Sunday, 6 May 2012

Social Karma

My karma is my action or behaviour. How I tend to act, have acted and still act. Karma matters because actions have consequences. I realise that my actions have been unwise and uncompassionate and accept a responsibility to "cleanse my karma" by acting in accordance with meditative insights. However, not all karma is mine. Each of us survives early childhood only because of the actions of adults. We are fed, taught and socialised. I was also indoctrinated, pressured, bullied and intimidated. Many of my actions were reactions to theirs. Thus, I tended to be solitary and resented being condemned as unsociable.

I cannot cleanse the karma of others. Bodhisattvas act for the enlightenment of all living beings but most living beings will not noticeably approach the realisation of their enlightenment in our life times. Politics addresses action collectively, not individually. We struggle to build an association for the free development of each. Thus, each will be responsible for his own actions but will not be impeded, indoctrinated or intimidated by the actions of others. This is probably as much as we can do to address the fact that many of our problems are caused by the actions of others.  

Practice of Consciousness

Thesis: Organismic sensitivity is necessary for consciousness.
Antithesis: The organismic responses of self-preservation and the pursuit of pleasure hinder the further development of consciousness.
Synthesis: The practice of consciousness, meditation, addresses hindrances to the development of consciousness.

Starting to address hindrances is as far as some of us have got. Imagine an entire planet whose entire population comprises only individuals whose consciousness and understanding of their natural and social environments is no longer impeded by any attachments, favoured self-images, uncontrolled thought processes, exclusivist loyalties, desire for self-promotion or self-aggrandisement, indoctrination, prejudice, divisive dogmatism etc, a planet where everyone realises, "I am a transient psychophysical organism sharing this environment with every other organism. I no longer identify myself with a particular religious tradition or armed nation-state perceived as in conflict with others. I aim to learn, work, contribute and share in social wealth but not to promote my individual interests or prestige at the expense of anyone else."

I believe that this outcome is possible but not that it will be reached by persuading millions to meditate - unless, of course, every individual member of the economic ruling class were to realise that they should abdicate power and should work to replace competitive accumulation with cooperation for need. It is far more likely that the majority will have to dispossess them. 

Meditating Matter

There is no one else here. I am alone facing a wall. Does anyone watch while we meditate? Potential watchers:

named gods like Indra and Krishna are myths;
unknown gods are hypothetical and must be presumed non-existent until proved existent;
the historical Buddha was a man and died a long time ago (we know him through his teaching; he does not know us; according to the teaching, he has not been reborn);
the cosmic Buddha is a principle;
the Buddha within is a potential;
neither is a person or conscious subject;
Jesus was another man who died a long time ago;
omniscience is arguably impossible (see below).

Jesus' disciples believed that he had been resurrected but their proclamation is insufficient reason for us to believe this. Like Krishna, he is sometimes vividly imagined. Thus, he has passed not from death to immortality but from history to myth. Therefore, we are not watched by gods, Buddhas, Jesus or any omniscient deity. 

No one is omniscient. Self is known only by contrast with other. Other is recognised as such only when it has been perceived and re-perceived, then recognised as having continued to exist independently of self between perception and re-perception. The consequent distinction between present and remembered perceptions entails an unknown future. Subjects of consciousness necessarily perceive an objective realm which is mostly unknown. No omniscient deity watches us meditate. 

Did gods give humanity reason and morality? Mythically, yes. Biologically, both the ability to reason and concern for others were naturally selected. Reasoning about the environment has obvious survival value. Our earliest ancestors were social, therefore motivated by collective, not just individual, self-interest. Also, we help others either because they bear the same genes or because they might help us in return. Psychologically, we experience that motivation as moral obligation. 

Society imposes on individuals both acceptable behaviour and linguistic usage. Sexual taboos prevented in-breeding, then patriarchal monogamy preserved property. Individuals internalise shame as guilt and speech as thought. Thus, we are variously motivated by reason, collective and individual self-interest, social pressure, shame, guilt and moral obligation. Morality is conceptualised and even experienced as divine commands. However, biological motivation preceded religious imagination. Socialised language-users personified and addressed their environment. Because human beings become self-conscious persons only in interpersonal interactions, they projected personal relationships onto the heavens.
Socially, we are both subjects and objects of consciousness. Immature subjects are conscious of being objects. Immature behaviour is for an audience or a camera. Mature subjects are simply conscious. Meditation is pure subjectivity or spirituality, without shame or deliberate thought. We neither perform for an audience nor address a deity. Thus, we begin to observe self dispassionately. I am accountable for my actions but not to anyone watching me meditate. I must address my states of consciousness. Painful memories are consequences of past actions, karma. The consequences are present but the bad karma can remain past. There is guilt only as consciousness of consequences. The Western Paradise may be Earth seen differently. Samsara is Nirvana. To use theistic language metaphorically, the Kingdom is within. We are not going anywhere. We are here. 

In purely secular terms, we are not there yet but have a long way to go. However, the potential for socialised production and distribution of abundant wealth is present. Rosa Luxemburg wrote:

"Being human means throwing your whole life on the scales of destiny when need be, all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud."

Trotsky, contemplating green grass and blue sky, wrote:

"Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, violence and oppression and enjoy it to the full." 

The present is the now of individual awareness and the time for collective action, a cross-roads and meeting place between meditation and revolution. (The Christian cross symbolises an eternal-temporal intersection but also a barbaric blood sacrifice. We can incorporate some though not all aspects of Christian mythology into a coherent world view with more effective symbols: 

(the seated Buddha;
Thor's hammer;
the fish;
the clenched fist...)      


Saturday, 5 May 2012

"Great Wisdom From Birth"

All (or at least most) of us have to be:

attached before we can be non-attached;
un-empathetic before we can be compassionate;
naive before we can be wise;
immature before we can be mature;
superficial before we can be profound

We are not like the Isvara of the Yoga Sutras, a special kind of being, perennially liberated. Is it possible to have great wisdom from birth, as Dogen said the Buddha did? It is too late for us. We cannot change our pasts. Can we have great wisdom from birth in a future life? I do not believe that we will have future lives. The One is reborn in all beings but each being is a single organism, not a series of organisms.

Earlier and later subjects of consciousness have different bodies and memories. Conceivably the dispositions of an earlier organism are transmitted to a later organism through a psychic medium but where is the evidence that this occurs and would this alone suffice to constitute identity between earlier and later psyches? Instead, can we bring it about that future generations, whatever their initial dispositions, are helped to move towards wisdom as quickly as possible with a minimum of obstacles? Can we build the Western Paradise here? Yes, that is a realistic political goal. In fact, radical social transformation is urgently necessary in any case.

Inner and Outer

Two people converse. They see and hear each other. They also see their surroundings and hear other sounds. Thus, they share a publicly accessible, empirically discernible, objective, material realm. Each also accesses a private, inner, subjective, mental realm of memories, imaginings, thoughts, emotions, motives, apprehensions and anticipations. Thus, experience has two layers or levels which, however, are not ontologically equivalent.

Objects pre-existed subjects which generate their individual subjectivities. Despite its lack of objectivity, the inner realm is powerful, full of ideas, reasons and motives. We need to understand both realms, reducing neither to the other. We exist where they intersect. The entire content of the inner world is derived from natural and social environments. Language is social before it is internal. However, it is with the inner powers of intellect and imagination that we understand and set out to change the external world. Mind is creative, not passive; a god, not a mirror. It developed with manipulation, not as mere cognition.

The inner world includes dreams. Because, when dreaming, we seem to leave the body and to enter a realm where we can meet (dream about) the dead, it was thought that:

the inner world was inter-subjective or objective;
it touches the visible world;
we enter it temporarily in sleep and permanently at death;
it has other inhabitants. 

In fact, it is still inhabited by myths and fictions.

We understand the inner world through meditation, psychology and literature, the physical world through physics, chemistry and cosmology, the biological world through Darwinian analysis of natural selection underlying species diversity and the human world, I suggest, through Marxist analysis of economic realities underlying social appearances.    

Practice and Experience

When we meditate, we engage with the kind of practice and experience from which the rishis derived the "Atman is Brahman" teaching and the Buddha derived the "anatta" teaching, although the latter was backed up with philosophical analysis and argument. Thus:

practice and experience are more basic than teachings;
teachings are guides to meditative practice, as Marxist theory is a guide to political practice;
both experiences and teachings derived from them differ.

However, we can synthesise apparently contradictory teachings. "Atman is Brahman" means that each individual soul is identical with the transcendent whereas "anatta" means that there are no individual souls. However, the Upanishadic teaching can mean instead that each individual self is identical with the one universal self whereas the Buddhist teaching can mean that there are no separate selves. In that case, the teachings agree.

Buddhists do not refer to a universal self and rightly if this were taken to mean that the universe is a single person. However, it need only mean that the universe is conscious of itself through many individual selves and this formulation is consistent with materialism.  

Is Compassion the Nature of Reality?

Yes, according to a passage read to the Lancaster Serene Reflection Meditation Group. However, reality pre-existed consciousness whereas compassion requires it. I suggest that: 
someone who is one with reality is compassionate;
therefore, he simultaneously experiences both reality and compassion;
therefore, he tends to identify them, especially if he is influenced by idealist belief in the primacy of consciousness.

Meditation on reality shows us our karma (action and consequences) and how to cleanse it. Thus, reality resembles a compassionate teacher but is not a conscious teacher. Although most religions (responses to the highest transcendence) personify or idealise the transcendent, the most basic Buddhist concept is emptiness, not consciousness. "The nature of reality is emptiness" might be more appropriate. The realisation that every subject and object of consciousness is empty of permanent, independent substance may generate compassion for those whose suffering is caused by desire for permanence and fear of impermanence. However, mere emptiness, equally present both in conscious subjects and in unconscious objects, is not itself identical with compassion.

When a group of workers engages in conflict with an employer or manager, any of the workers who practises Buddhist meditation may also practise compassion towards the person with whom they are in conflict but should not let this obscure either the issues involved in the conflict or the need for solidarity with fellow workers whose attitudes may be far from compassionate. Compassion may be a kind of solidarity, with all conscious beings, but, if so, it must be differentiated from solidarity in a more specific sense. Compassion, "suffering with", motivated the Buddha to teach meditation to individuals of all castes whereas class solidarity is a common interest which, when fully realised, will put workers in control of production, thus ending the economic conflict of interest between buyers and sellers of labour power.
A Buddhist employer might:

accept pro-capitalist economics, therefore disagree with the political analysis presented here;
reason that the capitalist role, extracting surplus value from living labour, is essentially uncompassionate, therefore cease to be an employer;
reason that we must continue to act within the existing economic system until it is overthrown while avoiding both personal greed and an overtly oppressive or exploitative approach to employees.

Idealism is multifarious:

one conscious being pre-existed matter (theism);
many co-exist with it (Jainism);
the idea of goodness pre-existed instances of goodness (Platonism);
shared ideas, not economic relationships, determine social institutions (common sense);
greed, hate and delusion are beginningless whereas compassion is timeless (Buddhism).

Dialectical materialists, affirming that materially based consciousness generates psychological dispositions and that ideas reflect societies, not vice versa, can value consciousness and compassion without reifying them.
Although Buddhist teaching includes "no soul" and the transience of mental states, it also attributes a perennial robustness to basic motivations. The materialist view is that desire and fear begin anew in each conscious organism and end when the organism dies but that no empirically discernible medium transmits such motives from the last mental state of any dying organism to the first mental state of a particular later organism. The complex of attachments and aversions comprising a human psyche seems to end when the brain dies unless the individual realises enlightenment before death. Between realisation and death, there is consciousness without attachments and aversions. After death, I think, there is neither consciousness nor a potential psyche, unless Spiritualists can prove otherwise.

Barring an ecological catastrophe or thermonuclear war, many people will be born after I have died. Let us consider one of them. He will think of himself as "I", will not remember having been me and will not be regarded as identical with me but can be affected for good or ill by my present actions. These propositions seem to exhaust the entire karmic and moral point of the rebirth teaching. Between my death and that future person's birth, human beings will continue to interact. Some interactions will be direct or indirect effects of my actions. Some will be causes of his birth. It is unlikely that a linear causal sequence will directly link me to him but he and I are indirectly connected as parts of a single empirically discernible reality.

Other, supernatural, realms are the subject matter of religious teachings but are neither verifiably real nor mutually compatible. Catholic priests talk about Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. Zen monks talk about rebirth. Individuals receive these ideas from their traditions, not from their own experience. Catholic practice presupposes Catholic belief whereas Zen practice need not presuppose rebirth. For a Buddhist-materialist synthesis, I suggest recognition of: 
the value of meditation;
the possibility of enlightenment;
no soul, but also no rebirth;
materialism that is neither reductive nor mechanical but dialectical and historical.

This last aspect incorporates actions that are not only individual and moral but also collective and political. The only negation of traditional Buddhism is "no rebirth" but this is a logical extension from "no soul".

The Cause and End of Suffering

Medicine, economic reform and Buddhism address aspects of suffering. Suffering can occur only because consciousness exists. Consciousness is a by-product of natural selection. For mobile organisms, pleasure and pain have greater survival value than merely unconscious sensitivity to environmental alterations. For conscious beings, consciousness is not a by-product of another activity but an end in itself. However, conscious beings are the only kind of beings that can have ends in this sense.

"Mind" means either intellect in particular or consciousness in general. In the general sense, we contrast, for example, the "mind" of an ant with that of a man and Buddhists mean by "Buddha Mind" the faculty of intuitive wisdom, not of intellectual comprehension. Meditation discloses, first, that mind in general is not a visible, tangible object and, secondly, that its states are even less permanent than those of external objects. Mental states succeed each other with great rapidity. This reflects their physical basis. Organisms maintain their form actively, not passively. They continually change their composition by exchanging matter with their environments. Cells change their states as bodies adjust to environmental alterations. Multiple brain cell linkages change while processing changing sensory inputs and respond differently according to their past experience.

Mental flux reflects this psychophysical flux. Not mere complexity but complex organism-environment interaction generates consciousness and action on the environment generated human consciousness. Increasing complexity causes mental suffering by adding memories, anticipations and imaginings to immediate sensations. Buddhists seek the cause and end of suffering within. On different levels, Buddhists and Marxists see and do what needs to be done without requesting questionable divine help.
Zen meditation is not practised in discrete stages but Zen trainees might experience: the transience of mental states; the tendency of thought to perpetuate them; the emergence of deeper dissatisfactions like guilt or resentment. We need to heed problematic feelings when they arise but not to perpetuate them by thinking about them at other times. In this case, our thinking about how to solve the problem is the problem. Heeding guilt etc means not thinking about it but watching it arise and pass. What matters is not the passing mental states but the awareness through which they pass like clouds through the sky. That awareness is the way to the end of suffering.      

Reflection and Society

Thought internalises language which reflects naturally selected sensation. Thus, reflection began as a means to survival but, when survival is ensured, reflection can instead become an end in itself as science, philosophy, art and meditation. Because reflection as a means to survival began as language, reflective beings are social. Social labour successively produced no surplus, a small surplus and a large surplus. The small surplus, necessarily distributed unequally, supported a reflective minority whereas socialisation of technology with equal distribution of a large surplus will release the potential of the majority.

The optimal state is reflection as an end in socialist society. I suggest that education will:

(i) help each individual to identify his interests and abilities;
(ii) equip him with knowledge and skills for self-realising work;
(iii) provide sabbaticals from work so that anyone who wants to can learn about other work activities;
(iv) also provide re-training at any time for a change of direction.

Work that is socially indispensable, universally unwanted and impossible to automate should be reduced to zero. Until then, it should be shared so that everyone spends minimal time doing what no one wants to. It should be impossible to pay anyone to do your share. 

Each individual should at any time have access to eight social relationships:

(i) "family", people we grew up with and have always known, however this is organised;
(ii) teachers/tutors/mentors/guides or one in particular;
(iii) solitude;
(iv) those engaged in the same kind of work;
(v) people with common interests other than work;
(vi) public areas (streets, parks, restaurants, theatres etc) to be visited alone or in groups;
(vii) places to go for the sole purpose of meeting new people;
(viii) discussion and decision-making about matters of concern to society as a whole.

Family has changed throughout prehistory and history, is changing now and will change in future. What matters is that new members of society are encouraged to realise their potential. Solitude is a relationship because society must respect and support it. Most of us work with colleagues. A writer's work is solitary but probably enriched by meeting other writers and readers.

Matters of concern to society as a whole would be:

(i) maintenance of a material and cultural environment;
(ii) defence of the Earth against cometary strikes or against continued ecological consequences of pre-revolutionary society;
(iii) long term preservation of humanity in self-sustaining extraterrestrial habitats.
A non-polluting rapid global transport system would facilitate participation in the eight relationships. Teleportation would be ideal but is probably impossible. Electronic communication would facilitate decision-making but should involve full audiovisual contact between local mass meetings, not, impossibly, between millions of isolated individuals. The technology currently used to conceal and distract can instead be used to inform and involve.
Years ago, a relative of mine who watched television news every evening thought that a major industrial dispute was about the closed shop, not merely about union recognition as I learned by attending a strike support meeting. My relative also thought that the employer who had sacked a shop steward was being bullied by the union which campaigned for her re-instatement! Of course, readers of this article will have a range of views about such issues and do not know the details of the particular case but my point here is that my relative had no access to alternative views and did not even know that such views existed although it should be obvious that a dispute is controversial. She knew that a certain military dictator had restored democracy in his country but not that it was he who had destroyed democracy in the first place. Any view critical of the status quo was filtered out. 

In another dispute, a man crossing a picket line informed me that there was no industrial dispute despite the fact that I had spoken to strikers and had joined their picket line. Seeing my puzzlement, fellow pickets told me that the man was management. The management view was that the people standing outside the building had been dismissed, therefore no longer worked for the company. It followed that the firm was not in dispute with any of its current employees. Then I understood the management view although I continued to disagree with it.
These cases are relevant to the discussion of socialism because withdrawal of labour is a first step towards control of work and unalienated labour. If I thought that "socialism" meant a bureaucratic dictatorship stifling initiative and squandering wealth, then I would have to accept a market economy as the lesser evil (but what an evil, especially now in 2009).

Further speculative features of a future society might be:

(i) human brains in animal-like bodies needing neither clothes nor buildings but comfortable in natural environments although retaining intelligence and technology;
(ii) brain implants bestowing psychokinetic control of immediate environments;
(iii) nanotechnology eating dirt and pollution and excreting oxygen;
(iv) extension of habitable environments not just to other planetary surfaces but throughout solar space;
(v) "intelligent", self-adjusting environments.

Science, Spirituality and Socialism

Scientific knowledge is based on observation, measurement and experiment, thus on experience, not on authority. Much spiritual teaching is based on the authority of scriptures or gurus. If it can be established that a guru knows whereof he speaks, then it makes sense to accept his authority at least provisionally although many gurus claim more than merely provisional authority. Buddhist spiritual teaching is a guide to practice and is to be confirmed or disconfirmed by individual experience. On this basis so far, I accept the teaching of karma (action and consequences) though not of individual rebirth. Zen monks authoritatively tell us what the teaching is but we are not obliged to accept the teaching on their authority.

Utopian socialism is an idea based not on authority but on abstract reasoning. It would be good if the economy were co-operative, not competitive etc. Utopian socialists can only argue that their idea is better than the current reality whereas Marxist theory guides the kind of political practice that potentially builds socialism. Effective arguments for socialism occur in the context of struggle against aspects of the capitalist system and of its state apparatus. All such struggles potentially challenge the system and demonstrate how to overthrow it. Thus, Marxism is "scientific socialism", to be confirmed or disconfirmed by collective experience. Marxism would be disproved either by a crisis-free capitalism or by the continued oppression of social minorities in a genuinely socialist, as opposed to state capitalist, economy. Also, Marxist theory has developed in the light of subsequent experience. Such development continues to explain capitalism, not accommodate to it.

Buddhism contrasts with authoritarian and theistic spiritual traditions. Marxism contrasts with utopian and reformist socialist movements. Although neither Buddhist teaching nor Marxist theory achieves scientific precision, they are our closest approaches to scientific spirituality and socialism.



The Buddhist tradition recognises:

a beginningless, not recently created, universe;
beginningless greed, hate and delusion, not a prehistoric fall by our first parents;
universal causation without divine interventions;
cause and effect in morality as well as in physics;
endless process and transience, even for gods;
philosophical analysis and understanding as integral to spiritual enquiry;
insights gained through meditation, not given in revelation;
our ability to create new, not just endure past, karma;
many human Buddhas, not one divine Saviour;
food for the poor as a better sacrifice than blood for the gods.

Karma is action. If action and consequence are cause and effect, then new karma not caused by previous actions contradicts universal causation. However, this problem is not unique to Buddhists. We experience both a causally ordered realm and our ability to act anew within it. We may favour determinism but must accept responsibility. Kant's antithesis between theoretical and practical reason paradoxically but accurately expresses our experience as active subjects, not passive objects. Causes affecting us are internally processed and their effects experienced as decisions or actions. Unrestrained and uncoerced actions are free. Thus, we are caused to act freely. Meditation discloses internal processes but first life must motivate us to meditate.

Greek Atomists postulated, and quantum physicists confirm, that some particles change position without causation but such microcosmic indeterminacy does not affect macrocosmic experience. Chaos, unpredictable major changes caused by initially minor events, precludes inflexibly mechanistic determinism.

The Buddha's experimental practice of asceticism and meditation and his philosophical analysis of existing religious concepts were motivated by compassion and spiritual concern. Consequently, he founded a meditative tradition that generated its own, Buddhist, philosophy. The premise of Christianity is neither compassion nor spirituality but a conviction of the believer's salvation. This conviction does not generate philosophical enquiry and can even be hostile to it. When Christians did philosophise about their beliefs, they had to adapt originally pagan Platonism and Aristotelianism. If Christianity had not been imported by missionaries, then imposed by the state, then myths, epics, philosophies, local rituals and mystery religions might have converged as a European equivalent of Hinduism.

The Marxist tradition recognises:

scientific cosmogony and cosmology;
an ascent from animality to humanity through collective labour;
universal causation, including economic determination of social institutions;
social determination of individual psychology;
endless process and transience with gods as myths;
philosophical, historical and economic analysis as integral to political practice;
theory guiding and tested by practice;
that men make their own history though not in circumstances of their own choosing;
the self-emancipation of the working class;
the dispossessed as agents of struggle, not passive recipients of hand outs.


Materialist Theory and Spiritual Practice

The Cosmic Perspective

Meditation is practice of consciousness. Traditionally, it was believed that consciousness had pre-existed material conditions and processes. It followed that individual subjects of consciousness were souls and that an ultimate subject, if such existed, was God. Philosophers either elaborated or questioned these ideas. Buddhists, believing neither in souls nor in God, nevertheless believed that consciousness was beginningless and that mental processes had been transmitted into current organisms from a beginningless past. Thus: 

for Plato, philosophy or reflective thought liberated souls from matter;
for Jains, meditation transcending thought liberates souls from matter;
for Hindus, meditation unites souls with God;
for Buddhists, meditation liberates present consciousness from perennial mental processes.

I accept scientific evidence that consciousness originated from material conditions and processes. Cosmically, consciousness is novel, not perennial. Its origin was a qualitative revolution. It follows that: 

organisms, not souls or God, are the subjects of consciousness;
mental processes began in a finite past;
meditation is practice of individual consciousness but not also participation in a perennial consciousness. 
Mobile organisms were naturally selected for sensitivity to environmental alterations. The most intense degree of sensitivity is sensation. Therefore, consciousness is a by-product of natural selection. It begins as sensation but becomes reflection: language, thought, self-knowledge, meditation etc. Reflective beings can regard reflective consciousness as an end, not a means. However, only conscious beings can have ends. Therefore, consciousness was not an end of pre-conscious processes. The universe did not intend, although it did tend, to become conscious at least once. We can treat persons as ends in themselves while recognising their accidental origin. The lotus grows from dark places.

Naturally selected reflective consciousness can either continue the struggle for which it was selected or reflect. Reflection can be either a means to survival or an end in itself. Meditation can be a relaxation technique or the supreme enlightenment. Those who engage in conflict not for self- or group-aggrandisement but because disengagement would be a greater evil can synthesise the end of contemplation with the necessity of action. However, political analysis is necessary to determine which conflicts are lesser evils and which merely perpetuate a conflictive status quo. 

The Global Perspective


the American war on terror does not end causes of terrorism but is one;
soldiers merely obeying orders abdicate responsibility;
when a minority resists oppression, a "peace keeping force" merely maintains the status quo, thereby perpetuating oppression;
arming the minority would help to end oppression;
assassinating dictators is less harmful than destroying cities but cannot change society;
mass action can change society, if not derailed by compromising leadership;
markets need states to enforce laws protecting property in work places and resources;
economic competition becomes military;
the global economy needs war - a new century of technology initiated not world peace but two World Wars, then nuclear deterrence therefore Cold War, then a single super-power therefore "war on terror". 

The war on terror can be prolonged indefinitely. When each enemy is defeated, another appears not because the system is good, therefore attacked by everything bad, but because the system must externalise conflict in order to deny that it is inherent. An American clergyman said, "We fought Nazis, then Communists, now terrorists", an uncritical mouthpiece of the status quo.

Many conflicts perpetuate the system but only one can end it. "The last fight let us face..." The whole Earth is now Kurukshetra, the battlefield where Arjuna fought with Krishna as his charioteer.

The National Perspective

Britain, May 2009:
a Labour Government saving global capitalism fails to address global warming;
resurgent fascism is widely opposed even by the anti-immigrant press;
economic pressure on public services causes endless re-organisation in futile attempts to quantify qualitative work.

The Individual Perspective

Obviously, each individual must do what s/he thinks is right. Few accept all the perspectives outlined above but we are obliged at least to question received values before either committing to them or seeking alternatives.

Body and Soul?

Philosophically, I am dialectical materialist. I think that each of us is a single psychophysical organism, not two conjoined entities, a body and a soul. However, the language of "body and soul" makes some sense if it is understood that the "soul" must be mortal, not immortal. If your "body" is your visible physical social appearance and role whereas your "soul" is your consciousness, then "body" and "soul" can be differently related. Consciousness may be completely identified with physical satisfaction and enjoyment and/or with social appearance and role. Alternatively, it may be completely detached from them.

People around us treat us as if we were simply identical with the person (persona =mask) that is visible to them. We are socially trained to accept this identification but can see things differently. It is as if the soul has entered the world with a mission to stop identifying with the body by becoming more conscious of the reality underlying roles and appearances. My public persona can be a role that I play for social purposes, but not what I think I am. I think that my consciousness has grown organically with my body, not that it has entered this body from a previous life or another realm. But it is as if it has come here to learn non-attachment to the body in the sense of "body"  suggested here. This does not entail negation of the body. The Buddhist teaching of "no soul" entails a middle way between asceticism, emphasising the "body", and hedonism, emphasising the "soul".

As we meditate, we become dispassionate observers of our past social interactions. We are no longer simply the person who was in conflict with others but observers of the conflict who are more likely to avoid unnecessary conflict in future.

Is Buddhism a Religion or a Philosophy?

It is both although we would not go far wrong if we called it a practical philosophy so old that it has religious forms. We meditate before a Buddha image on an altar, bow either towards the image or towards each other and even place offerings on the altar. By contrast, we do not practise analytic philosophy before an image of Socrates on an altar. Buddhist teaching addresses philosophical issues:

the concept of souls;
the eternality or otherwise of the world;
the constituents of consciousness;
how to live rightly.

As an analysis of the cause of suffering and a way to the end of suffering, Buddhist philosophy is practical, not academic. Buddhist practice refers neither to the gods nor to a creator. The religious formulae of a temple or meditation hall facilitate the practice of meditation. They do not placate deities. So far, this makes Buddhism philosophical, not religious. In Buddhist countries, the culture incorporates both Buddhist and polytheist practices. Further, Buddhist practice does refer not to a transcendent being but definitely to a transcendent state. Since I define religion basically as response to the highest transcendence, I regard Buddhism as both philosophical and religious.

Marxism also incorporates both philosophical analysis and practical action. Both Buddhism and Marxism address the state of the world and what is to be done about it.

Consciousness as Emergent Interaction II

Emptiness need not mean idealism. No substance need not mean mind only. The proposition that there is no permanent substance underlying any transient phenomenon could be taken to mean that only consciousness and appearances to consciousness exist, thus that there is no external reality causing or corresponding to appearances. However, "Consciousness as Emergent Interaction" (see here) describes consciousness as an emergent property of organisms that had previously interacted unconsciously with their environments. It follows that both organisms and environments pre-existed consciousness and still exist now.

"Emptiness" teaching means that apparently distinct entities exist only by virtue of their relationships to other apparently distinct entities, not that they exist only when observed. Before sighted organisms existed, leaves absorbed some wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation and reflected others although there were not yet any subjects of consciousness able to experience "green". 

We take for granted the existence of, eg, trees, technologies and taxes. Trees exist only because there is soil and air. Technological commodities exist only as part of an industrial economy. Taxes exist only as part of a vast social superstructure which also enables wage workers, unlike ancient slaves or medieval serfs, to take their employer to an industrial tribunal, to worry about whether their tax code is correct, about whether they will lose their no claims bonus if they are involved in a car accident and about how inflation will affect their pensions. Employment laws, insurance, inflation and pensions are entirely dependent on a money economy which has not always existed and will not always exist.

According to both materialist philosophy and conservation laws, energy continues to exist whatever form it takes. However, Lenin argued that its nature is inexhaustible so that successive scientific theories only approximate to it. We might replace the reality-appearance distinction with a threefold distinction between reality as not understood yet, reality as currently understood and appearance. The most obvious feature of energy is its potentiality, its capacity to transform itself, or to be transformed, into anything from particles to works of art. In conscious and intelligent beings, potentiality becomes creativity.

"Emptiness"  expresses the empirical fact that everything experienced, every entity, environment, economy etc, exists only temporarily and in specific conditions. "Every entity" includes us, you and me, all of mankind, as inhabitants and observers of environments and economies. Nothing and no one is fixed or unchanging. This may sound obvious but it was argued, eg, that Apartheid or Stalinism could not be overthrown and it is frequently stated that human nature is unchangeable. On this level, arguments for Buddhist emptiness are also arguments for Marxist materialism because both insist that nothing is unchanging.

Evidence for stellar, biological and social change is also evidence for emptiness. Emptiness entails change, not consciousness only. Lacking later scientific knowledge, Buddhists saw change as cyclical, not evolutionary, but they did emphasise change and on the basis of experience. Engels, synthesising Hegelian philosophy with scientific knowledge, envisaged spiral development towards higher syntheses but also longer term cosmic cycles. We not only hypothesise successive universes but also understand stellar processes. Stars are not eternal and their explosive ending fills space with the elements necessary for transient life. 

Any reality underlying changing forms affects us only through those changing forms and therefore is not in itself a permanent part of our experience. Any single, permanent and unchanging aspect of experience would not be noticed. If everything were always white, then nothing would be recognised as white. A visitor from a polychrome universe would not be able to communicate the difference between "This is white, that is white..." and "This exists, that exists..." "White" is meaningful only when we say, "This is white, that is black..." or "This is white but was black." Organs adapted to notice differences and changes would not register an unchanging feature of existence.

Buddhists like others have formulated idealist philosophies but the Buddha primarily taught the way to the end of suffering in a mutable realm.   

Consciousness as Emergent Interaction

Organisms were selected for sensitivity to environmental alterations.
Sensitivity increased until it became sensation.
Thus, consciousness was a by-product of natural selection.
It was a means to survival, not an end-in-itself.

The earliest consciousness was motivated, not dispassionate.
Motivation focuses attention on desired or feared objects of consciousness.
Meditation is the practice of consciousness as an end-in-itself.
Emergent consciousness is not perennial.

However, neither meditation nor Buddhist teaching requires perennial consciousness.
The Buddha rightly described psychophysical states as transient.
"No soul" means no enduring self underlying transient mental states.
"Emptiness" means no permanent substance underlying any transient phenomenon.

The Buddha taught that attachment to transient states causes suffering.
Marx analysed economic causes of alienation and conflict.
Their successors can address inner processes and outer conflicts.
Krishna in the Gita applied meditative non-attachment to work and war.

Darwin: natural selection.
Marx: class struggle.
The Buddha: meditation.
Krishna: non-attached action.

Friday, 4 May 2012

What Is and What Is Not

Zen is seeing what is. It has been argued that we see not things as they are in themselves but only how they appear to us. I reply that to observe that an object appears to be a particular size, shape, colour etc when seen by us is not to deny but to affirm that we see it. If our sensory apparatus were different, then we would see objects differently but would still see them. A galaxy appearing either as a single point of light when seen across millions of light years or as millions of discrete stars when seen from within remains a seen galaxy.

Do we perceive reality or only appearances? I argue that the appearance of reality to us is our perception of reality. “We perceive it” and “It appears to us” are interchangeable. We do not perceive appearances and infer reality but perceive reality. Of course, if our perceptual apparatus differed, then appearances would differ but they would still be reality appearing, not appearances appearing. We perceive not the total reality but those aspects that are perceptible by us. For example, we see not submicroscopic particles but our macroscopic environment, not the whole electromagnetic spectrum but enough for survival purposes.

Mystics disagree about whether ultimate reality is personal but theists do agree that it transcends concepts so we potentially agree that it is variously conceived because it is inconceivable. I argue elsewhere against pre-existent consciousness. Can contradictory propositions, affirming and denying personality, apply to an infinite reality? I suggest that they remain incompatible.

Zen is seeing mental states and interactions. Although we directly know our immediate thoughts and emotions, reflection uncovers deeper dispositions and reveals that conditioning and indoctrination make us see what is not. A badly treated child sees all adults as threats even when they are indifferent or benevolent. Some adults are conscious only of how they appear to others, not of how anyone is. Some see only what they want, or have been indoctrinated, to see. Some cannot see that they are ever at fault or see others only as means, not as ends. Some see only that the world is not as they want but not what to do about it. For example, we can change how we perceive the past but not the past.

Many people do not understand that world views differ, therefore that what seems obvious to them is not obvious to others. Introduced to a Polish man as a “Communist”, not, more accurately, as an unorthodox Trotskyist, I was subjected to a denunciation of the then Polish regime based entirely on the assumption that I supported it. Dialogue was impossible especially with limited time. When I had to leave because of a prior appointment, my accuser apologized on the mistaken assumption that I was leaving because I was offended! 

In a similar conversation with a Polish couple, I was asked whether I had read a particular book by Solzenitsin. I began to reply, “No, but I have read Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed and Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia.” However, I was interrupted after “No…” and addressed as if I had not heard of Stalinist oppression. On reflection, I should have replied, “Yes”, because that was the only point at issue. The couple would later have claimed that they had met a Communist who had not read Solzenitsin, meaning by this that I supported the Soviet Union and knew nothing bad about it. They conversed not with me but with their preconception.

When I did manage to summarize an analysis of Stalinist Russia as state capitalist, not socialist, the friend who had mischievously introduced me as a Communist commented that I sounded as if I was merely reciting a rehearsed response. I sounded like this because I was being put on the spot and had to speak quickly before the next interruption. A proper debate with time for each side to state its case and with attention given to what was in fact being said might have advanced our understanding. What I did learn was that there are people with whom dialogue is impossible. Of the couple, the man “knew” as a fact, not an opinion, that black people were inferior. His certainty on this was frightening.

It makes sense to ask an alleged Communist what he understands by “Communism” and why he supports it. Instead, a vicar in a televised debate with a Communist Party member set out to define both sides of the argument. He stated what he believed, then what (he thought) she believed. Meanwhile, Communist Party politics had changed from revolutionary to reformist. Of course, a complete change of policies should be reflected by a name change. That did occur later while a “New Communist Party” preserved the Stalinist tradition and rival organizations applied different interpretations of the original revolutionary socialist tradition. 

I have been told that by a workers’ democracy with full employment I meant a bureaucratic dictatorship with unemployment, not that the former inevitably degenerates into the latter, as is argued ad nauseam by supporters of political though not economic democracy, but that the latter was what I meant. No. Conversation floundered with no agreed terminology or terms of reference. 

Attention to what is includes attention to what others say and to why they say it, not just to preconceptions based on labels like “Communist” or “Christian”. Assuming that every Anglican is an Evangelical, that every Catholic is a Latin ritualist, that every Muslim is a Jihadist, that every Jew is a Zionist, that every Hindu is an idolater, that every Conservative is Thatcherite or that every American is imperialist would be similar errors.

Introducing myself as a Religious Education Teacher, I was subjected to ridicule of Christian belief in the Resurrection although Religious Studies covers all traditions and can include skepticism about supernaturalist claims. Evangelicals capable only of assuming the truth of their belief cannot present reasons for it, so that again dialogue is impossible, whereas instructors in Zen meditation advise trainees to test Buddhist teaching in their experience. Teachings that do not facilitate perception of what is can be “put on the back burner” unless and until they become applicable: the opposite of a creedal approach.

After twenty three years of practicing zazen, I have started to glimpse the limits of my perception. I had always believed that ultimate philosophical and spiritual questions mattered whereas lesser issues like how to relate to other people socially did not. Thus, I missed the point of familiar teachings: the transcendent is immanent; the beyond is in the midst; the Kingdom is within; Samsara is Nirvana; Bodhisattvas return; eternity is now; all is one; “thou art That”; strangers are gods or angels in disguise, like superheroes with secret identities; mythically, God was incarnate in Vrindavan and Jerusalem – as Arjuna saw his friend’s cosmic form, so Peter, James and John saw their friend transfigured; God manifest, according to a polemic for a more world-affirming Hinduism, is higher than God unmanifest; theses and antitheses are synthesized; abstractions are concretized; dualities are unified; concepts are instantiated; theories are practiced; plans are implemented, at least by us if not also by the gods.

Creativity involves understanding what is by imagining what is not. Insanity involves misunderstanding what is by confusing it with what is not. Thus, a fictitious character meeting a ghost, considering suicide, visiting a graveyard, contemplating a skull, avenging a murder and dying young addresses mortality but anyone claiming to be Hamlet is mad. Some imaginative writers have seen their characters but only momentarily.

Marxists analyze how society is. Capital economically coerces formally free workers to produce more than the value of their labour power and competitively accumulates surplus value but periodically stops production whenever competition reduces the rate of accumulation. Banks do not produce wealth but gamble that others will. Governments manage but do not end capitalism. Workers usually accept but periodically challenge capitalism. Received ideas are questioned when they contradict experience. Living labour, organized by capital to increase capital, can instead organize itself to meet needs.

Buddhist psychological analysis addresses experience. By practicing awareness, we realize our unawareness. Marxist economic analysis addresses alienation. By resisting exploitation, workers realize their power. 

The quantitative difference between society and individuality explains the qualitative difference between unavoidably controversial revolution and universally accessible meditation.


Thursday, 3 May 2012

Understanding World and Self


Why is the world as it is? Why is life often unsatisfactory? What can we do about it?

Buddhist answer, formulated two and a half millennia ago:
Greed, hate and delusion turn the Wheel of Life. Human beings can end this process in themselves.

Marxist answer, incorporating modern knowledge:
Scientific cosmogony, natural selection and class conflict explain our condition. Workers collectively organized at the point of production can end exploitation and oppression and emancipate society.

Buddhism assumes consciousness. Science explains it.
Social relationships transcend individual motivations. We are economically compelled to compete to survive whether or not we are individually greedy. Individually, we may patiently address our motivations but, collectively, we must urgently change the economy.


Can you and I know how we appear to and affect others? (We often believe that we are reasonable, honest, helpful etc.)

Buddhist answer: Yes, through meditation.
Marxism does not address this question. By understanding society, we can overcome social prejudices and campaign for a better society but social psychology does not fully explain individual psychology. Political activists can lack self-knowledge in personal relationships.

According to Buddhist teaching, understanding of the world and of the self are identical. The same process occurs in both.

According to Marxist theory, they are not identical. Natural processes preceded consciousness. Material forces of production determine historically developing relations of production and qualitatively differing social structures whose causes are therefore not simply reducible to the most basic attachments and aversions to be found in individual consciousness. The study of history and economics informs political activity whereas only personal experience is necessary for meditation.

Two understandings are not identical but both are necessary if we are both to change society and to know our effects on others.