The Never-Ending Project: 21st Century Buddhist Social Theory

In Pruning the Bodhi Tree (1997), Paul Swanson explains Hakamaya Noriaki’s essay Critical Buddhism (1990) thus:

Hakamaya’s next collection opens with “Introduction to Critical Buddhism: ‘Critical Philosophy’ versus ‘Topical Philosophy’. It’s point, in a word, is that to be a Buddhist is to be critical, that is, to be able to make distinctions; that the only truly Buddhist stand is to be critical; that Buddhism must be a critical philosophy able to make distinctions, not an experiential “topical philosophy” (such as hongaku shisoI) that is all-inclusive and uncritically tolerant.” (Swanson, 1997, p. 16)

This resonates with me as one who is concerned with Buddhist ethics, because in ethics, one must make choices, distinctions between actions that are harmful or beneficial. Hakamaya’s article critiques the doctrine of “buddhanature” (hongaku shiso), but I interpret this to mean a critique of “non-dualism”, such as tao or advaita vedanta. In non-dualist philosophies, both Buddhist and Vedic, one is supposed to perceive phenomena as all of a unity, as a oneness. One is not supposed to make distinctions between things because, in the “ultimate reality” there is nothing to distinguish. But to make an ethical choice, one must make distinctions between what is harmful and what is beneficial. Moreover, one must be critical of the situation, critiquing what is harmful, distinguishing what is ethical from what is unethical. To that end, I propose a Buddhist social theory that is a critical buddhism.

The following are broad areas of theoretical interest that I would like to apply to Buddhism, as a critique of its institutions, and WITH Buddhism, as a critique of contemporary society. I will continue to add to the list as I think of more theoretical positions. It’s the never-ending project, the project of constructing Buddhist social theory, or what I call [small b] meta-buddhist inquiry.

I propose at the outset that engaging in these forms of critical analysis (whether critical, constructionist or deconstructionist) are themselves forms of buddhist inquiry, or at least akin to buddhist inquiry. Buddhist inquiry is critical but compassionate; critical but working towards the peaceful resolution of conflict; critical but kind to self and others; critical but working towards the well-being of all; critical but also patient, seeing the whole picture, seeing both the short cycles of deconstruction and change, and the long cycles of re-integration.

In other words, one can simply engage in, for example, post-modern deconstruction on any topic, and [arguably] be engaged in buddhist inquiry, even though the religion or philosophy of Buddhism is never invoked. This must be carefully distinguished from saying that buddhist inquiry represents Buddhism as a religion; meta-buddhist inquiry in no way speaks for the religion of Buddhism, except when it does so explicitly as a critique of the religion. As time goes on, I hope that this blog, Engage!, actually has less and less to say about the religion of Buddhism, and engages in ever more meta-buddhist inquiry about the world.

critical buddhism (Japanese school)

post-structuralism (deconstructionist)

post-modernism (deconstructionist)

discourse analysis (critical)

social constructionism

systems theory (constructionist)

network theory (constructionist)

actor network theory (critical)

global systems theory (centre-periphery) (critical)

anti-colonialist (critical)

anti-caste (critical)

anti-racist (critical)

anti-hetero-cis-normative (critical)

anti-ableist (critical)

feminist (critical)

queer (critical)

intersectional (critical)

neo-marxist (critical)

Frankfurt school neo-marxist (critical)

ecological (critical-constructionist)

X-Post-Non-Buddhism (critical)

humanist (critical-constructionist)

anarchist (critical)

post-anarchist (critical)

cultural theory (critical)

identity (existence) as process, communication, change, evolution (critical-constructionist)

dynamic equilibrium (process, mutual causality, change, evolution) (critical-constructionist)

interdependence-emergence (constructionist)

diversity-specificity/universality-transcendance (critical-constructionist)

pratityasamutpadda (deconstructionist)

paradox without resolution  (critical)

questions without answers (critical)


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