Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Today I am very glad to introduce Jim Hartz as a regular contributor to Engage! Jim is an author, teacher and lifelong student of Chögyam Trungpa. Jim teaches ‘Buddhism without Credentials’ classes around the US. He is also a very deep and critical thinker on the subjects of spirituality and materialism. We present his first piece for Engage!, “Some Notes on Buddhist & Marxist Dialectics.”
[Hartz’ essay originally appeared in Ink 6, Spring 1990, San Francisco State University, in an “Oppositional Aesthetics” Symposium, edited by Chris Hovey.]
“There is a tendency in Buddhism to stress “cutting through spiritual materialism,” but virtually no stress on “cutting through material materialism.” In fact, a contemporary Zen teacher in New York City, Glassman Sensei, recently proclaimed that “Right Livelihood” is “making a profit.” To alter, a bit, Marx’s wonderful sarcasm in Capital, we might respond to this fearless proclamation of “material materialism” by characterizing Mr. Sensei as a “free meditator vulgaris.” Unfortunately, it does seem that many Buddhists spend a lot of time cutting through “spiritual materialism” with one hand, and un-cutting through “material materialism” with the other. If we depict the psycho-social totality of ego—of privatization and profit motive—as a huge tree (samsara), it is like cutting the root of that tree with one hand, and watering the trunk and branches of that same tree with the other! How Biblical! One hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing! Well, of course, it does know, but it is ignoring that—methodically, systematically, intentionally. ”
“Some Notes On Buddhist & Marxist Dialectics”
What I am talking about is something absolutely dialectical in the sense of the self-identity of absolute contradiction. Even Hegel’s logic did not avoid the standpoint of objective logic. This is the reason why the left-wing Hegelians have understood his dialectic in pantheistic terms. On the contrary, it is precisely the philosophy of the Prajñaparamita Sutra which can be said to have truly taken absolute dialectic to its ultimate conclusion.
Within the context of the poetry community, we’re not likely to see Ron Silliman rushing out to find a copy of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika or Chögyam Trungpa’s Journey Without Goal. Likewise, we’re not likely to see Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg rushing out to find a copy of Georg Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, or see the developments in Eastern Europe as the political economic embodiment of Trungpa’s The Myth of Freedom—they wouldn’t want to offend their free marketeer friend, Andrei Codrescu! Not to mention a sizeable portion of the Vajradhatu Buddhist community.
Prajña completely cuts through any kind of awareness which has the slightest inclination toward separating that and this. That is the reason why the sword blade is two-edged. It doesn’t just cut this direction, but that one as well.
Connected to this, another question arises at this point: is consciousness an essence in the head, or a relational system latent in the head? For example, if we peel back the Marxian dogma that “social being determines consciousness,” peel it back into the “grey and nebulous distance” where the self-constituted and apparently autonomous entity (or ensemble of entities) “social being” is about to imprint itself on and determine the nature of the virtual tabula rasa we will later call “consciousness,” will that consciousness be an essence in the head, or a relational system latent in the head?
The problem, heretofore, of Marxism has been the dialectic—merely un-inverting Hegel’s dialectical idealism, flipping it from “on its head” to “on its feet,” thus constituting dialectical materialism. The problem, heretofore, with Buddhism has been not extending its logic into the political/economic realm, but holing up in “psychology” and “religion”—for the most part.
There is a tendency in Buddhism to stress “cutting through spiritual materialism,” but virtually no stress on “cutting through material materialism.” In fact, a contemporary Zen teacher in New York City, Glassman Sensei, recently proclaimed that “Right Livelihood” is “making a profit.” To alter, a bit, Marx’s wonderful sarcasm in Capital, we might respond to this fearless proclamation of “material materialism” by characterizing Mr. Sensei as a “free meditator vulgaris.” Unfortunately, it does seem that many Buddhists spend a lot of time cutting through “spiritual materialism” with one hand, and un-cutting through “material materialism” with the other. If we depict the psycho-social totality of ego—of privatization and profit motive—as a huge tree (samsara), it is like cutting the root of that tree with one hand, and watering the trunk and branches of that same tree with the other! How Biblical! One hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing! Well, of course, it does know, but it is ignoring that—methodically, systematically, intentionally.
Now, due to his conditioning by dialectical materialism, the orthodox Marxist would jump in at this point and proclaim: if you cut through “material materialism,” you wouldn’t need to cut through “spiritual materialism,” because “social being determines consciousness.” Simply root out privacy and profit motive in the social system, and the newly revamped social system will be productive of un-egoic, un-selfish human beings. All that business about “spiritual materialism” is a smoke screen—an ideological smoke screen. Simply cut through “material materialism,” and “spiritual materialism” will go sputtering off into the stratosphere like a balloon that the knot slipped, emitting a steady stream of poots—hot ideological air.
Unfortunately, what we are witnessing in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is the collapse of that dream, the collapse of that faith—naive faith, simplistic faith. Likewise, the Dalai Lama’s preaching “loving-kindness” at the Chinese—without an explicit translation of that into political/economic terms, structural changes—is equally naive and simplistic. Buddhism and Marxism need each other.
We need pray for no higher heaven than the pure senses can furnish, a purely sensuous life. Our present senses are but rudiments of what they are destined to become.
—Henry David Thoreau,
A Week On The Concord And Merrimack Rivers
The wisdom of dealing with situations as they are, and that is what wisdom is, contains tremendous precision that could not come from anywhere else but the physical situations of sight, smell, feeling, touchable objects and sounds. The earthy situation of actual things as they are is the source of wisdom. You can become completely one with smell, with sight, with sound, and your knowledge about them ceases to exist; your knowledge becomes wisdom. There is nothing to know about things as an external educational process. You become completely one with them; complete absorption takes place with sounds, smells, sights, and so on.
—Chögyam Trungpa, Glimpses of Abhidharma
The first demon is called “the Demon that Blocks the Senses.” When we think of a demon, we generally think of an external spirit which attacks us, but Machig realized that the true nature of demons is the internal functioning of the ego. This particular demon manifests when we see or experience something with the sense(s), and the senses get blocked and we get fixated on the object. For example, when we see a beautiful woman or man, as soon as we see this person the perception is blocked by the desire to possess that person. The process of perception stops, and we try to meet that person, and so on. So this is one process that must be overcome by meditation. If we are in a state of true meditation, perception occurs without this fixation or attachment to the objects perceived.
—Tsultrim Allione, Women Of Wisdom
Buddhism holds that the universe and all creatures in it are intrinsically in a state of complete wisdom, love and compassion; acting in natural response and mutual interdependence. The personal realization of this from-the-beginning state cannot be had for and by one-“self”—because it is not fully realized unless one has given the self up; and away.
In the Buddhist view, that which obstructs the effortless manifestation of this is ignorance, which projects into fear and needless craving. Historically, Buddhist philosophers have failed to analyze out the degree to which ignorance and suffering are caused or encouraged by social factors, considering fear-and-desire to be given facts of the human condition. Consequently the major concern of Buddhist philosophy is epistemology and “psychology” with no attention paid to historical or sociological problems. Although Mahayana Buddhism has a grand vision of universal salvation, the actual achievement of Buddhism has been the development of practical systems of meditation toward the end of liberating a few dedicated individuals from psychological hang-ups and cultural conditionings. Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or ignore the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under. This can be death to Buddhism, because it is death to any meaningful function of compassion. Wisdom without compassion feels no pain.
—Gary Snyder, Earth House Hold
Private property has made us so stupid and partial that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists for us as capital or when it is directly eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc., in short, utilized in some way…Thus all the physical and intellectual senses have been replaced by the simple alienation of all the senses; the sense of having. The human being had to be reduced to this absolute poverty in order to be able to give birth to all his inner wealth…The supersession of private property is, therefore, the complete emancipation of all the human qualities and senses.
—Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism,”
1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts
For Levi-Strauss, the structure is not “the nucleus of the object” but “the relational system latent in the object.”
—Roger Garaudy, Marxism In the Twentieth Century
Thus, when the universal sun
has set, does the moth seek the
lamplight of privacy.
—Karl Marx, Poem Fragment, 1839
The boundaries begin to dissolve.
It’s such an invasion of privacy.
That’s why it is called freedom.
—Chögyam Trungpa, Mandala Sourcebook
The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.
—Gary Snyder, Earth House Hold
(What follows is page 3 of a Quiz I gave my students in the Fall of 1976 at the end of a Study Group I led on Chogyam Trungpa’s “Buddhadharma Without Credentials” Seminar held in New York in 1973. The Study Group took place at Karma Dzong, the Tibetan Buddhist Study & Practice Center Trungpa Rinpoche founded in Boulder in 1970. Suffice it to say, the administration did not welcome the issues raised in my Quiz, and my “handlers” did not allow me to teach in the next round of classes. [Note especially Question #2.])
“Rather than blind faith, students need to develop an extraordinarily critical and cynical attitude to spirituality.” (Trungpa Rinpoche, First Talk, “Buddhadharma Without Credentials” Seminar, NYC, 1973.)
During the course of the Study Group, a cynical and critical attitude to credentials within the organization emerged, as well as feelings of being sheep-dogged into adopting middle class values, and so on. I think it is important to get these perceptions out of the closet, so to speak, as there may very well be a grain or even a boulder of intelligence in them, however exaggerated they may be, and I think the administration would welcome the feedback [emphasis added, 2010]. So, with that in mind, I’ve worked up a couple questions we might write a paper on based on criticism that arose during the course of the Study Group and in the context of the Seminar we just studied.
1) Based on your study and practice, the Seminar we just studied, your experience of the Karma Dzong community in general, Rinpoche, and the Vajradhatu administrators in particular, if this were 1776, do you feel the organization’s sympathies would be primarily on the side of the British or the revolutionaries? Why?
2) What is the difference between a profit-oriented approach to spirituality (“spiritual materialism”) and a profit-oriented approach to materiality (“material materialism”)? Do you think it is possible to apply one’s critical intelligence to one without applying it to the other? Using the traditional analogy of the hunter, musk deer and musk, do you see any connection between the pollution generated by the student “hunting the guru” (spiritual materialism) and the pollution generated by a large corporation “hunting the environment” (material materialism)?