On this episode of Conversations in Process, Jay McDaniel and Jared Morningstar are joined by Kazi Adi Shakti to discuss her provocative and nuanced essay “Buddhism is Basically Useless”. Kazi is an artist and theorist whose theoretical work primarily consists in the study and creative synthesis of process thought, Madhyamaka Buddhism, Western Marxism and Eco-feminist ethics. 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 and currently works as a scanning specialist and digital artist in the 3D digitization industry. In addition to this, she also blogs regularly at her site www.holo-poiesis.com.
In this conversation, Kazi discusses her essay and why the idea of Buddhism being basically useless is in fact a positive. She describes that one of her aims with this piece is trying to get people to question their attachments and the identities they create—even identifying with traditional Buddhism. So to assert that Buddhism is basically useless is to acknowledge the emptiness of the religion and to resist taking it as an object of clinging.
Jared asks what kinds of Buddhists Kazi was trying to reach with this critical article, whether it was more Western Buddhist modernists, or if she meant this critique to cut against traditional Buddhists as well. In response, Kazi shows how her argument can be critical of either, even as there are important differences between the dispositions of these two kinds of Buddhists. However, she also finds inspiration among all these different ways of being Buddhist, stating that even secular Buddhism has some important insights in recognizing the emptiness of myth and traditional doctrine.
Jay then asks Kazi about an important idea running throughout the essay that Kazi uses in a number of different ways; namely, the notion of touching oneself. She charts a continuity between physical self-pleasure to intellectual self-knowledge and finally to self-reflexive gnosis—a manifestation of the awakening experience so central to Buddhist spirituality. In all of these, Kazi notes how there is no medium for the interaction beyond oneself, contrasting this perspective with views in Western philosophy such as those of Immanuel Kant where all perception and knowledge can never get directly at things in themselves. For Kazi, Buddhism is at its best when it is able to facilitate this direct self-touching in these various meanings, but none of these are ultimately dependent on the religion hence why Buddhism is useless in one sense.
Kazi’s essay concludes with a sudden switch to an almost devotional tone, mentioning the “infinite loving-compassion and boundless luminous-vision of the uncountable multiplicity of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas”—a stark contrast from the critical mood of the article up to this point. Jay notices this shift and asks about Kazi’s intent with this sudden change in direction. She explains that she tries to mix the perspective of critique which acknowledges the emptiness of all things with a more positive, constructive standpoint more grounded in a vision of dependent origination. More than just trying to balance these two perspectives, Kazi attempts to show how they are in fact inseparably bound to each other, evoking the Daoist image of the yin and the yang where both opposites actually exist within each other.
This wide-ranging dialogue concludes with a discussion of what Whitehead’s thought could potentially bring to this conversation, particularly through his aesthetic theories. This prompts Jay to consider what the ideas discussed might look like were they communicated by some medium other than language, such as visual art or music.