Changing the Way Society Changes:
Transposing Social Activism into a Dramatic Key
Peter D. Hershock
East-West Center Asian Studies Development Program
1601 East-West Road
Honolulu, Hawaii 96848-1601
Abstract: While many Buddhists are rightly committed to working in the public
sphere for the resolution of suffering, there are very real incompatibilities
between the axiomatic concepts and strategic biases of (the dominant strands of)
both current human rights discourse and social activism and such core Buddhist
practices as seeing all things as interdependent, impermanent, empty, and karmically
configured. Indeed, the almost startling successes of social activism have been
ironic, hinging on its strategic and conceptual indebtedness to core values shared
with the technological and ideological forces that have sponsored its own necessity.
The above-mentioned Buddhist practices provide a way around the critical blind
spot instituted by the marriage of Western rationalism, a technological bias toward
control, and the axiomatic status of individual human being, displaying the limits
of social activism's institutional approach to change and opening concrete possibilities
for a dramatically Buddhist approach to changing the way societies change.
Formally established tolerance of dissent and internal critique has become a mark
of distinction among contemporary societies. Indeed, with economic globalization
and the rhetoric of democracy acting in practically unassailable concert, the
imperative to establish and maintain the conditions under which political protest
and social activism are possible has become the keystone challenge to developing
nations throughout Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.
It is not my intention here to question the legitimacy of this challenge. The
possibility of dissent is crucial to realizing a truly responsive society capable
of correcting its own errors of judgement and organizational practice, and institutional
changes of the sort brought about by political protest and social activism have
undeniably been instrumental in this process. What I want to question are the
prevalent strategies for bringing about such corrections and the axiological presuppositions
on which they pivot. Although it may be true that "nothing succeeds like
success," it is also true that nothing more readily blinds us to inherent
flaws in the means and meaning of our successes than 'success' itself. Critical
inattention to the strategic axioms underlying the successful engineering of political
and social change might, in other words, finally render our best-intended efforts
My thesis, then, is a disquieting one: social activism's successes have hinged
on its strategic and conceptual indebtedness to core values shared with the technological
and ideological forces that have sponsored its own necessity. That is, the same
conditions that have made successful social activism possible have also made it
necessary. With potentially tragic irony, social activist practices -- and theory
-- have been effectively reproducing rather than truly reducing the conditions
of institutionalized disadvantage and dependence.
In a liberal democratic context, such a thesis verges on political and philosophical
heresy, and if we are hard pressed to take it seriously, it is only because the
positive and progressive nature of the changes wrought by social activism are
so manifestly self-evident. Unfortunately, if our prevailing standards of reason
and critical inquiry are not entirely neutral, the manifestly positive and progressive
nature of social activism's history might be the result of a critical blind-spot.
In that case, the ironic nature of social activist success would be effectively
As a way around any such critical lacunae, I will be appealing to such core Buddhist
practices as seeing all things as impermanent, as karmically configured, and as
empty or interdependent. These practices and the theories adduced in their support
mark a radical inversion of the critical and logical priorities constitutive of
the philosophical, religious, and political traditions that have governed our
dominant conceptions of freedom and civil society. By systematically challenging
our bias for subordinating values to facts, relationships to the related, uniqueness
to universality, and contribution to control, Buddhist practice makes possible
a meaningful assessment and revision of social activist strategy. Importantly,
it also opens the possibility of critically evaluating the phenomenon of "engaged
Buddhism" and its ostensibly corrective relationship with the root conditions
Until now, social activists have been able to effectively contest institutionalized
disadvantage and dependence at the institutional level, securing basic civil and
human rights by using many of the same values and technologies employed in first
establishing and then maintaining structural inequity. To the extent that it has
been noted, the shared genealogy of social activist solutions and the problems
they address has been subsumed under the rubric of a pragmatically justified separation
of means and ends. If the present critique has any merit, our thankfulness for
the apparent gains made by social activists in promoting basic human dignities
must not be allowed to distract us from appreciating the rapidity with which we
are approaching a point of no return beyond which fighting fire with fire will
no longer be an option.
Caution on the Tracks: Recognizing the Possibility of Technological Barriers to
the Meaning of Social Change
Andrew Kimbrell (in Mills, 1997, p. 105) has noted that if technology is "the
primary engine of social change
you can't promote social change without changing
technology." The corollary of this is that failing to change our technological
bias means failing to promote any shift in the direction or meaning of social
change. Absent such a shift, successful social activism will increasingly mean
at once the amplification and deepening subtlety of the problems it has ostensibly
addressed and solved.
We can begin sorting out the roots of this apparent paradox by noting some of
the common hallmarks of successful social activism. In contrast with most religious
eschatologies, the salvific efforts of social activism have been directed toward
securing the rights and freedoms, not of unique persons or communities, but of
individuals sharing membership in a particular class -- be it defined economically,
ethnically, racially, religiously, or by age or sexual orientation. While social
activists do not deny the importance and even necessity of uniquely personal forms
of human development, they typically maintain that these are not sufficient means
of rectifying systemic or structural injustice. Thus, while it is all well and
good for a particular woman to break through the glass ceiling of corporate management,
it is the proper aim of social activism to realize conditions under which all
women will be guaranteed the possibility of such success. Society, and not just
the human beings it comprises, must change.
Presumably, this is not most "efficiently" done by changing individual
minds and habits, but by revising the structure of interactions obtaining among
classes of people. Changing societies in any usefully short period of time depends
on the mass reorganization of their structural features. Granted this, social
activist success necessarily pivots on leveraging the powers that organize a society
by cultivating and making incisive use of the power to organize. Social activism
consists of consolidating power to redistribute power, in this way undermining
injustice and structural inequity. Of course, relocating any controlling advantage
-- either within or among societies -- requires much more than good intentions.
First and foremost it needs a capacity for attracting and directing attention
on a massive scale and an insider's understanding of the prevailing culture of
power. Without these, social activist efforts are doomed from the point of conception
onward to be exercises in mere wishful thinking.
A critical history of social activism is thus inseparable from the history of
technologies that make possible the widespread command of attention and the selective
biasing of power. Indeed, without the technologies that spawned the printing press,
radio, television, and now the Internet, social activism would have been restricted
to the charitable dreams of those already in power or both able and willing to
violently usurp them.
The inseparability of these histories has for the most part been considered natural
and unproblematic. But consider the complex political roles played by various
forms of mass media since the turn of the century -- from widely distributed print
news, to radio, television, and now the Internet. There is no denying that the
media have provided an indispensable means of promoting such social activist causes
as the women's suffrage movement, trade unionism, and civil rights, but they also
served as a forum for the kind of mass advertising essential to the constitution
of a distinctively American consumer culture, its expansion into global markets,
and the corporate consolidation of economic advantage worldwide.
Thus, although winning women's voting rights can be correlated with high circulation
print and photography media, so can the construction of the twentieth century's
various "ideal" body images and canons of beauty. These images and standards
can be further correlated with epidemic eating disorders, mass consumption of
cosmetics and quarterly fashions, the commodification of ethnic features, and
the universal standardization of body language. Similarly, although it was possible
in 1968 for African-American athletes to use worldwide television coverage of
the Olympic track and field events in Mexico City to protest the continued abuse
of minority rights in the United States, in 1998 the global cost of televised
advertising well exceeded the worldwide total of all national expenditures for
primary and secondary education. Television serves as an apparent forum for protest,
but also as a means of schooling consumers en masse for optimal market performance.
If the relationship between social activism and such means of influence as printing
presses and Internet-linked computers was a purely instrumental one, there might
be little cause for concern about these intertwined histories. Indeed, the illusion
of such a relationship is beautifully summed up in the image of a generation "turning
swords into plowshares" -- transforming, for example, the military-built
Internet into a tool for free self-expression. Unfortunately, it is only at great
risk that technologies can be reduced to the tools they spawn and evaluated on
the basis of each tool's individual utility. Doing so commits us to continuously
rehearsing the central premise of the widely prevailing myth that technologies
as such are value-neutral. They are not. Turning swords into plowshares does not
finally mean the peaceful application of war technologies, but the practical declaration
of war on the earth and against its varied plant and animal populations.
I have argued at some length (Hershock, 1999) that evaluating technologies on
the basis of the tools they generate commits us to taking individual users and
not the dramatic patterns of our lived interdependence as the primary locus of
evaluation. In doing so, we effectively exclude from consideration precisely that
domain in which the values informing our technological bias have the most direct
bearing on the quality of our personal and communal conduct -- the movement of
our shared narration. This has led to a stubborn and at times even righteous blindness
regarding our slippage into a new era of colonization -- a colonization, not of
lands or cultural spheres, but of consciousness as such. Indeed, the disposition
to ignore the critical space of interdependence has been so thoroughly prevalent
that the conditions of possibility for this new form of colonialism are widely
championed -- in both the "developed" and the "developing"
world -- as essential to establishing and safeguarding our individual and collective
dignity, a crucial component of our growing equality and autonomy.
By using the same information technologies employed by those individuals and institutions
perpetrating and perpetuating the inequitable distribution of power and wealth,
social activists may have enjoyed the opportunity to "beat them at their
own game." However, they have also insured that everyone remains on the same
playing field, playing the same game. Social activist successes have in this way
blinded us to our deepening submission to technologies of control and the consequent
depletion of precisely those attentive resources needed to meaningfully accord
with our changing circumstances and contribute to them as needed.
The costs of such blindness are practically limitless. The more "successful"
a technology is, the more indispensable it becomes. That is, all technologies
are liable to crossing thresholds beyond which they generate more new problems
than they solve. Because technologies arise as patterns of value-driven conduct,
they function as ambient amplifiers of our individual and cultural karma -- our
experience-conditioning, intentional activity. In crossing the threshold of their
utility, technologies create the karmic equivalent of a gravitational black hole,
funneling all available attention-energy into themselves. For the dominant technological
lineage correlated with the rise of liberal democracy and the imperative for social
activism, this has meant an intensification of our karma for both controlling
and being controlled. The more successfully we extend the limits of control, the
more we extend the range of what can and must be controlled. In capsule form:
the better we get at getting what we want, the better we get at wanting; but the
better we get at wanting, the better we get at getting what we want, though we
won't want what we get. This karmic circularity is pernicious, and the attention-energy
invested in it to date has already brought about an epidemic depletion of precisely
those resources needed for realizing dramatically satisfying -- and not merely
factually sufficient -- solutions to our troubles, both personal and communal.
The methodological irony of social activism is that it does not free us from dependence,
but rather sustains its very possibility. This is not as paradoxical as it might
sound. Insuring our independence by means of restructuring the institutions that
mediate our contact with one another renders us dependent on those institutions
-- on the structure, and hence the technologies, of our mediation. In consequence,
our freedom comes to be increasingly dependent on the rationalization and regulation
of our relationships with one another -- the realization of secure and yet generic
co-existence. Just as the technology-driven transformation of societies in the
industrial and post-industrial eras has involved an ever more detailed refinement
of class divisions and labor categories, social activism advances through an ever
more varied identification of populations in need of guaranteed freedoms.
In valorizing both autonomy and equality, social activism denies our dramatic
interdependence and tacitly endorses not-seeing (avidyaa) or not-attending to
the full set of conditions sponsoring our present situation. Although unique and
deeply local patterns of injustice may be important in building a legal case,
the work of social activism is not to encourage our liberating intimacy with such
patterns. Rather, it consists of constructing legal mechanisms for exerting reformative
control over institutional structures and the processes by means of which (generically)
given individuals play or are forced to play particular roles therein.
Unfortunately, as generic 'women', 'children', 'workers', or 'minorities', the
beneficiaries of social activism are effectively cut off from precisely those
aspects of their circumstances, relationships, and self-understanding which provide
them with the resources necessary for locally realizing meaningful -- and not
merely factual -- alternatives to the patterns of injustice in which they find
themselves embedded. Among the products of social activism are thus virtual communities
of individuals having no immediate and dramatically responsive relationship with
one another -- individuals who have relinquished or been deprived of intimate
connection with the causes and conditions of both their troubles and those troubles'
With no intended disregard of the passion many activists bring to their work,
social activism has aimed at globally re-engineering our political, economic and
societal environments in much the same way that our dominant technological lineage
has been committed to re-making our world -- progressively "humanizing"
and "rationalizing" the abundantly capricious natural circumstances
into which we human beings have found ourselves "thrown." This shared
strategic genealogy is particularly disturbing, suggesting that -- like all technologies
oriented toward control -- social activism is liable to rendering itself indispensable.
If the history of social activism is inseparable from the rise and spread of influential
technologies and subject to similar accelerating and retarding conditions, so
is its future.
Social Activist Strategy: Legally Leveraging Institutional Change
While it has become common practice to decry the excessive legalism of contemporary
societies, the ramifications of strategic collusion between social activism and
the way we have technically and legally tooled our factual co-existence have remained
largely unattended. In part, this is because the legal bias of social activism
has appeared so incontestably "practical." Legislation allows for directly
restructuring power relations and negotiating justice at the "highest"
possible levels. The legislative process has also become the dominant technology
for mediating divergent claims about the facts of our (often troubled) co-existence
and for preserving "fair" definitions of 'being right' and 'being wronged'.
The trouble is that, like other technologies biased toward control, the more successful
legislation becomes, the more it renders itself necessary. Because it aims at
rigorous definition -- at establishing hard boundaries or limits -- crossing the
threshold of legislative utility means creating conditions under which the definition
of freedom becomes so complex as to be self-defeating. Taken to its logical end,
legally-biased social activism is thus liable to effect an infinite density of
protocols for maintaining autonomy, generating a matrix of limits on discrimination
that would finally be conducive to what might be called "axiological entropy"
-- a state in which movement in any direction is equally unobstructed and empty
of dramatic potential. Contrary to expectations, complete "freedom of choice"
would not mean the elimination of all impediments to meaningful improvisation,
but rather an erasure of the latter's conditions of possibility.
The effectiveness and efficiency of "hard," control-biased technologies
depend on our using natural laws -- horizons of possibility -- as fulcrums for
leveraging or dictating changes in the structure of our circumstances. Unlike
improvised contributions to changes taking place in our situation, dictating the
terms of change effectively silences our situational partners. Technological authority
thus renders our circumstances mute and justifies ignoring the contributions that
might be made by the seasons or the spiritual force of the mountains to the meaning
-- the direction of movement -- of our ongoing patterns of interdependence. With
the "perfection" of technically-mediated control, our wills would know
no limit. We would be as gods, existing with no imperatives, no external compulsions,
and no priorities. We would have no reason to do one thing first or hold one thing,
and not another, as most sacred or dear.
Such "perfection" is, perhaps, as fabulous and unattainable as it is
finally depressing. Yet the vast energies of global capital are committed to moving
in its direction, for the most part quite uncritically. The consequences -- as
revealed in the desecration and impoverishing of both 'external' and 'internal'
wilderness (for instance, the rainforests and our imaginations) -- are every day
more evident. The critical question we must answer is whether the "soft"
technologies of legally-biased and controlled social change commit us to an equivalent
impoverishment and desecration.
The analogy between the dependence of technological progress on natural laws and
that of social activism on societal laws is by no means perfect. Except among
a scattering of philosophers and historians of science, for example, the laws
of nature are not viewed as changeable artifacts of human culture. But for present
purposes, the analogy need only focus our attention on the way legal institutions
-- like natural laws -- do not prescriptively determine the shape of all things
to come, but rather establish generic limits for what relationships or states
of affairs are factually admissible. Laws that guarantee certain "freedoms"
necessarily also prohibit others. Without the fulcrums of unallowable acts, the
work of changing a society would remain as purely idealistic as using wishful
thinking to move mountains. Changing legal institutions at once forces and enforces
By affirming and safeguarding those freedoms or modes of autonomy that have come
to be seen as generically essential to 'being human', a legally-biased social
activism cannot avoid selectively limiting the ways we engage with one another.
The absence of coercion may be a basic aim of social activism, but if our autonomy
is to be guaranteed both fair and just, its basic strategy must be one of establishing
non-negotiable constraints on how we co-exist. Social activism is thus in the
business of striking structural compromises between its ends and its means --
between particular freedoms and general equality, and between practical autonomy
and legal anonymity. By shifting the locus of freedoms from unique persons to
generic citizens -- and in substantial sympathy with both the Platonic renunciation
of particularity and the scientific discounting of the exceptional and extraordinary
-- social activist methodology promotes dramatic anonymity in order to universally
realize the operation of 'blind justice'.
Much as hard technologies of control silence the contributions of wilderness and
turn us away from the rewards of a truly joint improvisation of order, the process
of social activism reduces the relevance of the always unique and unprecedented
terrain of our interdependence. This is no small loss. The institutions that guarantee
our generic independence effectively pave over those vernacular relationships
through which our own contributory virtuosity might be developed and shared --
relationships out of which the exceptional meaning of our immediate situation
might be continuously realized. In contrast with Buddhist emptiness -- a practice
that entails attending to the mutual relevance of all things -- both the aims
and strategies of social activism are conducive to an evacuation of the conditions
of dramatic virtuosity, a societal depletion of our resources for meaningfully
improvised and liberating intimacy with all things.
Giving up the Ghost and the Machine: A Buddhist Critique of the Technologies of
For the social activist, independence and freedom are inconceivable without secure
boundaries between who we 'are' and who and what we 'are-not'. The rhetoric of
Western liberalism is that we must be free to resist subordinating, institutional
definition -- free, that is, to assert or claim boundaries that are finally self-willed,
even idiosyncratic. Freedom, so construed, depends on limited responsibility,
limited demands on our time and attention. As the Platonic analogy above suggests,
regulation is essential to identity precisely because we are essentially rational
beings -- beings who measure and who can be measured; who divide the world into
near and far, private and public; who thrive on distinctions of every sort, in
fact. Securing the integrity of the individual members of a given class of people
in a given society is at bottom a process of legal rationalization -- the creation
of an anonymously ordered and yet autonomy-supporting domain. The aims of social
activism may be ostensibly 'selfless', but in practice social activism directs
us toward the increasing regulation and generic preservation of selfishness.
But what if there are no truly individual selves to preserve? What if interdependence
and the unprecedented are basic, and not -- as presumed by social activism's philosophical
and religious parent traditions -- the competitive dichotomies of 'self' and 'other',
'independence' and 'dependence', 'free will' and 'determinism', 'order' and 'chaos',
'permanence' and 'change', 'universality' and 'particularity', 'fact' and 'value',
'subject' and 'object', or 'agent' and 'acted-upon'? Quite clearly, it is the
tension between the members of these axial pairings that has largely compelled
political, social, and spiritual revolution in the Western tradition. If these
should turn out to be wholly contingent cultural artifacts and not 'natural features'
of our world, can a social activism presuming them ever truly avoid replicating
the conditions of their continued possibility?
By linking freedom and equality, and by associating the former with individual
autonomy and the latter with legal anonymity, social activism both reflects and
works in concert with the conditions sponsoring our intensifying sense of a tension
between the personal and communal, between each one of us and our situation. It
is this tension -- and the threat it poses to our identification of who we 'are'
and 'are-not' -- that disposes us toward legally, if only generically, securing
our boundaries. The logic of social activist freedom -- like the logic of classical
scientific discourse -- is based on the inviolability of the law of the excluded
middle, the necessity of instituting a clear space of demarcation between 'is'
and 'is-not'. That is, freedom is won by means of a process that closes off attention
to the unprecedented and intimate middle ground of our dramatic interdependence
and any meaningful contributions we might otherwise have been able to offer or
receive from it.
Granted the Buddha's unequivocal injunction to see 'is' and 'is-not' as the "twin
barbs" on which all humankind is impaled, the pursuit of freedom so defined
cannot but institute the root conditions for conflict and a preoccupation with
security. The valorization of anonymity and autonomy institutionalizes ignorance
and thus at once shadows and ensures the continued possibility of authoritarianism
and coercion. Because the world of autonomy is, at bottom, an Hegelian one in
which all masters of their circumstances are the antitheses of 'others' who are
thereby enslaved, the most carefully wrought legal institutions -- the products
of successful social activism -- may effectively soften the modalities of our
bondage, but will never entirely dissolve them. Secure borders not only keep threats
from coming in, they prohibit free expression or movement outward.
There is no disputing that social activist movements have led to dismantling such
degrading and highly partial institutions as slavery, segregated schooling, and
sex-specific hiring practices. But because many of the teleological and strategic
building blocks -- that is, the foundational concepts -- of these institutions
have been salvaged in the process of legally managing our 'fair' and 'just' co-existence,
our progress has been in the direction of more complex, global, and invisible
institutions for our regulated mediation. New powers certainly reign, but it is
still a reign of power in which every instance of factual independence is purchased
at the cost of increasing dependence on those (largely legal, but also technological
and cultural) institutions that generically insure our collective right to be
left alone and to dictate the tenor of our circumstances. Degradation has not
been abolished. Instead, by virtue of our bias for dealing with conflicts or social
malaise through control, degradation has been woven ever more finely and essentially
into the fabric of our shared narration. The locus of structurally compromised
dignity is, however, not primarily 'you' and 'me' as individuals, but our relationships
as such -- the interpersonal body of our conduct. Thus, although each one of us
is on average better off and freer than ever before, we -- our marriages, our
families, our communities -- are not.
From a Buddhist perspective, this "unexpected" consequence of social
activist success -- like the broken promises of technological salvation -- pivots
on our critical inattention to the karmic nature of the world in which we live.
By wrongly assuming that relationships are logically and ontologically posterior
to whatever 'is' related, and by asserting the "natural" existence of
persons as individuals possessing transcendent rights to autonomy in an essentially
impersonal and objective world, we have tacitly granted an invisible and highly
valorized status to a critical blind spot. Hence the impossibility of mounting
a discussion of freedom without invoking determinism and the perennial divergence
of what is good for 'me' and what is good for 'us'. At the same time, since
placing too weighty an emphasis on either 'good' necessarily upsets the ground
of our co-existence, and since the control of any situation can never be truly
shared, such existential upsets are from the outset guaranteed. Blind to our karmic
or dramatically interdependent nature and firmly holding to the either/or logic
of the excluded middle, we have developed a notion of freedom that is contradictory
and self-defeating. The very 'freedom' that legally instituted human rights are
intended to secure and preserve is what makes these rights necessary in the first
It was insight into precisely this auto-generative pattern of upset or trouble
(dukkha) that occasioned the Buddha's injunction to see all things as empty of
any essential self-nature -- to relinquish not only our individual habits of self-identification,
but also the security of our cultural inheritance of axiomatic "facts"
about the way things really are and should be. Attending to the emptiness of all
things -- ourselves included -- promises nothing short of a new "Copernican"
revolution by means of which the self-other and freedom-determinism dichotomies
are effectively undermined and concrete avenues opened for the practice of a truly
social activism aimed at dissolving the dramatic conditions of (especially chronic)
Emptiness as Horizonless Interconnection and Mutual Relevance: Freeing Ourselves
from the Ideal of Factual Autonomy and the Costs of Dramatic Anonymity
It is a common misconception that the Buddhist practice of seeing all things as
empty involves a nihilistic detachment from our circumstances. In fact, it entails
carefully freeing things from the univocal assertion of their existence in keeping
with our own, often quite prejudiced, importances. Practicing emptiness makes
it possible for the horizonless and always reciprocal relevance of all things
to freely manifest.
As an attribute, the emptiness of all things consists of their unique ways of
arising only as patterns of interdependence or mutual contribution, having neither
fixed and defining essences nor hard boundaries segregating them from one another.
Because such 'essences' and 'boundaries' arise as functions of projected horizons
for relevance, relinquishing these horizons through the practice of emptiness
is to relinquish our own fixed positions, our own segregated identities and limiting
perspectives. The liberation of things from the imposition of identities based
on our own fixed categories is thus inseparable from our own liberation from both
the arrogant illusion of autonomy and the tragic alienation of anonymity. Finally,
Buddhist emptiness does not mean vacuity, but an infinite depth of meaningful
interrelationship. Fully practiced, it occasions horizonless, responsive, and
dramatic community -- the elision of any conceptual, perceptual, or emotional
blockages we have to appreciating the uniqueness, value, and contributory depth
of all things.
As epitomized in the attainment of upaaya (unlimited skill-in-means) by those
bodhisattvas (enlightening beings) who have realized non-reliance and the art
of responding without any fixed perspective, fully appreciating the emptiness
of all things is associated with horizonless virtuosity in improvising meaningful
resolutions to trouble. Contrary to the biases of our technological lineage and
legalistic activism, this is not accomplished by controlling circumstances, but
through contributory appreciation; not by means of leveraging power in order to
get what is wanted, but by dedicating unlimited attention-energy to realizing
dramatic partnership with all things. The bodhisattva does not heal through accumulating
and wielding power, but through daanapaaramitaa or the perfection of offering.
Granted this, the ironic nature of the successes of liberal democratic social
activism can be traced to its legal and generic definition of what everyone has
a right to expect or possess. Protecting the rights of a particular class of individuals
-- at least for the purposes of protest and legal change -- depends on first establishing
these individuals' essential and identifying characteristics and what they presently
lack or want. But that is also to ignore their emptiness. It is to exclude the
always surprising middle ground on which we find ourselves most intimately related
and thus most capable of meaningfully contributing to -- not getting something
from -- our community. Karmically, rights discourse legitimates the atrophy of
those attentive resources needed to revise the dramatic -- and not just the institutional
-- structure of society.
The now common practice of 'settling' of disputes between neighbors through the
filing of lawsuits is a good example of how our dramatic interdependence in conflict
resolution is marginalized. A more structural example is the way in which winning
workers' rights in developing countries typically legitimates further development
along already existing lines, and reinforces -- rather than challenges -- the
hierarchy of power, skewing the benefits of commerce toward those controlling
capital and not toward those contributing labor. Far from liberating workers in
any meaningful way, this finally stifles local creativity and eliminates alternatives
to a globalization of the economy and the commodification of culture.
"People" may be materially assisted through legally securing their "universal"
rights, but they are not thereby helped to more fully offer themselves to realizing
meaningful and corrective intimacy with the conditions that have been subordinating
their own unique interests and creativity. In the absence of such dramatic intimacy,
the only recourse is to change the overt facts of the prevailing situation --
a course of action in which progress is always correlated with the exercise of
power. This tends to be shortsighted and focused on treating common symptoms of
oppression rather than the network of conditions sponsoring the poverty of a community's
narration. Successfully undermining and then rebuilding the factual institutions
of a society can indeed secure generic freedoms for ultimately generic individuals,
but it cannot cultivate or conserve locally responsive and dramatic creativity.
Universal solutions solve universal problems -- never the unique ones in which
alone we find ourselves personally implicated.
In keeping with the Buddhist teaching of emptiness, Gustavo Esteva (1987) has
argued, for example, that development is not an answer to the needs of "the
poor," but rather a substantial threat to their present and future well-being.
In fact, development thinking manufactures and "benignly" exports "poverty."
It creates classes of sometimes millions of people who must be given assistance
"because" they are powerless to help themselves. As an alternative,
Esteva suggests that strenuous effort must be made to reclaim the commons, displacing
the economics of development, and cultivating instead an ethos of hospitality.
In the absence of such a turn toward meaningfully intimate relationships and away
from generic legalism, the influx of new goods and services will not be conducive
to the realization of vibrant and resilient community, but only increasing dependence
on these services and slavery to the living standards they implicitly impose.
The criticism here is not, however, only that care must be taken not to help others
for the sake of condescension. The teaching of emptiness insists that equal care
be exercised in avoiding the temptation to rationalize doing nothing for others
or to argue that we all have to "pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps."
Such rationales and arguments are possible only on the condition that we ignore
the meaningful interdependence of all things. Pulling ourselves up by our own
bootstraps is impossible for the simple reason that none of us are -- or could
ever be -- fully independent. But neither are we ever fully dependent. From a
Buddhist perspective, we are not, have never been, and could never be simply-located,
atomic individuals existing or "standing apart" from one another in
objective and purely factual time and space. The prejudice for taking ourselves
most fundamentally to be 'this' and not 'that' -- to be privileged or not, to
be in control or not -- is, at bottom, a culturally sanctioned form of ignorance
that induces both our factual segregation and our relational or narrative poverty.
As an antidote for such dramatic prejudice, the Buddhist practice of emptiness
is conducive to realizing our horizonless continuity with all things in patterns
of meaningful relationship that arise in a cosmos that is irreducibly karmic --
a cosmos in which the topography of our individual and shared experience meticulously
conforms with our own values, and in which conflicts and their full resolution
are always dramatic.
In a karmic world, there are no clear horizons of responsibility, no objective
warrants for disengagement, and no possibility of abstaining from involvement.
In the absence of any absolute or non-contingent boundaries, the root, moral question
can never be whether we are implicated, but only "in exactly what way, and
why?" In the absence of clear and ontologically fundamental boundaries between
self and other, or between 'this' situation and 'that' one, any tensions between
them must be seen as artifacts -- albeit ones with often quite long and convoluted
histories. The perennial conflict of freedom and duty -- like that between the
'good' of persons and that of communities -- is not an absolute given, but our
own doing: a construct or product of our karma. Quite fortunately, our karma is
always subject to revision.
Activism in Buddhist Perspective: The Disparate Karma of Social and Societal Strategies
Such a "Copernican" revolution in understanding ourselves has profound
ramifications for how we understand and evaluate social activism. Because securing
the rights of individuals pivots on abstract forms of segregation, it necessarily
institutes an exclusionary middle ground that divorces facts from meaning and
that occasions practical ignorance of the interdependent origination of all things.
In consequence, we fail to see that solving our problems by controlling or managing
our situation necessarily means finding ourselves in controlled or managed relationships.
To compound matters, if we are originally given as relationships, persistently
interacting through the veiling medium of legal anonymity and excluding our dramatic
interdependence from consideration will invariably mean not only our steady alienation
from one another, but our own fragmentation.
Unless corrected, the rationalizing discourse of contemporary life will carry
in opposite directions and place in eventual conflict those 'parts' of ourselves
we refer to as "self" and "other," as "personal"
and "communal," as "emotion" and "reason," as "body"
and "mind," as "conscious" and "unconscious," and
as "spirit" and "flesh." Such a discourse institutionalizes
a lack of compassion and canonizes our critical blind spot as the hallmark of
proper reason and objectivity. Only if we reject the axiom that we are given as
individuals will we see that our most basic right cannot and should not be --
as one United States Supreme Court justice remarked -- to be "left alone"
in well-managed co-existence with one another, but rather to develop truly virtuosic
and meaningful relationships.
An immediate rejoinder to this is that -- aside from being "politically naïve"
-- such an inversion of the priority of structural facticity over meaning is liable
to induce an acceptance of the inequalities of the status quo rather than a strenuous
effort to challenge them. But like the specter of (epistemic or cultural) relativism
that troubles most theorists of postmodern liberalism, this worry is a rhetorical
consequence of the dialectic of independence and dependence. The Buddhist teachings
of the interdependence and impermanence of all things direct us toward seeing
any fixed status or view (d.r.sti) as evidence of ignorance and error, never as
an absolute fact or ideal. Buddhist practice is thus resolutely counter-cultural
or critical of the status quo, demonstrating that all things and situations --
from our most hallowed institutions to "reality" itself -- are always
negotiable. Since no situation is or could ever be dramatically intractable, there
are no excuses for repeated errors or omissions, no excuses for sitting on our
hands waiting for things to get better. The only relevant question is one of strategy.
I have argued elsewhere (1996, chapter three) for the heuristic value of drawing
a contrast between sociality (an orientation of conduct toward realizing improvised,
increasingly dramatic, and virtuosic interrelationship) and societality (an orientation
of conduct toward bringing about our regulated and factual co-existence through
predictably role-mediated patterns of interaction). To the extent that our conduct
or dramatic "middle ground" is social, it means increasing intimacy
and creative vulnerability; to the extent that it is societal, we find ourselves
disposed in thought, feeling, speech, and action toward developing relatively
fixed identities or institutions and promoting factual security. Sociality fosters
the conditions of uniquely meaningful contribution to our dramatic interdependence;
societality, the conditions of generically controlling the structure of our managed
co-existence. All societies, of course, arise through the patterned complexion
or interweaving of sociality and societality.
According to this distinction, much of what has been called "social activism"
has been correlated with and promoted an increasingly societal movement of our
narration -- the realization of an increasingly rational life-world, globalizing
economic "development," the fragmentation of community and family, and
the legal consolidation of individual and class rights. As such, it has ably secured
and managed the interests of factually subordinate but ideally autonomous 'individuals'
who are themselves the end products of both a technological lineage biased toward
control and those political, philosophical, and religions institutions that have
systematized this bias.
A truly social form of activism would by contrast be oriented toward enhancing
our capacity for uniquely responsive contribution, not increasing capacities for
living "as we want." It would express an ethics of responsibility, not
one of protest or refusal; a bias toward improvisation and the unprecedented,
not regulation and predictability; a focus on realizing what it means to have
no-self and to refrain from discharging blame. Rather than legally ignoring our
uniqueness, by aiming at dramatically satisfying interdependence, truly social
activism would facilitate improvising creative and surprising communities in which
our differences always and thankfully make a difference.
The karmic implications of these two forms of activism are profoundly disparate.
Like technologies oriented toward control, to the extent that societal activism
is successful, it brings about the conditions of its continued necessity and success.
In much the same way that our technological tradition has promised, but not delivered,
a life of ease and leisure,societal activism promises an end of inequality
and imposition while instituting a need for ever finer institutional distinctions,
definitions, and constraints. Societal activism produces legal horizons. That
is its business. And the more effective it is, the more effective it must be.
Just as getting better at getting what we want invariably means getting better
at wanting, getting better at legally insuring rights and freedoms for generic
populations will mean developing further legal mechanisms for specifying and enforcing
those legally defined rights and freedoms. But if regulated freedom stands in
need of "external" enforcement -- that is, new patterns of policing
and not just new policies -- it establishes fertile ground for new hierarchies
of control. Those institutions which police the enforcement of legally won rights
and freedoms will also need policing. The circle is, again, finally a vicious
one. Freedom becomes an end-in-itself -- an abstract status -- that in an irreducibly
dynamic world can only be maintained by dramatic disengagement or the loss of
Instead of concentrating on patterns of conduct oriented toward the institutional
guarantee of generic rights and statuses, the basic strategy of a truly social
activism is to foster appreciative and contributory virtuosity -- primarily through
encouraging practices for continuously relinquishing our horizons for relevance,
responsibility, and readiness. The karmic ramifications of this shift away
from institutional control are both radical and profound.
First, if consciousness is understood as irreducibly relational, appreciation
cannot be reduced to an emotionally decorative and dramatically superfluous acceptance
of things as they are. To the contrary, appreciation means attending to or relating
with things in such a way the value of our situation continuously increases or
appreciates. Karmically, this not only develops the conditions for living in circumstances
that are increasingly valuable, but being more and more valuably placed within
them. Moreover, because our situation is always dramatic, the practice of appreciation
is inseparable from discerning and attuning ourselves to our situation's potential
for superlative meaning -- the realization of dramatic and contributory creativity.
That is, in sharp contrast with the karma of control-oriented conduct, the better
we get at contributing to our situation in a dramatically satisfying way, the
more opportunity we will have to do so. Truly social activism means realizing
our situation as one of horizonless value and opportunity through amplifying the
unique capacities each of us has for sui-shih-ying-yung or "according with
our situation, responding as needed." The result of radically social activism
is a dramatic revision of our present circumstances as the bodhima.n.dala or "place
As implied in this four-character narrative of Ch'an Buddhist enlightenment, increasing
virtuosity in contribution (daanapaaramitaa, or perfection of offering) is inseparable
from increasing virtuosity in appreciation (praj~naapaaramitaa, or the perfection
of wisdom). If appreciation is not a subjective decoration of our circumstances,
neither is it an attainment that comes -- as is sometimes maintained -- only after
we have established sufficiently comfortable and edifying circumstances for "serious"
meditative discipline and the exercise of compassion to be "really"
possible. Again, if consciousness consists of patterns of interdependence from
which we abstract such things as 'individual beings' and their 'environments',
there is no precedent for assuming that the perfection of wisdom depends on the
realization of certain material comforts or that factually altering our circumstances
is more effective or basic than changing minds. In a thoroughly karmic world,
attention and responsive activity are separable -- if at all -- only on heuristic
grounds, not ontological ones. Changing how we place ourselves in attending a
situation is already to transform it. Appreciative virtuosity directly alters
the complexion of our interdependence with all things -- changing at once our
'world' and 'who we are within it'.
Societal activism begins with a recognition of the "poverty" attendant
on membership in one or another class of "oppressed" or "structurally
subordinated" people. On this basis, it works to secure rights to pursue
redress -- rights, that is, to command a factual change of status or circumstance.
When a society has decayed to the point that adequate food, shelter, education,
and medicine are no longer readily available, such factual corrections are imperative.
That is, they should no longer be considered matters of choice. But for karmic
reasons, settling for strictly factual solutions should be seen as a last resort.
Consider, for example, the effect of stepping in to correct the systematically
unjust treatment of a child by a playground bully or a female worker by her sexually
predatory male supervisor. Physically intervening may effectively halt a given
instance of bullying or harassment, but it is unlikely to dramatically alter the
relationship between the persons involved -- the actual site of the conflict in
its dramatic sense. If anything, outside intervention by an ultimate or transcendent
"authority" is likely to drive the "bully" into either greater
brutality when unmonitored or increasingly insidious subtlety. Either way, the
unique contributions the bullied child or co-worker might make to the creative
life of the situation and the dramatic reform of the "bully" will likely
Structurally, an analogy can be made to all instances where some group of people
is subordinated, silenced, or dramatically impoverished by those with greater
access to power and control. Karmically, unintended changes in our situation --
changes that, like those legislated from "above," do not require us
to express our own creativity -- cannot lead to meaningfully addressing the conflicting
values and presuppositions that have sponsored our present trouble. While changing
a society's legal institutions to prohibit certain forms of overt oppression may
alter the factual complexion of that society, this is no guarantee that the expression
of prejudicial discrimination and subordination will be curtailed. Indeed, a more
typical outcome is that the bases of oppression will shift and become both more
varied and less ostensive.
Truly social activism must be rooted in recognizing the contributory potential,
the creativity, of the "oppressed." That is, its first step must be
to stop moving in the direction of attending to one or another form of 'poverty'
or 'want' and establishing legal precedents for its factual redress. Rather than
placing limits on conduct and effectively discouraging horizonless responsibility
while leaving the presuppositions of the status quo essentially unquestioned,
social activism must refrain from accepting the current definition of the situation,
the current "facts" about exactly what is wrong or conflicted.
Karmically, the "facts" of our experience invariably correspond to what
we have meant in the past -- the direction in which we have conducted or guided
ourselves together. Like a mango which is both the final product of a tree
and the occasion of its generational continuity, meaning in a Buddhist sense is
artha -- at once the fruit or result of our value-informed activity and a precedent
or further condition thereof. That is, meaning expresses the recursive relationship
through which our intentional activity feeds back into our 'experience' and conduct
as an initial 'environmental' condition. Far from being either a subjective reading
of a text or situation, or an objective and essential content thereof, meaning
consists of the dramatic furtherance of our narration -- the valuing of our interdependence.
Thus, our factual status at any given time should not be seen as the primary cause
of our suffering or troubles. Rather, it is through our inability to improvise
a viable and meaningful path around or through our situation that suffering arises.
Suffering is not a fact about the way things are, but the announcement of narrative
impasse. It consists of the blockage, truncation, or repetitive frustration of
our dramatic furtherance due to a scarcity of dramatic resources -- those attentive
capacities required for virtuosically according with our situation and responding
as needed. In Buddhist terms, suffering signals our inability to shift the meaning
of things away from samsaara (a world narration characterized by repeated conflict,
trouble, and disappointment) toward nirvaa.na (a world narration in which the
conditions of ignorance, conflict, trouble, and wanting are continuously and thoroughly
Seeing meaning as dramatic furtherance challenges both the self-centered bias
of consequentialism and our control-biased disposition for seeing causation as
a fundamentally linear process of influence. For the realization of a truly social
form of activism, this is a crucial move -- one that allows us to see beyond the
no-win dichotomy of either re-organizing or ordering society person by person
or doing so through generically altering the structure of the interpersonal as
such. What we begin seeing instead is the possibility of changing society through
directly and jointly revising the valence of our dramatic interdependence or karma
as such. Although the analogy has limits, just as shifts between the "two
women" and "vase" views of the standard gestalt drawing do not
require redrawing the picture line by line, dramatic changes in the structure
of society need not depend on rebuilding its institutional structures brick by
brick or law by law.
Importantly, if changing our patterns of attention necessarily changes the pattern
of our interdependence as such, and if all things are dynamic or irreducibly characterized
by impermanence, nothing can be more deleterious in our effort to relieve suffering
or end conflict than inflexible habits of thought, speech, and action. Meaningful
-- that is, karmically effective -- solutions to our personal and communal troubles
can never be imposed or universally legislated. They must be improvised.
If this much can be said about the first step of truly social engagement, about
the second it is possible only to affirm that it must be taken locally, and in
a direction compatible with eliciting the meaningful participation of all concerned
in realizing an increasingly valuable situation -- not the institution of a new
"state of affairs," but the improvisation of a new direction for our
dramatic interdependence. Good examples of the face of truly social activism can
be seen in the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement begun by A. T. Ariyaratne in rural
Sri Lanka and the work of the Thai activist Sulak Sivaraksa.
Responding to the devastating decay forced upon Sri Lanka's rural communities
by centuries of colonialism followed by various "development" schemes
designed to forward the ends of global capitalism, Ariyaratne began working with
villagers to help them amplify their own creative resources and through these
reverse the conditions of personal and communal decay. Emerging from the crucible
of shared physical labor on locally determined public works projects have been
a diverse range of truly local and non-sectarian movements toward answering particular
village needs by appreciating each village's unique situation and eliciting its
indigenous, dramatic resources.
Sivaraksa's approach has been to radically apply the teachings of emptiness and
karma in the context of critically evaluating the effects of Western, individual-biased
development and political ideals. Sivaraksa has thus insisted (1992) that a first
responsibility in any viable form of activism is attending to the quality of our
dramatic interdependence and taking full account of our communal karma -- the
karma being created, for instance, by the unchecked proliferation of technologies
which are marketed as value-neutral or morally-transparent and are not.
In different contexts, Ariyaratne and Sivaraksa both exhort the "oppressed"
seekers of rights to challenge this "disadvantaged" status and direct
their attention to the collusion of values between the rhetoric of development
and liberal democracy and the conditions of their present oppression. In neither
case does this entail refusing to recognize the value of democracy in its broadest
sense or the importance of carefully integrating local, national, and international
economies. But as would be expected in the context of (Buddhist) social activism,
greatest emphasis is placed on discerning the patterns of attention and value
that have been conducive to trouble or conflict and then redirecting these toward
liberation -- not freedom from some abstract form of poverty or merely material
want, but uniquely realized and meaningful virtuosity.
So thoroughly ingrained is our prejudice toward the efficiency of control-biased
strategies for change that talk of amplifying dramatic resources can only seem
disastrously naïve. From the perspective of scientific and technological
realism, we must first and foremost alter the facts of our co-existence. Any changes
in the meaning of our present situation and how we are interdependent will --
if necessary -- follow. The Buddhist rejoinder is that the fact/value distinction
-- like that between 'reality' and 'appearance', or 'truth' and 'belief' -- is
an artifact with very particular precedents and uses. For most "oppressed"
people, accepting the "facts" of their 'poverty' or 'subordination'
is to capitulate to the definitions imposed by those who oppress through an exclusive
super-ordination of their own values and interests. Half the battle is then already
lost. Given our irreducible interdependence, any truly viable form of liberation
must mean dissolving the conditions of oppression and liberating all those bound
by them -- the 'oppressors' as well as the 'oppressed'. If this is to be possible,
there is a strong sense in which the "facts" must be denied.
Opening the Borders: Taking Responsibility for What Society Means
What we call the "facts" of our situation -- the way things 'objectively'
have been, are now, and are likely to remain or become -- are best seen as commitments
to particular patterns of intentional activity or dramatic interdependence. That
is, they reveal our karma. Facts -- and, indeed, what we typically refer to as
"matter" -- consist of continuously reinforced definitions of a particular
point of view. Facts announce the status of things, their mode of existing within
the hierarchy of our values, but they also announce our own status -- the particular
way in which we take a stand on things being either 'this' or 'that' for us. Granted
the Buddha's claim that 'is' and 'is-not' are the twin barbs on which all humankind
is impaled, the world of facts is -- among other things -- the primordial medium
But if all things are truly impermanent and empty, no "state of affairs"
(even a state of consciousness) is naturally occurring. What we refer to as "states
of affairs," "individuals," and the "conflicts" they
suffer are not natural events, but rather announcements of horizons peculiar to
the point of view we have adopted -- horizons or boundaries that, like all artifacts,
can only be established and maintained through fixing our own position and thus
limiting the free flow of attention and energy. The facts of our situation define
the specific -- and typically habitual -- ways our attention energy is bound.
The practice of emptiness -- relinquishing those horizons of relevance through
which are constituted both our 'selves' and the 'things' we experience -- thus
occasions the release of previously bound attention-energy. Practicing emptiness
means letting go of our karma. It means freeing dramatic resources that would
otherwise be devoted to rehearsing the various identities essential to defining
the recursive topography of our narration. Doing so is, in the most immediate
way possible, to extirpate the conditions for narrative impasse or suffering.
From a Buddhist perspective, power is not needed to induce change, but only to
stop, retard, or define it in the ways needed to set up and maintain some status
or form of (self)existence. Power is not needed to erase boundaries or end suffering,
but only to render them chronic and apparently intractable.
History would seem to tell us otherwise. Even allowing for the caution that historical
narratives are themselves woven in the liminal space of empowerment, the evidence
would seem incontrovertible: power may never have been sufficient for engineering
social change, but it has always been necessary. In the present context, for example,
how could one possibly deny the crucial reliance of activists on the power of
the media in successfully engineering the manifestly positive institutional reforms
needed to lobby for and secure basic human rights around the globe? Then again,
the deeper the shadows in which we stand, the less visible is the ground between
Consider the issue or outcome of rights legislation. Legally instituted rights
guarantee everyone a generic share of society's resources and a role in negotiating
its structural organization. Property rights, for instance, allow peasants to
claim ownership of land. Some human rights guarantee minimum standards for working
conditions; others guarantee access to public media for the expression of dissenting
views. These are significant gains for all affected individuals. But at the same
time, property rights held by corporate individuals guarantee the possibility
of establishing monopolies on seed production, the patenting of plant and animal
species, and the operation of "farms" of titanic scale. The entirely
legal exercise of these rights by corporations has been correlated with the demise
of the family farm, the eradication of locally managed seed stock, the flight
of rural 'poor' into the city, and the apparent irrationality of truly vernacular
economies. Similarly, rights of access to media have allowed for both organizing
activist movements and organizing "advertising" campaigns of such magnitude
that consumption has reached epidemic proportions and now very seriously threatens
the planet's ecological health.
The technologies used in gathering and wielding power on a globally significant
scale do not create a level playing field. On the contrary, they were developed
to realize and maintain extremely steep hierarchies of advantage in an economy
of privilege -- an economy in which the most powerful will always be able to dispose
any prevailing "states of affairs" to their advantage. Like technologies
that secure their indispensability by becoming more "user friendly,"
those in power will insure their advantages by listening to and accommodating
activist lobbies as needed. The powerful may even undergo personnel changes from
time to time. But the overall imbalance of power will remain unchallenged. In
spite of any appearances to the contrary, the game of power is thoroughly rigged.
Fortunately, it is not a game we must play. Accumulating and wielding power is
not a prerequisite of meaningful social change. But we will not quit the contest
of power until we place highest priority on attending to the quality of our interdependence
as such. We must first see, that is, the fallacy in claiming that "if something
is good for each and every one of us, it must be good for all of us." In
a dramatic cosmos, placing a priority on using power to leverage changes in the
facts of our circumstances is like trying to write a new song by altering either
the fingerings of already-playing guitarists (the dispositions of the powerful)
or the structure of their guitar necks (society's institutional structure). It
is much better to try improvising along with them in such a way that the music
shifts harmonic and melodic focus directly and of its own accord. In the same
way that skillful contributions to an ongoing musical event allow its meaning
to be revised smoothly and directly, bringing about social change through attending
directly to the quality and disposition of our dramatic interdependence is not
only more efficient than doing so by exerting control over the factual conditions
of our situation, it opens possibilities for contributory and creative parity
that would otherwise be quite literally inconceivable.
Like the benefits of extensive, but entirely "passive," martial arts
training -- made possible, say, by wearing a properly programmed robotic suit
-- the benefits of societal activism are quantifiably real, but limited. Objectively
and individually assessed, such training will undeniably improve our range of
motion -- our degrees of freedom. But in situational crisis, having repeatedly
gone through the motions of either tai chi ch'uan or the exercise of a legally-enacted
civil society will prove to have been of little if any help. Instead of virtuosically
according with the unique character of the present crisis and responding as needed
to improvise its meaningful resolution, we will find ourselves just as likely
as ever to freeze, not knowing what to do, or reverting to old patterns of victimization.
If our practices do not transform how well we appreciate our situation, they will
never enhance our capacity for contributing to the meaningful resolution of our
troubles. On the contrary, we will continue repeating and not truly revising our
In shifting our attention from the controlled redress of factual oppression and
structural inequity to improvising novel conditions for meaningful contribution,
we initiate a decisive return to dramatic immediacy and the disciplines of responsive
creativity. Doing so, we are no longer obliged (in tragic imitation of Zeno and
his paradoxes of motion) to carry society across the dramatic "dead spot"
between disparate states of (political, social, or economic) affairs in an infinite
regress that demands all our available attention and energy to no meaningful effect.
It also frees us from the contradictory logic of either rebuilding society one
person at a time or by way of mass movements organized and granted effective power
by control-biased technologies. With the globalization of the economy and the
ubiquitous spread of information technologies, finding a middle path between these
logical contraries is absolutely crucial. We are now at the point of crossing
a critical threshold of utility for using societal strategies to bring about meaningful
changes in the way we structure our narration -- a threshold beyond which these
structures will become increasingly conducive to the atrophy of our capacities
for both appreciation and meaningful contribution. In the "global village,"
fighting fire with fire is not a viable option.
This is not, however, to justify withdrawing into a shell of self-concern and
ignoring the extremely disadvantaged factual status of various peoples around
the world. It is not to justify the perverse belief that the teaching of karma
entails seeing disadvantaged people as simply "deserving" what they've
got. Nor is it to justify the claim that since the topography of anyone's experience
is a function of their past and present values and intentions, there is finally
not much we can do for them. The difference between our karma and their karma
depends on establishing fixed horizons of relevance, responsibility, and readiness
that do not encourage, but prohibit, the realization of appreciative and contributory
In spite of its apparent successes, what has been called "social activism"
has not promoted such virtuosity. The United Nations' Declaration on Human Rights
and other institutions like it can be therapeutic in a limited sense, but they
will never bring about the kind of dramatic healing needed in order to realize
increasingly meaningful lives in truly liberating and harmonious community. To
the contrary, it has encouraged a continuing focus on changing the facts of our
situation from a sa.msaaric perspective -- a perspective from which the best we
can hope to achieve is the enjoyment of relatively equal degrees of anonymity
and autonomy within the limits of universally regulated co-existence. The task
of any truly social form of activism must be to improvise new and dramatically
satisfying paths across the continually renewed borders of sa.msaara and beyond
the attachments we develop to our varied statuses within them.
It will be objected that there is nothing more liable to contest than the definition
of an "increasingly meaningful or dramatically satisfying life." And
without a doubt, we cannot say with any precision what meaning is. We cannot even
conclusively determine what the meaning of a given situation is or is-not. Meaning
simply does not exist. And yet, in the context of the Buddhist practice of emptiness,
that is all well and good. The original nature of all things is to be meaningfully
related or relevant to one another. Contrary to popular opinion, the meaning of
life is not "something" to be found or discovered -- a pre-existing
and transcendent order that makes sense out of the vicissitudes of our day-to-day
affairs. Rather, the meaning of life is given directly in the movement of our
narration, in our unique ways of participating in irreducibly dramatic interdependence
with all the specific partners we have in these affairs -- our homes, neighborhoods,
and cities; our country-sides and wildernesses and those with whom we share them.
We can ignore the meaning of our lives, but only if we are willing to walk backward
into our future together.
According to the Mahaayaana teaching of emptiness, there is no way of ultimately
separating either our sufferings or our liberation from those of others. Our most
basic right is not to be left alone or to individually prosper. Rather, it is
to contribute ever more fully to our dramatic and liberating interdependence,
freeing ourselves from all chronic suffering and wants as they arise. In spite
of any apparent naivete involved in doing so, we should neither aim at nor settle
1. It is no coincidence that where persons have been understood as patterns of
relationship (classical Chinese culture comes to mind as a prime example) and
not as simply existing-in or standing-apart within them, the free will/determinism
dichotomy has been either entirely absent or of extremely marginal currency. In
such cultural contexts, liberal democratic human rights discourse has often been
seen as somewhat misplaced. See Ames (1988) and Rosemont (1988) for a discussion,
for example, of contemporary Confucian perspectives on human rights discourse.
2. This is not to suggest, of course, that a cultural bias for seeing persons
as relational in nature can be strictly correlated with an absence of structural
inequities and abusive denials of dignity. In both traditional China and Buddhist
Thailand, for example, personal freedoms have by no means been unlimited. All
societies are self-regulating in one degree and fashion or another -- whether
by law or by ritual. The point is to recognize the regulative fertility of conceiving
freedom as located in individual and autonomous existence rather than in meaningful
relationship. Freedom associated with individual autonomy tends to be more abstract
than not, even when most "real." Thus, while Americans can vacation
"wherever they want," they readily allow profit-seeking advertisers
to direct their wants.
3. See Hershock (2000) for a discussion of the distinction between dramatic and
factual human rights, and their diverse relationship to the problem of alienation.
4. For more on the dishonored promises of technology, see Hershock (1999), especially
chapters three and four