“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

OOO, It's Object-Oriented Buddhism

Levi kindly asked me to write an essay for the OOO anthology. Mine is called "Buddhist Objects." I happen to be here on this retreat with a few moments to spare and my over active intellect wants to post this, so here goes.

In no sense do systems theory and process philosophy have a monopoly on Buddhism. Let's consider Buddhist practices (ethics, if you like, in some sense). I've been realizing this week how unit operational they are (thanks Ian).

Only consider the specific practice I'm doing, ngondro (Tibetan: preliminary). First you do 108 000 prostrations (don't ask...). Then you recite a certain mantra 108 000 times. There are two other phases. I just completed prostrations and I'm on to mantra.

Now when you start the mantra part of ngondro, at the beginning of each session, you do 7 or 21 prostrations. See how prostrations have been encapsulated, a feature of Ian's "units" that corresponds to Graham's and Levi's object withdrawal.

Consider the syllable of a mantra. It's highly compressed information that also has a unit operational function. For instance, take the Prajnaparamita Sutra, in which Buddha explains that nothing has "true" existence (hey I'm not going to get into any emptiness debates here...yet). So there is a version of the sutra in 100 000 lines. There's one in 25 000 lines. There is one in 25 lines quite common in Zen. Heck there may be many more versions. But for me right now the most interesting version is the ONE SYLLABLE version, AH.

That's right. An entire sutra compressed into a highly encapsulated unit. Handy, yes? Especially because AH is how you sound when you breathe out...

So AH is not a sign in a Saussurean system of negative difference. It has a positive, densely encapsulated significance that performs a kind of algorithmic function--it does something.

Now AH is Sanskrit. Tibetan as a written language was devised specifically to talk about Buddhism. No surprise then that it's a wonderfully compressible language. You can encapsulate whole swathes of teaching in a syllable, then join it to another syllable (they're all quite nicely detachable units) and hey presto. I think this tells us something deep about Buddhism.

Now consider basic shamatha meditation, "calming the mind" common to Buddhism and Hinduism. It is highly algorithmic and unit based. The formula is simplicity itself: sit comfortably; focus on an object (could be breath because we all do it unless we're dead, but anything will do); when you lose focus go back to step 2.

Visualization is shamatha with a buddha or whatever whom you're visualizing. Each element of the visualization is highly encapsulated and unit based. Like gaming software filling in a background, there are all kinds of aesthetic and physical laws etc encapsulated in the formulae for visualization. Which is why Tibetan teachers are VERY interested in software that would enable you to see how to do it with a mouse click.

If you've ever seen those animated prayer wheels online you'll see that they are in perfect accord with the purpose of physical prayer wheels--I even saw a water powered one in Tibet. The point is to fully automate and encapsulate a mantra--why not? (Of course this is what Zizek finds most suspect about Tibetan Buddhism, which kind of makes me like it even more.)



ai said...

Sounds fascinating, Tim. I look forward to your effort to break the monopoly (of process philosophy, systems theory, and, I would add, deconstruction and idealism more generally, in western appropriations of Buddhism)... Religious studies has moved in that direction over the years (ritual/practice --> embodiment --> materiality/objects) and it wouldn't hurt to give it more philosophical muscle.

Restful & insightful retreating to you,

Henry Warwick said...


You might find this article of some value:

buddhism | sustainability

Henry Warwick