Monday, July 03, 2006

The Relational Self in Buddhist Wisdom

I have written about the possibility of a new widespread conception of the self, one in which the essentialised, Cartesian image is left behind in favour of a relational and dynamic entity. I now want to briefly consider how this conception is already applied in terms of Buddhist wisdom.

Buddhist wisdom broadly consists of insight into the conditions - the network of interdependence - from which things may have arisen as they have, and a keenly attuned capacity for dissolving and revising the meaning of situations that seem to have gone astray. A key element of this wisdom is the teaching of the three marks of existence: all things are suffering, impermanent, and without any abiding self or essence. It is with this knowledge, according to the Buddha, that one can set about dissolving the conditions of suffering.

Although it can often strike people as a basically negative teaching, in practice an awareness of the three marks can bring about profoundly constructive and positive insights. Perhaps the most crucial in this regard is the realization that no situation, regardless of how hopelessly conflicted it appears to be, is finally intractable. Indeed, seeing all things as impermanent is to see that change is always already taking place. The question then is not whether change is possible, but in what direction should it proceed? Because of dependent arising there are no permanent selves, no cores or essences of things or states of affairs, therefore all situations are open to positive revision and/or redirection. Finally, seeing all things as suffering is to resist the tendency to feel that if things are okay for me or for us, then they must be okay for everyone. It is also a reminder that dissolving the conditions of suffering or conflict is not a teleological affair, but an ongoing, dynamic activity.

So, Buddhist wisdom emerges as a capacity for increasingly flexible and subtly attuned responsiveness to changing relationships and possibilities between self and environment. As such, training for insight into the emptiness, i.e. the dependent arising of all things is strongly associated with meditative discipline. Meditative discipline undermines the essentialising effect of habit formation that constrains our capacity for flexible, situational response, while at the same time building a capacity for situational attunement. The general Buddhist pattern of skillfully dealing with suffering and conflict can be seen as a systematic relinquishing of our present , often habitual, horizons for relevance, responsibility, and readiness, whatever these may be. More positively phrased, it consists of developing the kind of appreciative and contributory upaya needed in order to fully accord with our situation, to expand or contract its network of interdependence, and respond to it as needed.

Finally, Buddhism does not imply an ultimate transition from a deplorable or troubling state of affairs to one that is desirable and free of trouble—a transition from a hell to a heaven. Rather, it is an active process of continuously and skillfully reorienting the pattern of relationships in which we find ourselves, indeed, the patterns by which we are at all. Thus, Buddhist liberation does not consist in being free, but in relating freely.

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