Jack's Blog

Scroll down for articles (in ascending order) on:

What’s the point: Buddhism and Critical thinking.

A Digression on Deer.

On the Winter Blues.

Liberal Buddhism and the Politics of the Syrian Conflict.

Bowerchalke and the Gaia Hypothesis.

Haiku written on a Sŏn Retreat.

Methods of Ethical Judgement in Buddhism.

The Middle Way and Vegetarianism.

About Hannah Arendt on Radio 4, on 2/2/17.

The Canadian/Bowerchalke Poet, Marjorie Picktall.

Quasi-Idealism.

2016/2017 Accounts

28/7/17

Bowerchalke Buddhist Meditation Group - Brief Accounts June 2016 - May 2017

Expenditure: £534 (Room Hire)

Income:  £529.20  (Donations)

Balance: £ minus 4.80

Comment: All organisations need to balance income and expenditure: we manage that. Any deficit is covered by myself as facilitator.

Attendance Statistics

Mean attendance per session: 2.79  (2015-2016: 2.93) (2014-2015: 3.64)

Mean attendance on Tuesday evenings: 3.34 (2015-2016: 4.26) (2014-2015: 5.19)

Mean attendance on Wednesday mornings: 1.17 (2015-2016: 1.44) (2014-2015: 1.61)

Comment: Over the three years of the group’s existence, there has been a gradual decline in attendance as people lose motivation or move away. That is to be expected, for meditation is not an easy practice and the benefits are not immediate, obvious or certain. If the decline continues it may become difficult to continue offering social reinforcement for meditation practice at this location. But, of course, the possibility of meditation (close and continuing attention to immediate experience) will always be available, at all times, in all places.

 

12/5/17

Buddhist quasi-idealism

According to Sue Hamilton[i], early Buddhists held a ‘quasi-idealist’ view of the world. In other words, they did not go so far as to doubt the existence of external ‘things’ produced by cause and effect, out there beyond the range of the human senses, yet they understood that, for embodied, sentient beings, the world was limited to all the information that the senses could possibly provide. To restate the early Buddhist position: for sentient beings, including human persons, the world is limited to what it is like to receive news from the senses, and from the mind. This quasi-idealist view stands in marked contrast to the ‘realist’ belief that sensory information provides a reliable, perfectly accurate representation of what the external world is like.

 

For the realist, sky is blue and grass is green, whether or not there is anyone around to re-create these colours within the realm of their sensory imagination. For the quasi-idealist, sensory information may indeed be motivated by contact with some sort of external world, but sensory qualities (such as blue and green) are created imaginatively by the bodily faculties working in conjunction with the mind.

A succinct expression of early Buddhist quasi-idealism can be found in the Pāli Canon, in the Sabba Sutta:

The All[ii]

The Blessed One said, "What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, 'Repudiating this All, I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range."

Some people might be puzzled or bored by the notion of quasi-idealism. Why on earth would anyone want to make such a subtle distinction? The answer, I think, is that to realise that each person creates a world of their own is to begin to understand the uniqueness, poignancy and significance of every human life.  One should even say, of every sentient life, since the world-making power of the senses also occurs in animals.

Last Saturday (6/5/17), the Guardian newspaper published a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, which does not actually mention quasi-idealism, yet brings forth the qualities of uniqueness, poignancy and significance bestowed on life by virtue of that obscure philosophical category:

There are no boring people in this world[iii]

There are no boring people in this world.

Each fate is like the history of the planet.

And no two planets are alike at all.

Each is distinct – you simply can’t compare it.

 

If someone lived without attracting notice

And made a friend of their obscurity –

Then their uniqueness was precisely this.

Their very plainness made them interesting.

 

Each person has a world that’s all their own.

Each of these worlds must have its finest moment

And each must have its hour of bitter torment –

And yet, to us, both hours remain unknown.

 

When people die, they do not die alone.

They die along with their first kiss, first combat.

They take away their first day in the snow ...

All gone, all gone – there’s no way to stop it.

 

There may be much that’s fated to remain,

But something, something leaves us all the same.

The rules are cruel, the game nightmarish –

It isn’t people but whole worlds that perish.

 


[i]  Hamilton, S., 1999, ‘The External World’: its status and relevance in the Pali Nikayas, Religion, 29,

  pp.73-90.

  Hamilton, S., 2000, Early Buddhism, a new approach: the ‘I’ of the Beholder, (Richmond, Curzon).

 

[ii]  Access to Insight. Sn35: 23 Sabba Sutta:  ‘The All’. Trans: Thanissaro Bhikku

   http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.023.than.html

   Accessed 7/5/17

 

[iii]  Yevtushenko, Y., 6/5/17, There are no boring people in this world, trans: Boris Dralyuk (London,

   Guardian Newspaper).

30/3/17

Remembering the Buddha, remembering Marjorie Pickthall

Contemporary Buddhist advocacy of meditation on the present moment, above all other practices, seems to be paradoxical, given the traditional practice of remembering the exemplary life and teaching of the Buddha (buddhānusmṛti). This apparent inconsistency between focussing on the present and focussing on a past example may be resolved in two ways.

 

The first way, from a  Chan/Zen/Sōn perspective, is to truly live within the present moment; that is, rather than just recollecting explanations of the Buddha’s awakened state of mind, to actually enable the Buddha’s awakened state of mind to take place once again, in the form of an experience within oneself. But there is an element of fudge in this exclusive focus on momentary experience for without Buddhist history, without the guiding parameters of Buddhist teaching, and without the concept-wrapping of ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Awakening’ (Nirvana), that ideal of a perfected state of mind could never be indicated, never initially understood and never transmitted from one generation to the next. Without recollecting the Buddha, there would eventually be a radical forgetting of the purpose and practice of meditation. Such a falling out of information from the minds of women and men is the very antithesis of practice, if practice is the preservation of a skill through faithful repetition.

 

I hope what follows is not too much of a segue from one example to another, but outwith Buddhism, yet close to home at Bowerchalke, Marjorie Pickthall stands as a textbook case of the way in which particular attitudes to life gradually become unusual, then altogether lost, when past lives are no longer remembered.

 

The Bowerchalke resident and dystopian novelist William Golding is well remembered around here, whereas the Canadian poet, Marjorie Pickthall, who lived in Bowerchalke between 1912 and 1920, seems to have been entirely forgotten. Maybe she deserves that neglect, for it could be argued that, like the Buddha, Golding spoke to his era and will be long remembered for the quality of what he had to say, whereas Pickthall’s poetry, novels and plays were somehow out of time, marking the downfall of romantic sentiment, in the face of the rise of modernism and the age of the brute machine.

 

But do we really want that sort of radical forgetting? Is it not possible to appreciate what both Golding and Pickthall have to say: in other words, to combine a critical, cautious, dystopian attitude with a more sentimental, romantic, emotional attitude towards markedly different aspects of reality? Aren’t we normally capable of just that variety of response?

                                                                                                                        

If the Buddha and William Golding are worthy of remembrance for what they had to say, then perhaps we should periodically remind ourselves of other, less notable, exemplars like Marjorie Pickthall, lest we lose something meaningful and useful in the course of forgetting.

 

So, secondly, the paradox of the difference between present momentariness and remembrance of things past is resolved by the understanding that recollection itself is a momentary affair. Once remembered, nothing is preserved unless and until it is recollected once again. It is by practice of remembrance that skills and traditions are preserved, but they are only preserved by being made anew.

Having used her as an example, let’s recollect what is known about Marjorie Pickthall.

 

Born in 1883, Pickthall moved to Canada at the age of seven, returning to Britain in 1912, after the death of her mother. It seems that she divided her time between London, where she worked in the meteorological service during the First World War, and Bowerchalke, where she attempted to establish a market garden business with another forgotten woman who was called ‘Long-John’. During her time here Marjorie lived at ‘Chalke Cottage’ (although it is not clear which house that was), and produced at least two novels: Little Hearts and The Bridge, as well as some short stories, poetry influenced by the surrounding countryside, and a verse-drama: The Woodcarver’s Wife. She returned to Canada in 1920, to meet an untimely death, aged 38, from complications of surgery.

 

Here below is a telling extract from her biography, followed by some examples of her poetry. Readers must decide for themselves, whether they can cut through Pickthall’s sentimental artifice to access her genuine feeling for the natural world and her underlying obsession with mortality. Naturally, I’m interested in her poem on Kwannon, the transsexual East-Asian form of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. And Stars could very well be deployed in the campaign by Cranbourne Chase AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) to have this region designated under the Government’s ‘Dark Skies’ initiative.

 

She lived for only a short time, and dwelt all her days in the realm of the spirit. In such a world there was no frontier. Within the same poem one might expect to meet Armorel or Mary the Mother, Adonis or the Light of the World. Her poetry is saturated with religious sentiment and often reveals swift spiritual insights. Some have suggested that the apparent confusion of symbol and creed in her work anticipated the religious and intellectual fuzziness of our own time. Certainly she was not orthodox, either Protestant or Catholic, and her faith has no consistent theological or philosophical foundations. But it is also true that religion was the deepest thing in her experience, and she spoke about it as naturally as she did the weather. It was valid and real for her, and transcended the bewildering divisions of creeds in the only way she knew, that is, the way of the true artist, and as such provided a meeting ground for all.

 

Lorne Pierce, 1957, ‘Introduction’, Selected Poems of Marjorie Pickthall, (Toronto, McLelland).

 

 

The Coloured Hours

A cloud in the sky

And a star, bright and lonely,

To remember them by.

 

Gold hours have laughter,

Red hours have song

Drawn from lost fountains

Of beauty and wrong.

 

But the white hours, - O, tender

As rose-flakes they lie,

With youth’s fallen splendour

To remember them by.

 

The Woodcarver’s Wife, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart: 1922)

 

Stars

Now in the West the slender moon lies low,

And now Orion glimmers through the trees,

Clearing the earth with even pace and slow,

And now the stately-moving Pleiades,

In that soft infinite darkness overhead

Hang jewel-wise upon a silver thread.

And all the lonelier stars that have their place,

Calm lamps within the distant southern sky,

And planet-dust upon the edge of space,

Look down upon the fretful world, and I

Look up to outer vastness unafraid

And see the stars which sang when earth was made.

 

Little Songs: A Book of Poems (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1925)

 

Daisy Time

See, the grass is full of stars,

Fallen in their brightness;

Hearts they have of shining gold,

Rays of shining whiteness.

 

Buttercups have honeyed hearts,

Bees they love the clover,

But I love the daisies' dance

All the meadow over.

 

Blow, O blow, you happy winds,

Singing summer's praises,

Up the field and down the field

A-dancing with the daisies.

 

Little Songs: a Book of Poems (Toronto:McLelland and Stewart, 1925)

 

Thoughts

I gave my thoughts a golden peach,

A silver citron tree;

They clustered dumbly out of reach

And would not sing for me.

 

I built my thoughts a roof of rush,

A little byre beside;

They left my music to the thrush

And flew at eveningtide.

 

I went my way and would not care

If they should come and go;

A thousand birds seemed up in air,

My thoughts were singing so.

 

Little Songs: A Book of Poems (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1925)

 

Quiet

Come not the earliest petal here, but only

Wind, cloud, and star,

Lovely and far,

Make it less lonely

 

Few are the feet that seek her here, but sleeping

Thoughts sweet as flowers

Linger for hours,

Things winged, yet weeping.

 

Here in the immortal empire of the grasses,

Time, like one wrong

Note in a song,

With their bloom, passes.

 

The Woodcarver’s Wife, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart: 1922)

 

 

Kwannon

Kwannon, the Japanese goddess of mercy, is represented with many hands, typifying generosity and kindness. In one of those hands she is supposed to hold an axe, wherewith she severs the threads of human lives.

I am the ancient one, the many-handed,

The merciful am I.                                      

Here where the black pine bends above the sea

They bring their gifts to me –

Spoil of the foreshore where the corals lie,

Fishes of ivory, and amber stranded,

And carven beads

Green as the fretted fringes of the weeds.

 

Age after age, I watch the long sails pass.

Age after age, I see them come once more

Home, as the grey-winged pigeon to the grass,

The white crane to the shore.

Goddess am I of heaven and this small town

Above the beaches brown.

And here the children bring me cakes and flowers,

And all the strange sea-creatures they find,

For “She”, they say, “the Merciful, is ours,

And she”, they say, “is kind.”

 

Camphor and sandalwood for burning

They bring to me alone,

Shells that are veiled like irises, and those

Curved like the clear bright petals of a rose.

Wherefore an hundredfold again returning

I render them their own—

 

Full-freighted nets that flash among the foam,

Laughter and love, and gentle eyes at home,

Cool of the night, and the soft air that swells

My silver temple bells.

Winds of the spring, the little flowers that shine

Where the young barley slopes to meet the pine,

Gold of the charlock, guerdon of the rain,

I give to them again.

 

Yet though the fishing boats return full-laden

Out of the broad blue east,

Under the brown roofs pain is their handmaiden,

And mourning is their feast.

Yea, though my many hands are raised to bless,

I am not strong to give them happiness.

 

Sorrow comes swiftly as the swallow flying

O, little lives, that are so quickly done!

Peace is my raiment, mercy is my breath,

I am the gentle one.

When they are tired of sorrow and of sighing

I give them death.

 

The Lamp of Poor Souls and Other Poems (Toronto, S.B. Grundy).

 

 

Finis

Give me a few more hours to pass

With the mellow flower of the elm-bough falling,

And then no more than the lonely grass

And the birds calling.

 

Give me a few more days to keep

With a little love and a little sorrow,

And then the dawn in the skies of sleep

And a clear to-morrow.

 

Give me a few more years to fill

With a little work and a little lending,

And then the night on a starry hill

And the road's ending.

 

Little Songs: A Book of Poems (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1925)

 

                                                                                               

I am grateful to the following sources (accessed 29/3/17):

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marjorie_Pickthall

The Canadian Poetry Press http://www.canadianpoetry.ca/georgian_and_edwardian/Pickthall/Woodcarvers_Wife/index.htm

(General editor: D.M.R. Bentley, associate editor: R.J. Shroyer)

 

University of Toronto Libraries, Representative Poetry Online  https://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poems/ 

(RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire)

 

 

 

 

2/2/17

A timely warning

Not everyone’s cup of tea: the Radio 4 discussion programme, ‘In Our Time’, in which Melvyn Bragg goads a few academics into illuminating their choice subject for a lay audience. Some time ago, when Melvyn was full of cold and in a grumpy mood, the show made such a mess of explaining Zen Buddhism that they really ought to try again.

But today (9.00-9.30am, 2/2/17) Melvin and the invited academics (Lyndsey Stonebridge, Frisbee Sheffield and Robert Eaglestone) were on good form. I thoroughly recommend downloading the podcast from the BBC Radio 4 website. The programme excelled itself with a cogent antidote to these depressing times, overburdened as they are by the reactionary nationalism of Assad, Putin, Erdogan, Wilders, Le Pen, Farage, ‘Brexit’ and Trump. The topic was Hannah Arendt, the most useful of twentieth century philosophers. She not only bears witness to the calamitous events of her age, but more than anyone else she analyses and explains the rise of totalitarianism (Fascism), its evil consequences, why it can flourish, and how it might be prevented.

Reading Arendt on The Human Condition and On Thinking affected me greatly, but so far I’ve missed her more representative work on political ethics. Thanks to Melvyn’s programme, we all have a timely reminder that Arendt’s understanding of the past is a good guide to threats that might still overwhelm us in the future.

1/1/17

This entry is a continuation of the previous (25/7/16) post.

From theory to practice: applying the metaphor of the Middle Way (between Self and Other) to an ethical example: vegetarianism.[i]

Any sort of technical guidance, even the metaphorical guidance of the Middle Way, is only useful if it works in practice to help the resolution of particular cases. So let’s take the example of vegetarianism.

In order to live, it is necessary for human persons to eat, but not necessarily to eat the meat of other animals. On one hand, the majority of people would not be harmed, might even benefit, from the high fibre, low protein, low fat diet typical of vegetarianism. On the other hand, meat eating is harmful to animals whenever their natural behaviours and natural lifespan are artificially truncated in order to provide food for human consumption, and whenever suffering arises because of poor standards of animal husbandry or inhumane slaughterhouse practice. On either side of the equation, it seems that the interests of both the (human-animal) ‘Self’ and the (wholly-animal) ‘Other’ are best served by vegetarianism: an attitude towards eating that benefits both sides. It seems, then, that a simple application of the Middle Way works well: the metaphor helps to recast the ethical issue of meat-eating versus vegetarianism as an avoidance of harm and a maximisation of benefit on either side.

Yet, the very simplicity of this application of the Middle Way metaphor suggests that it is incomplete. After all, this is an ex-plan-ation: a laying-out of the topic of vegetarianism within metaphorical space, allowing all relevant issues to be identified separately, yet judged in relation to each other. If the main ethical issue seems clear, this is because of the absence of subsidiary factors that obscure the issue. That is unfortunate, for it is impractical to restrict ethical discussion to moral responsibility in a social vacuum, without paying attention to the particulars of any given situation.[ii] Beforehand, there are a variety of conditioning or causal influences in play; afterwards, a variety of intended and unintended consequences must also be taken into account. The key question, for the Middle Way ex-plan-ation, is whether those influences and consequences arise from the side of the self, or from the otherness of the world.

Over long evolution, humans have been omnivorous. That behaviour is embedded in most societies, because it maximises the chance of survival for any particular group. So this is an influence from the ‘otherness’ of the world: past experience of food scarcity promotes the use of all available food resources. As societies seek to cope with present circumstances in the light of past experience, the choice and treatment of food becomes an ordinary yet significant feature of any stable culture. As Wittgenstein remarked in On Belief, the ordinary, reliable features of the everyday are the ‘hinge’ on which life turns: rather being treated as beliefs that are open to question, such features become certainties that are immune from doubt. Thus, meat-eating is resilient to change because it is a cultural ‘meme’: a significant contribution to social cohesion over time.

But there are pressing reasons for change. From side of the ‘self’, on the current medical evidence a low-meat or no-meat-diet is probably a healthier option.  From the side of the ‘other’, there is fairly incontrovertible evidence that vegetarianism is a more efficient way of using the earth’s resources. There is far less wasted nutrition when crops are used directly for human consumption, rather than used indirectly as feedstuff for domestic animals.

That is an internationalist perspective on the matter, informed by the projected growth in world population and by the ’green’ revolution in agricultural productivity. But the clarity of that argument becomes obscure when examined from a local perspective. Viewed locally, it is apparent that some areas of the planet are unsuitable for either intensive horticulture or arable farming. On steppes and steep hillsides, soil types and gradients tend to favour either livestock grazing alone, or integrated systems of arable tillage and grazing. Such small-scale farming helps to maintain soil fertility by manuring and by crop rotation, producing sufficient food to satisfy local demand: the co-efficient production of meat and vegetables is mutually supportive process, ideally suited to marginal land. But in practice, in a world of globalised international commodity markets, small-scale farming struggles economically, unable to resist expensive technology and the use of agrichemicals, increasingly indebted, or dependent on state subsidy. It is difficult to imagine how to change from the current system of agriculture to one that supports vegetarianism without wasting the under-productivity of marginal land.

The population statistics for vegetarianism are unreliable, from a high of 28% in India, down to about 1% - 3% in most developed nations. But there are higher estimates for many places, up to 4% in Russia 5% in France, 6% in the U.S., 8% in Germany, 11% in the UK and Australia. These figures (from a disputed article in Wikipedia[iii]) are unlikely to be accurate, but they do point to an upward trend in the West, which may not be mirrored as affluence spreads East (Buddhist Taiwan is an outlier at 13%, but Japan and China remain low as 4-5%). Although many meat-avoiders and meat-reducers may go unrecorded, it is clear that a large majority of the earth’s human population remain stubbornly omnivorous.

Buddhism began with the invention of city-states. Both were by-products of iron-age technology, settled agriculture, and the development of long-distance trade on and around the Indian Gangetic plain. With the dawn of Mahayana Buddhism at the beginning of the Common Era (BC to AD) there arose the ideal of a ‘Pure Land’ where life could be relatively free from suffering: a warm land, flat rather than mountainous, with jewels growing on trees. Such a stress-free environment was seen as conducive to progress towards enlightenment.

For the affluent, cities superficially resemble Pure Lands. They are air-conditioned, transporting, micro-worlds where, without physical effort, wealth metaphorically grows on trees of commerce, affording unfettered access to pre-packaged foodstuff that bears no relation to its means of production.  As a paradoxical result, the decline of ruralism and the rise of modern city-dwelling are affecting both the increase in vegetarianism and the resilience of meat-eating. Cities attract the rural poor with dreams of affluence that, once satisfied, increases consumer demand for a high-protein, high-status meat-based diet. But cities also divorce the production from the consumption of food, diminishing personal emotional investment in the agricultural process. In this urban social setting, vegetarianism by choice rather than by necessity becomes a viable ethical option, floating free from rural agricultural practices.

These days, there can be a more nuanced view of what might be entailed by the Pure Land ideal: a world in which animals also have rights, and the human species, as the intelligent top predator, values duty towards other species over benefit to be extracted from the world. Whether that ethical stance entails vegetarianism remains an individual decision. After all, there is a special autonomy about deciding what to put, or not to put, into one’s own mouth.

Maybe the Middle Way ex-plan-ation, laying out what issues spring from the self and what from the otherness of the world, can indeed help individuals decide whether to eat meat, avoid meat or eschew meat altogether. However, that decision requires more than just rational consideration of a spatial diagram. There has to be close attention to one’s own psychological motivations, especially those that tend to make one argument, or one ethical stance, intuitively more attractive than another.

 

The concept of the Middle Way offers a tool, rather than a solution; a way of navigating the complexity surrounding ethical choice. Of course, this tool is meant to be used beforehand, as an aid to decision-making, rather than afterwards, as a justification: there ought to be some careful consideration and discrimination between the relevant harms and benefits on either side. But, in the end, what one eats is such a personal matter that the decision is likely to be completed by means of intuition, irrespective of practical analysis using guiding metaphors. That’s the way the mind works: some of our most important decisions are taken below the level of consciousness.


[i] For a unique view of the concept of the Middle Way, see the work of Robert Ellis:

 https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Robert_Ellis13

http://www.middlewaysociety.org/

 

[ii] For a historical and situational view of Buddhist ethics in the case of vegetarianism, see: Batchelor, Stephen, 2015, After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age, (New Haven, Yale) pp. 222-224.

 

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetarianism_by_country

25/7/16

 Methods of ethical judgement in Buddhism

I have always struggled to understand how the keynote Buddhist concept of the ‘Middle Way’ can function as effective guidance in the making of ethical judgements. Here’s why:

1. The Middle Way concept is just a metaphor, comparing choice between actual paths in the landscape to choice between possible actions. As such, it is a rhetorical tool for the purpose of persuasion, and more needs to be said to make it effective as a guide. The quality carried across from the source of the metaphor (an appropriate choice of routes) to its target (an appropriate choice of behaviour) is that methodical avoidance of extremes is a useful way of choosing ethical over unethical behaviour. But the metaphor, in itself, contains no method for determining what’s ethically extreme on either side. Furthermore, the metaphor contains no method for ruling out the possibility that either extreme might be the most appropriate choice of action.

2. Buddhist tradition usually illustrates extremes on either side of the Middle Way in two ways: firstly, as the desire for eternity (to live forever) on one side and desire for annihilation (to cease to exist) on the other; and in the second way: hedonism on one side and asceticism on the other. Both these descriptions of extremes are limit cases in psychologically-motivated attitudes; in the first description emphasizing a psychological response towards the continuity of existence over time, and in the second description emphasizing a psychological response towards the quality of existence over time.

3. The Buddhist tradition tends to conflate these two descriptions, assuming, without much in the way of explanation, that desire for eternal life motivates hedonism, and desire for annihilation motivates asceticism. But these causal connections don’t necessarily follow, nor is either extreme necessarily unethical in all possible situations. For my own part: I do not desire immortality, am not particularly hedonistic, am not suicidal and I am not attracted to pain or deprivation.

It could reasonably be argued that the hedonist label is just the ascetic’s disapproval of the epicurean enjoyment of life, and the asceticist label is just the hedonist’s disapproval of self-restraint. It could reasonably be argued that there is no harm in indulgence when the living is easy and no shame in suicide when life becomes utterly unbearable, for example under extreme suffering inflicted externally by dictatorship or internally by serious illness. Either way, the Buddhist notion that all our intentions are motivated by graduations of desire for eternity or annihilation is a bit like Freud’s view of the central significance of unconscious sexual desire: interesting in theory but impossible to demonstrate in practice. The traditional limiting extremes in the Buddhist metaphor of the Middle Way leave a lot to be desired.

But all's not lost. The Middle Way metaphor could still provide guidance for judgement, with the adoption of extremes that are more relevant to ethical decision-making. Notice that, underlying both hedonism and asceticism, there is an obsessive concern for oneself: for personal individuality. Hedonism and asceticism seem to be different versions of a single motivation for unethical behaviour: that of self-obsession. Therefore, (self-) hedonism and (self-) asceticism ought to be located together on the same side of the Middle Way metaphor, making room on the other extreme for the opposite concept of otherness or the other.  Now the Middle Way can be seen as a balancing act between the needs of the individual and what is best for the rest of the world.

As an ethical vector, the distinction between self and other seems more western than eastern, having been highlighted so notably in the writings of Durkheim, Jaspers and Sartre; all three of whom considered human personality to be Janus-faced: both for oneself and for others. I am not sure if this distinction, and the ethical ideal of a ‘Middle Way’ between the requirements of either side, is ever clearly and explicitly stated in the Buddhist tradition. But it ought to be from here on.

/4/16

A Sŏn Buddhist Meditation Retreat, held at Gaia House on 9-16/4/16, led by Stephen and Martine Batchelor.

For seven days, fifty people meditated in the light of the condensed koan or hwadu ‘what is this?’ Such a fundamental question is designed to reveal ‘the point beyond which speech exhausts itself’. Therefore, the appropriate technique is to open up one’s mind (and body) to the experience indicated by the question, rather than seeking after an expressible answer.

I was eventually able to extinguish the search for an answer by the conscious mind, but couldn’t control the unconscious parts of my brain, which were prone to upload Haiku into consciousness at any time, day or night. These productions, it seems, were affected by the intensity of prolonged meditation on the perplexing question of what it is like to be here now. I can’t usually write Haiku, but that may change, if attention to the hwadu carries over into daily life. After a bit of polishing, here they are:

What is this?,

Holding onto time,

in the storm before the calm

life blows through.

 

What is this?

For better or worse,

in this indifferent world

who asks the question?

 

What is this?

Endless change of mind,

always never ready

for the next time.

 

What is this?

Body mind world

not three, not two, not one:

breaking, mending.

 

What is this?

Upstart helicopter,

who rules the sky?

Lazy Buzzard.

 

What is this?

Putting out fires,

fifty spines, unquiet minds

sit in silence.

What is this?

Tending autumn raspberries:

worst weeds tangled deep

down in old mind.

 

What is this?

Grumpy at first,

finally amused:

snoring from the next bed.

 

5/4/16

Bowerchalke and the Gaia Hypothesis

The Gaia Hypothesis is just a theory: a suggestion that the earth’s atmosphere has long been sustained in a self-rectifying state of balance (homeostasis), as a by-product of the evolution of all little and large life-forms (the ‘biosphere’). It is a distinct, although related, matter that pollution from the industrial revolution is destabilising that sensitive balance.

Far from being a work of the imagination, Lovelock’s theory is scientific, motivated by observation of the marked contrast between the Earth’s atmosphere and the depleted atmospheres of planets like Mars, and supported by a wealth of empirical measurements of atmospheric chemical concentrations.  Some the earliest of these measurements (of haze and CFC-11), were made by Lovelock in his garden at ‘Clovers’ in Bowerchalke. When combined with a worldwide accumulation of information, these measurements gave rise to a new, although contested, explanation of the way in which the reactive chemical constituents of the atmosphere have settled down, over long timescales, into a relatively steady state.

Scientific hypotheses are usually expressed in language that is too specialized and/or dull to ever catch the popular imagination and become part of the zeitgeist. Lovelock’s hypothesis is an exception, for three reasons. Firstly, there is something inherently attractive about the idea that life creates the conditions for its own flourishing. Secondly, the theory provided the background for early warnings of potentially-disastrous climate change. Thirdly, it has a memorable name. While James Lovelock and Lyn Margulis are responsible for the hypothesis, it was Lovelock’s walking and drinking companion, that other notable Bowerchalke resident, William Golding, who suggested that the theory be named after Gaia, the Greek goddess of the earth. Naming a scientific theory after a metaphysical personification may have been something of a mixed blessing, given the furore stirred up in the scientific community.

At Bowerchalke, Lovelock not only observed changes to atmospheric homeostasis, but changes to social homeostasis.  On first visiting in the 1930s, he identified an unspoilt, romantic, rural idyll, but by the 1960s, that sunny vision was eclipsed by a chemical haze blown across from industrial sites across the Channel. By the time he finally moved away in the 1980s, he felt that the industrialisation of agriculture, the gentrification of retirement, and the rise in rural/urban commuting had destroyed the harmonious balance of Wiltshire village life.

It was gorgeous country...on the edge of Cranborne Chase, which was rolling...unspoilt woodlands that went off in all directions... and the village itself was extremely pleasant... there were about four or five farms, not all that big, the largest would be about 600 acres, I reckon, that worked out of the village. And the people of the village were farm workers mainly, or farmers...there was a village shop (and) a post office. There was even a village dentist, retired, and in the next village down, Broadchalke, there was a ...GP...a garage...a butcher’s shop, and then there was a baker’s shop in Bowerchalke. So it was very much a country, old fashioned community...and it was a lovely life. All that lasted until about the...awful Sixties. And then it fell apart...The first thing that happened was agribusiness farming...you can see it all over Wiltshire. It suddenly changed, almost within a year, from gorgeous, beautiful countryside, to an awful lot of it becoming completely devastated.

It’s now an exurb of wealthy retired people, very gentrified...To be sure, I was living there, as an outsider, and so was Bill Golding, but we were different, in that, we sent our children to the village school. We were not...the typical middle-class outsiders that use the village as a place to commute to and from...we were very much part of it. I was, for example, on the parish council for a period... There was enormous concern about the destruction of the mining communities a generation, perhaps, later [but] no sympathy at all for the country folk who were driven into council houses in Salisbury and places around (Lovelock 2010: 122-168).

In sum, during his time at Bowerchalke, between the 1930s and the 1980s, Lovelock observed the twentieth century upheavals in rural life, which are so well documented in Akenfield and Return to Akenfield. However, and with respect, there is some contrast between the exemplary objectivity of Lovelock’s atmospheric measurements and the inevitable subjectivity of his social commentary. That is not so much a criticism as a reminder that all non-instrumental observation, memory and testimony, however accurate, remains inherently subjective, because affected by emotional responses to change.

Looking back in 2016, with a longer perspective, Bowerchalke presents a more complex picture. Justice no longer places heads on stakes, as it did in this valley in Saxon times. The inhabitants are no longer feudal serfs of the nunnery at Wilton, or tenants of the Earls of Pembroke. The drift from the land was under way well before the 1930’s, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, including the inventions of the threshing machine and steam traction power; as a result of the Great Depression of the 1880s, the arrival of public motor transport in 1911, upheavals created by the First World War, the sale of the Pembroke Estate in 1918, and of the repeal of the Corn Production Acts (Sawyer 2004: 147-152). Bowerchalke may have felt like a rural idyll in the 1930s, but that view of social homeostasis was an illusion on the face of pre-existing change, which had been accelerating ever since the beginnings of modernity, with the creation of the very ideas of science and engineering.

Lovelock can reasonably argue, with respect to agriculture and rural social life, that the consequences of change reached a peak in the 1970s, but there has been some respite since that time. There are indeed quite a few big fields, but existing hedges are being maintained and replanted rather than ripped out. Alongside arable farming, there has been diversification into beef, dairy and sheep, biomass cover for shooting, ‘set aside’ for wildlife conservation, the deciduous woodland is being well-maintained, and the unimproved grasslands on the steep faces of the downs are mostly open to public access, with some areas designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The upshot, to my amateur eye, is that wildlife diversity is holding its own, as indicated by healthy populations of top predators such as buzzard, kite, kestrel, fox and badger. Although nature around Bowerchalke these days is not as bountiful as in similar countryside around eighteenth-century Selborne (White 1962), there are reasons to be cheerful.

Alongside the reduced farming community, it is true that much of the population consists of retired incomers, like myself, and those who work in Salisbury or even London.  Because of the discrepancy on the cost of houses, the morning commute is two-way, as office workers leaving the valley overlap with tradespersons coming the other way. Village social life no longer unites around agriculture, but it continues. In the course of being born, raised, paired-off, growing old and passing away, people entertain and care for each other in diverse ways. Although there is no doctor, shop, pub, cafe or school, all of these things are accessible within three miles, at Broadchalke. There is a thriving cricket team, a strong church community, and the village hall is a hive of activity, with a Saturday market and cafe, a retired person’s day centre, an occasional pop-up pub, charity events, exercise classes and arts events. And, of course, a small Buddhist meditation group, which could hardly have been imagined in the 1930s.

Reflecting on Bowerchalke, the Gaia Hypothesis and the ideal of homeostasis, brings to mind Batchelor’s distinction between stable place and shifting ground (2015: 60-62). There are downsides to overconfidence in one’s own place in society and in the world, when constant change is the actual ground of one’s being: the natural world, geography, bodily-health, social and political relationships, and even the quality of the air one breathes, are all undergoing subtle variation over timescales from the inestimably slow to the alarmingly quick. But there is still good reason and sufficient time to value, care for, share and enjoy all these things.

Batchelor, S., 2015, After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age, (New Haven, Yale University Press).

Blythe, R., 2005 [1969], Akenfield, (London, Penguin).

Lovelock, J.E. and Margulis, L., 1974, ‘Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the Gaia hypothesis, Tellus, XXVI, 1-2.

Lovelock, J.E. and the British Library Board, 7/4/2010, ‘James Lovelock interviewed by Paul Merchant’, National Life Stories: an oral history of British science, (London, The British Library) C1379/15 Track 5.

Sawyer, R., 2004 [1989], Collett’s Farthing Newspaper: the Bowerchalke Village Newspaper 1878-1924, (Salisbury, Hobnob Press).

Taylor, C., 2003, Return to Akenfield, (London, Granta).

White, G, 1962 [1789], The Natural History of Selborne, (London, The Folio Society)

 

 

26/2/16

Liberal Buddhism and Politics

This blog has become infrequent over the last few months, as I have been struggling for something sensible to say, from a liberal Buddhist point of view, about the worst thing going on in the world these days: the international clash of civilizations that is focussed around internecine warfare in Syria and Iraq. I tried tracing the network of conditions that have contributed to that conflict, in the light of the most relevant Buddhist teachings: on compassion (karuna), on loving kindness (metta), on greed, hatred and delusion (Pali: lobha, dosa and moha) and on causation (idappaccayatā or patticca sammuppāda). But I failed.

It proved difficult, but not impossible, to tease out the religious, ideological and geopolitical secondary causes, over the last few hundred years, which have created the conditions for conflict in the broadly Islamic regions of the Near and Middle East. It was easier to identify primary responsibility for acts of violence that are patently unethical and illegal, because they fall outside the Geneva Conventions on warfare: force should be proportional, medical facilities should not be bombed, wounded combatants should be cared for, prisoners should not be mistreated, civilians should not be deliberately targeted or collaterally harmed, and property should not be destroyed without military necessity.

Laying out the network of secondary and primary causes, as a way of apportioning blame, only made manifest the general downfall of politics, diplomacy and humanity in and around Syria. With the exception of distant China, none of the great powers (United States, Russia, Britain, France and the U.N.), none of the regional powers (Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel) and none of the implicated ideologies (colonialism, globalised consumer capitalism, fundamentalist Sunni and Shia Islam, and Ba’ath socialism) are free from blame.

However, the uncomfortable task of identifying past and present responsibility for conflict doesn’t automatically produce a solution.  I’ve had to accept that raking through past causes is no substitute for sufficient knowledge, or sufficient wisdom, to generate a practical, workable solution to the Syrian (or any other) conflict. I failed (along with many commentators) to the bridge the great divide between principle and practice: the yawning chasm between ethical conventions and their practical application during warfare. There seems no way to rub noses in the psychological analysis of greed, hatred and delusion, and no purchase for pious exhortations to loving-kindness and compassion.  Almost by definition, there is no automatic hearing for these considerations within the hard pragmatism of international real politik.

Despite my regrettable failure, I do not accept the view that Buddhists ought to ignore politics in favour of meditative self-examination. There are enough hours in a day, and days in a life, to meditatively examine one’s conscience as a citizen of the beautiful blue planet, and to make up one’s own mind about the major political dilemmas of the time. That is what it means to be a liberal Buddhist, ascribing to both the western Enlightenment ideal of sisters and brothers living in peace, equality and freedom under the rule of law, and the Mahāyāna Buddhist ideal of life in a ‘Pure Land’ where the path towards personal perfection becomes possible for everyone. These are not separate ideals: as aspirations towards social harmony they are sufficiently similar to be the same in effect.

The only difference between traditional Buddhist, and western liberal, political ideals is the route to social harmony. Buddhism traditionally envisages that harmony will be inaugurated by the benevolent rule of a universal king (cakkavattin). Western liberalism is the outright rejection of any such autocracy, in favour of ‘the consent of the governed’. The cakkavattin model of autocracy was culturally specific, and is now out of date. The liberal ideal retains universal relevance, simply because it is grounded in common humanity. But beyond universal suffrage, I am not sure (as with other ethical conventions), if there are any systematic methods for the practical application of liberal values across all cultures. So it is not surprising that there is no practical liberal Buddhist solution to the conflict in the Islamic world. But there has to be some sort of liberal Islamic solution. It is for the people of that region to work their way towards that solution, without self-serving interference from the great powers, for there can be no lasting peace without ‘the consent of the governed’.

31/1/16

Winter Blues

Buddhism makes a radical assertion: that the truth will set you free. Not so much the truth of statements, as an intuitive understanding of ‘the way things really are’ (yathā-bhūtam) in your life. In the case of winter blues, that means noticing the feeling and accepting that this is what’s happening, thereby opening the possibility of changing that mood.

Unlike northern Britain, 20015/2016 has been a fairly mild winter in Wiltshire: overcast, dull and wet, with not many frosts. Beyond the range of city lights, this sort of winter seems interminable.  Day after day, no sun is seen, and damp cold seeps into old bones. It is easy to be defeated by such a season, declining into the ‘slough of despond’. Apart from a dose of sunshine, I can think of three ways of warding off the winter blues: keeping busy, partying on down, and practising meditation in daily life.

Most people wait for wealth, or retirement, before they have much choice between keeping busy and doing nothing. But being busy won’t cure the winter blues, if it’s just a way of getting through the day while ignoring underlying malaise. And partying, however enjoyable, is a special, hysterical way of keeping busy. The problem is that most forms of business involve cunning: there is purpose, strategic calculation and procedure according to plan. This way of keeping busy is about making the world fit with an imaginary scenario, rather than making the mind fit with the way things are in the world.

There are ways of being busy where cunning and purposive planning fades into the background: simple, repetitive, skill-based tasks in which the body knows what it’s doing without too much higher cognitive input: spinning, weaving, knitting, log-sawing, walking, running, playing a musical instrument. Different lists for different people, some indoor, some outdoor, but these are all bodily tasks, keeping the mind in touch with the world through continuous sensory feedback and motor control. Through this continuity with the way things are in the world, the mind is pacified.  

Simple bodily business is a form of meditation, so long as it is done with a fully attentive mind. A local fellow explained that he wouldn’t be coming to the meditation group, as he ‘gets his meditation by walking his dog on the downs’. I can’t argue with that. Formal sitting meditation may be so very far from some people’s cultural comfort-zone that meditation in daily life may be the only viable option, whether practised deliberately or happening all-unbeknownst. Just so long as it blows away those winter blues.

7/10/15

Commentaries on the handbook have been moved.

Most of the blogs so far have taken the form of commentaries on the Introduction to the Bowerchalke Meditation Handbook. They have now been combined into a single text and relocated to the ‘Meditation Handbook’ section of this website.

In the interest of illustrating the generalisations of Buddhist explanation with the particulars of experience, future blogs will cover a greater variety of topics, although the task, of expanding the handbook by means of commentary, will continue.

12.6.15

A Digression on Deer

All the creatures are blithe trespassers, oblivious of our pretensions to the ownership of land. Yet every human being goes about within a circle of isolation, shunned by most other species. For those of us who are herbivores, or constrained omnivores, or not actually intending to catch lunch, that’s regrettable.

Deer (Cervidae) are the largest wild animals in Britain; wonderful to behold, as numerous as cattle, yet so wary of people that outside deer parks, such as Richmond and Fountains Abbey, they usually sense our coming and slip away unseen.  Part of their charm, honed over centuries as quarry, lies in this swift, bounding elusiveness. By escaping, they symbolise the innocence that humankind lost by taking up the chase.

As an ancient teaching, Buddhism inevitably makes use of rural metaphors, and in the Suttas and the Jātaka Tales, deer symbolise harmony and compassion. Above Tibetan monasteries, deer appear as supporters on either side of the eight-spoke wheel (Skt: dharmacakra), as a reminder that the ‘first turning’ of the Buddha’s teaching (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) was heard in the deer park at Sarnath. That these were probably Chitral (Axis axis) rather than Red, Roe or Fallow is beside the point: that in the East as in the West, deer evoke affection and respect.

Bowerchalke lies within Cranborne Chase, the former hunting ground of kings. They’ve long gone, allowing Fallow and Roe deer to roam freely throughout the remaining tracts of woodland. Apart from some relatively humane culling in the interest of forestry regeneration, this would be a golden age for deer, were it not for the invention of the motor vehicle. Lacking any inkling of the Highway Code, they tend to bolt the wrong way at the wrong time.

Having avoided kamikaze pigeons, pheasants, partridges, owls, rabbits, etc., I blamed ‘roadkill’ on others until the day I ran into a (Roe?) deer down the road into Wilton. No warning, a big bang, a streak of ginger fur, and then it was gone. Perhaps it survived, but it surely suffered, and I share responsibility for that, having driven incautiously down a wooded road. This was one of those cause-and-effect moments that cannot be wished away, leaving a sense of before-and-after, a dented bonnet and a dented conscience.

Uccello, P, c.1470, The Hunt in the Forest (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Chalmers, R, (trans), 1895, The Jātaka, Vol. 1, no. 12.

Rouse, W.H.D., 1901, (trans.), The Jātaka, Vol. 4, no. 482 & 483.

Prior, R, 1993, Deer Watch, (Swan Hill Press).

1st May

What’s the point?

 

Within a few constraints, the writing to be found here will spring from the contents of the meditation handbook. The first constraint is a need to make common sense, in the face of the reasonable argument that there is not much point in any inherently-public explanation of what must always remain private: the inherently-introspective experience of meditation. The second constraint is the need to be critical. There is no point in recycling traditional or contemporary Buddhist ideas without some critical assessment of their truth-value. The third constraint is the need to make space for other voices. Since there is not much point in only one perspective, anyone who meditates at Bowerchalke, regularly or occasionally, is welcome to post onto this occasional blog.

 

These constraints are not all that onerous. Experience comes before explanation, or there would be nothing at all to discuss. Some experiences are indeed beyond words, but most experiences are amenable to explanation, and the others can at least be described metaphorically. Talking is only problematic when it gets in the way of doing.

 

There has been a tendency to avoid critical thinking in Buddhism, as if were disrespectful of past masters or of the apophatic negations found in the Prajñā-Parāmitā texts. But Buddhism does not wholly reject reasoning, and without some critique Buddhism cannot be reinterpreted to make sense in changing times. Two Japanese Sōtō Zen monks, Matsumoto Shirō and Hakamaya Noriaki, have shown the way to critical thinking in Buddhist discourse.

 

The point is that explanation, critical thinking and dialogue about meditation ought to be an encouragement, rather than an obstacle, to practice ‘on the cushion’ and in everyday life.