flock' to examine and speak the truth of the self in order to objectify the self as an individual who has to seek salvation and redemption via a morality of confession and obedience. Again, I stress that this is not a matter of blaming Descartes alone but merely pointing to the impact of his rationalist mode of thinking and its metaphysical presuppositions; Descartes is of course regarded as a key figure of the European Enlightenment and a father of the 'Scientific Revolution', a historical label that was articulated in retrospect, and to my understanding,  historians have questioned if it accurately describes the sudden rupture or break as we have come to understand it in vernacular language.

The genealogy traced by Foucault's work suggests that certain Western Christian theological ideas about how we should recognise the truth about the self formed the precondition for the modern approach to truth and the pursuit of knowledge, where the act of knowing is predicated on the objectification of the self or subject, a process of interiorisation - the cogito ergo sum is one expression of this. This claim would no doubt agitate some, though I think if one feels a sense of discomfort, it usually indicates that something about our body-mind requires attention. Foucault has even suggested that it would be more prudent not to be complacent, self-assured or even smug about the accepted narrative of the secularisation of Western culture, and by extension, with colonialism and globalisation, the inevitable secularisation of the world. Rather, he wonders if there has been more precisely, a process of 'IN-DEPTH CHRISTIANISATION', the most obvious ongoing effect of which is the social, political, and ethical challenges of 'individualisation' confronting our neoliberal capitalistic times - this a problem that contemporary Buddhism has to grapple with. This is not so much a disavowal of such secular ideals as fairness and equal opportunity as such, but a simple reminder that we should perhaps strive to always defuse habitual thinking, and to do so in such a way that what goes 'obviously' without saying, may no longer go without saying. This, I believe, shares a certain 'critical ethos' with what we are pursuing with bhavana, the cultivation of insight and clear perceptual comprehension of our present experience.

The tracing of routes forgotten or not taken in the history of the Western tradition, like a reconsideration of Stoicism and other ways of approaching the question of truth and of relating the self to self, such an exercise in cultivating historical consciousness may uncover new vantage points to interrogate sedimented understandings about religion/secularism, stubborn habits of thought and self-relation that arguably pin us down to certain identities, modes of thinking, and ways of being. Alongside other wisdom traditions like Buddhism - provided we proceed with care, circumspection and attentiveness - we may perhaps discover ways to sharpen awareness about the question of 'who we are', test the limits that have been imposed on us, and hopefully always hold a space open for you and I and the world to become otherwise, over and over and over again: becoming-as-unbecoming. This, to me, is what Buddhism teaches with the idea of anicca and anatta, impermanence and not-self. But of course such ideals may be shared by others. Indeed, I believe we may learn just how much we share if we enact a gesture of hospitality towards those perceived as strange or foreign, or those perceived as holding incompatible beliefs to our own beliefs (even if one holds a belief in unbelief), engaging them in conversation for the purpose of mutual learning, recognition and respect, rather than accuse the other of bad conscience or jostle for the tinkling of our censure to be heard - or worse, insist that the line between True and False be drawn once and for all (typically from one's own 'right' side), before we accept the responsibility of changing our habits.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

On the taste/tone of the art of ethical self-fashioning and Awakening

To “give style” to one’s character – a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of the original nature has been removed – both times through long practice and daily work at it. …. In the end, when the work is finished, it becomes evident how the constraint of a single taste governed and formed everything large and small. Whether this taste was good or bad is less important than one might suppose, if only it was a single taste! ~ Nietzsche, The Gay Science

And furthermore, just as the ocean has a single taste — that of salt — in the same way, this Dhamma & Vinaya has a single taste: that of release... This is the sixth amazing & astounding quality of this Dhamma & Vinaya because of which, as they see it again & again, the monks take great joy in this Dhamma & Vinaya~ Uposatha Sutta

One understands that certain people are crying about the vacuum today and that in the realm of ideas they wish for a little monarchy. But those who, once having found a new tone in their lives, a new way of looking, another way of doing, will never experience, I don't think, the need to lament that the world is full or error, history encumbered with inauthenticities, and that it's time that everybody else shut up so that the tinkling of their censure can be heard. ~ Foucault, 'The Masked Philosopher'

What wealth here is best for man?
What well practiced will happiness bring?
What taste excels all other tastes?
How lived is the life they say is best?

Faith is the wealth here best for man;
Dhamma well practiced shall happiness bring;
Truth indeed all other tastes excels;
Life wisely lived they say is best
~ Alavaka Sutta

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Autoethnographic Genre and Buddhist Studies: Reflections of a Postcolonial 'Western Buddhist' Convert

The paper I've spoken about in which I reflect on the tensions and ambivalence I feel about being a 'Western Buddhist' convert has just been published. I have hosted it here: 'The Autoethnographic Genre and Buddhist Studies: Reflections of a Postcolonial "Western Buddhist" Convert.' Looking over it again, it seems that the arguments I'm articulating in the paper, as well as on this blog, Facebook, and elsewhere this year, are different iterations of this observation by Daniel Dubuisson in his study The Western Construction of Religion:

Through the idea of religion, the West continuously speaks of itself to itself, even when it speaks of others. For when it does so, it is implicitly in relation to the perfected model that it thinks itself to be. This is narcissistic objectification.

The paper should be of interest to anyone who is participating in the emergent 'Western Buddhism', especially those who are curious about how ongoing (and in my opinion, circuitous and misdirected) debates on whether 'Buddhism' is properly a religion or philosophy, or whether 'Western Buddhism' should totally discard the 'cultural accretion' of traditional Asian Buddhism to become fully secularised, have come about. For readers in academia, and particularly the field of Buddhist Studies (or Religion Studies more generally), the paper represents my attempt to explore the proposals by John Makransky about the need to develop what he calls Buddhist critical-constructive reflection, a mode of discourse that brings together the sacred and scholarly pursuits of the Buddhist scholar-practitioner (and which does not subordinate the truth claims of Buddhism under the will to knowledge-power of the academy) to explore new interfaces between Buddhism, academia, and society. My argument is that the aims of Buddhist critical-constructive reflection invites autoethnographic approaches to writing and analysis.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Of God, monsters, enemies, strangers, or friends?

My position on current tensions surrounding questions about religion and secularism is heavily influenced by Nietzschean outlooks (by way of the works of Foucault and Derrida). It was Nietzsche who (in)famously proclaimed the 'death of God'. This proclamation is sometimes adopted in popular discourses as an atheistic statement. But this would be a grossly inadequate reading of Nietzsche, for he would not make such a determinate metaphysical proposition. In fact, it is precisely such a habit of craving metaphysical certitude that he was warning against. 

For Nietzsche, the death of God signalled a profound cultural crisis, the advent of a ‘historical period during which humankind establishes new gods—science, technology, race or nation—to worship, new foundations upon which to slake its thirst for metaphysical certitude’ (quote from this interesting essay on the aesthetic and ascetic dimensions of Nietzschean and Foucauldian thought). Hence, he says:
God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. – And we – we still have to vanquish his shadow too... (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, § 108, p. 167)
From this perspective, whilst current atheistic criticisms are to an extent necessary to defuse the discriminatory, and sometimes violent, effects of sedimented approaches to theism, I think it ought to be asked if they are in their own way staging a play of shadows. For Foucault, Man (and it is precisely such a gendered term) is the biggest shadow left behind by the death of God, hence his (in)famous declaration that we ought to also welcome the death of man—which is not a call for the end of humankind as such, but to invite us to go let go of a historically contingent form of subjectivity, a non-essential way of relating to ourselves as a transcendental authentic subject who is capable of knowing the truth about ourselves and the world solely with objective Reason. Anyway, all these reminded me of the following bit from Khyentse Norbu's film The Cup (Phorpa):    


The story of the rabbit and other creatures raises an interesting question about how we relate the self to self and distinguish between enemies, strangers, and friends. I think this nicely illustrates Levinasian ideas about ethics that inform my work via Derrida (see my other posts on hospitality). The story stages what could be called an 'inaugural scene' which finds expression in all major sacred traditions. In Buddhism, the would be Buddha is said to have had four such encounters before renouncing his princely life to embark on a search for Awakening. Here's a nice gloss of how Levinas' ethical philosophy about responsibility towards the other raises the question of how we distinguish between enemies, strangers, and friends (from this radio show 'Saint, Strangers and Enemies' with Kevin Hart and Richard Kearney):

Kevin Hart: The face of the other, proximity, as Levinas says, is the sense of the desolation and vulnerability of the other, it's got nothing to do with the visage, the actual physical face of the other. It can be the smell of the other person as much as anything; the smell of fear, the smell of dirt, indeed, anything that pierces us. Now, it's true, we do have a sense in liberal secular democracy these days that I should be able to do anything as long as it doesn't impinge on someone else, and the other person is just fine as long as he or she doesn't impinge too much upon me. That is fine at the level of society, but that is not ethics. Ethics which, for Levinas, is something which comes before our social being is a much more primal thing, whereby the other person impinges on me directly in some way, that I am responsible for that person without that person ever forming a contract with me. Anyone who comes across my line of vision, for Levinas I am responsible for, and he says this is a phenomenologically basic idea, which is probably if not true very close to the truth. 
Richard Kearney: In most languages, and particularly in European but others too, the word for stranger can be read as a guest or as an enemy. This goes for xenos in Greek - it's our work xenophobia, xenophilia, and xenia was the word for community and hospitality. Hostis, which we have in our own language: hostility and hospitality, both come from the same root, and the word hostis could mean a stranger, but a stranger who is a guest, once you allow the stranger into your home and trust in the stranger and bring out the good in the stranger and offer healing and hospitality to the stranger. Or the stranger can be an enemy and can kill. 
So it's not a question, as I say, of naive, all-inclusive you-come-in-ism, but it is a question of learning constantly to try to discriminate between the stranger as guest or as enemy, and where possible convert the latter enemy into the guest. 
I'm just very impressed by Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker and was devoted to opening hospitality houses in down and out areas, slums of American cities. And at one point she said, you know, working through the night, there's a knock on the door. And somebody asks for refuge and sanctuary and food and water. Do you think, you know, Matthew 25, I was a stranger who asked for food and drink and you didn't give it to me. And the word "stranger" is repeated five times in Matthew 25 by Jesus. I was the stranger, the one you didn't recognise. And she said, "Is this Christ the stranger, or is it Jack the Ripper? And how can I tell the difference. And if I don't make some judgment call in this difficult call of wanting to welcome the stranger absolutely and unconditionally, I may be letting somebody in who could be a rapist, a murderer, an abuser, who could put further in danger the people I've already let in: a battered woman, a child abused," and so on. 
So there's always this difficulty. And yet the wager is, where possible, to see the good in the person and to respond to that goodness. But sometimes you may have to close the door. So yes, one can't be naive about welcoming everybody, but let me give some more examples. And funnily enough it's in stories I think we find precedents for helping others in this kind of situation. 
Going back to the very beginning of all wisdom traditions, there is an inaugural scene, or primal scene, where someone is approached by a stranger and opens the door or closes the door, or goes back and forth in sort of an oscillating moment. Examples in the Abrahamic religion, we have Abraham and Sarah who are in their tent when suddenly three strangers arrive out of the desert. What are they to do? Are they to close the doors of the tent and batten down the hatches and resist, or kill them - treat them as hostile enemies? Or they going to welcome them into their hearts and homes? And Abraham looks at the strangers and decides - it's a wager of interpretation - I will give them food. And if I do I will convert them from being ostensible enemies into God. And in effect that's the opening story of Abrahamic religion, where he says yes and they enter the home, Sarah and himself give them food, they eat under the Tree of Manna and the impossible becomes possible, namely, hospitality is won from hostility. The three strangers reveal themselves as the Divine and they say to Sarah, who is barren, "You shall be with child." And she laughs, because that's what you do when you're faced with contradiction and paradox and impossibility. You laugh. It's ridiculous. the child, Isaac, is born nine months later and he's called Isaac because that's the Hebrew for laughter. 
A similar situation - I won't go into the details - happens in Christianity when Mary says yes to the stranger. She ponders. The phrase in Luke is "She is troubled and ponders and says it's impossible." But the stranger says what is impossible or seems impossible to you, ie that this hostility - because she recoils in fear from this stranger - could actually become hospitality, and indeed the inauguration of a new birth, a new child, Christ. She then in a moment of grace moves from fear to grace and says yes, and the impossible becomes possible. 
So there again, the ostensible hostis, the hostile stranger, becomes Gabriel, the Annunciation of a new child. And I think this goes on and on down through the history of religions, if one looks at Islam also with Mohammad and the cave - but we won't go into that.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

On the right to 'Free Speech' and the freedom of 'Right Speech'

To condemn hateful speech, or call for a protest against those who promote it, is itself a form of free speech. Announcing that you are offended when someone insults you or something you believe in is not an act of censorship. What person would refrain from issuing a rejoinder against those who insult him on the grounds that the right to insult precludes the right to defend? It is worth remembering this in light of The Innocence of Muslims and the hostile rhetoric against those whom it offends... 
Shock and offence are not feelings people cultivate. They are spontaneous emotions that reflect a violation of a person's sense of self. When someone is shocked or offended, it is natural that they would express it. Yet when Muslims offended by the movie or the cartoons do so, they are accused of being an enemy of free speech. There is no excuse for reacting to an insult with violence. But many who peacefully express their condemnation of hateful views are lumped into the same category: "Why Are Muslims So Easily Offended?", goes the refrain. 
Worse yet, the creators of the cartoon are portrayed as heroes for mocking Islam in a country known for its hostility toward Muslim immigrants and fierce state protection of free speech provocateurs. Editorials around the world have lauded the magazine for its alleged bravery, with one author proclaiming, "If free speech means anything, it's the right to say and publish things that other people find objectionable and irresponsible, even blasphemous." 
Such a perspective confuses what free speech does with what free speech means. Free speech allows people to insult, berate, and defame each other, but that is not what most people want, and it is rarely what makes freedom of speech attractive to those who do not have it. Those forced to live in countries without free speech know that one of its greatest values is the ability to speak the truth about one's position, to contest false depictions, to refute bias and slander. 
Free speech means not only the right to offend, but the right to defend. When Dan Cathy proclaims his prejudice against homosexuals, or Charlie Hebdo its hatred of Muslims, that is free speech. But when gay rights groups call for a boycott, and Muslims protest a cartoon or a movie, that is also free speech. Free speech does not mean deferring to people's right to abuse you.
I find the above from this article, 'The Freedom To Criticise Free Speech', poignant, disarming and humbling even, in the way it reminds us that any affirmation of freedom cannot deny others the capacity to refuse—even to say no to freedom itself—if freedom is to be free. To me this raises a question which, perhaps, we've been shying away from because of the obligation it places on the self: what if free speech only becomes meaningful as an expression of freedom to the extent that it allows for the freedom to criticise free speech?

What if the cacophonous clatter of 'Free Speech' (and the associated understanding of 'rights' deriving from a notion of the transcendental subject/atomistic individual) has deafened our ears to the silent plea of what Buddhism calls 'Right Speech' (and the associated understanding of 'freedom' deriving from a refusal of the transcendental subject/atomistic individual)?

Speak only the speech that neither torments self nor does harm to others. That speech is truly well spoken. Speak only endearing speech, speech that is welcomed. Speech when it brings no evil to others is pleasant.
— Sn 3.3

Monday, September 24, 2012

What's in a profession?

The declaration of the one who professes is a performative declaration in some way. It pledges like an act of sworn faith, an oath, a testimony, a manifestation, an attestation, or a promise, a commitment. To profess is to make a pledge while committing one’s responsibility. “To make profession of” is to declare out loud what one is, what one believes, what one wants to be, while asking another to take one’s word and believe this declaration. -- Jacques Derrida

Had a discussion on Facebook yesterday about the Ukrainian-based feminist group Femen's topless protest tactics. The following is what I wrote and I'd like to relate it to Derrida's suggestions about a profession of faith (which inspired the paper I wrote):

There is a complex issue of how their tactics risk feeding the exploitative capitalist machine, which amongst other things, profits from the very idea that freedom is to be attained in the unfettered expression of the desiring-body. She writes on her naked body (see image in the link), 'I am free'. Free from what? Freedom only becomes meaningful in relation to what it releases. But leaving this issue aside, on the whole I'm not dismissing the counter-strategic use of the female body and tropes of raunch culture as a mode of political engagement. In fact, the activities of queer communities exemplify this very well: it can be a very powerful mode of political resistance. Having no knowledge of the specific circumstances in Ukraine—but based on what little we hear in the press—it may indeed be the case that Femen's approach has some merit in that context. But this is also precisely what gets my goat: that they portray their understanding and practice in a 'globalising' manner. This, then, has imperialising/colonising/subjugating effects of silencing other women, reproducing certain hierarchical relations whilst professing to be speaking for 'us' women—such as for instance, the totally ethnocentric and hubristic slogan 'Better naked than the burqa'. This is what the Femen spokesperson says:

"Believe me, it is really difficult for me to take my clothes off and stand in a public place. But this is the fight, and the fight is never easy."

OK. This is a profession, a pledge committing one's responsibility, a promise. But I'm curious: If there were means to actually allow their voices to be heard, and if people would be willing to lend a sympathetic ear rather than shoot off their moralising mouths, I wonder how many women in France, who despite the burqa ban, might say the same?

"Believe me, it is really difficult for me to KEEP MY CLOTHES ON and stand in a public place. But this is the fight, and the fight is never easy."

And why shouldn't they given the injustice of the legislation, not to mention the actual threat of violence it has prompted? Or if we could also somehow listen to the women of the diverse Muslim cultures of the world, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere (I stress this because there is often a conflation between 'Islam' and certain Arab cultures), I wonder how many might say:

"Believe me, it is really not an issue for me to cover myself (fully or partially) and stand in a public place. The fight you are fighting is not the battle of my choosing."

This is, of course, not a denial of the very real suffering that could be facing some women in some cultures, but merely a point about how willing we are to listen and recoil back on our own beliefs and outlooks—how willing are we to listen to what others profess and enter into relations of good faith with those who appear so strange and foreign?