Crafting non-western ways for writing

by Dr. Sharin Shajahan Naomi, Assistant Professor, Gender Studies. Asian University for Women.

While writing my Ph.D. thesis on Tibetan Buddhism and feminism, and working particularly on the decolonialization of knowledge, I found a plethora of literature on challenging the colonial perspective at a conceptual level. Obviously, those enriched conceptual understandings were useful. But I was looking for more than that. Decolonial theorist Walter Mignolo (2011) said, “decoloniality focuses on changing the terms of the conversation and not only its content” (p. 133). In meaning-making and the style of argument, a deliberate epistemic disobedience should be used to challenge conventional Eurocentric hegemony s (Mignolo, 2009). To me, decoloniality was about conceptual liberation from both western hegemonic knowledge and praxis. My PhD thesis was an autoethnography on my experience exploring an organic relationship between Tibetan Buddhism and feminism. Edward Said tells us that it is ‘a fallacy to assume that the swarming, unpredictable, and problematic mess in which the lives of human beings are lived can be understood on the basis of what book-text-say’ (Said, 1979, p. 93). I became aware of that fallacy when the distance between my experience and a traditional method of academic writing to capture those experiences became profound. As a feminist, Bangladeshi, and spiritual woman, I realized that to bring out the non-western voice and view, I had to craft non-western ways of writing. This non-western way is crafted through alternative epistemology, subjectivity, and style of narratives.

I agree that, during a postmodern era, differences between east and west are becoming ambiguous, relational, shifting, and without fixed borders. However, if their differences are completely ignored and not talked about, this would be “blanket dismissal” of cultural differences (Tamdgidi, 2005, p.189). In the absence of acknowledgment of difference, discourse can become “culturally blind” and hegemonic (Tamdgidi, 2005, p.189). Knowing this difference is part of a decolonization of knowledge.

A great deal of my experience was spiritual. Some of the characteristics of spiritual experience include interconnection with the cosmos, a transcendent way of being, and a feeling of wholeness (Cascio, 1998; Cowley, 1993). This spiritual knowledge was not transparent and clear in a modern sense. There was ambiguity, uncertainty and unknowing which western positivist discourse and writing style do not value. But from a spiritual person’s perspective reality was multiplicitous and unfolding in a way that is undefinable. If this reality was summed up in the name of clarity and delineation, its dynamic nature would be renounced. In my search for a praxis to reveal this experience within the academic world, I found there were huge scholarly works on Asian epistemology or contemplative epistemology which were focused on all these concerns.

Western epistemology that has been developed for the academic world is considered to be positivist and reductionist. On the other hand, non-western epistemologies such as African, Indigenous, Buddhist and Hindu ways of knowing are spirituality oriented in ways that value multiple possibilities, transpersonal aspects of human experience, and open- ended interpretations of meaning. With the movement of decolonization, alternative epistemic interventions have been developed to challenge the hegemonic Eurocentric ways of knowing. To me, Asian epistemology became a good site for decolonial perspective since it is grounded in knowledge of self and reality-based upon Asian spiritual intellectual traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism that are different from a western cartesian self and rationality (Liu, 2008).

Asian epistemology refuses to fall under the Western category of the epistemic framework (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008; Liu, 2008). This epistemology bought my thesis closer to my way of viewing self and reality from a Buddhist perspective. Taking an Asian epistemological stance, I could argue for a kind of knowing that would not be reduced to emotional and subjective states nor would it be properly understood by logical deduction (Liu, 2008). This knowing could accommodate a spiritual and contemplative state. Asian epistemology includes contemplative epistemology. Contemplative epistemology is a form of knowing that comes from meditative ways, including mindful states, profound silence and stillness, openness, intense focus and clarity, creating detachment with the contents of mind, and so on (Haynes, 2009). This contemplative state can be reduced neither to reason nor emotion (Ferrer, 2002). Hence, it can hold both, while at the same time it is beyond. These practices invoke empathic ways of understanding, profound silence, unconditional love, deep awareness, the vastness of the way of our being, interconnectedness, and wisdom on a very subtle level of the transience of self and reality (Haynes, 2009; Zajonc, 2005). Contemplation is often misunderstood as something separate from the world and critical consciousness. This way of knowing, if combined with critical insight, gives a new insight into self, reality, and social actions (Burggraf, 2007; Klein, 1995). It can bring a new interpretive angle to human experience from a holistic critical perspective. This mode of inquiry includes the use of arts, poetry, photographs, and creative writing in research in ways that share a subtle level of human experience (Janesick, 2016). Contemplation is used in both eastern spiritual and Judeo-Christian traditions (Hart, 2004). It is non-dichotomous in terms of breaking a strict binary relationship between east and west. Trinh T Minh-ha (1991) says, “between rational and irrational enslavement, there is an interval, and there is a possibility for a third term in the struggle” (p. 8). That third term is something that is beyond naming and framing, at the same time it floats within rationality and emotions, names and frames, categories and various concepts. Contemplative epistemology is reminiscent of this third term which I embraced to write my spiritual experience in my thesis.

Traditional western writing style and narrative are centered around a singular cartesian rationale self who needs to demonstrate command and authority over the knowledge to the readers. Here, self is written as an autonomous and fundamentally intellectual entity through mind/body, object/subject, and self/outer world separation (Yagelski, 2011). The Subject needs to speak in a linear way from a transparent and focused position. My epistemology presented a subject that refused to identify a singular self with mastery and command over the readers. Instead, there was a dynamic intersubjectivity in my writing through multiplicity and dialogic selves which works as an antidote against conventional western cartesian subjectivity. My writing was not to be read, but to be experienced. In this experience, multiple meanings become available and a range of emotional, psychological as well as intellectual responses are invoked. Neither the author nor the readers controlled the meaning completely. As a result, knowledge could flow from the co-construction of reality.

There was no fixed stable self in my writing. This purposeful disappearance of a static, fixed I was closely associated with the Buddhist subjectivity constituted through non-duality of mind-body as well as non-duality of outer and inner worlds. There was a continuity of self without any essence (Collins, 1982). This no-self was reflected through continuous transformation and messy appearance and disappearance of multiple selves. No-self does not indicate ‘nothing’ in a negative way, but it points towards emptiness through a fuller and more vast way of being. Although feminist politics of claiming rights over body, mind, and surroundings may be controversial, Buddhist subjectivity accepts multiple possibilities and selves. In my thesis, feminist subjectivity found no hindrance to weaving with Buddhist subjectivity. Their relationship was intertwined and complementary where feminist self was critical against injustice and discrimination under patriarchy, and, at the same time, became part of a vast subjectivity in the spiritual dimension. Feminist epistemological stance was valued the role of gender, class, and race and prioritized women’s perspective in giving meaning to their experiences (Damaris, 2001; Jiang, 2005; Ramazanoglu & Holland, 2002). The profound characteristic of this feminist Buddhist subjectivity was the combination of an awareness of chaos, conditions and changes, as well as an awakening to the centeredness, calmness, and serenity within (Klein, 1995).

To Eurocentric ideas and scholars trained within western academia, one’s expressions are often considered to be more accurate and clearer on the basis of following conventional positivist rules of linearity, categorization, separation, and syllogism. In this process of writing non-western narratives, I had to be brave enough to stray from western linear narrative models. I used both Indian and Zen narrative styles, where patterns were not linear, and which evolved in a circular way (Alexandru, 2015, Syverson, 2011). Unlike western English narrative’s pursuance of a steady plot, Indian narrative allows deliberate digression for the purposes of performativity and multiplicity (Alexandru, 2015). From a Western perspective, this style lacks coherency and includes unnecessary talk. Margaret Syverson articulates how Zen literature differs from the style of conveying a message in Western discourse, presenting a narrative full of “unexplained contradictions” (Syverson, 2011, p. 283). These contradictions in Zen narratives are not given deliberately for muddying the concept, but to break the pattern orientation and disciplinary thinking of mind. It is quite different from logocentric ways – the basis upon which Western thought has been structured since Plato (Heine, 1995; McQuillian, 2001).

Western discursive practice, although a site of free and critical thinking, cherishes its disciplinary panoptic gaze; a gaze where the observer scrutinizes the observed and remains beyond observation of itself (Sosale, 2002). Knowledge in this hegemonic paradigm relies more on the approval of some elite group rather than the potential to contribute to human beings’ consciousness with new ideas (Stephen, 2015). By taking alternative epistemological position, subjectivity, and narrative style, I disidentified with the normative gaze for giving space to the voices of margin (Pérez, 1999). In the language of Édouard Glissant, my non-western approach became opacity that demanded freedom from the violence of absolute comprehension, control, and transparency (Glissant, 1997). I found that without this opacity, the subaltern cannot speak about spiritual experiences in western discourses. Crafting non-western approaches to writing an academic work should give more emphasis to this opacity that is rooted in non-western spiritual contexts, which represents a particular worldview and knowledge and a distinctive perspective and spectacular reality.


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