The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Buddhism and the Social Justice Problem

Something I’ve been struggling with personally as well as in my writing has been trying to tie Buddhism (particularly Theravada), which is at the core of my heritage as a Sinhalese American, to my general sense of practical secular ethics. A major hurdle in this process has been the apparent indifference of doctrinal Buddhism to the issues of contemporary social justice.

Sungtaek Cho at SUNY Stony Brook, in Selflessness: Toward a Buddhist Vision of Social Justice, discusses this notable lack from the historical perspective of cultural imperialism:

Almost all of the ancient philosophies and religions paid scant attention to issues of social justice in the modern sense. […]  it is only from the eighteenth century that social justice emerged as an important issue in political thought and social philosophy in the West. The last three centuries have thus seen the maturation of such key concepts as citizenship, political equality, and the fair distribution of economic resources.

However, the process of modernization that drove the development of social philosophy in the West paradoxically retarded it in the East. Belatedly experiencing modernization as Westernization  initiated by military and economic contact with Western colonial powers, Eastern intellectuals lost confidence in their native traditions, coming to see them as relics of the past without relevance to contemporary problems. As a result, indigenous philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, were neglected in favor of the study of Western thought.

This stunted growth in sociopolitical awareness may not be as acute in majority-Buddhist regions of the world, particularly those in which serious moral and existential questions have been put to the test — say, through civil war. Sri Lanka obviously comes to mind, though I can’t say I am in the loop as to its religious discourse. However I do know that contemporary South Asians of Buddhist heritage but Westernized cultural attitudes (who, by and large, do not speak the academic language of their ancestral nations) run into a huge stumbling block in attempting to access any deeper call to social activism within Buddhist doctrine. Cho again:

The difficulty of developing a theoretical framework for Buddhism in engagement with contemporary social issues is rooted in the very nature of Buddhism as an ontological discourse aiming at individual salvation through inner transformation.

Among the core tenants of Buddhism is that this world of Samsara is illusory and permeated with evil (indeed, the First Noble Truth is that the material world is in fact defined as a state of dhukka, or suffering). In a nutshell, one’s objective is to escape the cycle of rebirth into this suffering by learning to practice nonattachment from the sensual cravings that bind us to this prison of bodily existence — thus liberating the mind and opening the door to achieving Nibbana.

If one accepts this view, then to any socio-politically minded person it begs the questions: Why work to repair a broken world that is to be accepted prima facie, metaphysically and existentially, as broken?  Why try to save a world that is only an illusion from which we are trying to escape? Why take an active role in political, civil, or social advocacy if such matters are seen as petty distractions from the real task at hand?

Francis Story* states the problem this way:

The Buddha did not essay to lay down laws for the conduct of human affairs in any but a strictly personal sense. He gave advice to rulers, as He did to ordinary householders, but did not attempt to formulate principles of state policy, as some religious teachers, with varying success, have attempted to do. His Teaching was for those who wish to liberate themselves from Samsara, not those who desire to improve its conditions.

Story seems to perceive that contemporary western readers will find this lacking, and attempts to follow with an indirect argument:

Nivana may be an individual, not a collective goal, but the Path to it, followed by the individual for his own highest good, has beneficial repercussions on the whole of society. Every man or woman who observes the Five Precepts and conscientiously tries to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, makes it easier for someone else to do the same. One who works for his own highest good confers blessings on all mankind.

This pithy redirection strikes me as hollow at best and dangerously libertarian at worst. I don’t buy it, particularly since this seems to be at odds with the idea of selflessness (or the illusion of a Self that is separate from everything else). Cho, on the other hand, seems to be on a more innovative tack, one that tries to make a doctrinal argument for social action based on the logical consequence of taking the extended view of selfhood in Buddhism to its existential ends.

The Buddhist theory of selflessness, when considered in terms of the individual and his/her place in the community, really becomes something of great social power: an extended interpretation of selfhood. […] namely, the idea that I am everybody in the community.

To put it another way: […] the doctrine of selflessness requires that Buddhists view themselves as being in fact everyone in society. The social implications of this viewpoint are of course powerful: her poverty becomes my poverty; his tragedy, my tragedy. And when combined with the model of active engagement offered by the bodhisattva ideal, in which personal health is achieved by helping others, we suddenly find ourselves with a solid rationale for social action.

A contemporary interpretation of Buddhism based on this principle being the central tenant (rather than the nature of the world sic as suffering) is much more palatable to me, though it would be quite a bit of work indeed to go back through the innumerable pages of the Theravada Canon and produce insightful, clear, and relevant commentary to this effect.

The Copernican revolution, of course, would be that the Four Noble Truths would need to be de-throned from their central “Buddhism 101” position and relegated to a side note, interpreted in light of the new central tenant of Selflessness (or universally-encompassing selfhood). This move might seem like doctrinal heresy. But I would argue that the importance of the Four Noble Truths, at least from what I have read, is mostly found in commentary on Buddhism… not the scriptures themselves. I have read the whole Dhammapada and am about halfway through the Digha Nikaya, and so far I cannot recall any specific mention of the Four Noble Truths. If I am mistaken and indeed there is a doctrinal basis in Buddhist scripture for their centrality from the words of Siddhartha Guatama, then please, as it were, enlighten me.

As radically different from the prevailing discourse as this idea is, I think it is a start, and I think it is foundational to any attempt to articulate a cohesive vision for have Sinhalese American identity is and/or could be. As part of a novel I am working on that explores issues of Sri Lankan American identity in the contemporary United States, I have begun doing some background reading on Buddhism, including a new translation of the Digha Nikaya. The Lakkhana Sutta in particular (The 32 Marks of a Great Man) seems to have some good fodder for thinking about social justice. More later when I finish reading it and digesting.

In the meanwhile, thoughts and comments welcome.

_____

* Story, Francis. (1985). Buddhist Lay Ethics. In: Dimensions of Buddhist Thought, Vol III. Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka.



Boskone: Is the Internet Reprogramming Our Brains?

 

Is the Internet Reprogramming Our Brains?
Short attention span? Hyperdistraction? Googlecrutching? But parallel multiprocessing? Outsourced memory hyperaccessiblity? Superinfotegration? Let’s chat, C if anything clicks.
James Patrick Kelly (M), Justine Graykin, Jerry Pournelle, John P. Murphy, Charles Gannon

Gannon opens with the observation that the internet has increased the speed at which debate and negotiation can move forward. A query or proposition can be researched to a shallow extent very quickly and responded to in minutes or seconds. This is now the speed of business. It is like a cold war if information speed… if you can’t respond faster than the competition you may lose the deal. So this is driving shallowly researched dialogue.

Kelly comments on information hopping and how distracting it is to look up something and then get fascinated by a whole trail of information and find himself hours later reading about something totally different.

Graykin says the internet has greatly improved her research, reduced her patience, and reduced her reflection. She finds herself wanting things instantly, even not on the internet.

Pournelle opens with a sociopolitical tack, quoting someone that a sufficient condition for the end of a totalitarian state is the fere exchange of information within it. Proposes a gameshow of sorts for Iran called “Name That Prophet” in which all the winners and everyone else wins ipads that can’t be blocked (say via satellite link). Then liberate the minds of the people using them as a “cultural weapon of mass destruction”. (No public comment, but as Gannon said in a later session, “silence is not consent”.)

Gannon changes the direction and cites a Pew study in which 73% of people thought that the internet will make us smarter, with enhanced intelligence over time. Murphy responds that he doesn’t think that it’s making anyone smarter, but it is increasing access to the tools necessary to do so. Pournelle points out that the internet allows access to information from anywhere, so that smart people even in the middle of nowhere can now access knowledge, and further that the internet will “make the smart people smarter.”

Gannon says that technology is like a lens, amplifying whatever trends are already there. Draws analogy to a supermarket. If everyone had unlimited access to a supermarket, you wouldn’t get a population that was healthier. People already disposed to eating healthy might be eating the healthy food, but you’ll find most Americans in a pre-diabetic coma in the Twinkie aisle. As a professor he observes that the depth of analysis and thinking of his students has gone down over time, but the number of ideas and threads that they can hold in parallel and combine at once is higher.

Graykin notes that IQ tests can be biased and only really measure the ability to take an IQ test. Gannon seems to agree by making a comment about how it definitely depends on what we claim intelligence is.

Pournelle speaks disdainfully of political correctness and goes off on a rant about how IQ tests are the best single measure of human potential ever invented. This rant last several minutes. (Again, I don’t really think I need to comment here.)

Murphy tries to bring the panel back to less polemical topics by trying to segue into the marshmallow test (kids who could resist instant gratification ended up doing better later on), and trying to connect that to how the neuroplasticity of our brains is possibly changing our response to stimuli.

Pournelle responds with another rant about how there is no credible evidence for Head Start.

Kelly steps in as moderator and diverts the conversation to depth of thought and distraction, which Gannon is quick to back him up on with a brief discussion of ADD/ADHD and a balanced summary of its increased prevalence in society. Graykin tries to join in by remarking that flipping focus is physiologically stressful and these hormones can have negative effects.

Gannon recommends two books for further reading, The Shallows and Cognitive Surplus,

Opened up for audience questions. I ask Graykin (since I had heard the least from her) what observations she can lend to a science teacher. She lit up and responded with great advice. Firstly, to ignore quasi-intellectuals and polemicals and get to the real science, which is moving faster than any textbook can be. Passing on facts in the age of the internet is redundant, but the need for the mental skills necessary to filter, process, analyze, and synthesize that information is more in need than ever before. (Note: See What is 21st Century Education? for related thoughts.)

Questions I didn’t get to ask: What is the role of the digital divide in this? If the internet is truly changing our brains, then does that mean that those who do not have access (or choose not to have access) are not changing, and what are the social consequences for this phenomenon?  Also, what about the homogenizing effect resulting from the fact that a single cultural hegemony controls a disproportionate level of the discourse and media on the internet?




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