Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Towards a Dialogue between Buddhist Social Theory and "Affect Studies" on the Ethico-Political Significance of Mindfulness

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Towards a Dialogue between Buddhist Social Theory and "Affect Studies" on the Ethico-Political Significance of Mindfulness

Article excerpt


The earliest mention of Buddhist social theory can be traced to Ken Jones's writings on socially-engaged Buddhism, and the idea has also been developed by others (Hattam), most notably David Loy (Awakening; Money). Buddhist social theory can be regarded as a sub-genre within contemporary Buddhist scholarship, particularly the emergent discourse called Buddhist critical-constructive reflection (Makransky) which cross-fertilizes Buddhist teachings with the research and pedagogical programs of the secular academy and beyond to develop new interfaces between academia, Buddhism, and society.

Buddhist critical-constructive reflection is an adaptive methodology that can be developed in multiple ways--for example, via dialogical exchanges between psychotherapy and meditative techniques, Christian and Buddhist palliative care, neuroscientific and Buddhist understandings of consciousness, and so forth. In the case of Buddhist social theory, Buddhist doctrinal teachings would enter into conversation with the research of the humanities and social sciences. Simply put, Buddhist social theory attempts to account for the problems facing the human estate from the "self" end of the self-society continuum, whereas conventional approaches to critical social theory have largely focused on social structures.

A principal analytical objective of Buddhist social theory is to investigate how personal adjustments in ethical conduct via spiritual self-cultivation might support and precipitate sociopolitical transformations. Thus, it plays an important role in Engaged Buddhism, which, following Think Sangha's suggestion, could be conceptualized as a "trialectic" of scholarly inquiry, spiritual practice, and social activism (quoted in Hattam 200). But while various initiatives of Engaged Buddhism have grown in recent times such that discussions about socially-engaged Buddhist activities have become commonplace in both scholarly and popular discourse, "Buddhist social or critical theory" as such has not been widely adopted as a subject of study (if only amongst Buddhist practitioner-scholars) in the way "critical theory" has. (2)

This article thus formulates some hypotheses to further Buddhist social/critical theory. (3) In particular, it identifies ways to update Loy's proposals by staging an encounter between Buddhist understandings and the turn in humanities and social sciences scholarship of the past decade or so towards "affect studies." I first present an overview of Buddhist social theory to identify unexplored pathways of inquiry and show how contestations over the ethico-political significance of mindfulness represent a key area of concern. I then outline the principal objectives of affect studies to elucidate their relevance to Buddhist social theory, before identifying some topics of conversation between Buddhism and affect studies. These topics will be drawn from political theorist William Connolly's A World of Becoming (2011), which can be read as an indexical discourse of the broader "affective turn."

Given the exploratory nature of this discussion, the arguments raised below will necessarily be suggestive rather than comprehensive. What it performs is an analogous exercise (since it is not strictly speaking "inter-religious") of "cross-reading" as proposed by Richard Kearney in his reflections on the hermeneutics of the religious stranger, where the aim is not some "unitary fusion" of disparate traditions but "mutual disclosure and enhancement" (50). (4) This dialogical exchange would require Buddhist participants to be receptive to the views of their non-Buddhist counterparts, whose disciplinary-specific terminology may not initially appear familiar or relevant. Such an ethos of intellectual hospitality is in keeping with the inter-religious/traditional friendliness and ecumenical spirit of Engaged Buddhism (King 56-66). Intellectual hospitality is vital if there is to be new discoveries between Engaged Buddhism and the Western social justice tradition, both of which, as Loy underscores, need each other to sustain their vitality into the future ("Buddhism and the West"). …

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