The Buddha and Critical Thinking

I remember when it first occurred to me that I wasn’t completely in control of my mind. I was sitting in an upper-level history class, and the professor was giving us examples of Cold War propaganda.  I thought about my irrational childhood fear of Russian kids. As a boy, I imagined them in heavy coats, breathing frost, and doing math, planning my destruction.

Nobody explicitly told me to fear and hate Communist Russians; it was just part of the cultural context of growing up in the 80s South. When undergrad Michael figured out that history and power structures were manipulating (for less than noble purposes) his moral and fantasy life, he almost fell out of his chair. I was a junior in college when I had my historical awakening.  That was moment was pivot for me, a place for deeper engagement with myself and the world. It’s the kind of moment FE at UConn can help foster. That’s why I developed critical thinking mode using Buddhist philosophy, to help engender that “critical” awakening.

My critical thinking model revolves around three core concepts of Buddhist philosophy: interconnection, samsara  (“the illusion of reality”), and non-self. I’m going to stick with how interconnection works in the developing vocabulary of my current FE class because it’s becoming, by far, the most important.

I’ve always talked a lot about texts as bigger parts of power structures and anxieties over power structures, but I spent a lot of the first few weeks talking to myself. I really bore me, so I made one up keyword handout using the tenets of Buddhism to try and help get them into the conversation quicker.

Here’s my description of interconnection:

“Holding up a single flower, the Buddha explained that this flower was seeded from another flower, that it was dependent on the previous flower: it had a dependent origination. It was also dependent on the soil, the pond, the days of sun and the days of rain. The lotus flower is thus engi, to use the Japanese term, it “arises in relation.” That, very briefly, is the Buddhist theory of interconnection.

The idea was to give them a way to understand texts. Pretty simple, right? A book is the product of interconnection, a thousand symbolic strands, each of which can unravel the real and painful historical production of fantasy that creates “samsara:” the symbolic. What I didn’t account for was how my own linguistic production might spawn its own interconnected vocabulary. My students didn’t fall out their chair when they realized history was producing their value structures. The shock of being a “tool for the man” to use their unique language, in a class only concerned with their writing, became a space to take chances, a kind of freedom to look deeply into things. They started using the terminology of Buddhist philosophy to explore their own creation of ideas, how a thematic idea becomes the critical interconnection. They have a way to talk about their own critical process. I catch them saying things like “I think you’re interconnection is thematic. Dig deeper. Look at when Walter White shows a Hyde side, not that he just does. That will help you see how the violence works.” They are definitely quicker than undergrad Michael.