Archive for the ‘Buddhism’ Category

Orientalism in the Orient – I

May 3, 2011

Looking through some old photos of mine, I came across one that I was hoping to use in a class but hadn’t gotten around to yet. It is an ad for power switches/light switches. And its marketing angle is the term ‘xen’ which is obviously playing off of the term ‘zen’.

Zen is a term used widely in North American popular culture to evoke the mystical East, or a sense of calm, or whatever its latest referent is. What is interesting is that this picture was taken in Bangalore, India (2006). If this image was used in North America, we might decry it as the appropriation of the “Other” for the capitalist gain of the “Self”. Instead, we have the appropriation of the “Other Asia” by “Our Asia”. The key elements of orientalism that are reproduced here are stereotypes of the Other as exotic (zen is a major signifier of such), as a symbolic commodity to be capitalized on for is semiotic value, and as a moving signifier to meet the needs of the ‘Self’. What does ‘Xen’ mean here? What does it evoke? The clean, calm lines of modernity? Of minimalism and simplicity? Of mystery and exoticism? How does the ‘X’ change the meaning as opposed to the ‘Z’? Does it signify a cool, hip variant?

Another thing to note is that the second sentence under the word ‘Xen’ is as follows: “More Affordable in economy LATINA series”. Here we see the politics of orientalism/race/gender playing out that contributes to the stereotyping of female hispanics as poor or lesser than. It might contradictorily affirm the attractiveness of the hispanic female–that is, why is it LATINA and not LATINO? Again, we can come back to the analysis that sex is the prime signifier of desire in late capitalism, and sex within patriarchy is inhabited by the male gaze.

This seemingly innocuous image of power switches is embedded in a whole intersection of symbolic meaning and utilizes many stereotypes within discourse to market the product as attractive for consumers who are also consuming this symbolic product.

Buddhism Does Not Exist

July 25, 2010

NOTE: This is a comment I posted on this post at feministe, by guest blogger Kloncke. I thought I’d like to save it, because reading it again, I liked parts of it. Especially the first sentence. 🙂

Buddhism does not exist. Buddhism is a figment of our individual and collective imaginations. The “Buddhism” that we know in the “West” has little to do with Early Indian Buddhism, much in the same way that Early Indian Buddhism has little to do with Chinese Buddhism. What Buddhism has become a repository for–since its construction by Europeans as “Buddhism” (say as opposed to buddhasasana or some such), some unitary “world religion”–is all of our desires and dreams. In the early 20th century Early Buddhism was the religion of ‘rationality’ that could replace a corrupt, institutionalized, superstitious, oppressive Christianity. Then it suited our desires for mysticism and existential angst with Zen. Now Tibetan Buddhism is popular for whatever reason. Ironically, in Korea, Buddhism is seen as decadent, and Christianity is a vital, rational religion. So, why Buddhism? I guess the point I am trying to make here, is that all this discussion about what “Buddhism” is, has little to do with Buddhism and everything to do with our own conceits.

Is Buddhism about meditation? Is it a philosophy or a religion? Is it about mindfulness, etc. etc.? The answers to these questions betray our own interests and desires. Why do we get upset when one person says Buddhism is X and another says it is not X? Why take sides?

I think what could be useful is to step back a bit and ask: “are we not becoming problematically attached to ‘Buddhism’ when we want to think Buddhism is a certain way and to argue against the idea that it is another way?” Buddhism is a vast religion, with too many iterations to count. For most ‘buddhists’ throughout history, Buddhism was a complex of gods, rituals, social norms, and platitudes to get through their daily life. Indeed, even meditation was a minority practice among monks! Much of what we think is Buddhism has been a haphazardly constructed Orientalist stereotype that meets the needs and desires of Western audiences. We are spoon-fed a Buddhism that meets certain of our desires. Ironic.

Given all this, the question should not be “what is Buddhism” or even “what does Buddhism say about X”? Rather, the question should be, “since every invocation of Buddhism is used for a certain end, is an appropriation, to what end am I appropriating Buddhism–and what are the consequences of that appropriation?”

A Short History of Buddhism and Orientalism

July 25, 2010

For the scholarly minded, or those who want to get a good resource for the Orientalist construction of Buddhism, I suggest this source that I just started re-reading: Jorn Borup, “Zen and the Art of Inverting Orientalism: Buddhism, Religious Studies and Interrelated Networks”, in New Approaches to the Study
of Religion, Volume I: Regional, Critical, and Historical Approaches
, edited by Peter Antes, Armin W. Geertz, and Randi R. Warne, 451-487. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2004.

This is a great introduction and summary of quite a few different number of recent scholarly examinations of Buddhism, its construction, and its place within Orientalism and relationship to Orientalism. While, I would have prefered a more robust theoretcal or even critical analysis at the end of the paper, it is still quite good. I think it would have most impact on those scholars who haven’t yet encountered the counter-discourse arising in Buddhist Studies against its own ideolized projections (led by people like Donald Lopez, Almond, and others). Great for a intro to Buddhism course at university.

I’d like to know what others think of this piece.

Foucault and Buddhism Redux

June 28, 2010

Caveat: Comparing two distinct trajectories of thought–considerably removed in time, place, historical development, context, background assumptions, socio-cultural surroundings etc. is a problematic endeavor. Why do it? One is essentially appropriating some aspect of each trajectory for one’s own uses. So one must be careful not to contribute to the various systemic forms of domination that play out: e.g. those that inform why we are choosing to care about these trajectories of thought as opposed to others and may not be independent from problematic interests; the way we speak about each may be impacted by forces that contribute to systemic oppression (i.e. orientalism); our goal in comparing is never separate from our own interests, and we must be careful about the potential productive use our comparing can do).

Taking these concerns and others into account, I’d like to compare Foucault and Buddhism to elaborate on why one would compare Foucault and Buddhism. Just as in the caveat above, any contribution to knowledge is the putting into play of a discourse for certain effects. In this (my) interpretation (i.e. for this post, this instance of comparative work) the intention is to speak about social justice. Social justice is many things to many people, so perhaps a working definition is in order. To whit: Social justice is the idea that domination should be eradicated, and socio-economic, gendered, sexual, racial (etc.) equity is a major part of combating domination. Domination comes in many forms, but the most productive forms of domination are institutional and structural and impact the individual lives of everyone. With this insight, social justice is the analysis of, critical engagement with, and strategic operation against the institutions and systemic processes within which domination operates.

From this perspective, when comparing Foucault and Buddhism, we can see prima facie (and understandably, given that idea of social justice is already heavily influenced by Foucauldian thought), that Foucault’s analysis of discourse, genealogical history, the construction of the subject and the disciplining of the self through institutions is an important and insightful examination of domination. One way we can think about Foucault’s answer to domination is to imagine that he is saying that these broader structures  are only continually reified in local instantiations–the sum and interrelation of which through history is what enables domination. Thus, strategically, and ethically, the opposite is true: it is only through local instantiations of strategic resistance to, and positive alternatives from, dominating relations that the work of social justice happens.

Buddhism’s concern is somewhat removed here. The telos of  Buddhism is different things to different people. Without going into the historical and comparative background, I think a plausible universal within Buddhism is the goal of the cessation of suffering, most commonly through the work of the cessation of attachment. How these two things play out in Buddhist history is exceptionally varied: from the 8-fold path, to the bodhisattva vow, to the six or ten perfections (depending on the tradition), etc. Two common themes develop in Buddhist history: the cessation of suffering at an individual level (in Foucauldian terms, the construction of the self that suffers less); and, the cessation of suffering at a universal level–that is, the goal of alleviating suffering for all sentiant beings (or sometimes just ‘the most one can reach’). The latter can speak to something similar to social justice: within the category of suffering are those things that lead to the more ‘mundane’ sufferings of poverty, illness, violence, etc., and also the more ‘existential’ suffering of uncontentedness engendered by, say, impermanence. The former theme of the cessation of suffering is a very local one: how does one produce one’s ‘self’ in such a way as to continually decrease one’s own suffering.

The trite part of my analysis comes in here: it seems to me, from the perspective of social justice, Buddhism only works at the level of the individual subject and at the level of a universal abstract. From this same perspective, Foucault’ s analysis works in between these, but only offers up the method for challenging and producing subjects and also leaves for continual re-imagining the goal (the abstract universal telos) of strategic work. In both cases, one could say that he leaves the end-product up to each of us. I would like to imagine, for this comparison, that these two ways of thinking about Foucault and Buddhism are complimentary. The open ends that Foucault leaves us, when filled with my abstract Buddhist analysis above, can be interpreted to speak towards social justice.

The work of re-imagining the subject could be predicated on constructing one’s subjectivity (through whatever practices) towards the goal of the alleviation of suffering. This subject-construction must work in tandem with the more abstract end of one’s reconstructions: the alleviation of suffering for everyone (or, in utilitarian terms: the least suffering for the most amount of sentient beings). What Foucault’s analysis allows us are the tools to interpret the systemic and institutional forces that shape domination and the expanding of suffering, and allow us a method towards which we can work for the cessation of suffering at an individual, local level for broad universal effects. Put another way, perhaps more negatively, Foucauldian analysis fills in the gap between the individual and the universal goals of dukkha-nirodha (the cessation of suffering) that is lacking in Buddhism. Buddhism can help concretize the open-ended nature of Foucualdian subject-construction.

Indeed, put in this light, I would argue that Buddhist goals and aims are on par with other social justice perspectives like feminism, post-colonialism, anti-racism, marxism, etc. that attempt to use Foucault to develop strategies of analysis and resistance to fight Patriarchy, Orientalism, Racism, and socio-economic imbalance, etc. Buddhism, when put within the list of social perspectives, could use Foucault for strategies to fight Suffering. Add dukkha to the list of intersectional oppressions, and use it in conjunction with feminism, post-colonialism, etc.–perhaps even include it, from this perspective, within the list of progressive doctrines. And, since we love labels, call it Progressive Buddhism.

Inspired by this thread: by Klonke at Feministe.

Old Writings: Foucault and Buddhism

March 29, 2010

I have recently decided to start posting some old writing that I’ve written, for whatever reasons you may choose to impute on me–should you choose to do so. The previous post on Our Pedophilic Society was one such. This will be another. I’m not sure if I will start distinguishing these from those things I write recently, but for now I won’t. Without further adieu, here goes:

“Foucault’s notion that we construct our own subjectivity, especially in his later works, leads to important questions about why we act, think, believe and feel the way we do. Why do we choose to interpret the world in some ways as opposed to others? What ethos are we supporting when we act, believe and speak in the ways we do? The hermeneutic question here is: Why do we choose a certain subjectivity instead of another? Underlying this question is a tacit opening up of the malleability of one’s subject-position and the consequence that we can take an active part in constructing our own subjectivity. We can engage with all of those forces that shape our subjectivity, and attempt to reconstruct it in other ways. Foucault’s hope is that we challenge dominant paradigms and create new, less hegemonic/oppressive forms of subjectivity. The idea that we can take an active role in constructing our subjectivities is a key element of some Buddhist thought. One of the insights underlying much of Buddhist thought, including the Four Noble Truths, is the understanding that we actively create our own dukkha. While samsara is characterized by duhkha, nonetheless, the project of liberative action in Buddhism is the cessation of duhkha. This is engendered by an analysis that attempts to show how we can actively change our interpretations of the world, and how we can specifically reshape our attitudes about reality, our emotional states—in general, our subjectivity. To be more clear, the insight that we can transform and engage with our attachments is a position that at root is about transforming our subjectivity. The similarly key insight for both is that our subjectivity is not a given, it is a product of forces around us that shape how we construct ourselves. For Foucault it is power-relations and interests that impact our subjectivity; for Buddhists it is our collective attachments that shape our subjectivity (or conversely, the world as samsara of our being-in-the-world). And in both cases, a program of reconstituting the subject in ways that liberate the subject from these forces that shape our subjectivity engages directly with how we dominate ourselves through the disciplining of our own subjectivity.”

Let me provide a bhasa or auto-commentary. My first response is, so what? Almost every ideology demands the transformation of the subject. Why are these two so special?

Advanced Test Question 1: Forget Lin Chi

April 30, 2009

Since I’ve decided that this blog is a forum for all my wacky thoughts, especially on Asian traditions, I’ve decided to ask research questions that I would hypothetically love to ask hypothetical students. Who knows what it will amount to, but I figured I’d like to keep a copy of my idea. And this blog is designed as the repository for just this sort of thing. I think.

Here is a research question for all you zenists out there.

Reconcile the following quote by Lin Chi, patriarch of zen,

Whatever comes along, don’t let yourself be taken in. If you have a moment of doubt, the demon will enter your mind. Even Bodhisattvas, if they give way to doubt, are be assailed by the demon of birth-and-death. Just put a stop to such thoughts, and never seek outside yourself. When something appears before you, shine your inner light upon it; have confidence in what is operating within you–everything else is empty,

with the following quote by Hakuin, a later Japanese patriarch who revitalized Rinzai, the Japanese zen school that traces its lineage back to Lin Chi:

When you come to think about it, those who have investigated the Mu koan, brought before themselves the great doubt… It is all a matter of raising or failing to raise this ball of doubt. It must be understood that this ball of doubt is like a pair of wings that advances you along the way.

Good Luck.

For bonus points, explain the relevance of the title of the question, “Forget Lin Chi,” and its relevance in this context.