Continuing from the previous post…

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“For Buddhism,” Clark writes, “the negative path of the destruction of illusion is inseparably linked to the positive path of an open, awakened, and compassionate response to a living, non-objectifiable reality, the ‘nature that is no nature.’’’


Clark perceptively identifies what I consider to be the central challenge for Buddhism, which is the question “Why should the destruction of illusion lead to compassion rather than to cynicism as it often seems to in everyday life, or to social conservatism as it has in the case of Humean and other forms of philosophical skepticism?” Buddhism traditionally asserts that this is just what will happen: if you proceed on the Noble Eight-fold Path, in a guided way consistent with the process outlined by the Buddha and his disciples, you will eliminate the sources of egoic illusion and will naturally, spontaneously, begin to experience compassion for other sentient beings.

This, to my mind, is Buddhism’s central leap of faith. Clark’s answer to this question — he points to work in evolutionary biology that demonstrates the biological underpinnings for altruism — is, unfortunately, unsatisfactory. None of that work says anything about the kind of altruism that Buddhism is asserting, an altruism, or feelings of kinship, solidarity, empathy and care, extended to all sentient beings. Instead, it generally limits itself to kin- and social-group related altruism. (Wilson and Kellert’s “biophilia hypothesis” could come closer to the Buddhist claim, but the versions I’ve read of it don’t do that; they merely smuggle in certain assumptions about “nature” and then try to prove them with empirical data showing that we, or some of us, like certain kinds of “natural” environments, etc.)

In Buddhism, the claim is more radical and profound: it is that a fundamental compassion for all dependently-arising entities like us will emerge as a direct consequence of experiencing the “groundlessness” of our own being. What’s generally meant is the kind of graduated experience of that groundlessness that comes out of the diligent practice of the eight-fold path. Simply pulling the rug out from one’s own self-construct, as can happen in psychedelic experience for instance, will not necessarily do it (though it might). The claim, then, is experiential, processual, and relational, and can only be tested empirically. The Buddhist sangha (community) provides a “safe” vehicle for its testing and its fruition. But in a pluralistic world such as ours, will the experience of groundlessness, achieved in isolation from other parts of the eight-fold path, necessarily lead to compassionate empathy with other sentient, existent entities like us? It’s not clear. Clark suggests as much when he writes:

“The reason why many forms of skeptical critique lead to cynicism, egoism, or social conformism is that the critique remains on the intellectual level, while the socially and historically constructed self, which consists not only of a collection of abstract ideas, but also, quite notably, of mental and behavioral dispositions, is not subjected to the ultimate critique through the transformative power of fully engaged practice.” (p. 27)

Deleuze & Guattari’s exhortations to pursue “lines of flight” and “deterritorialize” can be seen in this light. Not all self-deconstruction is ego-deconstruction, and not all ego-deconstruction is guaranteed to be empathogenic. It helps to have the guidance of a dharmic community, a sangha, within which to perform it. The leap of faith of a neo-Buddhist globalism, perhaps, is that humanity (or maybe humanity plus nature) can be that sangha – which is why both communication/dialogue and social justice are called for, because we’re all in it together, or we aren’t in it at all.

In the end, Clark makes a case (or a plea) for Madhyamika philosophy’s relevance to the larger political and historical project of social liberation:

“Nagarjuna helps us understand the fundamental human predicament: that we are faced with a dream world of illusory, deceptively permanent objects and egos, and a futile quest to defend the ego and dominate reality. Where most analyses (including most Buddhist analyses) of egocentric consciousness and the egoic flight from the trauma of lack stop short is in failing to investigate the social and historical roots of these phenomena. We must understand that the ego is not only a psychological and epistemological construct, but also a historical one. Its roots are to be found in the development of large-scale agrarian society and regimented labor, the rise of the state and ancient despotism, the emergence of economic class and acquisitive values, the triumph of patriarchy and warrior mentality – in short, in the evolution of the ancient system of social domination and the domination of nature. To put it in Buddhist terms, our true karmic burden, both personally and collectively, is our profound historicity and our deep materiality.” (p. 28, emphasis added)

He calls for a “history of the ego,” with

“its long evolution [...] in dialectical relationship with such institutions as patriarchy, the state, and the system of economic exploitation of humanity and nature, culminating in the present globalized society of transnational corporate capital, the nation-state system, the technological megamachine, and the mass-consumer culture. [. . .] Undoing the ego means undoing not only the psychical legacy but also the social legacy of that history of domination.”

I would applaud this project, while recognizing that it’s not an easy one and that this way of phrasing it sounds too singular, monolithic, and teleological — too much, in fact, like Bookchin’s. (I suspect that Clark may be aware of this problem, but that he had to wrap the article up somehow, making it relevant to the readership of Capitalism Nature Socialism). More accurately, I would say we need a “history of egoic conditioning,” or something like Foucault’s history, or genealogy, of the subject, but with a focus on the “lack” and the “other” to that subject — which emerges differently under different historical circumstances. Writing that history/genealogy isn’t easy because we can hardly get a god’s-eye view unaffected by our own historical moment (as Heidegger and Foucault both recognized). Pieces of it can be found in Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia, with their attempt to historicize the body, the psyche, and the polity all at once; in David Loy’s Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack; in some of Teresa Brennan’s work; and in Morris Berman’s overambitious and prematurely abandoned (what happened to him?) project that peaked with Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West; and scattered in other places. (I haven’t figured out yet how much of it can be found in Ken Wilber’s integralist project; see Michael Zimmerman’s and Sean Esbjorn-Hargens’ Integral Ecology for a relevant offshoot.)

I want to end by coming back to my point about the complementarity of Deleuze and Derrida, or of what I would call the Deleuzian Buddha and the Derridean Buddha. It’s often been noted, including by Derrida himself, that Derridean deconstruction shares much with the negative-theological traditions of Asian thought. As I’ve argued before, Derrida’s focus on language limits his project. Nagarjuna does essentially the same thing, but his approach is more radical in that it calls for the deconstruction not only of the concepts that structure our experience, but of the experience itself. That’s where philosophy becomes psychology (and, ultimately, what goes by the term “mysticism”). Varela, Thompson, and Rosch made much the same argument in The Embodied Mind, and the Varela-founded Mind and Life Institute provides a space for developing both the science and the psychology of this line of work.

Where a Derridean/Nagarjunian deconstructive project helps us see through the constructs we believe to make up the world (of individual ego and of collective/social ego — the nation, the empire, the state, the body politic), an affirmative project such as Deleuze’s — and the life-affirming thread within Mahayana Buddhism, as Clark argues — provides a necessary complement. I resist the idea that these make up two fundamentally opposed approaches, an “ontology of lack” versus an “ontology of abundance,” as Tonder and Thomasson’s Radical Democracy puts it. They are complementary, with the deconstructive and psychoanalytical (and here we need a lengthy excursus on Lacan, object-relations theory, and much else) taking away from the self/ego structure (social and personal) whilst the affirmationists (Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson, Connolly, et al) provide means to orient ourselves within the space that has been vacated in its wake. Connolly’s idea of “relational arts of the self” — all those ways (ritualistic, psychophysical, et al) in and through which we can wean ourselves away from resentment so as to more fully embrace the earthy reality of the relations in which we find ourselves — points to the work we can do individually toward this end. As inheritors of the spiritual traditions of millennia, with a growing knowledge of how the bits and pieces of those traditions affect us physiologically, psychologically, socially, etc., we have a lot to draw from (though, of course, I wouldn’t suggest that traditions are there to be poached indiscriminately, without sensitivity to the political relations circumscribing them).

Enough, for now.

The photo above is of a decomposing whale carcass I came across on a beach near Tlell, Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), several years ago.

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