Black Buddha: Buddhism as Cultural Critique

photoI went to the Atlantic News stand on Morris St. in Halifax today. I poked around at the Buddhist magazines, looking for something intriguing, or at least inspiring. Or just not boring. No luck. Every Buddhist journal out there is always about the same thing: “how to reduce my personal anxiety about XY and Z.” Countless articles, countless issues, infinite words. Very little that really challenges the culture of western Buddhism or the culture of the West. Is there a buddhism out there that can really enter into a dialogue with western culture and challenge it?

Engage! started as a journal primarily concerned about social justice issues. But even that is too narrow. I would like to expand the scope of the journal to tackle a wide array of cultural issues: art, media, politics, sex and gender, ethnicity, and not from a social justice “right v. wrong” stance, but from a non-judgemental yet critical point of view. Critique is not necessarily a judgement about the rightness or wrongness of something. Critique is analysis, dissection, exploration, dialogue, discourse. There are no right or wrong answers; there are diverse and alternative points of view.

I think the reason for the proliferation of writing on Buddhism as “the giant chill pill” is because a) that’s primarily what people turn to Buddhism for, either as a secular or religious practice; and b) there’s a perception that discussing anything other than the eight-fold path or shunyata is not really Buddhism. Ok, so maybe it isn’t really Buddhism. Maybe it’s some kind of cultural bastardization of “buddhism without beliefs” (S. Batchelor) or “buddhism with a small b” (S. Sivaraksa).

Engaged Buddhism should be able to engage the world, as it is, from a critical standpoint. It should be able to engage any culturally relevant topic from a critical standpoint, as culture that critiques buddhism, or Buddhism that critiques culture, ergo, a dialogue. That requires taking some risks, stepping out of the incensed hush of the shrine room to explore the noisy, smelly world. Maybe articles on buddhist cultural critique won’t lead to ultimate truths or enlightenment, but it could produce a creative dialogue that challenges one to see the quotidian world from new perspectives. That alone is worth the cover price.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche has recently asked his sangha at Nalandabodhi centres to put up a new kind of banner.  I call it “black Buddha” and I love it. The banner hanging in our centre looks like the buddha-head figure above, but tinted gold, in a wall-length field of black. It has Zen overtones by virtue of being very simple and focused, and being mostly black. But it is something distinctly more than, or something other than Zen. It is distinctly contemporary, or dare I say it, avant garde. (I am trying to find out the back story of how DPR developed this concept and why he is asking it to be displayed in every centre: report soon). Perhaps we as a community are entering what will eventually be called the “black Buddha” period, like Mark Rothko’s black paintings. But there’s something really intriguing about this image. To me it says “modern sangha,” “sangha that takes chances”, “sangha that is not afraid to explore new ideas”, and a dozen other things. It’s radical, but also deep and profound.

What I’m searching for is not so much a western Buddhism, one translates the treasury of Asian religious philosophy into western idioms, but for a modern Buddhism, one that relates with our contemporary world in a critical dialogue. And considering that the cultural and economic weight of the world is shifting away from the west and toward the east, it’s not likely to be primarily western; but it will certainly be modern, even postmodern. I would personally like to explore Buddhism’s propensity for deconstruction, and thus its postmodern dialogue with culture. I’m looking for personal and scholarly works that explore these issues. The idea would be to create an open online journal, one that is in some measure peer reviewed, but also completely accessible. If we have enough good quality articles, there is the possibility of selecting the best for printing an annual review. If anyone has articles or ideas to for this expanded version of Engage!, please write the editor, shaunbartone@gmail.com

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