ISSN 1076-9005
Journal of Buddhist Ethics 7 (2000)
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A Socially Engaged Process Buddhism

By Peter Kakol
School of Social Inquiry
Deakin University

A Socially Engaged Process Buddhism

There are signs that some form of Process Buddhism is emerging and might grow in popularity, perhaps even becoming the new paradigm of the twenty-first century. Maybe that is too grandiose a claim, but it is likely that some kind of convergence between Buddhism and process thought will become one of the major world philosophies. If so, then it is no small matter to inquire into the social and political role of Process Buddhism. Will it become a major force in the liberation of people who have become marginalized and dominated along the lines of class, race, gender, and so forth? Or will it become just another ideological self-protection mechanism thrown up by those who enjoy the existing state of affairs and, thus, have an interest in maintaining the status quo? In this paper, I shall argue that Process Buddhism is indeed a liberating praxis. This will require a defense against certain arguments to the contrary emanating from the left (such as Marxism). Also, I will argue that Process Buddhism has much in common with, but also much to contribute to, communitarianism. I will conclude with a brief discussion of the relevance of Process Buddhism to the debate on globalization. Before proceeding, however, I will outline the basic ideas of Process Buddhism as I understand it.

What is Process Buddhism?

The history of Buddhism shows that it has survived and enriched itself by skillful adaptation to the different cultures and worldviews it has encountered. This pattern is again repeating itself in Buddhism’s present encounter with the West, with the result that it is mutating into new forms. One of the forms of Western thought with which Buddhism finds itself most at home is process philosophy. By “process philosophy,” I refer not to a particular school of thought, such as the followers of A. N. Whitehead, but a tendency of thought that is found amongst a diversity of Western thinkers such as Heraclitus, Leibniz, Hegel, William James, C. S. Peirce, Henri Bergson, Whitehead, and Gilles Deleuze. The main concept common to all of these thinkers is the primacy of relational processes over substances and things.(1) In order to make itself relevant to Westerners, Buddhism needs to use the Western forms of process thought so as to recast its own process-like ideas into a form that is easily accessible in the West.

The basic concept of Buddhism — that dependent becoming (pratītya-samutpāda) is universal — finds a correlate in the basic concept of process thought that relational processes have primacy over things. Both say that (1) there are processes (or events, becomings, dharmas); and (2) processes occur in relational dependence on (or are conditioned by) other processes. There is nothing that does not become dependently; what appears not to become dependently is merely an abstraction from what does. This does not mean that we have to reform language so that it corresponds more to the way things really are, such as substituting verbs for nouns. Ordinary language is a useful shorthand: it is easier to say “tree” than “constellation of arboreal processes.” As long as we do not forget that language is only an intersubjective convention and does not correspond to reality in any simple one-to-one fashion, then there is no problem. That relational process or dependent becoming is primary can be seen in the fact that there can be “unowned processes” (such as “the flashing of lightning” or “the raining of rain”), whereas things and substances cannot be understood apart from processes — for what things are over and above what they do cannot be determined by interactive observation so that a thing’s essence can only be defined in terms of internal and external interactive (or relational) processes. The primacy of processes over things can also be discerned in the fact that the conjunction of becoming and being is itself something that becomes. Furthermore, although being (as that which does not become) can be derived by the negation of becoming, the negation of being yields non-being rather than becoming.

Process Buddhism is thus a philosophy of the middle way for dependent becoming is a dynamic middle way between the two static positions of being and non-being, both of which are abstractions from process. There is neither existence nor nonexistence, but events arise in open-ended dependence on other events. The great philosopher of the middle way and deconstructor of extreme positions, Nāgārjuna, showed with his relentless analyses that any attempt to understand reality in terms of the primacy of static being or equally static non-being (instead of as abstractions from conditioned becoming) has paradoxical consequences. Similarly, he showed that relations cannot be understood causally (hetu) in terms of either mutual dependence (identity) or mutual independence (difference), for in either case there is no relation; rather, relations can only be understood as asymmetrical conditionality (pratyaya). Nāgārjuna was thus in agreement with the pan-Buddhist concept of pratītya-samutpāda, which is also a form of asymmetrical conditionality, in the form of “If p, then q,” rather than bi-conditionality (equivalence, or interdependence). Its asymmetry can be observed from analyzing its form. Take a typical example of the concept as found in the Pāli canon: “If this is, that comes to be; from the arising of this, that arises; if this is not, that does not come to be; from the stopping of this, that is stopped.” (Horner 1954-1959: 2.32) Now the statement “If this is, then that comes to be” (for example: “If there is grasping, then karma comes to be”) takes the logical form of the conditional proposition, “If that, then this” (for example: “If [there is] karma, then [there was] grasping”). For, in the above quote, “this” is the necessary condition of “that,” and the necessary condition in a conditional statement is the consequent. Hence, when it is further asserted that, “If this is not, that does not come to be” (for example: “If grasping is not, then karma does not come to be”), it is in keeping with the form of the Modus Tollens (that is, denying the consequent).

So why is it that pratītya-samutpāda is often understood as a form of interdependence? It is a valid recognition that the concept does entail some kind of interdependence, but as it stands, it is only a half-truth that must be qualified by asymmetry. That is, to be accurate, it should really be called “asymmetrical interdependence.” It is at this point that Buddhism can enrich itself in interaction with Western process thought by attaining a more precise understanding of its basic concept. And likewise, process thought can learn from this encounter with Buddhism that it has put too much stress on asymmetry at the expense of interdependence. But does asymmetrical interdependence make sense? If processes are conditioned by past processes, then the conditions are present in the conditioned, but this does not imply that the conditioned is present in past conditions. As Buddhist scholar, Jay Garfield, puts it in his commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: “phenomena are not analytically contained in their conditions; rather, a synthesis is required out of which a phenomenon not antecedently existent comes to be.” (1995: 110-111) Every process is thus a creative synthesis of the many processes that condition it. Nevertheless, there is a kind of interdependence between conditions and conditioned in that the conditioned is present in its conditions in the form of an indeterminate potentiality, if not in the form of the particular determinate actual process that will arise. Hence, the interdependence is asymmetrical as the conditioned is dependent on actual conditions, whereas the conditions are dependent on a potential (or virtual) conditioned.(2) The social significance of this concept of asymmetrical interdependence is not trivial, for it also applies to the relation between individuals and society, thus allowing for both social solidarity (interdependence) and individual creativity (asymmetry).

That all processes are creative syntheses of the conditions from which they arise means that, as Whitehead puts it, “[t]he many become one, and are increased by one.” (1978: 21) As there is nothing in the many that determines how they will be synthesized into the one (as there are many ways in which this can be done), the resulting synthesis is thus a creative addition that increases the many by one. But then there is a new many that must be synthesized into a new unity. Hence, all coherent unity comes at the expense of completeness for the unity is one more thing that has not yet been united with the many. Thus, if we want completeness, it must be at the expense of disunity: there can be no final synthesis of everything. The dis-ease (duḥkha) that arises from this inability to grasp both completeness and coherent unity at the same time is what generates the endless process (saṃsāra) of creative synthesis. But the cessation of dis-ease does not come from the cessation of the process; rather, it comes from a cessation of the grasping for both completeness and unity. What is needed is an acceptance that there can be no completeness, and a realization that it is the reification of the one and the many that leads to dis-ease. Only then can the endless process of creative synthesis go on without dis-ease. The limits of saṃsāra are the limits of nirvana; there is no difference between the two. That is, the very process of dependent becoming that makes dis-ease possible also makes possible its cessation.

This “Godelian” interpretation of Process Buddhism shows that there are no wholes that are not also parts of greater wholes and no parts that are not also wholes containing lesser parts. Thus, all reductive analyses of reality that aim to discover the ultimate simple parts out of which all things are made, and all holistic syntheses that aim to discover the ultimate whole or totalistic universe, are open-ended (śūnya) and doomed to failure. There are no foundations. There is only an endless network of “bottomless-up” and “topless-down” relational processes in which binary oppositions, such as part-whole, subject-object, one-many, and so forth are merely relative terms that have their uses, but ultimately do not correspond to anything real.

Is Process Buddhism a Liberating Praxis?

Now that I have outlined Process Buddhism’s basics, I will look at the question of whether this is a liberating praxis or just another ideology that unwittingly supports existing injustices. According to Process Buddhism, social liberation requires a fundamental change in the way people think about the world. That is, what is needed is an “inner revolution” that replaces the currently dominant tendency toward the prioritization of things over processes, or beings over becomings. The inner revolution, says Robert Thurman, is a “cool revolution Šthat transforms the outlook and behavior of many individuals and thereby slowly transforms a society.” (1998: 95) This revolution requires a meditative thought that suppresses the tendency to reify and abstract reality into separate compartments and thus awakens us to the view of reality as an open and relational network of processes. Meditative thought can take many forms, but the ultimate aim of this inner revolution is to effect social awakening.

However, this idea that social change requires a transformation of mind clashes with the leftist idea that we cannot change society by changing the way people think because the way people think is determined by the way they live; thus, it is argued that only by first changing the way people live will we change the way people think. As Marx put it, consciousness does not determine life (idealism); rather, life determines consciousness (materialism). Another form of this argument is that the conceptual superstructure arises from the socioeconomic base. For example, traditional authoritarian social arrangements give rise to the belief in an authoritarian god who rules the universe; contractarian individualism gives rise to the belief that simple atoms are the fundamental building blocks of the universe; and capitalist industrialism conditions the belief in determinism and mechanism. Hence, the allegation could be made that Process Buddhism is merely another capitalist-friendly liberal ideology, for any potential it might have in liberating society has been neutralized and rendered ineffective by its alleged idealistic bias. The primacy of processes over things — which can easily be interpreted as the primacy of the mental over the physical — could be pointed at as proof of this alleged idealistic bias. Also, the concepts of asymmetrical interdependence and process (or impermanence) can also be singled out by critics as giving ideological support for neoliberal globalization.

It is a mistake, however, to characterize Process Buddhism as an idealism. The primacy of processes over things is not a primacy of mental over material, but a primacy of mental and physical processes over mental ideas and physical forms. When Marx spoke of “dialectical materialism,” he meant this not as the opposite of idealism, but as the middle way between both idealism and a materialism of the nondialectical kind (that is, mechanistic and deterministic).(3) In his “Theses on Feuerbach,” he clearly points out that dialectical materialism is not passive and objective, but creative and subjective. Thus, dialectical materialism corresponds to the psychophysical processes of Process Buddhism. Experience (or more accurately, “prehension”) can be both physical and mental, so its primacy does not imply idealism. Hence, it should make sense, even in Marxist terms, to call for the transformation of society (form) and culture (idea) by means of a philosophical (mental) and meditative (physical) revolution — that is, by means of the experience of reality as process-relational. And given the fact that this psychophysical experience is creative, whereas forms and ideas are passive, it makes sense to say that practice precedes theory.

The Process Buddhist, Nolan Pliny Jacobson, believes that Marx was anticipated by Buddhism as the latter argues that alienation is rooted in the distortion of labor by social forms and cultural ideas and that therefore there is a need to “return humankind from overarching cultural superstructures into the dynamic matrix of world-transforming human labor.” (1988: 50) Jacobson argues that “[t]he locus of the creativity that transforms the world, according to Marx, is to be found in the practical-critical activity of human labor.” (ibid.: 51) Buddhism is thus a process of recovering the intuition that reality is primarily relational process “from beneath the almost impenetrable layers of personal defilement and the tenacious superstructures of conventional belief with which human communities are always seeking to control behavior.” (Hudson 1983: 39)

So Process Buddhism is in agreement with Marx’s (and Hegel’s) theory that the labor process (creativity) is basic to understanding society as it underlies all social phases and thus conditions all facets of human existence. Process Buddhism is also in accord with Marx’s theory that in each social phase there can be emergent processes — such as the market in the capitalist phase — which are contingent and not completely determined by their conditions. (Here Marx goes beyond Hegel.) But, as Arran Gare shows, these two theories on the primacy of the economy, put forward by Marx, clash with his third theory, which is often seen to be synonymous with Marxism — that the relation between economic base and the superstructure is one of technological determinism such that productive forces determine the mode of production, which in turn determines social relations. This is a mechanistic materialism that “is inconsistent with the conception of humans as creative social beings, which underlies Marx’s critique of capitalism.” (Gare 1996: 365-366) It seems that Marx was unable to completely escape the economic liberal ideology that bases its argument that governments should not interfere with the “invisible hand” of the market on economic and technological determinism.(4)

Process Buddhism is more at home with post-Marxist attempts to replace the base-superstructure determinism with an analysis of society based on systems theory.(5) In systems theory, society is part of a multi-level universe of holons, which are, at the same time, parts of larger wholes and wholes made up of smaller parts. No whole is completely reducible to its parts as each level emerges creatively from lower levels. Thus, there are top-down as well as bottom-up influences. Within this ecosystem of processes, there may emerge relatively stable systems protected by negative feedback loops that dampen any instabilities that threaten the system. Applied to society, we can see ideologies or worldviews as negative feedback systems that arise from society in order to preserve and reproduce certain dominant and stable configurations in that society. What this means is that any new social practices that arise from the grassroots and challenge the dominant practices will often be hindered and neutralized by the ideological system. Their success in replacing the dominant practices is thus dependent on top-down informational influences that critique the dominant ideology. This asymmetrical interdependence of bottom-up power and top-down information corroborates the Process Buddhist strategy of the “inner revolution,” whereby society is changed by changing the way people think. (Marx’s base-superstructure asymmetry can be interpreted as a legitimate concern that power not be manifested in a top-down, or authoritarian, manner.) (6)

That thought can disinterestedly transcend social conditioning and group interests in order to formulate the common good must be a central concern of any socially engaged Process Buddhism. Through meditative thought, it is possible for a mind to rise above ordinary socially constructed experience and have direct experience of the openness of phenomena that is a function of their dependent becoming. The Process Buddhist could thus say that “heretofore philosophy has only interpreted the world (dṛṣṭi), but the point is to experience it directly (darśana) — this is the first step in changing society.” It is important to see the world as primarily consisting of relational processes rather than things and enduring individuals. Once an individual realizes that he/she is really a series of processes, he or she will no longer think in terms of self-interests. To act for the welfare of the self is really to act for the self in the future, which is another process distinct from the present one. Thus, what is called self-interest is really a form of altruistic action for others. It is the realization of this that can lead to the disinterestedness that frees us from social conditioning and group interests as well as from self-interest.

Process Buddhism thus avoids being an ideology. This is done by combining meditation and thought in a psychophysical experience of reality. Process Buddhism both deconstructs worldviews that are based on the reification of abstractions (misplaced concreteness) and reconstructs a world-narrative that sees relational processes as basic. As Alasdair MacIntyre argues, a worldview can be shown to be more inclusive and adequate than other worldviews by placing them within a historical narrative seen from the perspective of the worldview being defended. (MacIntyre 1980) This way, we avoid the need to use “objective” criteria transcending all worldviews, which is impossible. The use of historical narratives in order to grade rival schools is, of course, common within the Eastern Buddhist tradition. Thus, one way that socially engaged Process Buddhists can bring about the inner revolution that transforms society is by constructing a narrative that places itself in relation to other major worldviews — political, philosophical, religious, and so forth — which have been socially influential, and thereby, show that it is more inclusive and thus has a better understanding of reality as exhibited by its greater ability to cope with life.

A global inner revolution that awakens people to seeing reality in process-relational terms cannot but lead to reform in all institutions — local, national, global, political, economic, social, cultural, religious, and so on. Institutions reformed along process-relational lines would invariably become more democratic based on the understanding of power as relational power-with rather than nonrelational power-over. They would also become institutions that no longer subordinate individuals or processes to the collective or group. Individuals would thus be free to act collectively and disinterestedly for the common good (instead of self-interestedly for the corporate good). Participatory democracy follows naturally from the process-relational worldview of Process Buddhism for the simple reason that people who view reality in process-relational terms will see society as an ecosystem of inter-related persons in which each person’s actions affect everyone else. Thus, it will be obvious for people with such a worldview to conclude that those who are affected by a decision should be allowed to participate in its formulation. This is why the Buddha modeled the Sangha on the ganasangha, which was a type of political and territorial clan existent in the north of India at the time, based on collective decision-making and communal ownership of assets, in contrast to the world of the laity (janapadas), which was largely authoritarian and monarchical. (Chakravarti 1992: 16) Thus, when Nāgārjuna advised King Udyana to become a monk, he was effectively telling him to become a democrat! “When people have transformed their minds,” says Thurman, “they will naturally and coolly act to transform the society and eventually the polity. Śākyamuni turned politics on its head and proved that the best way to build a healthy society was from the bottom up — through the development of the individual — not from the top down.” (Thurman 1998: 95)

To an atomic individualist, the inner revolution might sound like a solipsistic and private affair, but not so to a Process Buddhist, who sees the self in process-relational terms. A self that becomes in dependence on other selves is always already a social self and thus can only transform itself in a social context. So the first step is for the self to realize that it is a social self and that, therefore, to be true to itself, it must be socially engaged. Thus, meditation and philosophy must be seen in intersubjective rather than subjective terms. That is, meditation and philosophy are really no different from democratic deliberation or “multilogue.” Democracy is not so much a casting of votes as a collective discovery of truth.(7) As Habermas puts it, “the unity of reason only remains perceptible in the plurality of its voices.” (1995: 117) Thus, enlightenment is an inner revolution (or self-transformation) that results from a disinterested social interaction of viewpoints. And from such an interaction amongst social selves arises the people-power (demo-cracy) that transforms society.(8)

Communitarian Process Buddhism

Since Process Buddhism is based on a social understanding of self, it has many affinities with communitarianism, which is the view that individuals are embedded in their communities. This social embeddedness, or “internal relatedness,” of individuals is contrasted with the atomic individualism, or “external relatedness,” of liberalism. This debate has existed in one form or another ever since Locke’s liberalism and Rousseau’s communitarianism became rival political philosophies. The communitarian reaction of the modern liberals — such as T. H. Green and L. T. Hobhouse, both of whom talked of the “social self” and the “common good” — to the atomic individualism of classical liberalism is one major example of this ongoing debate. In the 1970s and 1980s, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, and others defended a communitarian position against Rawlsean liberalism. And in the 1990s, there has arisen a populist communitarian movement led by Amitai Etzioni that is very influential on the policies of the Clinton and Blair governments. In all of these incarnations, communitarianism manifests itself in two quite different forms; one tends to subordinate individuals to groups (corporatism) and another that subordinates “groupness” and “individuality” (both of which are abstract concepts) to the social self. It is my contention that Process Buddhism is a form of the latter kind of communitarianism.

The concept of the “social self,” which was fully worked out in the West by the sociologist and process philosopher, G. H. Mead, has been described as a “new model of the person as a bipolar social self arising through communicative interaction between individuality and sociality.” (Odin 1996: 3) The social self’s “I” pole is a process that acts in the present and responds creatively to the socially determined “me” pole that is given by the past. Thus, the social self is a process that includes both individuality and sociality as abstract aspects. But Mead’s social self was anticipated by Buddhist philosophers who developed the idea that the self is a combination of impermanent mental events (nāma) and relatively stable form (rūpa), both of which are socially conditioned (pratī-samutpāda). The reduction of the self to a spatio-temporal network of relational processes means that there is no simple self that has a fixed identity or essence; hence, ultimately there is no-self (anātman).

The fact that the self is internally related to society means that the self contains the social just as whole contains part. This means that there is no social entity over and above the individuals in society, which is not to say that “there is no such thing as society” (as libertarians like Nozick and Thatcher would say). All that it means is that the existence of the social is immanent to each individual in the society rather than being a reality that transcends them — just as the individual is also immanent to the processes that make up that individual. Thus, Process Buddhism’s understanding of society is superior to that of liberalism that sees individuals as externally related “atoms” and society as the mere aggregation of atomic individuals. But the concept of the social self also avoids the holistic understanding of society as an entity transcending its individuals as is proposed by corporatist communitarians. This concept of society as a self — which originates in the neo-Hegelian thought of Weber, Durkheim, Bosanquet, and others — was behind the philosophies of Bolshevism, fascism, and even post-classical liberalism. Classical liberals bitterly opposed the legal revolution of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that recognized corporations as “legal entities” with all the rights of persons (plus more, as they are “immortal persons”) — an illiberal move accepted by many (not all) modern liberals and now unquestioned by the so-called neoliberals.(9) But once corporations, societies, states, and so forth are thought of as persons alongside the human persons that they include, they become the sole all-inclusive reality, with more rights than the subordinated individuals they modally include.(10)

Process Buddhism walks a middle path between the extremes of liberal mutual independence and corporatist mutual dependence, recognizing an asymmetrical interdependence between individual rights and the common good. So in a certain sense, it mediates between liberalism and communitarianism. Such a convergence is, in fact, occurring in the debate between these two positions. For liberals say that they are only opposed to illiberal forms of community that endanger liberty, and communitarians admit that they are not majoritarians, but liberal democrats who respect the rights of individuals and minorities as enshrined in constitutions (and thus placed beyond the reach of majoritarian interference).(11) But there is an asymmetry in this interdependence for the liberal notion of universal rights is an abstraction from the common good that is the intersubjectivity of social selves. True, these principles transcend and are thus independent of any given particular intersubjective community, but they are abstracted from, and thus dependent on, the intersubjective universe of actual and possible communities. They are unconditioned with regard to particular communities, but nevertheless are conditioned by community itself. Thus, these universal principles can be called “immanent transcendentals.” Objective rights are abstractions from the intersubjectivity of social selves that are sympathetically related to one another in a dialectic of mutual recognition. Constitutions are placed beyond the immediate reach of a community because they are conditioned by the wider community of human experience.(12)

Sympathy — the feeling of another’s feeling — only makes sense in terms of a process-relational philosophy that sees individuals as internally related social selves. As I have argued, altruistic regard for others arises from a disinterestedness in which the individual realizes that it is itself a construct of relational processes and, thus, intimately interconnected with others (including its own future, which is also other). This openness (śūnyatā) to others gives rise to sympathy (karuṇā). That rights are grounded in groundless compassion is an idea that has been put forward by a number of Buddhists. The declaration, “Towards a Buddhist Culture of Non-Violence and Human Rights,” by The International Network of Engaged Buddhists states that “[r]ights are skillful means designed to assist the implementation of Šethics,” and, specifically, the ethics of compassion and universal responsibility (bodhicitta). (International 1998) And Garfield similarly argues that rights are grounded within compassion. He says that “[t]he construction of an edifice of rights can be seen, as Hume saw it, as a device for extending the reach of natural compassion and for securing the goods that compassion enables to all persons in a society.” (1995: 14) Although compassion is universal, it is not uniformly applied, but functions like an “inverse square law,” as Hume argues, such that it drops off as the distance between the self and others increases. Hence, rights are useful mechanisms for the extension of compassion to all. The ideal of rights allows the various activists who have compassion for different groups (such as the poor, the powerless, women, animals, and so forth) to cooperate in solidarity with one another.(13)

Process Buddhism and Globalization

I will conclude with a few comments on how the Process Buddhist worldview can contribute to the debate on globalization. The currently fashionable definition of globalization is that it refers to an inevitable process of opening up markets via the deregulation of international trade and finance, and to the growth of economic interdependence between nations that will lead to prosperity followed by the spread of democracy and peace throughout the world. But a cursory glance at history shows that there have been alternative understandings of globalization (or internationalism). Before the rise of the current Smithian version of globalization, we had the Keynesian view that international finance should be regulated in order to ensure a stable global economy and to protect the sovereignty — in many cases, democratic sovereignty — of nations. The depressed nature of the global economy since finance was deregulated, culminating in the recent Asian economic crisis, has vindicated the Keynesian view. The religion of the free market has resulted in a polarized world where poorer nations that cannot afford to protect their economies are exploited by richer nations that can. These rich nations preach free trade for others, but are themselves protectionist. Also, deregulation has promoted the very nonproductive and inflationary economic activities (such as currency and property speculation, mergers and acquisitions, armament “production,” and so forth) that regulation was supposed to discourage in favor of productivity. The result has been the spread of managerial corporatism that is the antithesis of individualist capitalism.

But Keynesianism also has its problems. While its conception of democracy is better than the “democracy of the market” — its social and welfare state measures allowing a degree of popular input as opposed to the anti-democratic nature of neoliberalism’s free market and inevitability doctrines — Keynesian statism is still a top-down form of democracy and thus not democratic enough when compared to the Process Buddhist understanding of democracy discussed above.(14) Also, Keynesianism requires a large growth rate in order to make everyone happy by maintaining full employment, welfare statism, pump-priming, and protection of industry that is very wasteful, destructive, and unsustainable. The common assumption amongst Keynesians and Smithians — that humans are selfish hedonists motivated only by greed and panic — must be replaced by the Process Buddhist view that sees compassion as the basic human motivation. According to Process Buddhists, selfish desire (tṛṣṇā) — which manifests as greed and panic — arises from the delusion that enduring atomic individuals and corporate persons are more basic than relational processes. Once this delusion is removed by insight into the process-relational nature of reality, we will awaken to the disinterested desire for others’ well being (chanda) that is compassion. This will make possible the emergence of an inclusive democracy and thus an economy that is for the benefit of all (including nonhumans).(15)

Globalization is said to be all about interdependence and progress. But its progress is the inevitable progress of economic determinism, not the creative dependent becoming of Process Buddhism. And when interdependence is practiced between nations that are unequal in wealth and power, the result is really an asymmetrical dependence-independence relation. Thus, there is a need for international regulations that create a true “level playing field.” I have argued that “asymmetrical interdependence” is a basic concept in Process Buddhism. This means that interdependence should be tempered by an autonomy that gives room for self-determination and creativity (that is asymmetrical). The global economy is also asymmetrical, but the asymmetry is in the wrong direction: it is market over labor, profits over people, state over community — in short, abstract over concrete. This is the exact reverse of the Process Buddhist understanding of asymmetry, which puts concrete processes (such as creative labor) over abstractions (such as the market and the state). But none of this should be seen as sanctioning an asymmetry in person-to-person or nation-to-nation relations that should be symmetrically interdependent.(16) References

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Etzioni, Amitai. “A Moderate Communitarian Proposal.” Political Theory 24 (1996): 2, 155-171.

Gare, Arran. Nihilism Inc.: Environmental Destruction and the Metaphysics of Sustainability. Como: Eco-Logical Press, 1996.

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International Network of Engaged Buddhists (1998). “Towards a Buddhist Culture of Non-Violence and Human Rights,” P.O. Box 19, Mahadthai Post Office, Bangkok 10206, Thailand.

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MacIntyre, Alasdair. “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science.” In Paradigms and Revolutions: Appraisals and Applications of Thomas Kuhn’s Philosophy of Science, edited by Garry Gutting. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980.

Nussbaum, Martha. “Compassion: the Basic Social Emotion.” Social Philosophy and Policy 13 (1996): 1, 27-58.

Odin, Steve. The Social Self in Zen and American Pragmatism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Rescher, Nicholas. Process Metaphysics: An Introduction to Process Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Thurman, Robert. Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. Edited by D. R. Griffin and D. W. Sherburne. Corrected ed. New York: Macmillan, 1978. Notes

  1. See Rescher, where it is argued that process thought is a tendency of thought that cuts across many different thinkers and schools of thought. (1996: 8, 25) Return to text
  2. The relation is asymmetrical because each term has a different kind of primacy over the other, namely genetic and inclusive. The cumulative nature of relational processes means that antecedent processes have a genetic primacy (as the necessary condition or sine qua non) over subsequent processes, and that subsequent processes have an inclusive primacy (as the whole that includes the parts) over antecedent processes. Return to text
  3. Mechanistic materialism is, for Marx, as much a pro-capitalist ideology as idealism. In fact, Gare convincingly argues that it is mechanistic materialism that is the basic capitalist ideology. The form of idealism that functions as a capitalist ideology is one that has been neutralized and rendered ineffective (such as Kantian heroic moralism, which is perfectly compatible with phenomenal determinism). (1996: 114-117) Return to text
  4. Neoliberals also believe in the primacy of the economy over politics as can be seen in their belief that the capitalist-industrial revolution made democracy possible; hence, economic liberalization, they say, leads to political liberalization. Return to text
  5. Systems theory unfortunately tends to avoid the inner aspect of things and thus aids the mechanistic materialist ideology (which is compatible with objective holism) of capitalism — hence its popularity in management theory. Process Buddhism needs to radicalize systems theory by grounding it in relational processes. Return to text
  6. Ernst Bloch, who was both a Marxist and a process thinker, similarly argues that the creative emergence of the ideological superstructure from the economic base results in the transcendence of social conditions on the part of some superstructural elements that can lead to the emergence of new factors that are not conditioned by the base. (Hudson 1983: 195-196) Return to text
  7. Direct democracy is far more than saying “yes” or “no,” as Thurman thinks; it is primarily participation in the public discourse that frames the questions in the first place. But real direct democracy is only workable in small communities. Large democracies must therefore take the form of representative democracies. However, a degree of direct democracy can be preserved by organizing many direct democratic communities federally, from the bottom up. This makes much more sense than Thurman’s model of nationwide “tele-democracy.” Return to text
  8. Participatory council democracy, says Hannah Arendt, is “the elementary grammar of political action.” (1973: 173) Return to text
  9. This corporatist revolution can be traced to the US Supreme Court case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad in 1886 where the court ruled that a corporation is a “person” with the same rights as ordinary mortal persons to the protection of life, liberty, and property under the Fourteenth Amendment. Many nations have since made similar rulings, such as Salomon v. Salomon & Co. (1897) in Britain. Return to text
  10. Etzioni’s concept of the “I & we” is problematic, for it indicates that the “We” is not reducible to the “I”; yet the “I” is a social self that is internally related to society, so there is no reason why he cannot accept such a reduction. (1996) Return to text
  11. Without the protection of individual and group liberties, communitarianism can become a tyranny of the majority; and without communitarian democracy, liberalism is in danger of slipping into authoritarianism. Hence the need for liberal democracy or what could be called “libertarian communitarianism.” Return to text
  12. This is why there is a separation of powers, not of the separation between people, power, and principle (which is a powerless abstraction). Return to text
  13. “Intrinsic rights” and “intrinsic values” are thus useful abstractions (upāya), but they are grounded in the open field of sympathetic inter-relations. Return to text
  14. The events of 1968 were largely a reaction to Keynesianism along similar lines. Return to text
  15. Compassion is often considered to be irrational and thus ignored by economists, especially the so-called “economic rationalists” who equate rationality with efficiency and thus conclude that rational people will always choose the cheaper good or service, whereas those who are motivated by compassion to sometimes choose the more expensive product (for example, because the cheaper one is made by child labor) are acting irrationally. However, this is a very narrow definition of rationality that many noneconomists (and some economists) reject. A good argument for the rationality of compassion and its applicability in economics (among other areas) can be found in Nussbaum. From the Process Buddhist perspective, rationality (openness to others’ arguments) is in fact a type of compassion (openness to others). (1996) Return to text
  16. To think otherwise would be to make the category mistake of taking a concept that only applies to a process-thing pair and applying it to a process-process or a thing-thing pair. Return to text

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