Self

6.1 Imperfect Buddha Podcast: Engaged Buddhism & the apolitical trend

 

Banksy Buddha

Latest Episode: click here

We’re back! The Imperfect Buddha Podcast’s new episode arrives just in time for the New Year. This time out, we’re exploring Engaged Buddhism and the question of whether to engage or disengage. We discuss how Buddhism could provide tools and practices to support those engaging with the political landscape and activism but also how Buddhism often provides a means for people to hide out from the uncomfortable realities we see around us; the ones that cause endless amounts of collective suffering. We discuss practices that could help individuals and groups wake up from the apolitical stance that is so present in western Buddhist groups and discourse and look at how Engaged Buddhism too often concerns itself with the symptoms of the three institutionalised poisons that David Loy has articulated in his work whilst avoiding a genuine critique of the cause. Ken Knabb helps us on our way as does Loy and we even manage to get in some critique of Stuart’s favourite Buddhist group, Shambhala, as well as one of my least favourite new age capitalists, Eckhart Tolle.There’s plenty of banter and lots of constructive critique and practice suggestions, so jump in and give it a listen.


Happy New Year to one and all.

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Reconsidering enlightenment: A post-traditional reconfiguration (1)

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‘If you are too well connected, you stop thinking. The clamour, the immediacy, the tendency to absorb other people’s thoughts, interrupt the deep abstraction required to find your own way.’ George Monbiot

Introduction
This piece was written to fill a void. One that I see as being the denial of the more ambitious aims of Buddhism amongst many contemporary practitioners in the West, including those who self-define as secular and who share many of my own views and concerns. In this piece, I explore enlightenment, prominent terminology and a model for mapping it into four stages to demystify what is most likely the core abstract feature of contemporary spiritual discourse. I take a post-traditional approach and use Buddhist materials as sign posts rather than definitive truths so although this work is indebted to traditional Buddhism it will not be limited by it, or play by its rules.
Buddhism has failed to live up to its original promise to show the world a foolproof way out of the sorts of ignorance, confusion and suffering that it specialises in, becoming too often a means for developing a shared Buddhist identity or a basis for the pursuit of the ever ephemeral goal of happiness. As rich historical phenomena, it provides a wealth of valuable material that can aid our understanding of the human condition, including techniques and practices that lead to insight into our shared human condition and a moral framework to guide an individual to be less destructive. At the same time, Buddhism has stagnated in its traditional expressions whilst failing to evolve into a truly radical western form able to bring about individual and collective liberation to any meaningful scale. In undergoing cosmetic changes and evolving into user friendly packages, it has grown into what we might define as ‘Buddhism-Light’.
This text attempts to push the phenomenological value of Buddhist enlightenment into the shared human landscape, unhindered by cumbersome institutional politics and traditional ideological ties, in order to construct an imagining of spiritual enlightenment that is rooted in our embodied, finite nature, and that has little concern for super powers and eternal salvation in Buddha-fields.
The approach taken is post-traditional which means engaging critically with Buddhism and leaving all forms of traditional allegiance behind whilst utilizing other sources of knowledge to explore it as human phenomena. On a personal level, post-traditional involves risking personal investments made in specific Buddhist narratives to come to an honest, authentic reading and engagement with Buddhism and its central tenets: an ongoing process that requires dedication to examining the explicit and hidden pay offs that occur through allegiance with the Buddhist identity. It is often forgotten that identity is in great part the problem that is being got at through Buddhism’s methods.
A post-traditional approach refuses special claims or categories for Buddhism and its insights, and expects Buddhist materials to stand alone, without need of faith or a privileged status to validate their veracity. Because it is post-traditional, this piece is an exploration unhindered by the social mores of any specific Buddhist community, where discussing enlightenment and claims to such are taboo, and where norms regarding Buddhism’s end goal are established and often act to limit creative and critical engagement regarding its obtainment or lack thereof. Leaving aside such baggage, this piece hopefully builds a case for a reconfiguration of enlightenment in which its thoroughly human potential is made explicit and doable.

The Wording of the Thing
Buddhism is full of abstractions, terms that lend themselves to multiple translations, conceptual reformulations and biases. Ridding ourselves of the temptation to indulge in intangibles and absolutes is essential for an honest revaluation of Buddhism in the West and this is especially so when considering enlightenment. The way we talk about it must be examined carefully if we are to make sense of what it alludes to and the first step involves examining the terminology commonly used to define the thing. If the act of achieving some form of spiritual enlightenment is a genuine worthwhile human attainment, then it must be definable outside of a religious or spiritual tradition’s idiom. The type of language that is used to describe spiritual enlightenment is too often bombastic, supernatural, and out of touch with people’s experience within the traditions. What’s more, enlightenment is often described as ineffable which opens it up to all manner of interpretation, and basically implies that such a possibility is beyond examination, leading back to the dead end of trust in wiser authorities and a division between those who know and those that don’t. Rather than blind faith, I would suggest that we need a clearer way of talking about the thing. Rather than dismissive assertions that it is something beyond words, we can start by looking at some of the key terms within Buddhism used to define enlightenment and see what they are actually pointing to.

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Radical Identity and Non-Duality

(Michael O’Connell, Syncromesh, 1957)

The following is my first attempt to define, describe and put together a view of the world from a non-dual perspective. It’s an experiment, so don’t expect too much. The language may be complicated for those readers with little background in Buddhist meditation, for others it may be inspirational or resonant with pre-existing intuitions. The language I use is increasingly coming from other sources than Buddhism and this is due in part to my desire to cease to replicate Buddhism in its frozen forms. Buddhism as I see it is not ‘Buddhism’ as that thing from the East, but rather a signifier of human potential, both individual and shared. The way I see it, we need to get on with waking up (see a past post for what I mean by this) and translating that into a modern vernacular that breaks from tradition whilst renovating it and making it relevant for this time and place.

Be aware, I write in spurts, squeezed in between family life, work demands and the pleasures of life. I could do with an editor on hand to highlight missing commas, repetition, inappropriate verbs, typos and the rest. If you spot such slips, make a comment and I’ll trim and snip. 

The Need for Context

Societies necessarily need to establish shared ways of viewing and conceptualising the world and establishing the shared subjective landscapes of individuals: a role that has historically been undertaken most commonly by religion, more recently perhaps by Capitalism, materialism and the cult of the self. The same problem tends to emerge from this shared human compulsion to establish familiar routes of becoming: modes of perception and being become frozen or normalised and identities form around them into pre-given destinies, which act as lines along which individuals and groups are expected to travel. An alternative way of conceiving of the world is potentially overtly relativistic and denies any form of truth or the possibility of hierarchy. This is what Tom Pepper would criticise as the failing of post-modernity. As individuals in the West, we are to some degree left to choose: to bind our experience of self to a belief system and ideology that we are attracted to, such as Buddhism, or drift wherever the ideological currents of the dominant society lead. In either case, the collective nature of self is often ignored or under-appreciated.

Non-duality and problems in affirming our existence

When talking about non-duality, there are two sources that tend to dominate contemporary discussion: Buddhism and Advaita. If we look at figures such as Nagarjuna, the originator of the Madhyamaka School of Indian philosophy, non-duality is presented along the lines of reductionism ad infinitum, and the deconstruction of the self to its empty conclusion, but there are other ways to proceed in practice and conceive of the emptiness of being. Hokai Sobol once explained that the Yogacara school of Indian philosophy describes the experience of non-duality, or emptiness, in the affirmative: an experience that is intimately bound up with compassion and the awareness of our co-arising existence or entrapment. Paul Williams states much the same in his textbook on the doctrinal foundations of Mahayana Buddhism whilst observing how early scripture of the Yogacara emerge specifically in the context of first person meditation practice, rather than philosophical argument.

It seems necessary to me that once we work out what we are not, once we deconstruct, delete and deform the narrative self we are expected to mistake as ‘me’, we are left to ask ourselves what remains, what we are, and consider how our view of what remains determines how we build community, establish values, and in the Buddhist context, how meditative and ethical practices are constructed and pursued. (more…)

The Tricky Issue of Being Authentic

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“For the dignified Shambhala person, an unwaning authentic presence dawns.” Chogyam Trungpa

Words allow us to enter into new worlds. They allow us to inhabit new spaces, evoke new feelings, receive different ideas and come to the see the world differently. They also allow us to experiment with the creation of those same things. The opposite is also true, familiar words can permit us to reinforce boundaries that separate what is experienced as ‘me’ and ‘other’ and build and sustain allegiances, whilst creating distance from all manner of forms and possibilities. Language is a network of possibilities and worlds.

We have what is called an idiolect, which is our own personal dialect, made up of specific chunks of language, favourite words, and phrases that we use again and again and that stimulate certain feelings and posturing whilst formulating and stabilising our own subjective realm of being and the ground on which we build our ideas and beliefs. Groups have their own dialects too. We usually learn this when we go to university and find a whole lot of specialist terminology to memorize and then use appropriately in order to be able to inhabit a new world of ideas successfully, and importantly, reproduce it. The same is true of religions. In Buddhism new followers of the different traditions begin to learn the lingo and in doing so reproduce the dialect, and therefore the ideas and beliefs, of the group. If they choose to become integral members, they assimilate into the group in great part through the reproduction of the group’s language, which forms a significant part of the glue that binds the members into a shared sense of meaning and perspectives. Such actions have the potential to entrap as much as free and sometimes the line between the two is difficult to perceive.

The more educated, intelligent reader will likely be all too aware of the power of language and the close knit relationship between a basic understanding of language and the ability to think for one’s self, as well as enter into the thinking, ideas and discoveries of our great historical thinkers, writers and innovators. Words matter.
One of the ideas that is central to a post-traditional approach to Buddhism is to examine and reconsider the language that we use when discussing Buddhism. This has two facets. The first is to find our own voice and to use our own words to capture and describe accurately our own experience, thoughts and opinions: where those words are missing, to find other linguistic forms to use through an expansion of the network of ideas that we have at our disposal. The second is to find a way to talk about Buddhism, and experience within and of Buddhism, without relying on the dialects that fill dharma halls. To do so is to challenge assumptions, unpack beliefs and liberate the potential of Buddhist ideas and practices to come into dialogue with the wider world of human experience and knowledge.

This is a key theme that runs through much of my writing and this concept runs counter to many of its more conservative and insular expressions and their claims to absolute authority, with Tibetan Buddhism being a ripe example. To do this, attention to language is key. The choice of words we use is important and an understanding of the relationship between loaded terminology and the uncritical reproduction of ideas is doubly important. Why? Because when a person reproduces such loaded terminology uncritically, it typically leads to the creation of a new self, the blind acceptance of artificial beliefs and the parroting of those ideas, language and behaviour. This is essentially what occurs in any form of committed social alignment of course.

Such language in Buddhist circles consists of a great deal of Buddhist buzz words, such a karma, dharma, Buddha and so forth. For quite some time I have been bothered by the overuse of certain English terms in Buddhist environments: ego being one of them. In the way that it is used, I think it would be quite fair to label it under buddheme. In Buddhist circles, I have heard the word ego used to describe all manner of ills and painted as a bogey man, often becoming the imagined source of all our sins. Although ego can imply an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance, and arrogance too, it is a term that gained real usage in western culture due to Sigmund Freud, who understood it to be a factor of our psychic make-up that allows us to manage the extremes of our selfing process. The ego for Freud was the healthiest part of the human psyche and essential to our ability to participate functionally in the world. Nowadays, amongst Buddhists, it often gets used interchangeably with the self, which is unfortunate. It is funny how such a concept has gotten turned into a big bad wolf that doesn’t exist, but is somehow responsible for our suffering and naughty ways and vilified as a sort of collective enemy to be shunned. Although most modern dictionaries will include a definition of the ego as the self, a quick concordance search shows that its actual usage in society is predominantly negative and overwhelmingly associated with arrogance. Its mention in texts is predominantly found in the fields of psychoanalysis and psychology where it is discussed in Freudian terms. Confusing such a negatively connoted word with the self creates all sorts of unhealthy ideas regarding the goal of Buddhisms, as many of the first generation American Buddhists discovered when paying large fees to psychotherapists to help them deal with spiritual bypassing and all manner of suppression.

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Collapse and Awaken: submission for the Dark Mountain (Final)

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This is the last part of the Dark Mountain piece, which as I read it again after so long, appears rather forced. It reminds me of how much further I need to go in developing my writing skills and I am afraid to say that I am guilty of letting enthusiasm get the better of me at times, with this piece being one of those occasions. It is different from what came before in that it offers a couple of suggestions on experimental practices, so, read on at your own peril. As always, the link to Dark Mountain can be found here and click here for part one and here for part two.

A Possible Response

A clear theme that runs through to this point is the great gap. At the heart of our environmental crisis is the great divide. We are not able to feel our way across boundaries into primal modes of feeling the great other, and feeling with each other, and therefore we are constantly disconnected and alienated from our shared depths. We are confused on how to mate, not through sexual encounters, but through hiving at a level that bridges humans collectively to their environment as equals. The core principles in combating apathy and disengagement are empathic merging, compassion and care. I like to sum these up as a robust intimacy. Intimacy can be anchored onto externals, but it is best found in co-emergence. To be intimate with a process based lifeworld is to move within and through the spaces we inhabit with feeling and perceptual openness and receptivity. It does not imply being lovey-dovey, cosy and cushti, cute and nice. Intimacy is a feature of combat too. Ask any regular aficionado of boxing or MMA and most will speak of how fighting breaks through masks, strips away pretence, connects you at a raw level and sparks bonds.
The alienation spoken of here is painful. Some are born seemingly more sensitive to others and suffer it more, but there is no denying that our enforced detachment from each other into unfulfilling ritualised social practices harms. The wounds are collective and born by all those who switch off to their fellow species’ suffering, or who never come to touch wounds, or the wounded, with care. It is no wonder that we are so unable to feel. To switch onto the immensity of pain and suffering across all the animal and insect species is too much to bear. We must start somewhere though, because the stifling cocoon of self-preservation is really just a dead end. I see this work in very simple terms. It is a matter of maturity. Do we wish to remain infantilised or eternal teens, and avoid responsibility, or do we wish to accept that it is up to us to find relevant social practices in a changing world? As many of the first nation peoples ask, are we capable of being responsible for what happens to the next seven generations? Our governments and leaders certainly are not. Such a question does open a vast terrain of thought regarding duty, commitment and choice.

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Collapse & Awaken: submission for the Dark Mountain (Pt.2)

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This continues a three part post of a submission for the Dark Mountain. Part one can be found by clicking here. You can find out more about the Dark Mountain project by clicking here. On with it we go.

Radical Human Freeing into the World

The views that follow will run contrary to both traditional Buddhism’s general conception of itself, and the academic interpretation of Buddhist orthodoxies, for Buddhism like Christianity has many strands and families, each claiming its own superiority. This contrariness is deliberate. I will be taking a post-traditional view of Buddhism that situates the phenomena of Buddhist practice and ideas outside of enclosed Buddhist ideologies and into the shared human realm of experience, as much as such a project is possible. I will follow with a view into Animism, or better, new-Animism, as an alternative conceptual base for relating to the environment, then, finally, lay out two simple practices, one from each sphere, as invitations to readers to embrace a rawer relationship with what is immediate both in one’s physical and one’s sensory environments. Let’s jump in at the deep end of the pool.

Have you heard of spiritual enlightenment? Enlightenment in Buddhism has many faces, interpretations and tricks. It is simultaneously lauded and ignored. It is typically invoked as an illuminated carrot to be chased round samsara by believing bees, but, so few get a sniff of it, let alone a bite. Why is that? Enlightenment in Buddhism has long been a political tool. Over time, since Buddhism’s inception as human activity and history, it went from being a relatively straightforward affair, albeit one based on renunciation of much of what makes us human, to increasingly emerging as a shape shifting power held by the elite few. Such a delusional interpretation was adopted by Westerners seeking out new religious and spiritual experience, and even new father figures to save them, and it is only recently that the hegemony of the elites has begun to wane. Frankly, the idea of renunciation from the world is absurd, going against the facticity of our situated embodied condition. As was noted by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, we can never be detached from the world. We can only refuse its immediacy and push it away, but there it remains, hovering around us with its weight bearing down, pressuring us back into the flesh.

A new generation of seekers, strivers and sand treading folk have realised that outside of the ideology of the ruling classes in Buddhist circles and the myth of renunciation, enlightenment, or better, awakening, is a thoroughly human affair obtainable when not based on foolish attempts to escape the world. But if you are unfamiliar with such business, perhaps you will ask, awakening to or from what exactly? And you should ask. I am going to present some possibilities in order to open horizons of discourse and sharing. I shall from now on stick to the term awakening and not enlightenment for the latter refers to little that is tangible and that can emerge from the word itself.

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Collapse & Awaken: submission for the Dark Mountain

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This was a piece I wrote for the Dark Mountain Project about a year or so back. It’s been hanging around gathering computer dust amongst other lost projects, so as it’s been a while since I’ve written anything for the site, I decided to post it here. The piece is long. I know this is unfashionable these days, but it is what it is. As it’s long, it will be posted in stages.

It is ultimately  a semi-creative piece as much inspired by Shamanic and Animist  thought and practices as it is by Buddhist thought that seeks to honour some of the ideas and themes over at the Dark Mountain Project set up by the author and ex-journalist Paul Kingsnorth and Douglas Hine. If you want to know more about them, click here.

Here’s part one.

 

In the future, we may all end up being wannabe shamans and buddhas, striving to re-invoke the sacred after so much meaning and identity is lost during the slow dissipation of the elaborate human made world we once knew. We will remember scraps of practices and rituals, pasting them together in scrapbook form in an attempt to re-invoke our feeling-selves that have been severed from the brush, seasons and landscapes that our parents spoke of as the once normal. In our attempts, we will merge with rivers & streams, swimming amongst plastic wrappers and murky twists and turns, searching for some sense of purity amongst the lost innocence, our species no longer capable of dreaming itself in and out of the Earth’s breast, our gifted past tossed away by short-sightedness, solipsism, and species-centric arrogance. Some will stare breathless & frozen, whilst others will get on with the business of adjusting to what is immediate; some of these folk will be awake.

In Animism, empathy is king, whilst in Buddhism, compassion rules. Is it possible to embrace the depths of our collective darker ways and merge with their results without breaking in two? That is, are we able to tenderly immerse ourselves in the damaged landscapes that surround us and breathe with them as they are, and not as we imagine them to be? This is the spiritual and emotional challenge that twirls around the Dark Mountain. Environmentalists know the pain of opening to the seemingly bottomless sadness that faces anyone willing to sober up and look into the heart of our impact on the myriad animate and inanimate species that surround us. Delicate selves are usually not sturdy enough to withstand the dark sobering wind that rips through the heart and at innocence cocooned within idealistic cotton. What then is to be done? For surely the Dark Mountain is at heart a wake-up call, a sobering invitation to see the world as it is, and choose a response, rather than simply react. This type of call is not unfamiliar to certain forms of Buddhism, which has the recognition of suffering, often redefined as dissatisfaction or angst, at its heart.
We might consider that much of what has caused the Capitalist Consumerist destruction of the natural environment and its living breathing participants has not only been the objectification of literally everything, but such a system furnishing us with endless ways to avoid our own suffering, dissatisfaction and angst, particularly with regards to the unknown that surrounds us, that moves backwards and away into the past, and that flows open-endedly into the future. Much of the consumerist drive is an attempt to stuff a metaphorical hole within us with gadgets and trinkets and ideologies of infinitude or the old myth of father-figure salvation. The castration of meaning and of such concepts as sacred has left us with new questions that a materialist belief system cannot meet. The most apt philosophy for the brave new world is nihilism it seems. Perhaps though there is something worth exploring in the relationship between a spiritual tradition or two and the stark environmental reality in front of us? I want to suggest that Buddhism and Animism each have some central elements of knowing that can aid a sobering-up and a reconfiguration of our distorted ways of perceiving and inhabiting the environmental horizons in which we are situated.
There are sobering voices within the global Buddhist landscape calling for radical change in our relationships with the economy and the environment. David Loy, a prominent American scholar and Zen Buddhist teacher, has written numerous works identifying the madness of modern day Capitalism. His sharpest critique finds voice in a vision of the three roots of evil manifest collectively as ‘institutionalised greed, institutionalised ill will, and institutionalised delusion’ and he calls for a ‘social awakening’ in order to respond to them . There is eco-Buddhism, and the behaviour of Southeast Asian Buddhists that wait days for ants to pass instead of crushing them underfoot when cleaning and building, reflecting traditional monastic morality. Although admirable and worthy, the majority of environmentally conscious Buddhists stand in the same landscape as the environmentalists who hope that humans will eventually stop being so short sighted through choice alone and relinquish their own self-obsessions, and our blind collective trudge along familiar paths furnished by the reigning ideology of progress. Of course, this idea is confirmed as folly each year as politicians and citizens worldwide are all too happy to pretend the threat is way off in the future and that it is best to carry on as usual for as long as possible in the odd hope that nothing will ever change. It is funny how often our own creeds are lost on us.
When sobering reality arrives, it is rarely pleasant. A reminder that we have been sleepwalking and have literally wasted days, months, years of our existence living poorly and living submerged in warped delusional social practices. For some the reaction is hatred, anger, rage, for others it is internalised, leading to self-destruction or loss of anchors that might permit some degree of well-being. Both reactions can result in self-harm, yet if we are really extensions of the Earth herself, then what good does it do to cause further pain to the elegant forgotten lady we have taken for granted?
We like to think we are special somehow, distinct, both as individual selves and as a species. Yet we are not. Most of our existence is entirely unoriginal, probably all of it. Certainly the range of thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations that make up ‘me’ or ‘you’ are recycled and reflective of mass-feeling, mass-emoting and mass-sensing. We humans are in many ways a collective hive, or ant like, and in the grand scheme of things, equally fragile. We are incapable of existing apart from each other: a web of selves that build into localised story bound colonies. Even in physical separation our thoughts mirror a shared linguistic landscape and ideological allegiances, which means that true isolation and aloneness are impossible in any real sense. Images of such interrelatedness and inseparability between the many members of a species tribe often inspire bland claims of oneness and togetherness with resultant apathy or smugness. Although tribal cultures have been romanticised for far too long by those with spiritual inklings of the earthy persuasion, rather than do so, we might simply recognise that a good number of them do live within a vision of the world in which they are indistinct from the insect colonies with which they co-exist unilaterally, rather than hierarchically. That it is our failing to do the same has rendered us so dangerous and so forgetful of our place within an organic world order of co-dependency.

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