Jainism and Process
by Brianne Donaldson
It is invitation to create our lives in creative tension or even mutual benefit with the abundant lives around us.
Jain nonviolence is indeed rooted in wider and more subtle modes of perceiving our planetary multiplicity than most perspectives allow, whether religious or secular.
This creative multiplicity is never reduced to an abstract One, and consequently Jains epistemology is necessarily formalized around a manifold reality with innumerable valid perspectives.
My first exposure to the small, but influential, Indic tradition of Jainism was in the pages of a comparative religions textbook. I was perplexed by the seeming extremes of Jain monastics who gave up all their possessions, who covered their mouth with a shield so as not to inhale or disturb microorganisms with their breath, who practiced compulsory vegetarianism, eschewing even root vegetables whose cultivation killed the plant or disturbed the surrounding soil, and who carried a broom to sweep the ground clear of insects before sitting or walking. I was intrigued by a tradition that sounded such an unapologetically dissonant note amid humanist worldviews of entitlement or tragic necessity. The “impracticality” of Jain ethics gestured toward a more comprehensive enactment of our relations in the world.
Jain nonviolence is indeed rooted in wider and more subtle modes of perceiving our planetary multiplicity than most perspectives allow, whether religious or secular. As my study of the tradition deepened, I found a very realist metaphysical and ethical worldview that understands every existent entity to be its own Ultimate. This creative multiplicity is never reduced to an abstract One, and consequently Jains epistemology is necessarily formalized around a manifold reality with innumerable valid perspectives. Additionally, Jainism’s unique theory of karma describes each of these Ultimates as enmeshed in relations of causality, of reception and provocation, that echoed my understanding of ecological relations-in-process. In such a pulsing community of causal and creative linkages, nonviolence is a deeply pragmatic perspective that the Jain community practices and experiments with, and extends well beyond the human. Life in the Jain cosmos is always bound into indeterminate identities of history, karmic bonds, and present relations. The body and mind is always an inheritance beyond itself.
Still, the practice of nonviolence is not a crushing dogma in the Jain tradition. It is an invitation to feel the world more fully, to tread lightly and to understand that world-shaping life lurks in the air and water around us, in the soil, in the insects and plants, in creatures, in the poor, in women and girls, in children and other marginalized populations, and that the little things we do can either allow these innumerable lives to pursue their own path or we can obstruct them. The Jain way of life, at its best, does not require assent to doctrines or creeds, but rather, requires that one more fully understand the cost of personal desires, however slight, upon the bodies and desires of others. It is an invitation to create our lives in creative tension or even mutual benefit with the abundant lives around us. This is not a prescriptive demand, but is practiced differently by monastic and lay Jains, who assist each other toward a difficult, but artful goal of imaginative compassion and nonharm, differently expressed by each relationally-bound Ultimate.
Of course, like all living traditions, Jainism emerged in specific cultural and historic contexts that make its expressions complex, politically entwined, and culturally shaped in ways that prevent any idealistic reading of a diverse community of people and ideas still evolving and adapting, both in India and around the world. Nevertheless, it sounds its dissonant notes and activates reversals of thought and action that are productive for approaching personal and public, local and global problems through lenses attuned to a wider array of participatory partners.
It is important to note also, that the goal of Jainism, in the logic of its spiritual and ethical tradition, is achieving omniscience, which should not be understood as a classical escape from the relations of the world, but rather is the fullest comprehension of them in a moment, beyond the limits of form, function, or linear time. It is a vibrant ideal that Jains strive for imperfectly in their daily life. More importantly, Jains find ways to celebrate their imperfection and to yet never lose sight that actively striving to expand one’s co-feeling with the wider community of existent entities is the only adequate response to our planetary multiplicity.