Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Editor: I am introducing another new contributor to Engage! Henry Blanke, a Soto Zen practitioner who takes a critical and radical view of Western Buddhism. His article effectively socializes many of the concepts and practices of Buddhism that are usually confined to the individual.
by Henry Blanke
Engage the Struggle Now!
The Struggle for Buddhists thinking critically in the United States now is to interrogate and re-appropriate the key Dharma concepts producing today’s passive, quietistic and non-judgemental sitters. My practice here is to tease out the radical and emancipatory potential of Buddhist thought and contemplation in the hope of roiling the tepid waters of non-thinking mindlessness meditation as employed by a certain segment of the spiritually inclined under late capitalism. My target is both those in the professional middle class who adopt Zen and such as an eccentric lifestyle choice and those who embrace a fantasy of black robed priestly ambition. Let’s proceed.
Suffering and Karma
It is a Buddhist truism that aging, disease and death are inevitable, universal and can be alleviated. But suffering due to these existential facts is not all the same. Social stratifications determine the conditions under which these things are experienced. Yet, American Buddhists do not engage the realities of social suffering as not inevitable, but subject to change via systemic transformation.
Why would anyone want to be a billionaire? Power, domination and control assuages the sense among the super rich that they do not exist. And I have read talks by Western Zen teachers who urge their students to empathize with corporations since those in charge are afflicted with a sense of personal hollowness. “Give them what you can, so that they don’t need to steal” by plundering the environment and exploiting workers (Susan Moon). In this way you are honoring the second precept.
But is it not incumbent on aspiring bodhisattvas in this country to fight against the widespread suffering caused by brutally unjust social relations and hold accountable the generals of industry and finance responsible? If we are to adhere to the idea of karma at all, it should be applied to those who exploit and oppress today’s equivalent to the outcasts and untouchables of Gautama’s time. Let us think about what retributive karma may mean and develop a view of karma not just as habitual and dysfunctional behavior patterns, but as a reality outside our own heads. The actions of those in position of State and economic power must have consequences.
The question is, can the samsaric chains of social death and rebirth into the social/symbolic life-world which reproduces the causes and conditions of suffering be broken. Can acting to change the attachments embedded in us by late capitalist ideology to oppressive social structures enable a better collective rebirth and less suffering?
We are damaged beings, warped and distorted by our attachments. People in this society are inculcated with the belief of themselves as atomized individuals and turned into things driven by naked self-interest and exchanged as commodities. Even our unconscious is infested with drives toward finding pleasure in fetishes molded by the ghostly flesh of market forces. The reality of these forces are masked by images of fulfillment through consumption, our real human needs for sociality twisted into the desire for the false gods of a neo-liberal Mammon.
But the individual does not exist except as a particular conditioned nexus in a particular constellation of social relations. In fact, nothing exists except in relation to other things. Buddhism says we misunderstand these truths about the natural world. Marxism says we misunderstand the realities of the social world. How can we sever our attachments to the hunger, the sacralized greed that cuts us off from our true nature, our longing for loving and creating in community. We need revolution. We need enlightenment.
There is Truth, but it can only appear in the form of a particular life-world. Everything is always dependent on a material/symbolic nexus and to change the “individual” requires social systemic change. All we need to do is change our consciousness? No. The mind dependently arises from the social structures in which it is embedded.
Just as we cannot be fully human in isolation, we cannot really meditate alone. Zazen is relational as the mind is a social relation. I see modern Buddhist sanghas having the potential of Deleuze and Guattari called plateaus not only of “continuous self-vibrating regions of intensity,” but of balance and synthesis. Non-dual negative droppings off of body/mind in the flow of joyous and functioning collective opposition.
“You breathe in, you breathe out, you breathe in, you breathe out, you breathe in, you breathe out and all around the room is filled with laughing, dancing.” Better Van Morrison than the earnest attempts of corporate cyborgs and masters to relieve the stress of cubicle and boardroom through Mindfulness workshops.
Deleuze and Guattari evoke Zen Masters urging us to “walk on your head, sing with your sinuses, see through your skin, breathe with your belly….Vision, Krishna, Yoga, Experimentation.” Mahamudra, Skikantaza are rhizomes, images and symbols of non-self and whole body/minds interdependent on others in an alternate system woven like Indra’s Net.
Meditation which seeks to stop all thought and strives for an experience of pure universal, transhistorical consciousness outside of language and symbols functions to make critical thinking impossible and shore up the ideology of timeless static Truths. “The mind is not contaminated by its contents” says radical Zen teacher Barry Magid.
Tantric Centering practice:
“When breath is all out (up) and stopped of itself or all in (down) and stopped–in such universal pause, the small self vanishes….” And the social self born?
“Closing the seven openings of your head with your hands, a space between your eyes becomes all inclusive….” Inclusive of those suffering from capitalist greed, hatred of the Other and ideological delusion.
“Bathe in the center of sound, as in the continuous sound of a waterfall. Or by putting fingers in your ears, hear the sound of sounds.” Guru, bathe not in the waters of you brain, but seek the center that is everywhere.
Shikantaza allows us room to breathe freely, perhaps free and off the grid of mass mediated images of happiness via consumption which have colonized our desires both conscious and un-. Zazen is not a goal oriented, means to an end practice and as such is useless to neo-liberal capitalism. No promises of full body orgasms or self-improvement, just facing ourselves in the mirror of the wall. Is it emptiness reflected in the eyes which stare back?
The ethic is that Buddhists must resonate to the suffering of others and of the planet and are compelled to respond. But it does not seem like anything so exalted as breathing with the world and it with us. Nor does it seem otherwise.
The emergence of social relational minds dedicated to forcing critical truths and committed to radical change via collective action. Let each breath, each moment burn for justice.