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A relational turn

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

In most standard presentations of the Buddha's teachings, the emphasis lies on the idea that an individual can achieve freedom by relying on his or her own forces alone. Each one is responsible for their actions (kamma) and hence also responsible for changing them, for better or for worse. Meditation practice is something that most often one does on one's own, if nothing else just because very rarely another can get a direct glimpse of what's going on in one's head while sitting on the cushion. And if all goes well, one will reach awakening or some insight, again as one's own achievement. Possibly while dwelling in solitude, retreated from the world, maybe for the sake of escaping from the world.

Of course, interpersonal and social aspects are also often mentioned. Practices such as friendliness are unthinkable without taking others into account, and even the most strict monastic forest traditions endorse some form of cenobitic life, with greater or lesser emphasis on allocated times for communal interactions.

The discourses abounds in passages that extols the importance of practicing in solitude, withdrawing from household life, and working against the stream of ordinary habits. But they also abounds in passages that stress how any practice always starts at the interpersonal level of social interactions (practice begins with morality, sīla). So, which one is the case: are the interpersonal and more relational aspects just a tool or a means of achieving an individual realization, or is the individual realization the interiorisation and refinement of a social interplay?

This is an interpretative question and cannot be settled by invoking texts or authorities, since depending on how one goes about this question, all texts and authorities will be put in a different perspective. This is also a philosophical, and even existentialist question, since it urges us to look a moment at who we are, or how we conceive ourselves.

We are relational beings. Not only we depend on others for all sorts of needs, but we are shaped by our relations with others, in such a way that without them, we would not be at all. And yet, being with others is difficult, and scary. Who is the other? I don't know, I can't know. We might have all sorts of ideas about others, try to fit them in our preconceived boxes, crafted by desires and fears, but the others (insofar as they are really others) will always evade and resist this reduction. Being with others is not just a nice way of enjoying company with friends, but it's jumping into mysterious and potentially threatening waters. All the worse events, exactly as all the best, come from our relations with others.

If we accept that relationality is inescapable, then it no longer makes sense to construct the Buddhist practice as yet another way of dispensing from our relational dependency and find a way out from it. We risk constructing the goal of practice (awakening, if you like) as a way of giving up our own nature, after having misunderstood what it actually demands. Sure enough, it is true that an emphasis on individual achievements might be easier to square in a Western capitalist society where even 'social' media are a tool for fostering the ideal of individual consumers free of individually choosing what they want to buy. But is this that we really want to buy?

Taking relationality seriously has several implications. In terms of practice, it means asking how can we do justice to our relational nature, and how practice can help facing both the bright and the dark sides of our relations with others. But it also entails a different perspective on how we read the discourses and take them as inspiration for practice and understanding. It entails uncovering what they take largely for granted (since it's so obvious that it might not need further spelling out), namely, that human beings learn by imitating others, and hence much of the seemingly individual gestures and insights are in fact interiorisations and refinements of broader schemes and gestures that are first learnt in social contexts. And even further, we might ask which sort of feedback can such a practice create, since by changing how an individual behave, it changes also the whole social ecosystem in which the individual works and operate.

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