Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Zen Anthropology

I teach a class called “Zen Anthropology.” It’s a methods class. Zen methods? Meta-methods, actually.

The class is about attitudes more than techniques. In it we ponder how to learn deeply from experience.

What cultural anthropologists do is ethnography. What ethnographers do, at least at the start, is fieldwork. Ethnographers carry out fieldwork among communities of people and then write up what we’ve learned.

The problem is that when we teach methods, we emphasize techniques – participant observation, interviewing, systematic observation, discourse analysis. But we seldom teach students about cultivating proper field attitudes, frames of mind, points of view.

Ethnographic knowledge is channeled through an ethnographer’s mind. So why don’t we talk about mind in our classes? How does one become open to others? How do we cultivate the capacity to notice what others are doing? How do we become mindful of ways our minds (and cultural sensitivities) color understandings of others?

These are matters of subjectivity that, as a discipline, we tend to leave up to the field worker or pretend will be eliminated by proper methods, or techniques.

I teach Zen anthropology because Zen has been around a long time and has over millennia developed texts, practices, teachings to help students become aware of their own minds and the minds of others.

Zen sometimes strikes my students as negative, nihilistic: Zen talk is full of expressions like “no self” or “no mind.” It is a Zen way of talking that Americans struggle with. But it is not so negative as people imagine.

I recently re-read Donald Barthelme’s essay “Not-Knowing,” in which he writes positively about the need in any art not to know, at least at the outset, where the work is going.

“The not-knowing,” he wrote, “is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”

The ethnographer is not, at least at first blush, an artist. The ethnographer does not, should not, make things up in the way a fiction writer, such as Barthelme, makes things up.

On the other hand, the ethnographer must set aside some of her or his own cultural dispositions if she or he is to make sense of the cultural dispositions of others. In that sense, the ethnographer too must “not know.”

This is where Barthelme’s attitude of not-knowing would come in handy for an ethnographer doing field work, and where Zen has an entire canon to help students cultivate the capacity.

Hence, Zen anthropology.

This morning I was thinking about how to talk to students about “no-self” in a way that helped them understand the notion without simply dismissing it as crazy or nihilistic. The self is one of the great western certainties. How can these Zen masters talk about no-self?

It occurred to me that “not-knowing,” at least at the start of a project, may be intuitively comprehensible to my students in ways that “no-self” is not.

They know what it means not to know. They can imagine the value of suspending judgment. Perhaps this was a way to get at the meaning of no-mind, and thus, no-self.

Hence a formula: No-self : Self :: Not-knowing : Knowing, or put another way: no-self is to self as not-knowing is to knowing.

The attitude of “not-knowing” might really be a matter of openness, or receptivity. It doesn’t mean idiocy. It doesn’t mean a person must be a vacuum. Rather it means that for a time a person suspends a knowing attitude in favor of a not-knowing one, in which the person might discover something she didn’t already know.

Not-knowing may in fact be necessary if one is ever to learn something outside one’s own world view.

Barthelme’s “not-knowing” does not mean the writer gives up knowing altogether, just that for the project at hand one becomes open to other possibilities. One may know and not-know at once. We can imagine that. We can see how a painter or short story writer could set out on a project not knowing where it will end up, all the while knowing who she is, where she comes from, and where she’s got to be tomorrow.

Similarly, a person could adopt an attitude of no-self. It may in fact be the same sort of thing as not-knowing.

No-self does not have to mean no self. One can be self and no-self at the same time. It is not negative or positive. It simply is the case that all of us are just that, whether we think it or not: self and no-self.

We each have a body, a name, an identity, a set of memories, desires, hopes, frustrations, and so on. Yet each of us is related to everything else, dependent on an environment, a set of social relations, infinite interactions with others. The idea of a separate self is, in the final analysis, a fiction.

Like not-knowing, no-self is a platform from which we may realize our connection to others, cultivate our openness to others, discover our empathy for others.

They are really the same: mind and body and other. That is what interactionist theory teaches us in anthropology and what Buddhist teachings point toward in Zen. The aim, whether we are anthropologists or Zenists, is to be open to and learn about the reality of ourselves and others through personal experience.

That is why I teach Zen anthropology.

This, of course, is only speculation.


- IAN said...

Ha! Classic zen humor...

I really like "no-self is to self as not-knowing is to knowing!"

I remember having those nihilistic difficulties in Zen Anthropology. So thanks for this post because it helps. I especially identify with the bit that says that self is relative; I would even add that the public self is simultaneously predictive and reactive behavior shaped principally by desires... maybe not though. And maybe this applies less online... not sure

I just want to say that you and your more cerebral courses such as this made a huge impact on me, especially in the ways that I interact with others and approach "problems." My personality (and perhaps genetics...) still tries its best to exert itself at every chance, but I'm thankfully able to frequently attempt to evaluate my impact as participant/observer. Truthfully, the older I get the less I seem to know; which is great because I never want to lose my sense of wonder!


Greg Hankins said...

Not-knowing is pretty useful for a reporter, too. I'm with Ian on what he calls "the relative self." This bit -- "We each have a body, a name, an identity, a set of memories, desires, hopes, frustrations, and so on. Yet each of us is related to everything else, dependent on an environment, a set of social relations, infinite interactions with others. The idea of a separate self is, in the final analysis, a fiction." -- made me think of William James. (I hope I just did those tags correctly, so I don't look like an idiot.)

Who knew you had a novel out there in the world! Congratulations on the plaudits it's gotten. I just ordered a copy.