by Matt Sheedy
In his essay entitled “Experience,” which is one of several pieces contained in Religious Experience: A Reader, Robert H. Sharf notes the following:
Critical analysis shows that modern Buddhist communities judge “claims to experience” on the basis of the meditator’s particular lineage, the specific ritual practice that engendered the experience, the behavior that ensued, and so on. In other words, a meditative state or liberative experience is identified not on the basis of privileged personal access to its distinctive phenomenology, but rather on the basis of immanently public criteria. (144)
As I write these words on an airplane returning from this year’s AAR conference in Chicago, I am experiencing a strong sense of fatigue, which has been slightly offset by a mild buzz after downing a cold beer. I am also quite warm due to the heat in the cabin and feeling rather cramped, packed into an economy-sized seat like so many sardines that have come before me. These types of experience are what Sharf describes as things that one “participate[s] in” or “live[s] through,” which he considers unproblematic in the descriptive sense, since the referents to these things are easily found in the social or public world. (141)
Many with whom I spoke at the conference experienced fatigue as well after a 3-4 day marathon navigating the massive terrain that is McCormick Place convention center in Chicago’s downtown. Yet their additional “experiences” seemed to differ on many fronts, depending on their job positions (or lack thereof), their financial situation (e.g., did they stay at the Hilton or the Best Western, was their trip funded or not, etc.), their purpose as scholars (e.g., social justice, strict social science/theory, etc.) and so forth.
For some, this all seemed to be a rather pragmatic affair; making connections, balancing commitments, etc., while for others the “experience” seemed to take on a deeper meaning, as something fulfilling, inspiring or perhaps even transcendent. In this latter sense, Sharf’s second notion of “experience” may come into play, which he describes “as a subjective ‘mental event’ or ‘inner process’ that eludes public scrutiny.” (141)
Sharf’s comments that immediately follow the lines quoted at the start of this post provide some food for thought on the elusive question of “experience,” challenging the notion that it is somehow an autonomous or private affair:
Such judgments are inevitably predicated on prior ideological commitments shaped by one’s vocation… one’s socioeconomic background… one’s political agenda, one’s sectarian affiliation, one’s education, and so forth. In the end, the Buddhist rhetoric of experience is both informed by, and wielded in, the interests of personal and institutional authority. (144)