John Reader, Reflection on Buddhism and Human Flourishing

13 07 2013

[Continuing the discussion from the University of Chester’s workshop, Buddhism and Human Flourishing (report of the day available here), John Reader reflects on the workshop.]

As the main objective of the Philosophy and Religious Practices network is to examine how and where philosophy impinges upon and relates to contemporary religious practice, this conference was a good test of whether there is real encounter or whether this more like a “relation of no-relation”, or even a Deleuzian disjunctive synthesis. I would say it is still too early to tell, as with any new and developing potential relationship there is a tendency for both sides to be cautious and even overly respectful. I felt this quite strongly at the conference in Chester as there was a hesitancy from those of us with the more philosophical approach to question and challenge a set of traditions with which we were, in many cases, not that well acquainted. We were reminded at the very beginning of the day that to mention Zizek and his critique of Western Buddhism was going to be considered an unhelpful if not hostile response. Needless to say, his work then lurked in the background for those of us familiar with it, waiting its chance to emerge as the “elephant in the room”. So it did feel as though we were being encouraged to hold back in order to simply listen and to be present. Which was fine, for the first part of the day, when the task did seem to be one of listening respectfully and learning before trying to engage from a different perspective.

For me, the most interesting moments came during the afternoon workshops, at which I had chosen to attend the one connecting Buddhism to various psychotherapeutic practices. I note with some interest and curiousity that I did not go to the one on Buddhism and social action, which might have been more obvious for a public/political theologian. Anyway, I did finally feel able to engage and to challenge the presentations from a philosophical viewpoint. My main concern was that the understanding of what it is to be human appeared overly optimistic and that one might question how an alternative interpretation – notably that of Lacan as mediated by Zizek and Eagleton – might challenge this with the notion that there is an irrevocable cut, rupture or suture both within ourselves and therefore also in terms of our relationships with each other and our environment. What was fascinating is the discourse that the two speakers reverted to when questioned on this. They said that one just had to have faith, and to trust, that it is possible that humans can learn and change by employing the techniques and understandings which they were advocating as psychotherapeutic practice. So having tried to base their approaches on the findings of psychology and neuroscience in addition to Buddhist insights, we were back with language of faith rather than engaging with the cognitive or philosophical. I am not sure then that this counts as a true engagement between theory and practice. Or perhaps it does point towards some common ground on which discussions might be pursued – that of understandings of the human (and non-human)?

My other concern was how this approach would have any impact at a structural or political level – was it simply about the individual attempting to tutor themselves into better ways of being? When the politicians tell us “there is no alternative”, might this not resonate with the ideas from one of the speakers (Dr Mary Welford) that there are three emotional regulation systems which determine our behaviour; the threat focussed; the resource focussed which is often a response to perceived threats and drives us towards achieving and consuming; and the soothing, safeness-kindness, affiliative focussed which is required for the further development of the “compassionate mind”. If it is the case that our current political and economic culture is based upon response to threat and the drive to control and consume, would not a re-emphasis upon the third regulation system counter-balance that and provide a base for alternative political practice? There are always alternatives if we can but see them. The response was that there are indeed pieces of research now underway that attempt to examine how this might work itself out in collective and institutional practice, such as in education and the health service. I think this is encouraging and I would welcome news of this as it develops, as another area where practice, politics and philosophy might find themselves in creative and constructive cooperation. So, this is all “work in progress” and another encouraging example of how this new network is adding to our understandings of how and where philosophy and religious practice can usefully engage.

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