Buddhist or Postmodern?

Ecology and dependent co-origination, emptiness and deconstruction, Queer theory and the relative nature of duality – why is it that Buddhism seems to speak so consistently to the cultural preoccupations of our time?

About a month ago I graduated from a part-time BA completion program at California Institute of Integral Studies, finally finishing what I started about fifteen years ago in my couple of years at the oddly monastic Deep Springs College.  Squeezing in the program on top of my various temple responsibilities and my life as a new father at times seemed a little over the top, but with the support of many and the generous flexibility of Green Gulch and CIIS both, I was able to pull it off.

A lot happened in my heart and mind of Dharma as I re-entered the realm of “worldly” academics.  But the main insight or question I want to share now is the most general one:  how creepily consistently “the Dharma” connects with and mirrors contemporary thought.

Generally speaking, a lot of contemporary academic thinking seems to be around the awareness of relativity or positionality, the deconstruction of dualities, the unreliability of authorities – all kinds of issues that are right at the heart of what I have thought of as “Buddhist” concerns.  I felt in much of the postmodern-y stuff I read a struggle to ground a politics and morality in the middle of this deconstruction and relativity, an almost taboo postmodern longing for some solid place to stand.  It was uncanny to feel that the exact conversation we have in the Sangha about precepts and emptiness, about morality in the midst of “no fundamental to rely on,” is exactly a conversation that is happening more broadly in our time and place.

There are a zillion examples of connections between Buddhism and our current cultural situation – ecology is an obvious one.  It’d be fun to map some of those lines sometime, but the bigger question for me know is “Why”?  Why is it that Buddhism speaks so directly to the themes of postmodernity?  Is it because the tensions we currently face are basically timeless human questions, questions the Buddhas and ancestors have been grappling with for 2,500 years?  (Or the ancestors at least… Buddhas can’t technically grapple.)  Or is it because the moment Buddhism arrived on these shores and the instant it took form in Western language it was subjected to and inevitably transformed by Western categories and concerns?

In other words, do we think that Buddhism speaks to these issues just because these core issues of our place and time are so inescapable, so deeply relevant to all of us, that we inevitably set out to work on them against whatever backdrop we encounter, in this case “the Dharma”?  Or, again, are these issues that we call contemporary simply the current manifestation of cross-cultural and fundamental human problems?

This question has been a lot on my mind.  I don’t have a clear answer, and I think it is some of both.  My postmodern, social constructivist bias of course, which I find backed up by Buddhism (or at least my post-modern, social constructivist version of Buddhism!), is that it’s much safer to speak of the “here and now” than of the cross-cultural, transcendent, “essentially human” condition.  At the same time, I think we all acknowledge the need to leave room to ask sweeping questions about what it is and has been to be alive in the world, whether we can then go on to answer them or not.  Those questions are at the core of our practice, of religious life generally.

More important to me than completely sorting out this dynamic is to really appreciate personally that in fact as a semi-monastic Buddhist priest I am not and have not been isolated from the world at large or from the concerns of my larger society.  Like everyone, I have always been immersed in them.  My concerns about “emptiness,” “form,” “enlightenment,” and “precepts” are to some degree just the particular language I have adopted to approach the existential problems that pervade the twenty first century United States.

Reflecting on the relevance of the Dharma in a world that sometimes seems to have much more pressing concerns, I’m freshly appreciating that Buddhism is not doing some other project than the shared project of our culture and society.  I’ve been looking for relevance as though it is something I need to gain, to discover or manufacture.  But not unlike the Lotus Sutra’s pauper finding the treasure in his own sleeve, I find that this relevance has been inevitably present the whole time.

I don’t mean we should stop working to manifest the relevance of the Dharma – I think we really do need to work to make it real in our time and place.  That work, though, is just a clarifying, just a honing.  We don’t need to strain to push Buddhism over some hurdle of basic foreigness, or basic irrelevance to our culture.  We can instead just acknowledge how deeply they mutual permeate, and continue forward in our work that uplifts both.

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4 thoughts on “Buddhist or Postmodern?

  1. My college literature teacher, Hubert Dryfuss, has just co-authored a book on the existential meaning to be derived from applying ancient Greek god-categories to modern…what, life? thinking? experience? Is that a flip side of what you are grappling with here? I can’t help thinking that the real difference is in meditation practice and what it does to the mind.

  2. Agreed on all points, fascinating questions. A sangha near me called the Interdependence Project has been willing to tackle these (at least initially) intellectual questions head-on; here’s a course they’re teaching on this topic:

    Meditation in Midtown

    New York, NY
    566 Curious Minds

    We are curious minds of New York who get together to explore our selves and our interdependence on the meditation cushion and through the shared study of secular Buddhism. We …

    Next Meetup

    Lovingkindness Meditation (LKM) Group – Every Friday!

    Friday, Jun 23, 2017, 6:00 PM
    1 Attending

    Check out this Meetup Group →

    Alas I haven’t been able to attend any of the sessions.

  3. Yes, great questions! I tend to see this in historical context: Buddhism arrived at a time when modernity, monotheism, the sense and idea of a unitary self, and other ‘master narratives’ of the modern West were unravelling. Buddhist views and practices fit the times and so people picked it up and experimented with it — and it began to take root here, in a way that it hadn’t before.

    Of course, in the process of adopting Buddhism, we also change it, as you say, appropriate it to our currently available conceptual models. And yet, over time, as we practice and study, it continues to work on us and change us, too. If we’re diligent and lucky, anyway!

    Norman Fischer talked a bit about this last week in his Dharma Seminar on Mahayana Buddhism, in connection with the early (mis)translation of Buddhist texts in China.

    I also think technology plays a role here, in reshaping our conceptual models. But that just raises another raft of questions about the connections between a “wired” world view and Buddhism. Why, what is that about? Ultimately, there’s an element of mystery to this, don’t you think?

  4. Or maybe you project what you’re trained to percieve. Perhaps we only see the world through the frameworks we’ve built for ourselves. We tend to underestimate the prevalence of coincidences naturally occuring within our lives. I would actually personally disagree with the correlation between bhuddism and intellectualism as I find purely intellectual pursuit of spirituality is a dead end.

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