Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
by Henry T. Blanke
May all humble people who live on this broad earth
Be delivered from the pit of merciless laws
And be able to indulge, with freedom,
In common enjoyments, so useful and right.
The structure of myth is a dialectical structure in which opposed logical positions are stated, the oppositions mediated by a restatement, which again, gives rise to another kind of opposition…. Mediation is always achieved by introducing a third category which is “abnormal” in terms of ordinary “rational” categories…. This middle ground is abnormal, non-natural, holy. Levi-Strauss
Social suffering exists in the world. Billions lack the necessities of life. The combined income of the countries they live in is less than the net worth of the 2,000 billionaires in the world. Why would anyone want to be a billionaire? Dominance and control. $800 billion in multi-national corporate profits and $100 trillion in global capital markets buys our political system. Corporate and financial capitalist power leads to suffering worldwide for those without food, shelter and health care. Is Western Buddhism at all relevant to this?
Gautama the Ghost promises enlightenment in seven days and says we can get this through “contemplating the mind internally [and] externally.” (Sattipathana Sutta). What can it mean to contemplate the mind externally? Perhaps, we should view the mind as a social relation. Not as solely a matter of individual psychology, but as the “ensemble of social relations.” (Marx).
The mind is continually, inextricably and interdependently forming and formed by history, culture, socio-economic relations and particular racial, gender and class positionings. Mind (not brain) is a situated, embodied node in a vast, mutually reflecting web of social causes and conditions (Nagarjuna’s pratitya samutpadda). As minds changes through space and time, so it changes the institutions, politics and economic constellation of the life-world in which it is embedded. And vice versa.
Again, why would anyone want to be a billionaire? In the West, our fundamental anxiety is existential, the feeling that we are not real, don’t exist. A few amass riches upon riches which gives them the power to oppress and control the world in an attempt to prove to themselves that they are real. Money is a neurotic symptom. No one suffers more from the experience of not existing than Black Americans. “How are you?” “Oh man, I’m nowhere.” Harlem is Nowhere (Ellison). Black people, in rejecting the status foisted upon them by a racist society, must continually ask themselves the questions: “Who, what, where am I? And why?” They must construct a negative theology of black holes, the void of oppression. Black sunyata. Sun Ra says, “I’m not real. I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society….If you did, you’d have some status in the nations of the world. So, we’re both myths.”
One choice is in forging an “oppositional consciousness” grounded in dissent from the white power structure. O?P? is non-essentialist, against positive identities which may find the Mahayana philosophical critique of essentialism useful. Race as anything but a social hierarchical category must be ruthlessly deconstructed. But black folk don’t go in much for Buddhism.
The religiously inclined have the church. That is their sangha, their relational community of interdependence and compassion. For blacks not in the church, what good is advice to be non-judgmental? They must laugh at injunctions to carefully sip tea and munch seitan when their lives are at stake. I say, judge, critique, oppose, militate against the brutality of our criminal justice system. To hell with the Zen proprieties of non-reactivity and complacent equanimity which limit talk of suffering to old age, sickness and death. Here’s to passionate condemnation and protest.
I am dreaming of a fierce Manjusri of color on the back of a lion and, with her sword of discriminatinginsight, cutting through the delusions of racial ignorance. In that vision lies true Buddhist wisdom and ethics. Bodhisattvas, Mahasattvas, melt your shackles and create the Other Shore. Svaha!
The human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality, it is the ensemble of social relations. Marx
Bromberg, Chodorow, Ghent, Stolorow and other newer shrinks are onto something by trying to expand our heads relationally. Magid is among them and he is a Zen teacher. But what is the cushion (not couch) praxis? Shikantaza? Zazen is useless insists Homeless Kodo. It does not make us smarter, healthier, more productive, happier or better in any way. Dogen’s “just sitting” is not a spiritual workout which makes the zendo into a mindfulness gym. Unlike almost everything we do in life, it is not an instrumental, means-to-an-end practice and it will not cure us of anxieties, insecurities and neurosis. Sitting upright, still and silent represents a kind of “authentic passivity” (Zizek) through which the separation from lived experience is erased as it separates us from ideologies which colonize our minds. Dissolve the glasses which distort and obfuscate the ruthless profiteering behind Bontrust-Finance’s Sexy Money Love (Grabarz & Partner).
Every Amazon click makes me hungry. Sometimes for books on Mindfulness or Neo-Tantra written by spiritual grifters promising a relief from the stress of getting, spending and getting ahead. You can cope better if you breathe deeply, pay attention to what you’re doing and have the occasional full-body orgasm. How do we handle the stress of being a miserable office slave constantly buffeted by technological change? It is all unsubstantial so: give up control, let go and stay sane while participating in rapacious capitalism. Let go of your critical faculties and just drift along unbothered by racism, poverty and ecological devastation. Enroll in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs, pay someone to fix you using Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and all shall be well. And while you’re at it, adorn yourself with dharma chotchkes. Hell, you can turn yourself into your own cute Buddha statue.
Shikantaza may allow a different critical relationship to our unconscious desire to be mini masters of our own wage slave selves and thoughts of twisted sex via consumption. An inocculation. But it must be coupled with critical reading, ethical judgement and the cultivation of an oppositional consciousness.
Sex and the Body
Neo-tantra promises kink wrapped in maroon robes. Forget that these robes signified a feudal system of servitude, exploitation and torture in support of the Shangri-la of cold, dank monasteries presided over by celibate old men. It was into such a creepy-wisdom dungeon that the four year old tulku Chogyam Trungpa was ripped from his mother’s arms and thrown. The lamas restricted his mother’s visits to a few times a year. No wonder he drank himself to death.
Tendzin Gyatso was born in Tibet, has studied a lot, and forged a strategic alliance with Science so gullible Western Buddhists recognize him as Shakyamuni on earth. How cute that he says that if he is succeeded by a woman, she had better be a hot blonde or “it won’t work.” How would all his infatuated followers react if another world leader, say the Pope or President of the United States had said that? And the Dalai Lama does not look kindly and gays either. On the other hand, he apparently thinks that Marxism is the most just economic system, so kudos for that at least DL.
In Nepal today (perhaps in Assam and Kerala also) ordinary householders practice full-on authentic tantrism up to and including ritual intercourse. But they are imbedded in a living, organic tradition of disciplined hedonism or eudaemonism which recognizes a hierarchy of pleasure. They see the erotic as having an ethical valence and strive for an aesthetic refinement of sex (quite different from Sting’s seven hour orgasms). And it is no coincidence that the matrifocal cultures of Nepal and Kerala have policies on women so progressive they have been the envy of Western feminists such as Robin Morgan. But here, we just want the orgy without the chef’s work.
Is there still hope for a tantric infused American counterculture which seeks to explode our profane world of greed and consumption into a united rainbow body politic “by way of reasoning that is not conditioned…by delusion [late capitalist ideology] and unarising” from the iron cages of neo-liberal orthodoxies? (Buddhaguya; Gendun Chopel). Or have such hopes been forever sunk long ago on the gin-soaked bogs of Trungpa’s monarchic fantasies?
Still, I dream of a revolutionary alternative culture oriented toward the human body/mind and the Real directly experienced. One which dissolves fabricated mass mediated images back into embodiments of the ecstatic human form free from cathexis to false images and gods. Not a cool instrumental rationality, but fleshy, tactile erotic one. We can create our world, one not merely interpreted but changed. Let us make good use of Tibetan color symbology: red=liberatory speech; white=liberated body; blue=liberated mind. We may be able to use Dzogchen meditation and the heights of Annutarayoga Tantra.
Nature and Sati
There is no name in traditional philosophy to designate “Wild Being” or the “Flesh of the World.” (Merleau Ponty). There is no psychoanalysis of nature. What would an experimental eco-phenomenology look like? Maybe start with the breathing body, the wise breath, the breathing biosphere. Zazen is breathing with the world. At the moment I breathe, every living thing on the planet breathes with me. Or so I imagine.
The Ghost twirls a flower. Kasyapa understands that the entire universe exists for that flower to bloom. And for all of use ghosts to appreciate it. Indra’s net is woven, not technocratically networked. Tantra is a weave.
“To enmesh yourself in what you are doing, what you experience, in such a way that the relation to your ego disappears, and…is expanded into the world,” says eco-philosopher Arne Naess. Zen practice can bake this bread.
But mindfulness of breathing is but a component of a full practice, not its entirety. Mindfulness is not a therapeutic technique of bare attention and present awareness. The correct view involves ethical discernment and the cultivation of morality. Important is the discrimination of the moral value of things. An awareness of things in relation to things (relative value) (Robert Sharf). Sati involves remembrance of ourselves in relation to others and nature, that any feeling, thought or action exists only in relation to the world of feelings, thoughts and actions of all sentient beings.
Robbers never plunder the homes of the poor;
Private wealth does not benefit the rest of the nation.
Calamity has its source in the accumulated riches of a few,
People who lose their souls for ten thousand coins.
One of the reasons Buddhism did not survive in India was because of its critical stance toward the Hindu caste system and view of karma which, up to the present day, has served to rationalize and justify social hierarchy in the form of the caste system. The early Buddhist sangha was countercultural in its rejection of this.
B.R. Ambedkar was an untouchable Dalit riding a lion. In 1956, he converted to Buddhism and this roar along with that of half a million of his untouchable followers made Ghandi and the Hindu establishment tremble. They were untouchable in their lion’s roar for justice.
In 1247, Dogen has a meeting with the powerful warlord Tokiyorin in which he explained to him that “those who do good rise while those who do evil fail.” It is a shame that Western Buddhists only have access to the first two versions the Shobogenzo. The third twelve fascicle version, written at the end of Dogen’s life, has never been translated into English. In it he applies the idea of karmic retribution to political and military power. His retributive karma implies an ethics and a focus on worldly matters.
American Zen people tend to interpret karma in a psychological sense as dysfunctional, habitual and conditioned patterns of behavior. But what does karma imply about the accountability of oligarchs in this country? Is it incumbent on Buddhists here to hold them responsible for their economic and political machinations? Accountable for a system which deprives so many of a living wage, adequate health care, affordable housing, quality education and other necessities. Will dharma brothers and sisters unite in the struggle to realize true participatory economic democracy? Or will we remain sidelined, mindfully munching our tofu?
I say, apply karmic retribution to our corporate, financial and military leaders. Among “engaged” Buddhist guru Thich Nhat Hann’s followers are Jim Yong Kim, former president of the World Bank and Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce.com. Can a hedge fund manager be a good Buddhist?
It is now clear what are the similarities and differences between the Buddha and Karl Marx. The differences are about the means. The end is common to both. B.R. Ambedkar
History may be a slow evolution punctuated by crises. The meditator sits for days, months, years as pressure builds around paradox and contradiction leading to crisis and breakthrough. Will the American Buddhist sangha have a crisis due to the secularization, instrumentalization and commodification of the traditions it draws on? Or will we just sink into the tepid bath of therapeutic self-help?
The Buddha sought the answer to sickness, old age and death. He wanted/desired/was motivated to find enlightenment. The paradox is that such striving conceals the truth.
Tendzin Gyatso says he is half Buddhist and half Marxist. Is this possible in a global hyper capitalist context which is structured on domination and violence? Violence often accompanies radical social upheaval. Can we accept revolutionary violence if it can bring about a Buddhist-Socialist world?
Buddhist enlightenment is a radical insight into nothingness (no inherent abiding core of self or things). Revolutionary Marxism struggles to bring about a future we cannot know.
I have enjoyed videos of Tibetan monks debating Madhyamaka dialectics. What passionate and rigorous argumentation with aggressive hand slapping and such! They don’t coddle their opponents, mildly trying to see where the other monk is coming from or seeking to find a wishy-washy middle ground. Nope. These Gelugpa cats are in it for blood. Until the incense wafts in and the yak butter salted tea is served. Madyamaka dialectics implies a kind of transcendent dialectical materialism since the phenomenal world is embraced and seen as inseparable from the Absolute.
Gendun Chopel was a monk who argued with his monastic superiors so strongly and well that it got him expelled from Drepung Monastery in Lahsa, the seat of Gelugpa orthodoxy. He then made his way to India and stayed for 12 years imbibing the Marxism of the Indian Communist Party. Central to this remarkable Tibetan modernist’s belief was that only by practicing under the aspect of “the inconceivable,” can our deep embeddedness in hegemonic ideological systems be transcended (Donald Lopez). Back in Tibet in 1946, Chopel’s association with Tibetan exiles seeking to overthrow the Llamaist government got him imprisoned and tortured for two years as a spy for China, then released, broken, alcoholic but still defiant.
What is Gendun Chopel’s “inconceivable?” I think it is implicated in the idea of revolution. The current Dalai Lama flinches, blinks and looks away, while his most radical monks in Tibet embrace the struggle. Chopel stared bravely into the void, the void of true revolutionary praxis. For him, the transgressions of Tibetan tantrism “are only for the purpose of turning upside down this present valid knowledge…for the smashing to dust of ordinary conceptions” and the distorting logic of ideology. Meditative practice directs us toward “the great unsurpassing joining of contradiction.”
Consciousness is empty. So is thinking. Thoughts, emotions, concepts, all empty of any stable universal reality. So we should freely play with them unrestricted by convention and dogma. Our realism should be imagining the impossible. I imagine a world where work is planning, constructing, crafting and engineering for the collective good. Where schools are palaces and caring for others the most noble calling. Our leisure should be filled with art, music, poetry, cooking and play. A world where we craft and build during the day, debate and criticize in the evening and spent our nights in erotic experimentation and delight.
But the future may bring another world, perhaps not one of private profit but of technocratic social administration, regulation, surveillance and control. An unholy monolithic union of State power and global Science and Technology. And I can imagine a myriad of heretofore unimaginable worlds. For we cannot know what may come after the revolution. But can it be worse than the current neo-liberal hegemony? One in which no alternative can even be dreamed of.
We must take the great leap and smash and transform all existing moribund social structures directed toward private profit and domination. Race and gender and class as presently construed must be deconstructed and reimagined. But you know all this. The Wild Body/Mind cannot be domesticated but can burst forth in a fiery thunderbolt of freedom, compassion and bliss. Annutara Samyak Sambodhi means force the gates of liberation open. Enter the void.