12 February 2014

Buddhism, radicals and radicalism: a necessary preamble

The adjective ‘radical’ has two principal definitions.  In common usage, ‘radical’ conjures images of or alluding to Che Guevara.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be about those who think like Che or for whom Che is hero.  Anyone favouring fundamental or extreme change, especially in the social, political and economic order, or expressing related sentiments, is taken to be a ‘radical’.  In general ‘radical’ denotes ‘going against the grain’ or ‘swimming upstream’.  Some would say ‘banging head against wall’ but let’s be more optimistic. 

There is a more interesting and perhaps less known definition of ‘radical’: ‘of or from the root or roots; going to the foundation or source of something; fundamental; basic: a radical principle.’

The second definition functions as a prerequisite for earning the label ‘radical’ in terms of the first formulation.  It is easy to rant and rave about system and ruler but system-change and ruler-ousting (the latter being the easier of the two) can only benefit by examining the fundamental sources of support, including but not limited to configuration of political forces, ideological persuasions and the degree of support enjoyed, structural factors that inhibit or make easier the obtaining of desired outcome. 

Today the term ‘radical’ and its oft interchanged twin ‘revolutionary’ have become overused and abused to much that they’ve lost meaning and been divested for the most part of operative power, especially in the ideological arena.  Che, after all, is not just a revolutionary icon, but a catch-all visual for any old product or brand that wants to position itself as ‘new’, ‘radical’, ‘great’, ‘revolutionary’ etc.  Similarly those who call themselves ‘radicals’ tend to grapple with the frills of the system they are determined to overthrow and even on the rare occasion that they do effect ‘change’, the transformation is more in the cosmetics rather than substance.  Name-change and face-change don’t connote ‘revolution’ even if marketed as such.  Regime change may take a lot of work and even require a blood-price but the amount of plasma shed and hours of sleep sacrificed are not qualification enough for the outcome to be called ‘radical’. 

My contention is that the necessary disappointment that follows flows from the ready embrace of illusion, the uncritical acceptance of received ‘knowledge’ and manifest sloth in the matter of going beyond rhetoric.  It is in this context that I offer the Kalama Sutra, the Charter on Free Inquiry proposed by Siddhartha Gauthama, the Enlightened One, our Budun Wahanse as an excellent guide to more effective, judicious and efficient engagement. 

The Compassionate One cautioned the Kalamas thus: ‘Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher’.'
The Buddha did not use the word ‘radical’ to my knowledge.  He stated things as they are, elaborated on the human condition, the vicissitudes of life and proposed a pathway out of sorrow.  One of the enduring beauties of the doctrine expounded by the Buddha is the multiple applicability of tenet flowing from observation and commentary.  It is strictly in this sense that I have found the Kalama Sutra to have immense utility value for all those who profess a predilection towards radicalism, in though and deed as well as in multiple spheres of engagement, including overhauling of social and political order. 
Each of the cautions articulated by the Buddha to the Kalama merit separate treatment, but even a cursory glance at the above set of qualifiers when used as instrument of assessing expediency of action would indicate that for all self-righteous claim and even braggadocio, ‘radicals’ and ‘radicalism’ for the most part are creatures that nibble at systems raged again.  Indeed some could argue that in a certain sense radicals and radicalism are necessary ingredients of system sustainability in the absence of a deep consideration of these conditions for they often and at best affect little more than regime change; the terms of inequality and other anomalies persist beyond ‘moment of victory’ and the replacement of one flag with another.  

Do we not, after all, more often than not, go by reports, depend on traditions and scripture, the power of logic (based naturally on certain assumptions that may not be completely true or at least only applicable in certain conditions and not others), indulge in inference, wallow in analogy, play the numbers game of chance, or defer to reputation of book and author, leader and saint?  How often do we probe that which is taken as self-evident, tease out the assumptions, un-frill it of rhetoric, verbosity and fudge-spot?

In the coming weeks, I propose to examine each of the above clauses with reference to ‘radicalism’ and ‘radicals’ here and abroad.  Such an examination, I hope, would make for a more honest and wholesome understanding of the terms and their operative potential (or lack thereof as the case may be). 

For now, I shall leave the reader with the thought that pinning the word ‘revolution’ on an event, moment and apparent transformation in political order does not necessarily imply that a fundamental change has taken place.  The ‘radicalism’ implied in the latter definition of ‘radical’ (stated above) could provide an interrogative stand point that helps shed light on revolutions and revolutionaries.  The last thing that those seeking to overturn a draconian social and political order need is illusion. 

The Kalama Sutra can help, I believe.   

Sabbe Satta Bhavantu Sukhitatta (May all beings be happy).

First published in the Daily Mirror, Mach 15, 2011
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelancer writer who can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com


Anonymous said...

Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture....

Since you are more conversant with the teachings of the Buddha, as a lay person, I want to know, if the correct way is to follow our own conscience without heeding to tradition or report? If we don't heed to these 'traditional norms' does it amount to 'anti-socialism ?
If we don't heed to 'tradition or report or legends, but do something which makes us happy (not inflicting harm on anyone) yet raise the eye brows of many others, where do we stand?

Malinda Seneviratne said...

I think the Buddha cautioned against fixations and extreme positions. I don't think he advocated hitting head against brick wall, metaphorically speaking. He understood obviously that not all are ready or willing to follow the 8-fold path. So the doctrine contains guidelines for such people, for those who may follow the path at some point and therefore would be ready to prepare themselves and those who just would not. There are guidelines for the third set of people too.

Walter said...

The above piece could be read and read for a dozen times and still fresh to read again. Keep writing for us to read.