- Buddhism in the Public Sphere: Reorienting Global Interdependence
In a series of important books, Peter Hershock has been developing a new way to understand Buddhist awakening, and using this understanding to offer a fresh perspective on contemporary issues. Liberating Intimacy: Enlightenment and Social Virtuosity in Ch'an Buddhism (1996) argues that enlightenment is not some private, self-contained experience, but a liberation from self-preoccupation into an improvisational virtuosity that emphasizes and transforms our relationships. Reinventing the Wheel: A Buddhist Response to the Information Age (1999) considers the implications of technology, looking at how technologies reconfigure our awareness and colonize our consciousness. They are not just tools: modern technologies change us and, as Ivan Illich emphasized, have thresholds of utility beyond which they reproduce the conditions of their own necessity—that is, they begin generating problems that can be efficiently addressed only with more technology, which in turn generates new problems that can be solved only with . . . (and so on).
Hershock's Buddhism in the Public Sphere expands this critique to address our problems (or "predicaments") with the environment, healthcare, trade and development economics, the media, governance, international relations, terrorism, and education. Hershock begins by reminding us that Buddhism doesn't view consciousness as something occurring within organisms, but as arising between them and their environments. Instead of being separate beings, intrinsically discrete, we are ever developing patterns of relationship, and our dukkha ("troubles") arise from disruption in these relational patterns. This also applies to our institutions. Collective approaches to public issues often trap us in unskillful ways of relating because they emphasize control over appreciative contribution, information exchange over meaningful communication, and autonomous self-sufficiency over "horizonless" intimacy.
Hershock's key insight builds upon the Buddhist emphasis on karma as intentionality: our world is karmic because "all experienced eventualities arise as outcomes/opportunities that are meticulously consonant with patterns of our values-intentions-actions" (p. 9). This quotation suggests the difficulty with some of his prose, yet wrestling with it is well worth the effort. By changing our individual and collective values/intentions, from a preoccupation with controlling things (often self-frustrating) to an emphasis on more improvisational and "virtuosic" ways of relating to each other, frozen situations open up into new possibilities. A world saturated with our values and shaped by our intentions is never intractable, always a work-in-progress. What really matters is not what things seem to be but their dispositions—that is, the direction they are heading in, which turns out to be the true meaning of their relationships. [End Page 144]
Hershock uses these abstractions to illuminate and rethink familiar issues such as the ecological crisis. If ecosystems are not collections of species but sustained patterns of relationships, then the diversity we cherish is not simply a function of how many species there are but of the density and richness of their intra- and interrelationships. This avoids the usual (and controversial) appeals to the "intrinsic rights" of other species, emphasizing instead interacting communities of participatory and harmonious creativity. Rights regimes emphasize the lowest common denominator, below which no animal (or human, for that matter) is legally permitted to fall, without tackling the more basic issue: the quality of relationships. In other words, they "do not address the karma that made the institution of rights necessary" (p. 34).
Such "liberation ecology" de-emphasizes our preoccupation with duty in favor of what Hershock calls aesthetic consummation, since beauty, too, is a function or quality of relationships. It also challenges the conventional dualities we too easily fall into—between humans and the natural world, between rural and urban environments. Degraded environments correlate with degraded patterns of consciousness, which implies that environmental ethics, as much as protected ecosystems, requires self-cultivation.
Hershock's discussion of health and healing also emphasizes our skillful or unskillful (kusala/akusala) patterns of attention and conduct. What does it mean to be healthy? Rather than focusing on a simple baseline status (e.g., rights regimes), health is better understood as the optimal functioning of an organism, which...