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.