Empathetic Criticism

Over the past 50 years or so we have heard repeated calls to break down and restructure the canon, to integrate works from non-Western literary cultures into the general knowledge we expect an ...

Over the past 50 years or so we have heard repeated calls to break down and restructure the canon, to integrate works from non-Western literary cultures into the general knowledge we expect an educated adult to possess. Often missing from this high-minded call to action are explorations of what this means and how it should be done.1 While it’s easy to pick-and-choose exemplary works from outside of the Euro-American tradition that confirm a pluralistic worldview, it is somewhat harder to know what to do with texts that directly challenge us. That is to say, while we should not stop reading them, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that by reading Salman Rushdie or Teju Cole we are encountering the alternative tradition that proponents of the category World Literature so often promise.

Luckily for us, the past ten years have seen a spate of translations from pre-modern Indian traditions. For the first time, bilingual editions of some of the most important (and most entertaining) of these literary works have been translated and made widely available to students, scholars, and collectors—anyone attempting to establish a canon of world literature. No longer will the student of World Religions be left with a flimsy translation of the Bhagavad Gita or an abridged Mahabharata if she wants to read works from pre-Modern India. Thanks to the Clay Sanskrit Library and the Murty Classical Library of India she can begin to approach the massive literary tradition in different forms that will help her see not only a tradition, but a debate carried out in prose and poetry.

Two works from the Buddhist tradition, however, might cause the modern reader some discomfort. Life of the Buddha and Handsome Nanda are two great poems written in Sanskrit by the 2nd-century monk Ashvaghosha. Both tell stories of how early Buddhists—in fact, the Buddha Siddhartha himself and his younger half-brother Nanda—came to reach enlightenment. The story of the Buddha’s path to enlightenment is well known in the West, whether through Hermann Hesse, Jack Kerouac, or the somewhat more reliable scholarly accounts, and the endless flow of Buddhist-inspired self-help and scholarship/therapy hybrids that have flooded the American market since the 1960s.2 Unlike those, the recent, beautiful translation of the Life of the Buddha, together with Handsome Nanda, helps put the by-now-clichéd narrative in context for the general reader, while simultaneously allowing her to access it in a less mediated fashion. And it isn’t always pretty. If Siddhartha began his path to enlightenment by realizing that one day he would get old, sick, and die, then Nanda, his younger brother, began his path by realizing that there will always be women more beautiful than the woman he was with and that there was no end to his desires—a slightly-less-than-noble truth.

Through their conversion narratives, both poems critique the opulence of city life while placing the burden of blame on the women of the court. The logic is as follows: If worldly pleasure is evil, and women are the highest worldly pleasure, then women are the highest evil. Enlightenment requires an unveiling of illusion, and women create the grandest illusion of them all. So the story goes.

In this conception of the world, women are nothing more than a hindrance to male enlightenment. Their makeup and finery serve to distort the reality that the world is decaying and pleasure is short-lived. As Siddhartha runs away from his home, deserting his wives and son, he has to pass through a hall littered with sleeping women. In a famous passage, these once-regal women are depicted as out-of-control and disgusting as the façade of their existence is let down:

although genteel and endowed with beauty,
others were snoring with their mouths agape,
without any shame and out of control,
with limbs distorted and arms extended,
sleeping in immodest pose;

others looked revolting, lying as if dead,
their jewelry and their garlands fallen down,
unconscious, with eyes unblinking,
the whites gazing in a fixed stare;

another was lying as if she was drunk,
mouth wide open and saliva oozing,
legs wide open and genitals exposed,
body distorted, looking repulsive.

Like the college sophomore in Jonathan Swift’s poem who is driven mad because he realizes that “Caelia, Caelia, Caelia shits,” Siddhartha too can’t handle, gasp, the reality of women as people.

This attitude is not an outlier. Throughout the poems, Buddhist philosophic thought is systematically mobilized with women’s bodies as the prime objects of focus to expose the lies of the world. In Handsome Nanda, our titular hero finds himself able to accept Buddhism and renounce all the pleasures of the court except the woman he loves. In order to free him from this final desire, Nanda is advised, “dear friend, knowing that the world flickers like a mirage, that it is kaleidoscopic like a magic trick, give up the tissue of delusions labeled ‘lover,’ if you are minded to cut through the snare of sorrow.” Elsewhere this analysis is fully expanded and taken to its limit when Nanda is once again scolded:

So, you don’t see that women’s hearts are cunning, utterly duplicitous, pernicious, and superficial! Do you at least see that their bodies are dirty, oozing, houses of vice? The repulsiveness adorned day by day with cleansing, clothing and decoration you, with you sight veiled by dark ignorance, perceive as attractive; you fail to understand … If your Sundari were naked, covered only by dust and mud, with her nails, teeth and hair in their natural state, she definitely wouldn’t be beautiful Sundari for you then. What sensitive man would touch a woman, leaking and unclean like an old box, if she were not covered in skin, thin as a fly’s wing though it is? … You blind fool, can’t you see the natural state of women and what they come from? So understand women to be especially flawed in mind and body, and use the strength of this recollection to hold back your roving mind which longs for home.

In the face of this misogyny, what is the modern reader to do? These texts have been ignored in the English-speaking world for too long, and now that they are available in readable and impressive translations, we cannot simply ignore their difficult aspects. Luckily for us, there exists another recent translation that, if it doesn’t entirely mitigate the misogyny of Handsome Nanda and Life of the Buddha, does help us to grapple with it.

Therigatha is a collection of Pali poems attributed to the earliest Buddhist nuns. Though it is a part of the major Theravada Buddhist canon and has been well known to scholars for a long time, these beautiful verses haven’t reached the general public who might be interested in Buddhism. Composed earlier and in a different language than Ashvaghosha’s poems, the poems of the Therigatha nevertheless clearly participate in the same thought-world. Once again we see Buddhists meditating on women’s bodies as they grow old and lose their beauty, but this time the Buddhists in question are women, and their analysis, though rooted in the same assumptions, is markedly different.

Unlike Ashvaghosha’s poems, the poems of the Therigatha are not narratives; rather, they are dialogues, meditations, and songs, and they carry a more intimate tone that is beautifully expressed in Hallisey’s fluid translation. These poems present a cacophony of different voices of women struggling to find themselves in Buddhism against the prevailing assumptions of their day. One remarkable dialogue between the nun Somā and the demon Mara offers a telling example of the tone and content of many of the poems:

It is hard to get to the place that sages want to reach,
it’s not possible for a woman,
especially not one with only two fingers’ worth of wisdom.

What does being a woman have to do with it?
What counts is that the heart is settled
and that one sees what really is.

What comes through in the rest of the collection is not a sense of radical equality, but a sense of safety in community. The women who become nuns are from different backgrounds—they are young and old, rich and poor—and yet they strive to create a new social institution for themselves. As one to-be-nun declares to her father who wonders why she wants to renounce:

Those who have gone forth
are from various families and from various regions
and still they are friendly with each other—
that is the reason why
ascetics are so dear to me.

At times, it seems like this alternative community is more important than Buddhist principles themselves. There are homeless women who become nuns because it seems like an easier way to make money begging and, after all, it is better to be homeless among others. There are tired sex workers who become nuns because they can no longer make as much money as they once did. There are women who become nuns because they are sick of “three crooked things: mortar, pestle, and husband with his crooked thing.” A diversity of complaints are articulated and accepted. As one nun writes:

Sharing a husband with another wife is suffering for some,
while for others, having a baby just once is more than enough suffering.

Some women cut their throats,
others take poison,
some die in pregnancy
and then both mother and child experience miseries.

The point of these poems is not simply to state the problems of the world; the problems of the world are stated so that they can be negated. Individual experiences matter, but in the end the community is one that can accept all sorts of women.

Reading Handsome Nanda or The Life of the Buddha looking for misogyny with a capital ‘M’ will cause the texts, like the proverbial night-lotus at the break of dawn, to close up to us. Instead, we should read them as expressing one possible misogyny among many, one way in which female lives, bodies, minds, skills, and desires were subjected to male lives. Likewise, reading Therigatha for the path to female liberation will leave the reader wanting more—the text only shows how one group of women were able to subvert and negotiate the set of circumstances they found themselves in. It shows one ingenious set of ways out, and is yet another reminder that those repressed never stay so for long. This is how Eve Sedgwick teaches us to read—not from a paranoid position, but from a reparative position that tries to find “the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture—even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.”3 To begin to do this, we have to have read a tradition from multiple perspectives.

The Buddhist tradition, like much modern thought, positions itself as a critical tradition. Like the psychoanalytic or Marxist traditions, it asserts that analysis is ultimately the way out of a painful and meaningless daily existence. By describing the world as it really is, these traditions argue, we can reach unrepressed living, class conscious, enlightenment, or whatever. But criticism, whether by pre-Modern Buddhists or 21st-century criticasters, can fail. Some years ago the philosopher Stanley Cavell had this to say about Jean-Luc Godard’s movies:

If you believe that people speak slogans to one another, or that women are turned by bourgeois society into marketable objects, or that human pleasures are now figments of products of advertising accounts and that these are directions of dehumanization—then what is the value of pouring further slogans into that world (e.g., “People speak in slogans” or “Women have become objects” or “Bourgeois society is dehumanizing” or “Love is impossible”)? And how do you distinguish the world’s dehumanizing of its inhabitants from your depersonalizing of them? How do you know whether your asserted impossibility of love is anything more than an expression of your distaste for its tasks? Without such knowledge, your disapproval of the world’s pleasures, such as they are, is not criticism (the negation of advertisement) but censoriousness (negative advertising).

All too often criticism points out dehumanizing aspects of the world only to further depersonalize our experience. The Buddhist criticism of possessions and worldly goods will fail when it has to account for women, and our criticisms will fail if we cannot leave space for Buddhism.

As these texts make clear, Buddhism is a negotiated space in which different people with different values strive to assert themselves, and the fact that there are “problems” in the initial formulation of Buddhism is acknowledged by the very scope of the tradition itself. (After all, people kept writing new Buddhist texts to fit their new Buddhist circumstances.) By the 8th century, the Buddhist monk Shantideva was already struggling with the problem of “depersonalization” that Stanley Cavell would dwell on some 1,300 years later. His Bodhisattvacharyavatara contains an attempt to build a system of ethics from the Buddhist proposition of the unreality of the self. He addresses the question: If we accept the fundamental Buddhist position that the unified self and suffering are illusory, why are we under any obligation to treat others well? Aren’t they illusory too? Isn’t their pain false? Shantideva approaches this question through a position of radical empathy that dissolves the divide between the self and the other. We would do well to try and do the same. Reading deeply is a good place to start. icon

  1. Last year, in a review of recent books by Emily Apter, Eric Hayot, and Franco Moretti, Caroline Levine discussed some of the recent controversies around “World Literature” in Public Books. The debate has been both lively and at times circular, but it generally has not focused on how the content of material and scholarly practices (translation, etc.) might affect the form any “world literature” might take. For instance, Fredric Jameson’s 1986 essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism” remains a sustained—if controversial—call to restructure pedagogy and incorporate world literature to provide an open critique of the West. The coherence with which Jameson’s assumptions are replicated (seemingly unintentionally?) in the 2013 essay from n+1’s editors entitled “World Lite: What is Global Literature?” is startling. But if Jameson and the editors of n+1 are operating in the same thought-world (one that both conserves and inaugurates the West as subject, despite attempting to smash it), they come to it from dialectically opposed positions. For Jameson, the Third World intellectual “is always in one way or another a political intellectual,” and can teach Euro-American intellectuals how to regain their politics. But for the editors of n+1, the new, postcolonial global litterateur, favoring pure “aesthetics,” has lost all political ambitions, and must reimport them, it seems, from Brooklyn. Either way the conclusion is the same: World literature exists only in relation to Western literature and Western oppression, and it is only good when it is openly political. One wonders to what extent the texts available to an English-speaking audience structure such an argument.
  2. Since Elizabeth Palmer Peabody published the first English translation of a Buddhist scripture (a selection from the Lotus Sutra) in the “Ethical Scriptures” column of the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial in 1844, there has been an explosion of this type of literature that tries to make sense out of Modernity through Buddhism. Edwin Arnold’s 1879 long narrative poem based on the Buddha’s life, The Light of Asia, sold remarkably well in both Britain and the United States, and introduced an audience primed for Jesus as a cultural hero to Siddhartha. More recently, Columbia professor Robert Thurman and many ordained Tibetans, notably Sogyal Rinpoche, Chögyam Trungpa, and of course the current Dalai Lama, have popularized Buddhist meditational practices for English-speaking audiences. There are, in addition to these, more critical and historical academic works, and many more dubious self-help books. Donald Lopez’s edited volume Curators of the Buddha and Christian Wedemeyer’s recent Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism both trace the development of Western scholarly understandings of Buddhism and their consequences for popular audiences.
  3. See her essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think this Essay is About You.” Sedgwick has also discussed the way Buddhist thought has been expressed in America in her essay “Buddhist Pedagogy.” Whether my reading of Sedgwick is in line with her reading of Buddhism is a different matter entirely.
Featured image: Detail from a fresco from the Buddhist monastery at Ajanta / Wikipedia Commons.