Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Buddhism, Poststructuralist Thought, Cultural Studies: A Profession of Faith

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Buddhism, Poststructuralist Thought, Cultural Studies: A Profession of Faith

Article excerpt

The declaration of the one who professes is a performative declaration in some way. It pledges like an act of sworn faith, an oath, a testimony, a manifestation, an attestation, or a promise, a commitment. To profess is to make a pledge while committing one's responsibility. 'To make profession of' is to declare out loud what one is, what one believes, what one wants to be, while asking another to take one's word and believe this declaration.

Jacques Derrida1

This is a profession of faith. For three years, I have been researching Buddhism and poststructuralist theories on knowledge, self and ethics in order to articulate the ethico-political implications of my practice of Vipassana (a form of Buddhist meditation) and interrogate what is called the politics of spirituality.2 Propelling this autoethnographic project is a question of faith. Yet, I've been uncomfortable and afraid of articulating this outright. Why? Much of the discomfort stems from the tensions constituting my subjectivity as a religiously committed Buddhist attempting to understand my faith with and through the secular discourses of cultural studies. Perhaps I'm afraid of the disapproval, or even ridicule I might face in professing the religious inspiration I bring to and discover through academia. But can't this commitment to knowledge also be hospitable to faith, and therefore the possibility that religion or spiritual pursuits may have crucial things to say about those conundrums we grapple with, like ethics, (inter)subjectivity and the body? In tackling these conundrums with Buddhism and poststructuralist thought, I find it irresponsible to pretend that faith does not also support my practice of cultural studies. Hence, by way of an analysis this essay makes a profession of faith.

The essay first contextualises the discursive fields shaping this profession before analysing Vipassana with a 'religious' Foucauldian approach oriented around the critico-political aims of his late work. This will elucidate how Buddhist and poststructuralist thought share certain concerns, and identify trajectories for further inquiry. The primary aim is to explore the role of faith within cultural studies, if not the academy more generally. My understanding of faith is partly informed by Buddhism, but I do not conflate faith with institutional or doctrinal religious commitment.3 Rather, I'm adopting a deconstructive strategy to decentre this reductionistic understanding of faith, exploring it as an affective response that is irreducible to any ontotheological proposition, and which reverberates through the hopes and aspirations of 'believers' and 'nonbelievers' alike. Hence, a pre- established definition of faith is suspended in favour of a hypothetical question. Recognising its resonance with affirmations of relationality like 'trust', 'confidence' and 'fidelity', I ask: 'Might it be that faith is betrothed to an open question, the movements of an ongoing task?'


Vipassana serves as a case study, but it is not representative of Buddhism as a whole, which far from being a monolith involves a diversity of knowledge practices from different sociocultural contexts. Nonetheless, it does reflect distinctive trends of 'Buddhist modernism', an ongoing process whereby the varied forms of Buddhism are attuned to the cultural and intellectual understandings of its historical milieu. Developing out of this process are detraditionalised and demythologised representations of Buddhism that emphasise the ethical and philosophical over the religious, and foreground meditation as a central practice.4 Vipassana is one such representation.5 While it shares the doctrinal lineage of Theravada Buddhism (practiced predominantly in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia), its founder S.N. Goenka disavows the label 'Buddhism', describing the Buddha's teaching as 'the art of living' and meditation as a 'non-sectarian technique' of 'self transformation through self- observation'. …

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