Interdependence for Non-Hippies

Disaster Communism

Environmentalism: the question is posed incorrectly from the beginning. There is no external object called “the environment” to which another object called “society” must relate. The question of the environmental crisis cannot be posed separately from that of society, as if it were some alien entity attacking us from the outside. At every point in history, human society is that which we have forged from the transformation of nature, and nature is that on which we depend for our continued existence; nature is part of human society and human society is part of nature.

We exist in a state of profound interdependence with all forms of life – a condition we are unable to transcend, but merely develop in one direction or another. Our relations to one-another are predicated on particular relations to nature. The waged labour relation that is fundamental to capitalism required our estrangement from nature: the violent dispossession and expulsion of peasants from the land, and the enclosure of nature, its constitution as an object to be dominated and exploited was the founding event of capitalist society, a process intimately linked with the suppression and enclosure of women.x

Traditionally, environmentalists have tended to pose the question of how to prevent catastrophe as separate from questions of how humans are to relate to each other. This has tended to mean that environmentalism has confronted us as a rather bleak, desperate and negative discourse:

“’We must act today to save tomorrow’ is the cry of the global greens. Great sacrifices must be made immediately for a reward launched far into the distant future. But such a reward it is! Yes, it may be far away now, but one day, dear friend, you may not be flooded! You may not starve! You might not even suffer more than you do already! Such is the dismal promise of environmentalism.”xi

Indeed, this framing, due to its artificial restriction of the problem to be considered, has often tended to produce a push towards economism and away from the consideration of the intersecting forms of exploitation and domination that produce our social reality, towards compromise with authoritarian forms of organisation, and towards a joyless and debilitating seriousness in the name of urgency. Viewed this way, it seems obvious that all sorts of compromises must be made with systems of domination in order that decisive action be taken to “save the planet”.

The problem is, the question is posed entirely backwards. We cannot think of taking decisive action against the destruction of nature separately from the transformation of the social relations that both arise from and reproduce the domination of nature by humans. The question rather is: what form of society is consistent with the desire to live not merely from nature, but in and with nature? What kinds of subjectivities and forms of social organisation allow us to live not as exploiters of the natural world, nor under the exploitation of others?

What desires and potentials exist in our current world that could form the beginnings of such a world? Clearly, we must have done with the negative environmentalisms that operate on guilt and fear, and that offer nothing but the postponement of death. We must have done also with all the false consolations of magical thinking that keep us invested in a political system that can only fail us.

Clearly, what we need is an anti-capitalism, but it cannot be one that simply takes over production and runs it more democratically. (In any case what system could outmatch modern capitalism in the production of endless junk?)

It’s great to see the interdependence of man and nature (and indeed, the realisation that there is no difference between them) expressed so well in the sphere of radical politics/economics, and not just as Buddhist-influenced, Watts-like ‘hippy’ (ugh) talk. It’s also nothing new, Gary Snyder’s “Buddhist Anarchism” has been with us for some time, but a welcome continuation of the debate.

I’ve written before about how I imagine the practical implementation of a realisation of non-duality/interdependence and I surmised it would be a ‘communist’ system and I think this piece reinforces that thought.

Ecological awareness

Thus the point I am making in all these essays is that civilised people, whether Western or Eastern, need to be liberated and dehypnotized from their systems of symbolism and, thereby, become more intensely aware of the living vibrations of the real world. For lack of such awareness our consciousnesses and consciences have become calloused to the daily atrocities of burning children with napalm, of saturation bombing of fertile earth with all its plants, wild animals, and insects (not to mention people), and of manufacturing nuclear and chemical weapons concerning which the real problem is not so much how to prevent their use as how to get them off the face of the earth.

We need to become vividly aware of our ecology, of our interdependence and virtual identity with all other forms of life which the divisive and embossing methods of our current way of thought prevent us from experiencing. The so-called physical world and the so-called human body are a single process, differentiated only as the heart from the lungs or the head from the feet. In stodgy academic circles I refer to this kind of understanding as “ecological awareness.” Elsewhere it would be called “cosmic consciousness” or “mystical experience.” However, our intellectual and scientific “establishment” is, in general, still spellbound by the myth that human intelligence and feeling are a fluke of chance in an entirely mechanical and stupid universe–as if figs would grow on thistles or grapes on thorns. But wouldn’t it be more reasonable to see the entire scheme of things as continuous with our own consciousness and the marvellous neural organisation which, shall we say, sponsors it?

Metaphysical as such considerations may be, it seems to me that their issues are earthy and practical. For our radically mis-named “materialistic” civilisation must above all cultivate love of material, of earth, air, and water, of mountains and forests, of excellent food and imaginative housing and clothing, and of cherishing our artfully erotic contacts between human bodies. Certainly, all these so-called “things” are as impermanent as ripples in water, but what life, what love, what energy is there in a perfectly pure abstraction or a totally solid and eternally indestructible rock?

Alan Watts – Does It Matter?

Bitcoin and the nature of money

I’ve quoted Alan Watts before on the nature of money, and written on the topic in more detail.

What wasn’t understood then, and still isn’t really understood today, is that the reality of money is of the same type as the reality of centimeters, grams, hours, or lines of longitude. Money is a way measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself. A chest of gold coins or a fat wallet of bills is of no use whatsoever to a wrecked sailor alone on a raft. He needs real wealth, in the form of a fish rod, a compass, an outboard motor with gas, and a female companion.

And I thought of it again whilst thinking about bit coin. Bitcoin is a ‘digital currency’ that is in the news at the moment due to its wild fluctuations. In fact, whether we can call it a ‘currency’ or not is part of its problem. There’s been loads written about it recently, some of which is quick to claim that it’s not a currency at all.

I quite like the Washington Post’s take on it. It deals with what is for me the most interesting thing about bit coin – it is forcing people to think about what money is.

…money has almost nothing to do with physical form. It also doesn’t have much to do with who creates it: The dollar bills were issued by the Federal Reserve, the checking account created by my neighborhood bank, the money market fund was created by a mutual fund manager, the gold was mined out of the ground, and the refrigerator was made by General Electric.

Rather, what makes money money is what you can do with it. If you can purchase the goods and services that you want and need with it, it is money; if you can’t, it isn’t. Money is memory, said Narayana Kocherlakota in an important 1996 paper (he is now president of the Minneapolis Fed). It is the way we as a society record how much capacity to buy stuff each of us possess.

They also reference an Onion article entitled “U.S. Economy Grinds to Halt As Nation Realizes Money Just A Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.” to help make their point.

This is inline with Watts talk of money as measurement. Bitcoin idealists I guess use this to legitimise themselves; it is just another, radically different (in its lack of centralisation) measurement tool. The Post, however, posit some retorts – one of which is that currency like the Dollar is not just ‘socially’ accepted as currency, it is effectively enforced by the most powerful entity on Earth – the U.S. government. And both the Post and the Guardian bemoan it’s like of liquidity and central control to keep it liquid.

Still, it’s nice to see this debate being played out. Watts was keen to get us to remember that money is not wealth. Bitcoin helps us remember this, I think. Interesting times ahead.

See also: Money and Wealth

Chop wood, carry water

Thinking more about Buddhism and Marxism the following occured to me. Another way to tackle the subject is this: if tomorrow, miraculously, everyone on planet Earth achieved enlightenment / nirvana / liberation / Buddha-hood, how would we then go about our lives? Remember, this would be the real deal – the reordering of consciousness, not a Hollywood transformation wherein we would all vanish in a flash of light. Despite realising our true Buddha nature, we would still need to live, society would still need to function. But how would a society of Buddhas organize itself? Remember, as the Zen saying goes:

“Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”

Now, of course, by its very nature it is impossible for the unenlightened to imagine enlightenment, much less to describe it. This is little more than a thought experiment to further a discussion, and not a very deep one. But, looking at the scriptures, the discourses, and our own (however paltry) understanding of liberation, how would  you imagine we would ‘run’ our affairs, post-nirvana?

I posit that the society that emerges would look very similar to what is commonly described as Communist (and real Communism at that, not the cartoonish scare story paraded by the right).  I can’t for the life of me think of any other possibility, can you?

Buddhism and Marxism

I recently finished my annual re-reading of Alan Watts “The Wisdom of Insecurity” and immediately followed it by starting into E.F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful”. I had not intended it, but it turned out to be a thematically perfect fugue, as both have at there centre a discussion of our relationship with nature. Both posit that we have become disconnected with our environment and that this disconnection is the source of both mental anguish, and consequentially, the physical destruction of our environment and society.

Although not strictly a “Buddhist” book, indeed Watts spends more time specifically discussing and interpreting Christian thought, “Wisdom” is clearly a book based on and influenced by, the Buddha’s outlook. It is a classic example of Watts role as ‘interpreter of Eastern thought’. Watts makes numerous references to our social and environmental condition, and identifies the problem as being our dualistic separation. And whilst Watts is acutely aware of the social problems that manifest as a result, his ‘cure’ is a personal one; if we could realign our viewpoint to see our innate ‘oneness’ with our environment and the futility of search for permanence in an impermanent reality, our ‘problems’ would cease to be. This is as the Buddha taught. Watts does not have much time for ‘political’ solutions (either on the right or the left) and is focused on personal liberation, again similar to most of Buddhist thought throughout history. This has more or less been my ‘political’ outlook recently.

Schumacher sees the world very similarly (indeed, one chapter of his book is entitled “Buddhist Economics”) and draws his conclusions from a similar point that it is our fractured relationship with our Universe that is the root cause of our problems. In contrast to Watts however, Schumacher is much more interested in suggesting socio-political solutions. These are however still grounded in this basic idea that we need to reconsider our position in nature. Although critical of some Marxist thought, Schumacher is clearly coming from a socialist/collectivist perspective, saving most of his ire for capitalism.

This got me thinking specifically about Buddhism and Marxism. Recently the Dalai Lama described himself as “half-Buddhist, half-Marxist”. From one perspective, on the surface, one can definitely draw similarities between both, but soon seemingly irreconcilable differences appear to arise. I am no where near learned enough on either topic to draw any conclusions myself, but I was pleased to come across this accessible but comprehensive comparison. Taking a scholarly approach to both Victor Gunasekara clearly outlines how both ‘philosophies’ overlap and depart.

For me Gunasekara underlines what I had suspected, that they compliment each other more than they disagree. Gunasekara is cautious however:

When we leave the critique of religion and God, where Buddhism and Marxism have something in common, and consider ether aspects, the differences in the two systems begin to emerge. These differences exist and are real; but they should neither be exaggerated nor minimised.

Gunasekara is careful not to overstate, he rather wishes to show, but being less scholarly I can allow myself more room to clumsily interpret to say that both describe:

A world constantly in change.
The Buddha described this as impermanence, Marx referred to the dialectic. Both were aware of this basic fact of the matter; that everything is in constant flux. Gunasekara points out however that Marx described this movement as going ‘towards’ a certain state, whereas Buddhism did not.

Unsatisfactoriness
The Buddha’s first noble truth is that life for the worldling is essentially unsatisfactory, with pain and anxiety being omnipresent. This ‘pain’ was both sensory (injury, illness, etc.) and mental (anxiety, fear).
Marx too identified both types of pain, the squalid reality that most people live in, and the ‘alienation’ that modern capitalist civilisation has instilled in people. Gunasekara, however, makes clear that Marx traced the root of alienation to man’s relationship to his activity and the fruits of his activity. Marx’s interests mainly lie in the ‘socio-economic’ whilst the Buddha’s was much more Universal.

Gunasekara is careful not to over or understate these differences, and concludes that

Thus though traces of the signata (“Three marks of existence”) could be discerned in Marx’s writings he does not give to them the centrality that they occupy in Buddhism. This coupled with the fact that Marx was interested basically only in one aspect of human activity (the socio-economic) explains why he was not able to draw the full implications of those categories used by him which have some relation to the signata of Buddhism.

Materialism

Gunasekara also takes on what has always been a particular obstacle for me, the issue of materialism. In many ways, materialism is a problematic term as it has numerous interpretations. In much day-to-day usage ‘materialism’ is used to refer to a love of ‘things’ and objects, such as clothes, cars, iPhones. It can also be used to differentiate a ‘scientific’ view of reality as opposed to say a more ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’ one. Watts, interestingly, argues that what many would call a ‘materialist’, one who wants for ownership of riches etc, is nothing of the sort as they do not ‘love’ the material of nature. A mystic, it could be argued, is a true ‘materialist’.

Buddhism is commonly understood to be a non-materialist or even anti-materialist doctrine, stressing the illusory nature of reality and the ‘dream-like’ existence of the Universe. Marx spoke of ‘historical materialism’ and thus I have always struggled to reconcile the two at this point. Gunasekara, however, considers what Marx meant by this term.

The first thing to note is that “materialism” as propounded by Marx and Engels is not the same as that which is usually denounced by religionists. Thus Robert C. Tucker has observed: “In Marx’s mind the ancient philosophical terms idealism and materialism have taken on unique new meanings…. To begin with by materialism he does not mean this term what we are accustomed to mean when we use it in philosophical discourse. It does not have a physical or mechanical or physiological connotation, nor does it question the reality of conscious mind. It does not refer to a theory about the stuff of which the universe is composed, although Marx assumes that this is material stuff”

Thus it is easier then to consider Marx’s ‘materialism’ within a Buddhist framework. Marx was not particularly referring to a description of the make up of reality, but rather a description of reality was we see it. Gunasekara also notes:

In the more prosaic sense of materialism as a view affirming the importance of worldly goods for human welfare one may make a case for an opposition between Buddhism and Marxism. But even here it must be remembered that Buddhism argues for a “middle way” for both monk and layman, given the demands of their respective life styles. Marx himself considered that “accumulation for the sake of accumulation” was a characteristic of capitalism, and that in his ideal communist state the distributive rule would be “to each according to his/her need”. So even here some reconciliation may be possible . (In passing it may be stated that the Sangha of the Buddha was perhaps the world’s first communist social grouping.)

Gunasekara also considers how both doctrines consider man’s thought process, and identifies that apparent oppositions (For Marx the environment creates his consciousness – whilst for the Buddha “Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart.” or “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” – the primacy of mind is stressed) Whilst this appears to show a complete contradiction between the two, Gunasekara notes that the Buddhist idea stems from an interpretation of the opening line of the Dhammapada that can be considered “Mind precedes all mental states.” – not so much that our mind conditions the world (indeed, Buddhism ultimately refutes a mind-world duality making it a less clear distinction in the end), but our mind conditions our interpretation of the world, going someway to lessening the difference.

Gunasekara concludes that both Marxism and Buddhism are humanistic philosophies of action. I found his interpretation to be most helpful in helping to further my understanding of both; as a Buddhist with distinctly socialist political leanings. Like Snyder or Knabb, it also affirms, in deference to Zizek’s (admittedly somewhat accurate) notion that the Western Buddhist can use his faith to remove himself from the problems of the world, that the Buddhist can indeed not just interpret the world, but change its material conditions.

A Buddhist Viewpoint on Abortion

Seung Sahn was a Korean Zen Master and somewhat controversial figure who founded a large and influential Western Zen institution. His book “Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake” is a collection of stories, talks and dialogues with students on a range of topics.

In one chapter, a student asks him for his position on abortion. Sahn’s reply begins:

“Buddhism’s first moral precept is a very strong one: do not take any life. And at the same time Zen Buddhism also guides us to the absolute insight that any action is fundamentally not good, not bad. So for many people, this can seem confusing. But actually it is very simple.

The most important thing to consider when doing any action is, why do you do something? Only for you, or for all beings? Why do you eat every day – only for your body, for your tongue’s pleasure? If your direction is not clear, even doing ‘good’ actions every day is not always clear. Correct direction means your actions are already beyond good and bad, and not based on the false notion of ‘I.’ So what kind of direction do you have? Why would you abort this baby? Determining that clearly in your mind is most important.”

Sahn reiterates that what is most important, rather than arguing over ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is that your direction is clear – or other words, your intentions.

He then illustrates his point by way of analogy. The first Buddhist precept is to not take life. Another precept is to not lie. He then tells the story of a man in the mountains collecting firewood. A rabbit runs by and runs off to the left. Moments later a hunter with a gun passes by and ask “Which way did the rabbit go?”

If the man ‘makes correct speech’ and doesn’t lie, the hunter will find the rabbit and kill it. “If the man strictly keeps the precept of not lying-simply for the sake of keeping precepts, to be a ‘good’ Buddhist who does no wrong-the rabbit will suffer”

He continues:

“But if your direction for keeping the precepts is truly to liberate all beings from suffering, then you will maybe tell a lie: ‘Oh, the rabbit went that way,’ pointing away from the direction where the rabbit really ran.”

The precepts include not killing and not lying. The question is, at that moment, break the precepts or keep them?

The student when asked this replied that they would prefer that the rabbit does not get caught and be killed. Sahn then makes an even stronger analogy – if someone came to kill lots of people, a policeman would be right to kill that person if it stopped them killing (or killing more.)

Sahn’s point is that a Buddhist viewpoint on such issues is never dictated by edicts or scripture. The Buddha’s teaching implore us to examine the here and now and determine our intentions – for what end are we doing this action?

“So, whether or not babies should be born is not the point. Instead, what is human beings’ correct direction? It is very important to find that. Some two thousand give hundred years ago, the Buddha taught, ‘Don’t kill any life.’ That is the Buddha’s teaching. But the behind-meaning means having Great Love, Great Compassion, and the Great Boddhisattva Way. It is extremely important that this not be considered as simply a question of whether or not to have a baby, or whether abortion is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’

Rather, we must deeply consider what is human beings’ correct direction and correct way, right now. At this time? How does this action help other beings? Find that, and moment to moment to moment, just do it. If you find that, any action, situation or condition doesn’t matter. You must do it. That is Great Love. That is Great Compassion.”

This is precisely the way of thinking that needs to be supported by legislation in Ireland. That women can at the moment, make the right decision, for that time, for that woman. You must do it. That is Great Love. That is Great Compassion.

Footnote:
The title of this blog post is A Buddhist Viewpoint on Abortion, and as such, does not purport to represent a standardised, canonical or general view.

The Double Bind

This week in Ireland we had a referendum in which only 33.5% of the electorate voted. This has sparked some debate as to why people did not vote, and how do you solve this problem etc. Scanning various online streams, some have suggested that voting should be mandatory. More so than this was a general frustration or anger at people who did not vote – with the suggestion that it is a moral duty and imperative to vote in polls. An idea which as I noted, was encouraged officially.

Then today, as it was Remembrance Sunday, there were a few stories from the UK about the wearing of the Poppy to commemorate the war dead, and in particular those who choose not to wear it.

As I thought about both of these things – voting and wearing a symbol of remembrance – and people’s expectation that you should do these things – I thought of Alan Watts description of the double-bind game, from his classic “The Book”

A double-bind game is a game with self-contradictory rules, a game doomed to perpetual self-frustration—like trying to invent a perpetual- motion machine in terms of Newtonian mechanics, or trying to trisect any given angle with a straightedge and compass. The social double- bind game can be phrased in several ways:

The first rule of this game is that it is not a game.
Everyone must play.
You must love us.
You must go on living.
Be yourself, but play a consistent and acceptable role.
Control yourself and be natural.
Try to be sincere.

Essentially, this game is a demand for spontaneous behavior of certain kinds. Living, loving, being natural or sincere—all these are spontaneous forms of behavior: they happen “of themselves” like digesting food or growing hair. As soon as they are forced they acquire that unnatural, contrived, and phony atmosphere which everyone deplores—weak and scentless like forced flowers and tasteless like forced fruit. Life and love generate effort, but effort will not generate them. Faith—in life, in other people, and in oneself—is the attitude of allowing the spontaneous to be spontaneous, in its own way and in its own time. This is, of course, risky because life and other people do not always respond to faith as we might wish. Faith is always a gamble because life itself is a gambling game with what must appear, in the hiding aspect of the game, to be colossal stakes. But to take the gamble out of the game, to try to make winning a dead certainty, is to achieve a certainty which is indeed dead.

The alternative to a community based on mutual trust is a totalitarian police-state, a community in which spontaneity is virtually forbidden.

A free democratic society that forces you to engage in those very activities that make it a free democracy is surely a double-bind? And, in the case of wearing the Poppy, that very act itself is only meaningful because people choose to do it. It must lose all potency when it becomes a mandatory activity.

Vote and Die

I passed an otherwise innocuous looking bus-shelter ad for the today’s Children’s Referendum the other day, and I was struck by this piece of copy:

We all have a part to play.
Make sure you play yours.
And vote.

This, for me, speaks volumes about the ruling ideology of our country (and probably most Western liberal democracies) and how the powers-that-be see us. Whilst appearing to be an appeal for us to vote, it also subtly reinforces the hierarchical structures in which we find ourselves in society, where it is made clear that our ‘part to play’ is to simply tick a box. Leave the decision making to others – that is their part to play. Our responsibility as citizens is to simply confirm or reject what we are offered periodically. Nothing more. And in the case of Ireland, if we reject what we are offered, we will be asked again until they get the right answer – a more honest ad would probably say “Make sure you play yours. And vote yes.”