Emptiness, Creativity & Feminist Ecology: An Introduction to Process Buddhism
The purpose of this page is to encourage you to read "Emptiness, Creativity, & Feminist Ecology: An Introduction to Process Buddhism" by Kazi Adi Shakti, as found in the most recent issue of Process Perspectives ((Vol. 44, Fall 2023)) I offer but a springboard for that reading.
Kazi Adi Shakti is an artist and independent researcher who studies and theorizes the intersections of Process thought, Madhyamaka Buddhism, Western Marxism, and Ecofeminism. She focuses on the unique role each might play in a holistic soteriology that includes them all. Kazi regularly blogs on her website, www.holo-poiesis.com. She graduated with a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she majored in Interdisciplinary Sculpture with a focus on computer modeling, 3D scanning, and digital fabrication. I co-led a learning circle on Process Thought and Buddhism with her about a year ago and quickly realized that I was in the presence of a remarkably astute, knowledgeable, kind, playful, and loving scholar of Buddhism. We were a good team, thanks to her spirit.
Readers are well aware that there are many schools of Buddhism. I am most influenced by Japanese Zen, particularly Rinzai Zen Buddhism and Soto Zen Buddhism. I was the English teacher for a Zen priest turned master from Japan while I was a graduate student, and I now regularly sit with a Soto group. My Buddhist practice involves "quiet sitting in Zen style," and I find Process Philosophy, as developed by Whitehead in "Process and Reality," helpful both in understanding immediate experience at pre-conceptual levels and in comprehending "reality" as an evolving, interconnected network of inter-becoming. I put "reality" in quotes, because the word too easily suggests something "out there" that is different from experience in the here-and-now and that is in some way fixed. This is not the "reality" to which Whitehead and Buddhism point. As a Christian, I am also influenced by Whitehead's understanding of God, especially the consequent nature of God, which entails the notion that, at the heart of our cosmos, there is a living spirit of compassion and, as I put it, Deep Listening. I am comfortable with the idea that, in Whitehead, God can best be understood as a cosmic Bodhisattva. For me, Jesus is an incarnation of this Bodhisattva.
Shakti's approach to Buddhism differs from mine and is much more immersed in the conceptual and philosophical history of Buddhism, in a wonderful and scholarly way, although by no means separate from questions of practice, both social and meditative. She and I talked often while co-leading our sessions. She was, and perhaps still is, a bit more inclined to speak of two levels of reality: conventional and ultimate. My Zen way does not lean toward this difference, but nor, in some ways, does her Madhyamaka way. Among the many things I appreciate about her approach, and find superior to my own, is her appreciation of the Madhyamaka emphasis on "freedom from views" and not clinging to any perspective, including Buddhist perspectives, as if they were concrete objects of ultimate (non-conventional) value. She writes:
"Process Buddhism is able to more consistently fulfill the concept of Madhyamaka as freedom from views since the Buddhist dialectical component never supplies a view or perspective of its own, but only functions to eliminate inconsistencies and assumptions of intrinsic nature from the one creatively advancing perspective in-process."
This approach is much needed in process circles, where many of us in the process world do indeed cling to process thought, to our ideas of God, and to whatever philosophies and theologies take hold of us. Our favored philosophies too often become gods in our heads, and not of the Buddhist variety. There is a spirit of freedom and, I believe, love in the freedom from clinging: a spirit quite important and difficult for many of us Abrahamic and Greek-leaning thinkers to understand. We need Madhyamaka lightness of heart and soul.
On the other hand, as Shakti makes clear, it is possible that Buddhists can benefit from the positive ideas (the views) offered by the process tradition if that benefit is undertaken in a Madhyamaka way. Another value of Shakti's approach, over my own, is that it is socially engaged in a way explicitly informed by ecofeminism. I am implicitly informed by it, but Shakti's approach is more beautiful, forthright, and promising, I fear that my own social engagement comes primarily from the Christian side and, more specifically, the Jesus side. But that is not enough, given what the world needs today. What is needed are many paths of compassion, many stories, not just one. The world needs people from many walks of life to walk the way of compassion - and indeed enlightened compassion, if possible.
Shakti's work points in that direction in a powerful way. I offer this page on an essay of hers in Process Perspectives, hoping it will lead you to follow the link and read on your own. This page is but, in Whitehead's words, a "lure for feeling" pointing toward her article, which is incredibly rich in nuance and (dare I say) substance, but in an eminently Buddhist way. Read and learn. But do not cling. Then you will have understood it.
- Jay McDaniel
Kazi Adi Shakti's essay in the most recent issue of Process Perspectives (Vol. 44, Fall 2023) is titled "Emptiness, Creativity & Feminist Ecology: An Introduction to Process Buddhism." It is a work of wisdom, complexity, nuance, and forward-looking vision. Deeply rooted in Buddhist intellectual history, Whitehead's "Process and Reality," and Ecofeminism, it represents a condensed version of a longer essay published elsewhere. Shakti argues that while process thought and Buddhism, in isolation, may risk existential extremes of radical exclusion and incorporation (see below), they can, when combined, "form a robust conception of the human-nature relation" that is both a theoretical achievement, building upon aspects of each and a concrete mode of praxis aimed at bringing about a more just and sustainable world.
Her ecofeminist reference point is the work of Val Plumwood, who writes: "If we are to survive into a livable future, we must take into our own hands the power to create, restore, and explore different stories, with new main characters, better plots, and at least the possibility of some happy endings" (196). The tone of Shakti's piece is quite scholarly, but at the end the tone shifts in a lighter yet honest direction. Shakti concludes her essay with the sentence: "I offer Process Buddhism as one of many living contributions to the possibility of those happy endings."
The Process Buddhism that she articulates seeks to overcome two problems Plumwood addresses in her critique of dualism, The first is the problem that the people in control of the world, the so-called Masters in the master-slave relationship, simultaneously separate themselves from others with a sense of independent and self-sufficient existence. This is the "radical exclusion" mentioned above. The second is that they tend to incorporate those others (their wisdom, their energies, their lives) into their own existence, all the while 'othering' them. This is the "incorporation" mentioned above. Often they do this together, an dialectical impulse at the heart of colonization.
Plumwood herself critiques both process philosophy as she understands it and deep ecology, both of which perceive themselves as ecological, as falling into the trap of these very problems. Process thought does this (thinks Plumwood) by wrongly proposing that something like human consciousness or mentation is found anywhere and everywhere in the depths of matter, thus incorporating matter itself, with all its diversity, into a kind of anthropomorphic sameness. Deep Ecology does this in a similar and even more intensive way. Plumwood's appeal is for ways of thinking to emerge that see the world in terms of radical inter-becoming, amidst which differences are respected rather than absorbed, albeit in compassionate, non-colonizing ways.
Shakti is sensitive to Plumwood's critique of process (which happens to rely mostly on an early essay of my own) but argues that Whitehead's philosophy, in combination with Madhyamika Buddhism, can move beyond this problem. She stresses that, in Whitehead's philosophy, consciousness is but one form of feeling, sometimes specious at that, and that it is feeling (prehending), not consciousness, that goes all the way down into the depths of matter. In Shakti's view, this qualification softens the idea that something human-like is being projected onto matter. With this in mind, she turns to Buddhism, offering a detailed account of schools of thought within early Buddhism, focusing on the Yogacara school, which she criticizes as idealist and, unwittingly, subject to Plumwood's critique, and the Madhyamika school, which she finds more promising.
In developing a Process Buddhism in which the Buddhist side is represented by Madhyamika, she offers two principles (her word) which she argues can be at the heart of a Process Buddhist practice: "Open/Emptiness" and "Inclusive-Transcendence." The principle of Open/Emptiness is found in each and every energy-event of any sort. As I understand it, it is that aspect of the energy-event which is empty of independent own-being or substance, dependent on other beings for its emergence, and thus open to their reality and existence, by virtue of its very relationality, such that they compose it. It is nothing without them and, for that matter no-solidified-thing with them, by virtue of its composite nature. When we see things in their Open/Emptiness, we realize that we cannot cling to them as rigid, self-existent, reifiable entities, and that we must ourselves be open to them, cognizant that we, too, are Open/Empty.
Inclusive-Transcendence is that side of an energy-event which is creative amidst its inter-dependence, synthesizing the many aspects that it includes into something new, such that it adds its own nature (its own Open/Emptiness) to the creative process of reality. Open/Emptiness points to the fact that, at every moment, the many aspects of the universe are becoming one in each energy-event, and Inclusive-Transcendence is the fact that when the many become one, they are themselves increased by one in the process.
Her training as an artist comes to play in her punctuation. Shakti intentionally put a slash to Open/Emptiness to suggest that Openness and Emptiness are equally valid ways of translating Sunyata. In her words to me in private correspondence, "we benefit from having them both so that we don't over-emphasize the 'positive' quality of what is implied by Openness at the expense of the 'negative' quality of what is implied by Emptiness and vice versa." She intentionally puts a dash between Inclusive and Transcendence to suggest, again in her words, "that they come as a pair, a conjunction of meaningfully distinct aspects of a holistic process that is both inclusive and including as well as transcending and overcoming." This subtlety is at work throughout her essay.
Shakti's proposal is that a recognition that the whole of reality consists of these two qualities, including ourselves, can indeed lie at the heart of a Process Buddhism shaped by Madhyamaka sensibilities, and that this recognition can help enlighten even the most powerful of Masters while empowering the formerly colonized. Added to this can be an ecological sensibility where humans recognize our place in a larger web of life, itself differentiated in marvelous and creative ways, never finished and always in process.
- Jay McDaniel
Five Theses to Mull Over
Process Buddhism combines ideas from Alfred North Whitehead's Process Philosophy and Madhyamaka Buddhism.
Process Buddhism overcomes limitations that can occur when each philosophy is considered in isolation, leveraging their strengths and evolving their trajectories.
Process Buddhism does not conflate the two but rather employs each while retaining its ethos: Process Philosophy with its speculative orientation and Madhyamaka with its analytic critique of anything (including philosophy) when reified.
Ecofeminism, as expressed by Val Plumwood in "Feminism and the Mastery of Nature," offers a crucial ethical and moral basis for Process Buddhism. It gives Process Buddhism "concrete practical purpose."
Process Buddhism is not purely theoretical but entails practical engagement and compassionate interactions with others. It is a mode of practice especially suited for our times.