Parables and Metaphors: Explaining the Postmodern Perspective

Upon further reflection of Postmodernism and Deconstructionism, I felt it necessary to comment, albeit long-winded, on the juxtapositions of Buddhism and Postmodernist thought.  I know for others as well as myself, Derrida’s essay Differance took much time to read through and fully understand, so please bear with me as I attempt to connect the two with my current understanding of Buddhism and my “understanding” of Derrida and Postmodernism . . .

A postmodern world that takes for granted the ambiguity of perception, the fragmented nature of reality, the elusive, indeterminate nature of self, the arbitrariness, and anguish of human existence, would seem to fit Buddhism well. Within the last hundred years the teachings of the Buddha have confirmed the views of many scholars. Then is Buddhism just an exotic conglomerate of incompatible ideas? Or is this another illustration of Buddha’s parable of the blind men who variously interpret an elephant as a pillar, a wall, a rope or a tube depending on which bit of the animal’s anatomy they clutch? There may well be as many kinds of Buddhism as there are ways the Western mind has to apprehend it. In each case ‘Buddhism’ denotes something else. But what is it really? The answer: nothing you can put your finger on. To fix the elephant in either time or space is to kill it. The elephant is both empty and perplexing. It breathes and moves – in ways no one can foresee.

This fluidity has enabled Buddhism throughout its history to cross cultural frontiers and adapt itself creatively to situations quite different from those in its lands of origin on the Indian sub-continent. (The most striking example being that of its movement nearly two thousand years ago to China.) This creative process requires Buddhism to imagine itself as something different. It entails adopting compatible elements from the new host culture while at the same time critiquing elements of that culture which are at odds with its own Buddhist values. So it is hardly surprising that Buddhists today would not instinctively home in on elements of postmodernity that resonate with their own understanding of the Dharma. The danger is that, for the sake of appearing ‘relevant,’ they sacrifice the equally vital need to retain a lucid, critical perspective.

The element of postmodernity that potentially promises Buddhist voices access to contemporary culture is implicit in Jean-François Lyotard’s simplified but seminal definition of ‘postmodern’ as ‘incredulity toward grand narratives’ (Lyotard Translation). The grandest of all these grand narratives for Lyotard and others is the European Enlightenment Project itself: the certainty of human progress through reason and science, which began in the 18th century. As soon as conviction in this myth wavers, a host of other assumptions are thrown into question. Through focusing on change and uncertainty rather than assured continuity, through emphasizing contingency, ambivalence and plurality, postmodern thinkers have come to hear voices of the Other: those the Enlightenment Project has either suppressed, ignored, or disdained: women, citizens of the Global South, non-European systems of thought such as Buddhism.

As a believer in Buddhism on my way to becoming a Buddhist, I find myself reading erudite texts on themes such as the nature of the ‘self,’ which explore ideas quite familiar to me as a Buddhist yet fail to make even a passing reference to the fact that this kind of analysis and discourse has been pursued in Asia for more than two thousand years. I sense at these times what women must feel about texts that blithely assume a male perspective as normative. The habit of treating the ‘East’ as Other is a deeply ingrained European trait that goes back at least as far as Euripides and is ironically perpetuated even by postmodern writers. Yet there are signs of change. After the usual Eurocentric analysis, Galen Strawson concludes in a recent article, ‘The Sense of the Self:’ ‘Perhaps the best account of the existence of the self is one that may be given by certain Buddhists’ (Strawson).

Whatever features of postmodernity may be apparent in Buddhism, it would be foolish to describe Buddhist thought as ‘postmodern’ – for the simple reason that Buddhism has undergone no phase of modernity to be ‘post’ of. Buddhist cultures have evolved according to the grand narrative of their own Enlightenment Project. Consequently, two broad but opposing trends can be seen in the way Buddhism encounters contemporary Western culture.

In recognizing the breakdown of the grand narratives of the West, Buddhists might seek to replace them with their own grand narrative of enlightenment. This is explicit in the stated goals of at least two of the most successful Buddhist movements in Britain today: the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), who aim to create a ‘New Society’ founded on Buddhist principles, and Soka Gakkai International (SGI), who seek to realize ‘Kosen Rufu’ – the worldwide spread of Japan’s Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism (Batchelor). Although both organizations are contemporary reformed Buddhist movements, from a postmodern perspective they remain entranced by the legitimating myth of a grand narrative that promises universal emancipation. If a defining trait of our times is indeed widespread loss of credibility in such narratives and their inability any longer to compel consensus, then such ambitions may be doomed to frustration.

Yet, on the other hand, if Buddhists find themselves in sympathy with postmodern incredulity towards grand narratives, then they might be compelled to imagine another kind of Buddhism altogether. They will try to re-articulate the guiding metaphors of Buddhist tradition in the light of postmodernity. An attitude of incredulity would itself tend to resonate more with the metaphor of wilderness than with that of path; with the possibilities of unbounded landscape as opposed to the secure confinement of a highway.

The key notion in such an endeavor would be ‘emptiness.’ For here we have a notion that shares with postmodernism a deep suspicion of a single, non-fragmentary self, as well as any ‘transcendental signified’ such as God or Mind. It too celebrates the disappearance of the subject, the endlessly deferred play of language, the ironically ambiguous nature of things. Yet in other respects it parallels with the prevailing discourses of postmodernity. Meditation on emptiness is not a mere intellectual exercise, but a contemplative discipline rooted in an ethical commitment to non-violence. It is not just a description in unsentimental language of the way reality unfolds, it offers a therapeutic approach to the dilemma of human anguish.

Proponents of the doctrine of emptiness, have been subjected to the same kind of criticism as postmodernists receive today. They too have stood accused of nihilism, relativism, and undermining the basis for morality and religious belief. And not only from non-Buddhists; the concept of emptiness is still criticized within the Buddhist tradition itself. The history of the idea of emptiness has been the history of the struggle to demonstrate that far from undermining an ethical and authentic way of life, such a life is actually realized through embracing the implications of emptiness.

The emptiness of self, for instance, is not the denial of individual uniqueness, but the denial of any permanent, partless and transcendent basis for individuality. The anguish and uncertainty of human existence are only exacerbated by the pre-conceptual, spasm-like grip in which such assumptions of transcendence hold us. While seeming to offer security in the midst of an unpredictable and transient world, paradoxically this grip generates an anxious alienation from the processes of life itself. The aim of Buddhist meditations on change, uncertainty and emptiness are to help one understand and accept these dimensions of existence and thus gently lead to releasing the grip.

By paying mindful attention to the sensory immediacy of experience, we realize how we are created and formed by a bewildering matrix of contingencies that continually arise and vanish. On reflection, we see how we are formed from the patterning of the DNA derived from our parents, the firing of a hundred billion neurons in our brains, the cultural and historical conditioning of the twentieth century, the education and upbringing given to us, all the experiences we have ever had and choices we have ever made. These processes surreptitiously culminate to configure the unrepeatable trajectory that exists in this present moment. What is here now is the unique but shifting impression left by all of this, which I call ‘me.’

A postmodern perspective would question the mythic status of Buddhism. In letting go of ‘Buddhism’ as a grand, totalizing narrative that explains everything, we are freed to embark on the unfolding of our own individuation in the context of specific communities. We may find in this process that we too are narratives. Having let go of the notion of a transcendental self, we realize we are nothing but the stories we keep telling ourselves in our own minds and relating to others. We find ourselves participating in a complex web of narratives: each telling its own unique story while inextricably interwoven with the tales of others. Instead of erecting totalitarian, hierarchic institutions to set our grand narratives in brick and stone, we look to imaginative, democratic communities in which to realize our own “petits recits,” as Derrida would say, small narratives.

Such a view is inevitably pluralistic. Instead of seeing itself in opposition to other grand narratives that seem to contradict or threaten it, Buddhism remembers how in its vital periods it has emerged out of its interactions with religions, philosophies, and cultures other than its own. This reminds me of the traditional Hua-yen image of the Jeweled Net of Indra: that vast cosmic web at the intersections of which is a jewel that reflects every other jewel. Today this image suggests the biosphere itself: that vast interdependent web of living systems that sustain each other in a miraculous whole. Which brings us back to the metaphor of wilderness as an image of a postmodern, post-path practice of Buddhism.

CITATIONS

1. Jean-François Lyotard. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Tr. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986, p.xxiv

2. Galen Strawson. ‘The Sense of Self.’ London Review of Books, 18 April 1996, pp. 21-2.

3. Stephen Batchelor. The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. London: Thorsons, 1994.

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