Saturday, 13 June 2015

The Contribution of the Eastern Religions

This posting is by way of a footnote within a series of philosophical notes (covering spirituality, issues of personal identity, ontology and free will). The question has been raised in discussion elsewhere whether the influence of the Eastern religions, central to the creation or elucidation of the 'existentialist cast of mind', was any better than those religions that personalised God in promoting the ‘death instinct’ (the abnegation of our own matter-consciousness) at the expense of the affirmation of life.

My interest here is only in the Vedantic-Buddhist tradition. Nothing that is said is intended to detract from the pragmatic use-value of the tradition for persons and societies now or in the past or to make claims about its (or indeed Judaeo-Christian or Islamic) ‘truth-value’. The issue of the ‘truth’ of a religion has already been covered and is considered by us to be meaningless but often useful. For something to be useful to us does not require it to be true in any absolute sense.

Too much can be made of the East/West dichotomy. After all, in the Indian tradition, there is a Supreme God in Brahma. Some traditions within South Asian culture make this Godhead personal even if the Buddhist strain then spins off into another dimension altogether. The point is that, in the continuum from the Jewish God through Brahma to Nirvana, despite the differences that made Pope John Paul II write so negatively of the influence of Buddhist thinking on the West, all have in common the submission of ourselves to a construction of meaning out of Raw Existence that represents a cast of mind which, whether filled with Christian hope or Buddhist withdrawal, places responsibility for being what one is firmly within a shared vision of Existence that is ultimately social and not truly individual.

I appreciate that this is not what appears to be the case in Buddhism but Buddhist abnegation is embedded in tradition and tradition is, by definition, social and not individual. In this posting, I want to pinpoint two things that we must avoid in dealing with the influence of the East (in this greater context) and explore what we can learn more positively from that influence.

The first thing to avoid is the narrative of decline. In this narrative, once a commonplace in the West but superseded by an equally naive belief in progress, we have lived through successive ages in a cycle of existence that represents decline from a Golden Age. We are now, it would seem, in the Kali Yuga or final Iron Age and can merely await the final cataclysm after which, we are told to hope, humanity will return to a Golden Age (which, of course, is actually perfectly meaningless to you and me because we certainly will not live to see it unless we believe in reincarnation). The literature on apocalypse and hope is wide and includes the radical Christian apocalyptic strain that would see not merely the fall from the Garden of Eden as one book end to the narrative but the end to the age of sinfulness in an apocalypse as the other. To some radical American evangelical groups, the ‘saved’ would be translated directly to Heaven and the rest would wallow in death, pain and suffering.

Although Nietzsche adopted the myth of the eternal return for metaphysical purposes, we have suggested elsewhere that the only metaphor that captures the most credible idea of a really existing God in the creation of our world (as opposed to all other possible worlds in space-time) is that of Its ‘deliberate’ suicide (the nearest we get to a Fall) into undifferentiated matter and ‘potential-for-consciousness’ from which small sparks of matter-consciousness (ourselves) emerge after billions of years of things and processes bumping and grinding into each other in a rather wasteful but nevertheless counter-entropic way until we (and probably other intelligences) come into existence.  This is not to say that there was a conscious intelligence that kick-started the chaos from which order arises or that such an alleged intelligence has any meaning for us but only that, whatever metaphor we use, the conclusion is not one of decline and entropy alone but of increasing complexity causing intelligence and consciousness, albeit in a wasteful way with many dead-ends, and emerging in counterpoint to material entropy.

Whatever narrative might emerge to feed the social order and to allay the despair of societies with limited resources, relying on false hope to get us through the day or to sustain the power of some over others, the best narrative that fits the facts of the matter is a progressive one. This is one of the very slowly increasing intelligence and awareness of individuals (not excluding aliens on faraway planets). The conditions of the best today are significant improvements in terms of the sophistication of matter-consciousness, compared with the state of matter-consciousness (our humanity) in the past. Getting depressed about our cruelty and stupidity as Ardrey's 'risen apes' misses the point that, apes though we may be, we have actually risen considerably in the last 10,000 years or so.

This 'rising' is not the same as increasing ‘happiness’. Happiness can exist just in not being aware of not being happy - much as a well-fed animal might live in the present. The Buddhist might reinterpret this as that tranquillity that removes all the future causes of unhappiness, including those transient states of pleasure that consciousness will remember with regret or become anxious about in expectation or desire. The alleged happiness of the animal (unconscious of threat until it is eaten or dies alone shivering of fever or old age in a pile of leaves) is what underlies the myth of the Garden of Eden and the Golden Age. It is both false (insofar as animals shift themselves under the influence of primal drives from contentment to hunger and fear of depredation much as we do) and the core of that cast of mind that turns away from life – abnegation again.

The determination not to face the pain of existence and the emotions that accompany existence is what underpins faith and its constructions, a way of thought that also has as its purpose, the building up of a workable society in which pain is a given and emotions must be mastered.  There is nothing wrong with this as ‘magic’ in the sense of spells designed to hold oneself and society together but its later sophistication at the hands of philosophers and intellectuals should not be exaggerated. Religion is always built on the sand of fear and anxiety (with a leavening dash of mystic ekstasis for some).

This leads us to consider the second ‘insight’ of the East that the Golden Age is an age of ‘piety’ and of adherence to standards of law, duty and truth (the concept of ‘dharma’). The religious cultures of the West have a similar belief in divinely sanctioned right order and for similar reasons. At this point, we must not be deflected into Marxist or similar radical critiques of religion as a tool that is being used to maintain the social power of the few over the many. Such critics seem to imply that the process of submission is deliberate but the revolutionaries, from Robespierre to the personality cults of the heirs of Stalin, inevitably find that they need some religion-substitute to maintain themselves in power. The response is instinctive.

The habit of submission is intrinsic to humanity. It has been so for most people for most of human history and the obligation has probably been worn lightly and often cynically – true believers in ideas are generally a minority of humanity under normal conditions. As we see in a modern free culture, left to ourselves we tend to believe collectively in many impossible things at the same time and as individuals some of us are quite capable of shifting belief with our conditions of life. Belief is a social phenomenon and is not often a gnosis from contemplation – even if it is the latter, the result can only be communicated within given cultural language so that mystics with similar experiences can develop Judaeo-Christian or Islamic or Buddhist or Shamanistic narratives in communicating what is essentially the same human phenomenon. Such diversity argues against truth.

The religious impulse is thus towards a conservative assessment of progress (that we are in decline) and to the solidification and elaboration of tradition is part of the fear of life that we have noted elsewhere. It is not bad intrinsically but it is not ‘true’ even if these sclerotic systems are best not over-turned (as the Communists demonstrated) lightly. If the idea of the ‘kali yuga’ is best left to natural miserabilists (of which there are many) and the idea of ‘dharma’ (and their Western cognates) is best left to fearful conservatives, then what (other than the proven psychotherapeutic effects of belief) can we best learn from the East if we want to abandon the negative attitude to life.

How can we experience, without illusion, our natural will as a process constantly moving forward socially and individually until brain decay sets in or until material resources run out? How can we negotiate claims that, without narcissism, are greater than those of the society in which an individual is embedded? The existentialist cast of mind is not anti-social or optimistic (since the first is asking to be crushed and the second to have no basis in the facts of existence) but it is still individualist, radical, liberal and an affirmation of life and will against pessimism. Its social conservatism is more apparent than real – a scepticism of new forms of belief that may move us along a notch as social consciousness but which will contain all the hallmarks of traditional systems in another form. No better examples could be chosen than Marxism-Leninism in all its variants or the localised tribal religions of radical nationalism.

What religions of the East in particular can teach us is refinement of psychological method. If we strip away the dead languages and forms of religions that should have no meaning unless lived ‘in situ’, the religions of the East have not been turned to stone by the institutionalisation and excessive systematisation of belief systems under an imposed authority (Christianity) or a social model that is defensive (Judaism) or offensive (Islam) enough to suppress the possibility of an Eastern-style psychology of mind management in the face of Existence.

Although there are techniques within the West that mimic Eastern traditions, it is the East, precisely because faith has been detached from power in terms of dogma (as opposed to ritual), that has preserved either the spark of life affirmation (Tantra) or the skills required to master mind (Tantric/Shamanistic Buddhism). Understanding Eastern ideology is a guide to the underlying principles in an Eastern thinking that is not existentialist by any means (it is always wrong, almost certainly imperialist, to ‘read back’ our concerns into traditionalist cultures).

The Tantric tradition in its relationship to Shiva (the destroyer) rather than Brahma (the creator) perhaps represents a recognition of what transpired after the ‘suicide of God’ to create creative chaos, in a way that makes creative transgression the formation of consciousness, just as survival within evolution requires innovation that might be as likely to be more brutal in predation as it is faster in evading predation. Brahma is not worshipped in general in India because, once creation was created, His work was done. This might be read as a dualistic acceptance of matter in decline (the pessimistic approach referred to above) or as a monistic ‘suicide’ or withdrawal as I have postulated.

Shiva represents the meeting of opposites. He contains within himself that very attribute of beyond good and evil that is central to existential ethics and to Tantra alike. Without destruction there can be no creation. The psychological truth behind this is that, in an impermanent and confusing world where we certainly do not have access to full information (more so today than in a relatively stable traditionalist society), our adaptation to existence on our terms requires the constant recalibrating of ourselves against not only other people and society but our own inherited habits and values. For example, I might be born and live a Calvinist but what happens when my conditions of existence are completely at odds with that faith? I can only go deeper into mal-adaptation and adopt a strategy of trying to bend the world to my inner need for fixity and certainty.

This, in turn, forces me to go outwards and oppress others into conformity or develop a stance of withdrawal from the world – both norms of Western and Eastern responses to change respectively. Or I can adapt my Calvinism to reality (reform) or, alternatively, ‘transgress’, even ‘break down’, in order to find new values that accord better with my nature, an admittedly painful process that might shatter other relationships because, instead of oppressing them into my world view, I am demanding that they do not oppress me into theirs.

Equally to the point, Shiva is Lord of the Dance. Dance is a process and not a thing. You cannot pick up a dance as a thing. You can only perform it or watch it. So it is with mental process. The mind is not a succession of things in the mind but a process of thought and feeling. Shiva is quintessentially the representation of the reality left behind after Brahma did his ‘thing’, his single act. Shiva is constant fluctuation and change. The Buddhist response to this fact of fluctuation and change is to try and find non-change in detachment. Most other religions try to deal with this crisis of change by fixing things in space and time through fixed rituals and dogma.

The Liberal Enlightenment is not much better in this respect – the American Constitution is a religious document, an attempt to fix political existence in political space-time. It is an argument against all written constitutions that they are essentially sclerotic in the very long run. They are religious acts. The association of Shiva with dance and fertility is also not accidental because the central source of discomfort to many people is the libido, not just sexual energy but the life force that underpins the creative and disturbing use of emotion as a tool of self development alongside or even in preference to calculation and reason.

Nor is it just a matter of procreation, the conditions of which institutionalised religions have always sought to control in some way. The sheer energetic pleasure of sexuality has been automatically relegated to the category of transgression because its libidinous energy is, alongside outbursts of violence, regarded as most dangerous to Dharma in East and West. Sexuality thus becomes repressed or ritualised. Even the modern Western penchant for neo-Tantra and fetish is no more than a liberation that is being fought on the enemy’s terms by which transgression becomes ritualised in homage to religion.

Far from being true liberation, the ‘namaste brigade’, expressing sexuality in ill-understood Sanskrit and out of traditional context, and the far more earthy and authentic native fetishists are engaged in a simulacrum of liberation designed to ghetto their desires so that the outside world will not feel threatened. They are still products of fear for all their ‘liberation’. Almost any Eastern concept of value, such as the metaphor of Shiva, needs to be re-translated into the real and actual culture of the West. The dance of more value than the temple dance to most Westerners might, in fact, by the tango – which, in its matching of erotic movement with a high discipline that is without direct sexual intent, is almost the perfect metaphor for the tamed libido. It is not, despite its origins, however, transgressive.

Alongside Shiva, we have the concept of the Great Goddess (Mahadevi) who is the feminine principle writ large. One fine principle of the East from which we could learn is the reaffirmation that men and women are, well, different because the matter part of the matter-consciousness is different regardless of social forms and conditions. Radical feminism in the West often misses the point because in its correct demand for social, economic and political equality, it attempts to turn both men and women into what they cannot be – types of consciousnesses detached from their material base. The Shiva-Mahadevi relationship expresses an erotic truth about the male-female relationship that need have no connection with the proces of dealing with the social, political and economic inequalities in the world of Dharma.

The specific energy of women (shakti) is for women to write about and define and not me but the association of Mahadevi with fertility is not some simplistic association with motherhood but a more complex sharing of feminine mastery of process (as opposed to the rationalism of things). Mahadevi is consort of Shiva, both equal principles expressed, in Tantric thought, by the power of the sexual act between them. In a later age, this can be translated to relations between any two people so that homosexuality and then more than two people as in the dance of polyamory are included but the essence of the dynamic is not procreation but creation – and not of things (necessarily a child, as Catholic intellectuals might prefer) but of processes that transform. This is not just bonking but being. The point is that Shiva is powerless without shakti – the thing is meaningless unless turned into process by a process (consciousness) working on thing-ness(matter).

We are this interrelationship of process and thing. There is perhaps no greater individual working of this than the sexual act where matter merges into pure mental process that, under the right conditions, without any concern for Dharma or what is proscribed by others, can transform the structures of the mind into new ways of thinking.  Such thinking is transgressive only to the degree that Dharma makes such acts transgressive but the art in this is to know that social definitions of transgression are of no consequence if the transgression is responsibly conducted in terms of equality of effects (between persons) and with a true, not feared understanding of consequences.

If the East gives us the creative mentality of Tantra (albeit that this needs to be removed from the Sanskrit and brought into English and de-fetishized), it also brings us ‘technique’. Thoughtful sexual congress is, of course, a technique but the merging of shamanistic and tantric elements into Tibetan Buddhism offer a range of explorations that do not depend on the visions of reality or the belief in reincarnation (Bardo) of Tibetan theocrats. Nor are we wholly dependent on Tibet for their further development – shamanistic techniques are part of the human armoury from Finland to the Amazon and from the back areas of Australasia to the reservations of the crushed American Indians.

If formal religion and the demands of Dharma have a victim, that victim is the a-moral mysticisms of the shaman even if shamans turn up in many guises hidden away in the interstices of all but the most oppressed and totalitarian of societies.  In our free liberal society, shamanic thinking is re-emerging amongst academics, urban rebels and the troubled middle classes even if neo-shamanism with its eco-political dimensions is liable to go the way of neo-Tantra and become a pale pink, tamed and convenient shadow of its real, earthy and often very dark original.

The merging of Tantric Buddhism and shamanism (almost certainly as a political compromise in the highlands of Tibet) has created a certain blind romantic regard in the fluffy liberal West for what was, essentially, an inefficient and oppressive theocracy not much better than late medieval Catholicism. Similarly, whether Kashmiri Shaivism or Tibetan Buddhism, the whole master-pupil relationship is fraught with implicit traditionalist oppression in which a young mind is not taught to explore freely and even (initially) chaotically under guidance but has their brains bent into a traditionalist order that may have no connection to their true will or needs.

The very idea of a master granting ‘permission’ to do anything is absurd even if, like the placebo effect, in Western medicine, the command and control and secrecy aspects of the system may have a role in its success. These are not paths for the free-born Westerner for any length of time and merely dabbling in a tradition is probably next to useless. However, the application of effort, even for misguided reasons, under conditions where the peasants toiled to keep a lot of idle monks in rice who had little to do but think, has resulted in an experimental laboratory of enormous sophistication for technique. This provides an opportunity for study in what these techniques can do for Western man, stripped of the religious overlay and the implicit ‘death instinct’ of Buddhism.

The West has taken up meditation with considerable beneficial effects. There is more work to be done in understanding the relationship between sound and mental states (mantras) and visualisation and ritual as transformative for some personality types (including the use of mandalas). Body movements (such as mudras) and breath control add body to perception as tools in the armoury of changing mental states to order.  Whether we want to attain the control of our autonomic system of some adepts is another matter – the question ‘why?’ is the greatest contribution of Western culture to humanity – but investigation into what amounts to control of perception in order to change mind states strikes this writer as containing the seeds of change for our ability to take command of our lives in the context of a world where we are constructed by the perceptions of others.

The detachment of Tibetan Buddhism has been criticised as an abnegation of life by me here and elsewhere but detachment (perhaps better understood in a Japanese Zen context) is a tool to the same degree as Tantric sexual transgression. There is no reason in principle why the same mind cannot make use, as tools, of both possible states of being – shamanic ecstasy and detachment at separate times and even at the same time. The height of human attainment might be those rare states in which one observes one’s own ecstasy or can be ecstatic within one’s own detachment.

In this context, the visualisation techniques in relation to Bardo may be of immense importance since they are really a sophisticated version of the shamanic journey into the underworld. The adept (in a manner not to be undertaken by amateurs) goes through a form of ‘death in the mind’ and comes alive by working back through the levels of mind until full perception is re-attained. This is analogous to the more chaotic and often lengthy process by which the ‘triggered’ existentialist recreates themselves out of the shattered remnants of old values (a minor key ‘transvaluation of values’).

The existentialist might argue that the discipline and ordering system of the Buddhist might remove from the process the value of the pain, suffering and shock of the admittedly mentally risky existentialist path. The risk is the art. The association of a ‘teacher’ or ‘psychotherapist’ may get in the way of a final resolution even if it stops some vulnerable people from topping themselves or going clinically insane. What speaks most strongly for the Tibetan way of seeing is that it pre-supposes the value of every moment of existence. It shares with the existentialist model an acute awareness of death not as something to be feared but as something that defines life.

The existentialist mind, without solace of reincarnation, merely turns this back on itself to intensify the existence of life including its engagement with the social and with the acceptance and enjoyment of the transient pleasures of life - as part of that high valuation of each moment of existence. Both traditions also understand the importance of impermanence which brings us back to a mentality that sees the world in terms of processes rather than things.

If you see the world as a collection of ‘things’, you are soon aware of entropy whereas a Heraclitean world of processes means impermanence and instability but it also means an awareness of positive changeas possibility and as actuality, a form of progression (at least in mental terms) as each mind state is succeeded by another that exists only because of the previous mind state. The Buddhist, of course, is seeking to pacify these mind states in order to achieve the tranquillity and calm that will ensure safe passage through the key days of reincarnation (Bardo) but the existentialist will be seeking to excite these mind states in order to create himself or herself.  Assuming no senile brain decay, the last state before death is one of no regret - the final state of a work of art that either leaves some legacy in the minds of others (signs and symbols) or things in the world or is simply a private viewing of the greatest work of art we will ever see - our own self.