This is a short paper presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, San Diego, November 25, 2019. It outlines the limitations of the categories of “philosophy” and “religion” for examining Buddhist thought and practice and the generative ecological possibilities of decolonizing our approach to the study of Buddhism in the American academy.
In a recent paper titled, “From the Anthropocene to Mutual Thriving”Ronacancio et al, Sustainability 2019, 11, 3312. fifteen scholars from economics, law, and the natural sciences imagine what higher education would like in their fields if it shifted from ecologically pernicious modern, Western cosmological perspectives based on the dichotomies of human vs. other and subject vs. object to an “Ecozoic” Thomas Berry’s term. It means an era when humans are living in a mutually beneficial relationship with the Earth and wider Earth community understanding of mutually enhancing subject-subject relationships. They frame this as involving a shift from an ontologyan area of philosophy that examines what exists and how it exists of separation to one of interconnected-ness; from an epistemologyan area of philosophy that examines what we can know and how we know it of domination to a more egalitarian, relational conception of knowledge production; and from an axiologyan area of philosophy that examines what we value and why of material development to a plurality of values for world and meaning making.
The authors illustrate how higher education has been complicit in transmitting and legitimizing the “ologies” that have led to our current climate and ecological crisis. They argue that if higher education is going to play a role in helping humanity survive this crisis, we must not merely add subjects to our curricula, but radically re-orient them, engage with communities outside the academy, and re-conceptualize what knowledge itself is and how it is produced. The authors don’t frame it exactly in these terms, but what they are calling for is a decolonizing of the academy and of knowledge.They do, however, trace the colonial roots of the “ologies” they critique.
Today, I’d like to frame our topic of decolonizing Buddhist Studies in terms of this larger project of decolonizing knowledge and our ecological crisis. Like the authors of the paper, I believe this crisis exposes a massive and potentially catastrophic failure of the modern epistemesystem of knowledge and understanding.
The decolonization of Buddhist studies requires multiple strategies and my colleagues here have spoken to several of these. For my part, I’d like to begin by examining how the categories of “religion” and “philosophy” shape how we study Buddhism.
Most of us are aware that “religion” and “philosophy” are not natural, universal categories; that they have very particular (if complex) intellectual, social, and political histories. We are aware that, at best, they apply only awkwardly to Buddhism, and, at worst, significantly distort our understanding of it.See my article “False Friends” and subsequent exchange with Rick Repetti in the 2018 issue of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics for some reflection on this point.
We’ve undoubtedly noticed how the intellectually embarrassing bits of Buddhism (i.e., those that don’t conform to a proper modern scientific, natural or rational worldview) are often cast off as “religion,” as things that might be objects of historical or anthropological curiosity, but not worthy of serious philosophical consideration (and some say, perhaps not all that essential to Buddhism after all). This move allows, for example, for philosophers to take some aspects of dependent arising as having explanatory purchase on reality, while dispensing with Buddhist ideas of karma, rebirth, cosmology, magic, and soteriology that are historically and culturally entangled with it. It allows them to say that when Tibetan monastics discuss the subtleties of Madhyamaka, they are doing philosophy, but when they prostrate or pray upon entering the classroom ahead of the discussion, or shed tears of devotion upon hearing the hagiographiesHagiography is, of course, a loaded term, with the implicit contrast to the modern concept of biography. In Tibetan Buddhist terms these are called stories of liberation (rnam thar). of great Madhyamaka masters, that’s religion. This understanding excuses philosophers from worrying about how such, supposedly “peripheral,” activities are productive of knowledge, including insight into Madhyamaka.See Kaleb Yaniger, “Tears of Devotion” RYI MA thesis 2019.
The assumptions that inform such views are variations on a familiar theme: Religion is primitive, while philosophy is modern (or postmodern). Religion is what our Buddhist others do, while philosophy is what we do. Or, religion is what some of us might do—in private, but philosophy is what we do in public. In his article on the decolonization of religious studies, Malory Nye notes how “modern philosophy, sociology, and (to a large extent) theology are focused on the modern and the European, whilst … Continue reading If we are historians of religion or anthropologists, we’ll make other, functionally similar distinctions to ensure that Buddhism is a respectable object of study rather than a series of potent challenges to the assumptions, values, and ways of life that inform the modern academy.
Calls to diversify philosophy departments, to include non-Western, non-white, non-male philosophers in our curriculaA notable example is Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden, “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call it What it Really Is.” New York Times, May 11, 2016 are laudable, but don’t go far enough if we are after this more radical social and philosophical challenge. As Malory Nye points out in his article on decolonizing religious studies, diversification is not the same as decolonization.Malory Nye, “Decolonizing Religious Studies,” Open Library of Humanities 5(1) 2019. To decolonize means to challenge and potentially dismantle a field of study, to question its basic assumptions, ideas and values by tracing the history of their formation, and consequences of their practice. A major goal in decolonial projects is to exorcize that which causes social harm or otherwise limits the freedom and flourishing of the colonized, as well as the colonizer. In my view, this not only includes understanding other persons (including other-than-human persons) as co-equal subjects rather than as objects, but to view their perspectives and practices as productive of meaning and knowledge.For an interesting discussion of what this might look like, see Eleanor Harrison-Buck and Julia A. Hendon, eds. Relational Identities and Other-than-Human Agency in Archeology University Press of … Continue reading
These days many of us wonder how things went so terribly wrong, how did we modern industrial subjects become so disconnected and out of tune with each other and the Earth that we find our collective survival in question. We wonder what wisdom and ways of being have been lost in the quest for material progress. Knowing the human and ecological costs of this supposed “progress”: slavery, genocide, war, oppression, mass extinction and ecocide, we wonder how we remain in its thrall.
These questions extend far beyond the academy and Buddhist studies, but decolonizing in our field is surely part of the larger task of decolonizing our imaginations, of re-evaluating our sense of what is knowable, valuable, and possible.
As noted above, the understandings of dependent arising that we find in classical Buddhist texts and traditional Buddhist cultures are embedded in networks of ideas and practices that do not accord with modern naturalism or rationalism. Although the Buddhist theories of mind-action-and-world that inform the Buddhist idea differ in detail, they generally understand a world to be shaped by and responsive to mind and intention. They accommodate a diversity of worlds, a rich ecology of seen and unseen other-than-human- beings, and a variety of reciprocal relationships between the human and other-than-human world.
Contemporary ecological thinkers commonly understand the portion of indigenous wisdom not lost to colonial conquest may be critical for our collective survival. In relating to the other-than-human-world as object and with an epistemology of domination, they say modern industrial persons have lost touch with multisensory modes of perceiving and relating to the other-than-human world that served our ancestors (and indigenous peoples today) well. If there is any wisdom in this line of thinking (and I believe there is), it is an argument for preserving the ontological and epistemological permissibility of Buddhist theories when we engage with them philosophically.
Our ecological crisis and the project of decolonization both demand this kind of epistemichaving to do with knowledge humility, but they do not and cannot demand a return to the past. We cannot unlearn modern science or technology or return to a time when diverse cultures do not cross and fuse and birth new worlds. Today, for example, some of the most popular, cosmopolitan understandings of dependent arising are both relatively disenchanted and wildly ecological, framed in terms of a deep connection with and reverence for the Earth.e.g., Thich Nhat Hanh’s interbeing and Joanna Macy’s mutual causality. Such interpretations of dependent arising exist alongside (and often fuse with) naturalized or scientific ones imbued with a less romantic, more rational environmental ethic. These eco-felicitous understandings of dependent arising are impossible without modern scientific or ecological thinking,See McMahan, David L. The Making of Buddhist Modernism, chapter 6. and it is this hybridity that makes them so compelling to modern persons, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. They might also be the views of dependent arising we need right now. But perhaps it is not to late to subject them to a little re-enchantment, to keep them open to a variety of ontological and epistemological possibilities as we go about decolonizing Buddhism in the modern imagination, and repairing our world.
|↑1||Ronacancio et al, Sustainability 2019, 11, 3312.|
|↑2||Thomas Berry’s term. It means an era when humans are living in a mutually beneficial relationship with the Earth and wider Earth community|
|↑3||an area of philosophy that examines what exists and how it exists|
|↑4||an area of philosophy that examines what we can know and how we know it|
|↑5||an area of philosophy that examines what we value and why|
|↑6||They do, however, trace the colonial roots of the “ologies” they critique.|
|↑7||system of knowledge and understanding|
|↑8||See my article “False Friends” and subsequent exchange with Rick Repetti in the 2018 issue of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics for some reflection on this point.|
|↑9||Hagiography is, of course, a loaded term, with the implicit contrast to the modern concept of biography. In Tibetan Buddhist terms these are called stories of liberation (rnam thar).|
|↑10||See Kaleb Yaniger, “Tears of Devotion” RYI MA thesis 2019.|
|↑11||In his article on the decolonization of religious studies, Malory Nye notes how “modern philosophy, sociology, and (to a large extent) theology are focused on the modern and the European, whilst disciplines such as anthropology and religious studies focus on the traditional, the pre-modern, and the non-European.” “Decolonizing Religious Studies,” Open Library of Humanities 5(1):12.|
|↑12||A notable example is Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden, “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call it What it Really Is.” New York Times, May 11, 2016|
|↑13||Malory Nye, “Decolonizing Religious Studies,” Open Library of Humanities 5(1) 2019.|
|↑14||For an interesting discussion of what this might look like, see Eleanor Harrison-Buck and Julia A. Hendon, eds. Relational Identities and Other-than-Human Agency in Archeology University Press of Colorado, 2018.|
|↑15||having to do with knowledge|
|↑16||e.g., Thich Nhat Hanh’s interbeing and Joanna Macy’s mutual causality.|
|↑17||See McMahan, David L. The Making of Buddhist Modernism, chapter 6.|