Stories and their ubiquity
We live in a world of narratives, of stories, legends, tales and fictions that run very deep and saturate society. Ideologies are stories, social realities are built around narratives and religions are stories too, of course. Some would argue that all human systems of knowledge are stories of one kind or another. If we were to view the world in this way, then it may seem reasonable to retreat to familiar stories, reassert old favourites or embrace a relativistic approach and decide that any old one will do if it makes us happy and fits our personal needs. This may seem attractive at first but not all stories are equal. It would initially seem wiser for us to choose or tell stories that find a healthy balance between closing the gap with what is objectively real and meeting human social needs. They would be stories that provide means for humans to navigate the relationship between what is real, the social realities on offer and the life situations that are ongoing, emergent and changing. Good stories would ideally enable us to refine these relationships and continue to evolve them for the betterment of our species and those we depend on; animate and inanimate. This is one reason that many intellectuals continue to promote the modernist story of progress. In its ideal form, it is concerned with the betterment of our lot, the increase of knowledge and refinement of technology for the advancement of our species. That is a very good story, an admirable story. Like all stories though, it has holes and has created a multitude of historical problems and in one telling has had grave impact on the life situation of millions whilst contributing to the ecological disaster we are facing ahead. Modernity emerged in response to pre-modernity and its stories and their religious genesis and many still cling to those stories too. Postmodernists have their own stories as well and just like previous historical phases, true postmodernists are unable to see their own theories as fictional accounts that are productive of social realities and contentious relationship with what is real; something many of them hold to be non-existent. In fact, one could argue that much of the fragmentation we see in society today is reflective of the postmodern experience of social reality: one in which the unstable nature of socially constructed stories denies the physical, material, biological ground on which they depend. These stories that emerge in these historical phases are deeply, deeply involving.
We humans, when embedded in stories, apply powerful symbolic meaning to the world around us and the interactions therein. We unconsciously recreate the stories that drive us and bind us. Many such stories are variations on the grand historical narratives that have accompanied the phases of societal and historical development of our species. They are archetypal and run very deep in the conscious and unconscious. This is delicate terrain and there are theoretical implications that come up when one speaks of the unconscious and collective unconscious. Carl Jung coined the latter and his explication of this theory mirrors a worldview held by many pre-modern cultures. Those who have had more than a casual foray into psychedelics will likely find such an idea to be reflective of the symbolic, mind altering states accessed in which powerful symbols usually emerge and many are resonant with shamanic imagery. Interpretation of fairy tales is another rich source of material that has been used as a method to unlock archetypal stories that are instructive of the great quests of humankind. Some have claimed that they are teaching tales. Some will find all this to be romantic nonsense, but others discover power and purpose revealed in such tales that seem to speak to a shared dimension of archaic remnants of humanity that run back as far as our oldest stories. The excessive privileging of the individual does not sit well with such ideas of collectivity and an immaterial realm of consciousness shared by all humans. Being immaterial and abstract, such a, idea is unlikely to ever find support in scientific research but perhaps that does not really matter. If understood as being a mythic level of being, then it is an additional layer of our shared experience of being and a repository of symbolic, archetypal roles and forms: a deep, ahistorical aspect of our humanity. This would be a story of course; one about other stories. Is it productive? For many cultures it has been and for Jungian analysts, the collective unconscious is understood to be a fundamental aspect of our being that we ignore at our peril. What of its role in Buddhism? The six realms we find in Buddhist metaphysics would be an example of an archetypal form that gives moral context to our place in a symbolic order. Although many Buddhists may believe they are realities that exist for us all and to which we inevitably cycle through, a modern reading would take them as symbolic, in much the way Chogyam Trungpa did, and reframe them as a story for teaching an ethical life.
A society cannot live without stories. Stories that do not provide a cultural and experiential richness, that do not provide a roadmap for how to navigate the world, that do not teach us how to live well, that do not provide any sense of meaning, and of shared purpose, are doomed to be supplanted or rejected. Much of life is performance and driven by narratives. As the infinitely quotable Shakespeare told us through his works: “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” Those who follow religious orthodoxy are performing the religion’s story as faithfully as they can: the fundamentalist who do so suffer from being fully identified with the story, incapable of seeing the act as a play. The challenge we face with regards to historical archetypal narratives, whether religious or otherwise, is the degree to which we can reveal their manmade origins, which undermines their sacredness, whilst keeping their power to teach, offer insight and the semblance of a path towards an ethical life that does not reject the world we currently inhabit. In telling new stories, can we build powerful tales that are involving enough to entice the reluctant to engage and perform? The rehabilitation of Buddhist stories is ripe ground for exploration but such stories will unlikely gain enough power to transform the wider western public. The Abrahamic traditions still hold that ground and any new religious movement has failed to garner enough followers to supplant them. The secular story is perhaps the most successful alternative but it has failed to address the messier, irrational side of our individual and shared humanity and our stories continue to be filled with Biblical themes.
Humans appear to need explicit ritualised means for interacting with each other that can provide a sense of meaning and purpose for those involved. A further question arises: to what degree can such practice be undertaken self-consciously? Such practices provide a ground from which a society makes sense of the phenomenal world, other social realities and the priorities and concerns that are worth living and dying for. Our atomised, neo-liberal individualism on steroids is unsustainable from this perspective: it provides no meaning, or better it provides meaningless as its guiding principle so that anything goes, it blasts us with seemingly unlimited impoverished ritual forms, it denounces all commitments to bettering the world that do not take as their goal the pursuit of profit and the consumption of the world, and it encourages its subjects to gaze upon themselves in mini-mirrors. The by product of this world view is that the anything goes principle has allowed a lot of room for manoeuvre. As we race towards ecocide and the end of growth, we are going to have to find alternative social stories and narratives that can provide an alternative to a retreat into pre-modern belief systems and their conservative social realities. Building ritual or transforming ritual is an underappreciated aspect of this work. Rationality, intellectual acuity and reason are not up to the task. They do need to be companions in the journey but they will have to make space for creativity, artistic expression, a radically revamped relationship with the environment and an ethical code that provides a container or basis from which groups can face reality and the challenges ahead under the remit of shared purpose and a sense of meaning in existence. This is not rocket science. Once I naively dreamed that Buddhism might become the future world religion. It is, after all, one of the least offensive of all of the world’s religions. It seemed like a good choice at the time, but of course it isn’t. We need something better able to respond to the very modern mess we are in. It won’t likely happen. It’s a utopian fantasy to believe we could craft a brand new world religious ethical and symbolic system capable of providing ritualised means for enacting purpose and meaning. Many have tried and we now have a world filled with masses of new religious movements, each asserting its own narratives and constructing small, alternative social realities. The forms of Western Buddhism are generally no different.