Saturday, 24 January 2015

Free Speech and Buddhism

The recent events in Paris have stimulated a lot of discussion regarding free speech in the press, blogs and across social networks and the issue of whether free speech equals having the right to insult others has been centre stage in discussion taking place in the UK. I wanted to say a few words on the topic and look at comments that have come from a number of Buddhist sources that I think are complicit in calling for the suppression of free speech. It seems to me that a lot of well-meaning folks are unable to distinguish between being nice and being socially and politically irresponsible, demonstrating at times a rather warped utopian view of the world which seems prevalent amongst well-meaning western Buddhists and liberals. Some of what I write here will be obvious to the politically informed reader, but I am writing it nonetheless, because it turns out that a lot of folks just do not get why a secular pluralistic society is so important and seem all to willing to start giving up on freedom of speech.
I teach English in Italy and have spent the last week engaging students in debate on free speech. I introduced the same questions with high school teenagers, university students and adults, and there have been consistent responses to the questions posed, which are more or less as follow:
1. Do you think free speech is important? Why?
2. Should free speech ever be limited? Why?
3. Is it right to punish people for the things they say? Who should punish them?
4. Does free speech allow us to offend people? Why? Why not? Are there exceptions?

Radical Identity and Non-Duality

(Michael O’Connell, Syncromesh, 1957)

The Need for Context

Societies necessarily need to establish shared ways of viewing and conceptualising the world and of establishing the shared subjective landscapes of individuals: a role that has historically been undertaken most commonly by religion, more recently perhaps by capitalism, materialism and the cult of the self. The same problem tends to emerge from this shared human compulsion to establish familiar routes of becoming. Modes of perception and being become frozen or normalised and identities form around them into pre-given destinies, lines along which individuals and groups are expected to travel. An alternative way of conceiving of the world is potentially overtly relativistic and denies any form of truth or the possibility of hierarchy. This is what Tom Pepper would criticise as the failing of post-modernity. As individuals in the West, we are to some degree left to choose: to bind our experience of self to a belief system and ideology that we are attracted to, such as Buddhism, or drift wherever the ideological currents of the dominant society lead. In either case, the collective nature of self is often ignored or under-appreciated.

Non-duality and problems in affirming our existence

When talking about non-duality these days, there are two primary schools of thought that tend to dominate discussion: Buddhism and Advaita. If we look at figures such as Nagarjuna, the originator of the Madhyamaka School of Indian philosophy, non-duality is presented along the lines of reductionism ad infinitum and the deconstruction of the self to its empty conclusion. Hokai Sobol once explained that the Yogacara school of Indian philosophy describes the experience of non-duality or emptiness in the affirmative: an experience that is intimately bound with compassion and the awareness of our co-arising existence or entrapment. Paul Williams states much the same in his textbook on the doctrinal foundations of Mahayana Buddhism whilst observing how early scripture of the Yogacara emerge specifically in the context of first person meditation practice, rather than philosophical argumentation. It seems inevitable that once we work out what we are not, we are left to ask ourselves what remains, and consider how our view of what remains determines to a great deal how we build community and establish values, and in the Buddhist context, how meditative and ethical practices are constructed. What a person remains as once non-duality has been meaningfully confronted and the false identification with an atomistic self has been discarded requires pragmatic formulation. Not wanting to remain within a reflection on this topic from a strictly Buddhist perspective, and with a desire to open up the discussion so that it isn’t imprisoned in Buddhist discourse and therefore impoverished, I am motivated by the need to build descriptions of the individual and shared subjective experience of living non-duality as a matter of fact. I think the logic of no-self is sufficient to be a matter of fact and that it does not need to remain a Buddhist or spiritual idea. If we take it as a given that the individual self is not self-existing, or a separate entity to be found somewhere, then the question naturally emerges: what are we? It is inevitable that we need find some sense of who or what we are; we are questioning, self-reflective beings after all and in our shared existence, we need shared ideas of who and what we are that can potentially reduce ignorance, suffering and the continued pursuit of growth at the expense of natural capital.