Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Fantasy in Buddhism (or the lack of it) and the role of "inventive pretend" in children's activity

There is a strange op-ed by T. M. Luhrmann in yesterday's NY Times about C. S. Lewis, religious belief, and the role of fantasy, at least from a Western perspective. Here's a bit of it:

In “Mere Christianity,” Lewis wrote that to pretend helps one to experience God a real. In “Narnia” he offered a way to pretend — by depicting a God who is so explicitly not a God from an ordinary human church. Aslan keeps God safe from human clumsiness and error. 
What does it mean that our society places such a premium on fantasy and imagination? “No culture,” observes the child psychologist Suzanne Gaskins, “comes close to the level of resources for play provided by middle-class Euro-American parents.” In many traditional societies, children play by imitating adults. They pretend to cook, marry, plant, fish, hunt. 
“Inventive pretend,” in which children pretend the fantastic or impossible (enchanted princesses, dragon hunters) “is rarely — if ever — observed in non-industrialized or traditional cultures,” Gaskins says. That may be because inventive play often requires adult involvement. Observing the lack of fantasy play among the Manus children in New Guinea, Margaret Mead noted that “the great majority of children will not even imagine bears under the bed unless the adult provides the bear.” 
Westerners, by contrast, not only tolerate fantasy play but actively encourage it, for adults as well as for children. We are novel readers, movie watchers and game players. We have made J. K. Rowling very wealthy. 
This suggests that we imagine a complex reality in which things might be true — materially, spiritually, psychologically. Science leads us to draw a sharp line between what is real and what is unreal. At the same time, we live in an age in which we are exquisitely aware that there are many theories, both religious and scientific, to explain the world, and many ways to be human.

Much has been written about the role of ritual in Buddhism, and that might be where it comes closest to the "role of fantasy" described here, but I think it's a false analogy nonetheless. I think it's a false analogy because, at least in my experience, the role of ritual is performative.  The chants are chants, and to put anything more into the chant other than the chant itself is to make it into something it's not and to distract from it.  Chanting the Heart Sutra  - especially in the way it's been given to us via China and Japan and Viet Nam - is to put its "meaning" into a different category than what we in the West might commonly give it.  It is not pretending by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it strictly speaking any kind of literalist assertion - but it winds up being true nonetheless.  Maybe I'll get back to this regular blogging thing by writing 10 posts or so just on the Heart Sutra, because it could be done.  But I digress.

No, I don't think Buddhism has any kind of this fantasy stuff at all; in some forms of Buddhism, there are some particularly elaborate metaphors, and yes, there are Buddhists that take Bodhisattvas and Buddhas to be actual beings, and at least some are.  But we don't "pretend" this to experience something as real, but rather we try to experience experience on its own terms, I think. 

So that brings into question this whole "inventive pretend" thing for kids, because clearly it's not needed for any kind of religious or moral or skillful training in and of itself.  Inventive pretend probably is some kind of double edged sword - inventive pretend might be useful for children incorporating social memes into their consciousness, but it might also be that the social memes which are inculcated also exclude certain unpleasant aspects of the culture, and that these aspects might be excluded to the detriment of the children and society at large. What sort and degree of "inventive pretend" is needed to create a suicide bomber?

My son did not spend long in this phase of life.  Though he did watch Barney too much, until, like every other kid, he was repulsed by that kind of media. 

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