Buddhism and Social Engagement

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Zak Stein:

"As early as the 1970‘s Habermas (1970 p. 27) identified Western Buddhism as a “sedative— an orientation that channels outwardly directed protest into apolitical paths…”.

Decades later, the critical theorist Žižek (2001) would announce even more provocatively that:

- "Western Buddhism is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism…presenting itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of the capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace…it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement…. Rather than trying to cope with the accelerating rhythm of technological progress and social changes, one should rather renounce the very endeavor to retain control over what goes on, rejecting it as the expression of the modem logic of domination—one should instead, “let oneself go,” to drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference towards the mad dance of this accelerated process, a distance based on the insight that all this social and technological upheaval is ultimately just a non- substantial proliferation of semblances…. The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in the capitalist dynamic while retaining the appearance of mental sanity". (pp. 12-13)

The point here is not to critique Buddhism as a whole (some of my best friends are Buddhists) but rather just to point out that the most rapidly spreading religion in the Western world (Buddhism) is not a form of spirituality that has been leading its adherents to perpetrate disruptive social change in the name of social justice. The last time that happened on a large scale in this county it was a movement firmly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, under the leadership of a reverend with a dream about the dignity of each individual, the inviolability of human rights regardless of race, and the unique expression of humanity represented by African Americans. Today our enthusiasms for Eastern spiritual imports are leading us away from the discourse about individual rights and democracy leveraged so eloquently by Dr. King, which has served as the most powerful catalyst of social change in history. This language of liberation that is our heritage is being replaced by a language of liberation that is predominantly about the qualities of our own minds and emotional states and which includes the remarkable idea that by sitting for an hour a day on our $90 buckwheat meditation cushion we are somehow helping to change the world. There is perhaps no more iconic representation of the new American post-modern spiritual landscape than a room full of homogenized white people sitting on sets of standardized cushions facing the wall.

In recent decades we have become increasingly homogenized and standardized, as individuals’ lives have been forced into a matrix of techno-economic and political institutions of unprecedented reach and invasiveness. Counterintuitively, reported increases in individualism, narcis- sism, and entitlement reflect exactly these trends marking “the twilight of the individual.” The post-modern narcissist or entitled millennial are in fact suffering from radical doubt about their own self-worth and unbearable uncertainty about the value of their contributions to the world. As Kohut (1971) and other self-psychologists have taught us, the narcissistic personality is in fact an extremely fragile self-system, one almost totally dependent upon the affirmations of others. Conspicuous displays of self through social media, self-aggrandizing do-gooding, demands for special treatment and attention—these are not signs of the a self blown out of proportion, they are signs of a self desperate to be seen, a self needing to be counted among the worthy, needing to be affirmed in its unique worth.

The cure for the dysfunctions of post-modern identity formation is not a spiritual teaching that tells individuals to look through the illusions of their unique personal essence and beyond the unique time and place in which they live. In fact, the post-modern reader of spiritual books is already tenuously connected to their unique gifts (as opposed to the gifts the media leads them to wish they had) and the unique responsibilities of their time and place (as opposed to those directed toward a world represented through social media). Most spiritual books offer a weak balm for the stinging anonymity and de-personalization of mass-customized lifestyles and post-historical consciousness. These books tell us that our particular personalities and places are to be devalued in favor of some abstract Universal (be it Evolution, Big-Mind, or The Great Perfection), leaving the reader confirmed in their suspicion that their unique life has no special value." (http://www.zakstein.org/spirituality-beyond-escapism/)