Wednesday, 23 July 2014
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.
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.
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.
As the tide of inevitable change flows around us and through us, Buddhism and Animism exist as paradigms that can be harnessed to accompany ever sobering and spirited wanderers into the misty, murky future. Each has something unique and pragmatic to offer that may give rise to new social practices within a new social order in which we are co-participants alongside the other animate and inanimate species. Each provides a means for managing our existential questions and our existential practices in order to survive as questioning, feeling, sensing creatures in a shifting global hierarchy in which the weather becomes the leading super-power. I like to envision them as repositories of experimental human history and practice that can be felt and thought into, rather than as providers of new beliefs and social practices to be conformed to. In this sense they operate as positional realities to be explored and learnt from and as aids to human searching and questioning.
For it is uncertainty that scares folks most, and it is the great unknown that terrifies, ultimately manifest in the very real demise that awaits us in death, yet, on a more immediate level, it is woven into our attempt to grasp at intangibles and hold tightly to whatever we value: the adornments of our personal narratives and the small routines that we decorate our open existence with. In a sense, we might consider the great unknown to be a sort of universal mirror of ultimate, glaring honesty that challenges us to swallow whole our unknowing predicament and our finite, horizon based situatedness in embodied forms. We recoil though, and rather like cows, we bracket the world into manageable spaces and limit horizons into traceable terrains onto which we sketch out our perceptions. We are generally incapable of grasping vastness, our attention always being contextualised. Otherwise, vastness is straight jacketed into borrowed poetic deferral to light and love by the romantic and spiritually indulgent or to equally reassuring nihilism by the pessimists. This in a sense explains why we are ideologically bound creatures and why we struggle to give up our allegiance to them. Our fear of the unknown and this need to bracket the world into manageable, meaningful spaces is so thoroughly instinctual and unconscious.
The enlightened folk will wander as lost as others, but they will be fully there, impregnated with the immediacy of a shared open predicament.
Many who come to Buddhism see meditation as being its essence. However, as many Buddhist scholars like to point out, in most Asian countries, meditation is, and always has been, practised by an extremely small percentage of Buddhists, like really, almost nobody. Buddhism for the masses has long been primarily about worship, prayer, supplication and rituals. Although some might say that there is inherent within such practices meditative states, and though that may well be so for some, explicit formal meditation practice has long been the domain of the elite: either the aristocrats and spiritual specialists in countries such as Tibet and Japan, or of the very few in South East Asian countries who dedicated their lives to the renunciate way of life. In the West then we are doing something quite different from the traditions that have gone before. Western Buddhism is already very different at a lay level to what it has ever been. We might even argue that modern Western Buddhism as practised by westerners is already post-traditional. That said my post-traditional is an attempt at self-description outside of tradition, meaning free of attempts to transpose an exotic Eastern Buddhist form into Western society with all the mimicry and the adoption of a Buddhist identity that goes along with it. And in spite of my fondness for much of Glenn Wallis’ work, I have to confess to being a Buddhist.
Post-traditional and meditation
What would post-traditional Buddhist meditation look like? What does it look like to deeply practice a Buddhist meditation technique outside of a tradition? Is there any value or worth in removing Buddhist meditation techniques from the tradition in which they have been developed and shared, and stood the test of time? In truth, each of these questions has already been answered and they are continuing to be answered by the many people that stumble along with varying degrees of success, finding their own way through books, videos, podcasts, and different degrees of experience had within established Buddhist groups. Meditation techniques themselves were developed by people of course, many of whom were stepping outside of tradition, or adapting and modernising existing traditions. Every time we place ourselves in sincere relationship with a meditation practice, we are adapting the technique through our personal and individual process, bringing new material into relationship with the practice, that is say, making the practice our own. Every time you sit down to meditate, it is a new moment, a new act. This immediacy, if conscious, is an antidote to complacency and a challenge to prescriptive behavioural modification that many traditional forms and approaches to meditation practice take or condone. How far an individual will go in this process will determine how radically they change. After all, if Buddhism has any worth, it is this, change.
My relationship with Buddhism is one of fluctuation, shifting in and out of a sort of intimate embrace, going deeply into shifting possibilities, whilst stepping back and examining with Western eyes and hands: teasing apart delicately and testing through personal experience the human potential within Buddhism’s human articles. Arguing over the ideological content and agenda inherent within politicised religious formations is one approach to take in reviewing Buddhism as a whole, especially if serious disillusionment has settled in and the rot has begun. Another is to deny it its supernatural claims and see it as a rich and varied history of human endeavour, and as such, open to a very human interpretation and reformulation, and this is the approach I like to take here. I feel I go further than the Secular Buddhists, but not as far as Wallis, Steingass and Pepper.
A post-traditional approach, as the British sociologist Anthony Giddens points out, is aware of choice and the constructed nature of tradition. Post-traditional goes beyond prescription to self-determination. If I am not a product of tradition, if I am not an autonym that acts in accordance with a fixed past, then I must necessarily choose how to engage and how to act in a (hopefully) conscious relationship with tradition/s. Post-traditional implies a degree of freedom then and awareness about that freedom. If deference to tradition sits opposite modern self-reflection, then a question that emerges is why do people grasp at the seeming solidity of tradition and not embrace a more self-aware relationship with Buddhism as the construct that it is? Well, in part, traditions, especially of the religious persuasion, have a nasty habit of defending themselves from progress and change. Impermanence has long been the enemy of stability and Buddhist institutions are no strangers to this in spite of what they preach. The old anti-modernity pursuit of a pure past, authentic tradition, the guarantor of expertise and so forth are the weapons raised in defence against the uncertainty and destabilising nature of change. Of course this friction plays out constantly at all levels of society, but, perhaps we, as in you and I, can embrace uncertainty and recognise Darwin’s claim that it is not the strongest that survive, but those most able to adapt to change.