Sunday, August 29, 2021

Nondualism and the Pandemic, Part 1

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A text written by a Buddhist monk 1,000 years ago probably seems like a remote concern in comparison to the pandemic we’ve been living through since March 2020. And of course, that’s true. I’m not going to claim that medical professionals should all stop what they’re doing and pick up ancient Sanskrit texts.



A Personal Connection?


But there is a connection for me personally. When the pandemic was declared in March 2020, I was in the early stages of a new research project on the 11th century Indian Buddhist philosopher Ratnakīrti. I was looking at one of his texts that modern scholars often read as a defense of solipsism—the view that there is only one mind, of which we are all part. 


Solipsism is heady stuff (even if there is only one head!), but I wondered if Ratnakīrti’s point might run in a different direction. As a Buddhist philosopher heavily influenced by the Yogācāra tradition and its emphasis on nondualism, I thought that maybe Ratnakīrti’s point isn’t that there is one mind (my mind?) but rather that the very concept of discrete minds totally walled off from one another is an illusion in the context of nondualism, which in turn is a philosophical development of the idea of non-self. If there is no self, separate from the rest of the world, then the very concept of an individual, discrete mind is nonsensical.

At the time I was calling this a kind of conceptual skepticism about other minds. But I think Ratnakīrti’s point may be even deeper and weirder than modern Western categories like skepticism and solipsism can capture.


I’m not sure where this project will go. I have yet to do the serious textual work necessary to make any substantial philosophical point about Ratnakīrti. Because I haven’t worked on this project at all since the pandemic started.


I’ve spent most of what research time I’ve been able to carve out during the pandemic finishing all the other projects I agreed to do before the pandemic. Pre-pandemic Ethan agreed to do way too many things, an impulse that pandemic Ethan is working hard to correct by not working so hard.



Nondualism During the Pandemic


Yet none of this means I haven’t been thinking about nondualism during the pandemic. In fact, I’ve come to think that solipsism, whether in politics or metaphysics or the interpretation of Ratnakīrti, is a mistake.


In the first few months of the pandemic I still had a slim hope that a lot of us might radically rethink our assumptions about medicine, politics, economics, and our general place in society and the universe. I thought people might come to see that we are all connected, that what we do affects other people and vice versa. I thought we might come to see that there is no necessary conflict between individual rights and the greater good.


Not that you need anything as robust or as abstract as Ratnakīrti’s rarified metaphysics to make that point. But the way that he deconstructs the very idea that we are all separate from each other—causally isolated beacons of individualism—has been lurking in my thoughts.



Rugged Individualism Becomes Toxic


Here in my home country of the United States, many of us pride ourselves on our rugged individualism. There’s something ennobling about that. As a bit of a weirdo myself, I appreciate the idea that we’re free to be weird. But in recent decades I think many sectors of US society have turned this idea into the toxic notion that you should always be able to do what you want no matter how it affects other people, while making a virtue of haughty defiance merely for the sake of defiance. It’s a sort of political solipsism that you are the only person who really matters, although this is a solipsism far removed from whatever Ratnakīrti’s position may have been.


In March 2020 the pandemic dove head-first into American individualism. Many people refused to wear masks… as far as I can tell solely because people they didn’t like (government officials, medical authorities, Hollywood celebrities, etc.) told them it was a good idea. This attitude of politicized defiance for the sake of defiance, combined with the fact that the US has no guaranteed paid sick time and no guaranteed healthcare, made it so that even people who avoided anti-mask sentiment and wanted to get tested and stay home for the greater good couldn’t always afford to do so.


In retrospect, it should have been easy to predict the vaccine hesitancy that followed in 2021 as well as the loud minority that makes it so that many public schools and colleges can’t have vaccine mandates or sensible mask requirements.


For reasons I don’t entirely understand but which should have been predictable to anyone paying attention to US politics in the last 5-10 years, we immediately politicized COVID. In a capitalist society driven by economic incentives to make all political issues as divisive as abortion and guns, this should not have been a surprise.


While this attitude has become enormously toxic on the American right (probably one of the main drivers of our current COVID surge), I think the American left has its own versions of this toxicity.



Looking Left


It has become a common refrain on the left, especially since the Delta variant sent our COVID numbers back to dangerous levels in recent weeks, that the current state of the pandemic is the fault of some Other—Trumpists, the South, rural people, the uneducated, FoxNews viewers, the bad kind of white people, the unwashed and unvaxxed masses. We did our part. You did not. Hence, we are angry at you.


I’m not going to tell people not to be angry. I’m angry, too. It would be particularly perverse given my ultimate point about nondualism if I didn’t admit that I’m guilty, too. Besides, simply telling people not to be angry is not a particularly effective anti-anger strategy.


But as centuries of Buddhist and Stoic philosophical exercises demonstrate, sometimes careful thinking can deconstruct anger rather than repress it.

To be continued in Part 2.

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