Buddhism under Capitalism: planning toward 2016/San Antonio/AAR

The first session of the AAR seminar on “Economics and Capitalism in the Study of Buddhism” was held on Saturday, and drew an audience of some 40+ people. (see previous post for description of the papers comprising the panel, link here) The papers were all individually of worth, and the four worked well together. Dr. Bryson commented on the important overlapping themes, and raising questions for further consideration.

For 2016: it was decided by the group that the topic for next year’s session will be

Authenticity and Authority: Tradition and Novelty—the rise of lay practice has led to the creation of new training contexts (e.g., commodified as weekend or weeklong meditation retreats) which in turn has led to new forms of conferral of authority, progressive transition from monastic to secular forms of training and certification

This will be announced as usual in the AAR call for papers for the 2016 conference.

Preliminary reflection on the topic:

As I’ve written here, one of the concerns that I think is very important in considering the development of training and certification programs on the model of professionalization is the apparently inherent conflict between that kind of approach and the Buddhist model of awakening or the more generalized conception of personal transformation. Professionalization implies the mastery of certain skill sets in a demonstrably adequate fashion. In turn this means the setting of standards and processes of evaluation. Personal transformation, however, would seem to be ultimately something very personal and subjective, not subject to standardization or to verification in the same way.

We can certainly determine whether a cook in training can make scrambled eggs according to the standards set by a training program in culinary arts and sciences, or a phlebotomist can draw blood as required for laboratory work. And indeed those standards of professional expertise can be in existence without either the cook or the phlebotomist being a good person, or a self-aware person, or a compassionate person—whether they have attained personal transformation of any kind to any extent.

What, then, are the observable behaviors that evidence personal transformation and by what standards is personal transformation to be judged? To the extent that much of the discussion of mindfulness training programs indicate the intent to meet both goals, there seems to be an internal inconsistency. One suspects that instead of any measuring of personal transformation, what is at work is a process of enculturation—the values, ways of talking, even patterns of behavior of a community are learned in the process of training. While those are personal changes, I always thought that the phrase “personal transformation” meant something different. Of course, now that I try to think about it, I can’t give it any clarity—so perhaps it too is simply an empty signifier that gets filled by the values, ways of talking, patterns of behavior of a community. Indeed, if we consider what Buddhaghosa wrote about how to evaluate monks in order to assign different kinds of meditative practices to them appropriately, the process involved was very much about the candidate’s values, ways of talking and patterns of behavior.

Awakening may, therefore, not be the individualized mystical experience that comprehensively changes one’s perception of oneself, others and the world as it has been portrayed in light of Romantic conceptions of religion. It may indeed be simply a matter of enculturation. One of the things I was told many years ago by a Zen teacher concerned how to decide which teacher to follow. He said that one should look at that teacher’s students, not at the teacher, and ask Do I want to be like those people? It is very easy for us to project idealizations onto teachers, but the test of a teacher is not our projections but how the teacher effects his/her students. As a consequence of this reflection, it now seems to me that the appearance of an internal contradiction is not between training and transformation as such, but rather in the rhetorics surrounding the two.


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