Saturday, March 26, 2011

Buddhism Is, Like, Sooooooo Bourgeois!


In fitting with some of the subject matter addressed on this blog, we must acknowledge -- if belatedly -- a piece on the subject of Buddhism by Mark Vernon for The Guardian. The piece raises good questions even though it suggests that Mr. Vernon has a bit more homework to do on this subject.

Vernon argues that "Buddhism is the new opium of the people." Picking up on Zizek's critique of western Buddhism as fetishism, he argues that Buddhism "allows adherents to decouple from the stress, whilst leaving the causes of the stress intact: consumptive forces continue unhindered along their creatively destructive path."

Completely ignored are those who see the ethical challenge implicit in awareness practice, and seek to engage it in authentic rather than doctrinal ways. Books have been written on the subject, but Vernon's investigation of the matter seems limited to a play date with Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock.

I'm not even sure he listened well to those two men. He claims John Peacock told him "there is no word for meditation in the early Buddhist lexicon, though it is often taken to be the defining Buddhist practice." Errr, excluding the Pali canon perhaps, with its description of various jhana, or meditative practices and their various uses, including personal anecdotes attributed to the Buddha? Excluding, I suppose, Theravada literature that followed the death of the Buddha, and the Mahayana in its entirety as it is not "early" Buddhism? I wonder what Peacock really said to Vernon. I suspect something has gotten lost in the reporting.

Really, this line of critique is old stuff. In the early twentieth century, the rap on Buddhism was that it was nihilist; Vernon quotes Zizek, whose analytical skills are compelling (I read him myself) but whose information does not appear to be any more timely than the earliest English translations of Pali sutras. Presto, in the 21st century, the same misconceptions about Buddhist teaching are still in circulation, now with a political critique: Buddhism is bourgeois quietism!

This is not to dismiss Vernon entirely, especially regarding an individual's enagement with the world (even when appearance is regarded as non-appearance) versus the error of acquiescing to mara, in ourselves and in our social structures. As Vernon puts it: "A meditation class on a Friday evening that makes no impact upon your work on a Monday morning is an exercise in Žižek's decoupling." Well, yes. That's not exactly a scoop. Indeed, social conditioning is strong; yes, images of Buddhism have been commodified and distorted for the marketplace; yes, some converts (and more than a few dabblers) adapt Buddhism, in the Procrustean manner, to make it fit a desired lifestyle and accommodate consumerism. All true. All concerns discussed among convert Buddhists themselves.

Meditation can be used to bury one's head in the ground. Warnings about this behavior go back to when people wrote sutras out on banana leaves. Meditation can also be used to facilitate fearless attention, to clarify one's direction, and to speak and act freely from there. Good teachers call on us to do this, demand it of us. That might include stepping in front of a tank, and it might not, depending on an individual's situation. Has Mark Vernon somehow not noticed that this is a subject of much discussion and debate among convert Buddhists? Has he seen or heard no hint of elder practitioners warning younger ones to see very clearly their own defilements, such as greed, anger, and clinging to self-serving opinions, before they go out and try to "make the world a better place" or whatever? That is not really quietism.

This is not only an unfortunate article for its unsupported conclusion, it does an additional disservice by perpetuating an ignorant stereotype that meditation is necessarily about non-engagement, withdrawing from community, and quietism. The field is much broader than Vernon understands.

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