Showing posts with label Individual. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Individual. Show all posts

29 May 2015

Individuals, Philosophy, and Interconnectedness

Mycorrhizal fungus on roots
In Dan Everett's entertaining and thought-provoking book on his meeting with the Pirahã people of the Amazon (Don't Sleep There Are Snakes), one of the quirks of the culture he describes is the firm belief that no outsider can understand the Pirahã language. There is some objective justification for this, since in 300 years of contact with Europeans no outsider had ever managed to learn to speak Pirahã. Even the name Pirahã is Portuguese. As Everett began to gain proficiency in the language and to communicate with them in it, the view of the Pirahã people did not change. Despite conversing with him in their own language they continued to believe that he could not understand their conversations amongst themselves. This could be amusing, as they openly discussed what they thought of him as though he could not understand. At one point it was terrifying as the whole tribe got blind drunk and the men decided to kill him. The fact that they plotted at the tops of their voices allowed Everett time to hide their weapons and lock himself and his family in their house until everyone sobered up.

I bring this up because as I sat down to write about philosophy this image came back to me of people who believed themselves to be isolated by language, despite the evidence of their ears. The philosopher all too often proceeds as though theirs is the only mind in the world and they ought to be able to figure everything out from an isolated point of view. They do this despite communicating and even arguing over the details with other philosophers. Philosophers can be like the Pirahã.

A number of authors have made me rethink my own approach to philosophy, but in particular it was an article by Mercier & Sperber that made me rethink what philosophers do (See An Argumentative Theory of Reason). They make a case for reason having evolved to help groups make decisions, partly based on the fact that individual humans are in fact quite bad at reasoning since they frequently fall into cognitive bias or logical fallacy. 

We have a real problem in thinking about ourselves. To me it seems as though we, especially in the English speaking world, have been infected by a thought virus that is distorting how we see the world. It begins, of course, with the Greeks, but closer to home a complex of thinkers gave fertile ground for this virus. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and the philosophy of Utilitarianism already see people as isolated. In Herbert Spencer's thought it translated into "survival of the fittest" as a law of nature. In society this translated into a libertarian ethic that justified exploitation of others for the purposes of accumulating wealth and power. Darwin was influenced by Spencer and took up the cry of "survival of the fittest". More modern influences are Ayn Rand (who advocated selfishness) and John Nash (the inventor of Game Theory, who believed all humans are completely self-interested). Richard Dawkins applied this ideology to biology and came up with the "selfish gene". To some extent we can see the obsession with the individual as an outgrowth from Romanticism, but combined with Utilitarianism it tends to dehumanise. 

Feminist intellectuals have been made an important contribution in identifying power structures in society. Power and wealth have more or less always been concentrated in the hands of a small number of men - a structure called Patriarchy. However, Feminists generalise this concentration of power to all men, which is where I disagree with them. In identifying the elite we can begin to identify and critique the ideas put forward to (self) justify their hegemony. Higher education and access to public discourse was largely a preserve of the elite until quite recently. With open access to universities during the brief window of liberalism in the 1960s-1980s people who were not part of the elite were trained to think. The trend is towards increasing elitism once again, suggesting that our window of opportunity is closing. Part of the problem with pre-twentieth century philosophy is that philosophers and other intellectuals were usually members of the class which they defended. The modern elite co-opts middlemen to enact their power through granting tiny amounts of authority over workers or underlings. While we vote for our government, we are unlikely ever to vote for our boss or our priest! 

We are presently living in a time of backlash against liberalisation from the elite; a time of increasing economic inequality that pays lip service to "rights" but in fact seeks to undermine the ability of anyone to challenge the power structure. Our civil rights are constantly being eroded by government for plausible reasons related to terrorism, though we seldom really consider the role of the government in making us the targets of terrorists in the first place. Had our respective governments not been involved in illegal wars and ham-fisted foreign policy of decades past, behaving like a playground bully, would we be in the position of sacrificing freedoms for security?

But really what started me down this road was thinking about how wrong the idea of survival of the fittest is when applied to individuals. Perhaps the most dangerous idea in history, because in the final analysis there is literally no such thing as an individual.


Mythologies 

I've written quite often about metaphors and how they inform how we think. I've been critical about the underlying metaphors of the idea of what we call "spiritual" for example (see Spiritual I: The Life's Breath and Metaphors and Materialism). I've also written about the tree as the fundamental metaphor for evolution and have proposed the braided river system as a better, a far richer metaphor that could lead to more sophisticated thinking about evolution. A real set back for thinking about evolution was the application of Neoliberal ideology to evolution to produce the concept of the "selfish gene".

For a variety of reasons the solitary apex predator has fascinated humanity and over-whelmed other narratives that might be drawn from nature. The glamour of the predator is sublimated and becomes attached to the elite. Hogging resources and conspicuous consumption seem to be justified by equating members of the elite with apex predators. They are at the top of the food chain. Workers are equated with the herd animals that predators feed on. Of course it's not surprise that the same elite has made a sport out of hunting and killing predators, driving many of them close to extinction. And all this is entirely "natural". It's an ugly way of putting it and the spin doctors have of course found more appealing ways of justifying elites, while at the same time using nature documentaries to increase the glamour of predators.

Interestingly the recent trend in wildlife documentaries has been to show the sociality of apex predators, and the degradation of species on the verge of extinction due to human activity. Curiously the current round of BBC documentaries on sharks makes them not feared hunters and ruthless killers like the documentaries of the 20th century did. Now they are perfectly evolved, sleek, efficient and dynamic creatures which at the same time exhibit characteristics which evoke our empathy. Sharks who care for their young for example, or who are social. Metaphorically, or mythically in the sense it is used by Roland Barthes, this is saying that elite are only human, and no one can blame them for having out-evolved other fish in the sea. Indeed one ought to admire their the efficiency with which they go about sating their voracious appetites. So are documentary makers trying to justify the elites (who control what gets on TV) or do we share the goal of emphasising communality, symbiosis, and cooperation? Are they propping up the hegemony or undermining it? I'm not sure. 

The fascination with apex predators is only one way to look at ecology. In my lifetime Lynn Margulis, with considerable resistance from men in her field, managed to establish and popularise the idea that the cells that make up plants and animals (eukaryotes) are in fact the result of a series of symbiotic mergers between varieties of bacteria. At least three species of bacteria were required to get us to where we are. Last to join the party were the mitochondria. These organelles were free living bacteria that developed the neat trick of being able to metabolise oxygen, which up to that point was a metabolic poison. By becoming permanently embedded in the ancestors of all eukaryote cells, mitochondria bequeathed the ability to metabolise oxygen to plants and animals. So each of our cells is actually a little community.

Tree/fungus network
Tree fungus internet. BBC
Tree-fungus networks. SciAm
Another well know example of symbiosis is the commensal relationship of trees and mycorrhizal fungi. This symbiotic relationship is ubiquitous amongst trees. The fungi assist trees by breaking down the soil and making nutrients available, while the trees provide fungi food in the form of sugars. Neither can thrive without the other. Indeed the soil itself would not exist except for the action of fungi. The usual narratives of evolution, with survival of the fittest at their heart, cannot comprehend how important this relationship is. Symbiosis is a constant and vital feature of life on earth.

In the last few weeks we have seen that this relationship is more far reaching that we had imagined. Networks of fungi link trees and allow trees, including trees of different species, to share resources. A dying tree, for example, might send food to other trees via the fungal internet. The diagram on the right shows how two species of tree are connected in a small wood. Such fungi also enable a plant which is being grazed to warn it's neighbours, by sending chemical signals through fungal network, giving them the stimulus to produce more of the poisonous chemicals they use to deter grazing.

Symbiosis is a ubiquitous feature of life. In this view, evolutionary fitness is achieved through forming cooperative communities in which symbiosis is the most significant form of relationship. In these relationships the individual organism actually has blurred boundaries at best. In fact the individual tree is penetrated by fungi that also penetrate other trees and link them together and enable to them to share resources and communicate other information. Tree and fungi have individuals aspects and overlapping aspects. Remove one and the other cannot live, though each has it's own DNA and reproduces independently. 

Animals all have a similar kind of symbiotic relationship with their gut flora. All of use carry around a couple of kilos of micro-organisms in our gut. We have long known that they assist us in breaking down our food. More recently it has become clear that the role these micro-organisms play is far greater. They not only break down food, but help to synthesise essential molecules, and are now implicated in the regulation of our immune system. (Compare: Commensal Bacteria at the Interface of Host Metabolism and the Immune System. Nature.) Indeed we could say that, like trees, animals are surrounded by a film of bacteria and fungi that are our interface with the physical world and that play an active role in our continued survival. We reproduce separately, but cannot live apart. 

A fantastic example of symbiosis in progress occurs in cicadas. These insects have a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria called Hodgkinia, which live inside their cells (endosymbiosis). The long periods cicadas spend underground has had an extraordinary effect on the bacteria. Hodgkinia has evolved into two different species, both of which continue to reside inside the cells of cicadas. But what's more, the different species have suffered degradation of their genome through accumulated mutations and the isolation of life inside a host cell. Collectively the different species of bacteria still perform the same functions in the symbiotic relationship, but individually we see only a minimal functioning genome. Incidentally since all bacteria can successfully exchange nuclear material, they are technically one species with many varieties. Cicadas have other bacterial endosymbionts that are not similarly affected. 

So it seems that all plants and all animals are involved in symbiotic relationships with members of other kingdoms, particularly bacteria and fungi. Symbiosis is not a rare and unusual feature of some organisms that can be treated as a special case of evolution. Symbiosis is the key to understanding life as we know it. And our definitions of individuals skew the reality of what an organism is.

The ubiquity of symbiosis and other forms of cooperation amongst living things could easily have informed the metaphors and myths of nature that we use to understand and guide our lives. Had the founders of modern evolution not been Imperialists and libertarians looking for justification of their way of life, then we might have understood our place in the universe rather differently. Had Christianity been imbued with a sense of the web of life, rather than the Great Chain of Being, then we might have better appreciated our role in the whole. Sadly, we have the view that we do. So new science struggles to make headway. Results that ought to seem normal, to confirm our general hypothesis of how the world works, currently seem like outliers and exceptions. It may be many generations before enough examples build up to change the paradigm. I won't see the change in my lifetime, but there is reason to believe that such a change will come. 


Individuals

It is sometimes argued, following the Whorf-Spair hypothesis, that we see the world as being made up of individuals acting as agents because of the noun/verb structure of our language. I think opinion in the linguistic community has swung away from this view, not least because Whorf was at times inaccurate in his descriptions of the North American languages on which he based his other ideas. We know of course that the subject/object distinction can break down in meditation. Those who experience this speak very highly of it and say that it is what we all ought to be aiming for. Unfortunately the ability (be it talent or dedication) to achieve these kinds of breakthroughs is rare. Most of us are trapped in a world of subjects and objects and have to make the best of it.

When we look closely we see that what appears to be an individual human, is in fact a community with many levels. Each cell is a community of endosymbionts, bound together for billions of years. But other types of newer endosymbionts also occur, with bacteria living inside cells, but as bacteria rather than as organelles. In our bodies dozens of different types of cells, totalling many trillions of cells, form an interlocking community. They work together to maintain optimal conditions for life. Another view of this is that our bodies maintain optimal conditions for taking in low entropy energy and excreting high entropy energy and everything else is incidental. In any case, surrounding this community is a halo of loosely bound symbionts that are intimately involved with our extracting nutrients from the outside world and protecting us from pathogens. 

In the case of animals we always need at least two, one male and one female, for reproduction (though of course some animals are hermaphrodites, and parthenogenesis does occur on rare occasions). Each organism has a use-by date, after which it ceases to be viable. Before that time it endeavours to create offspring that, by a combination of genetic and epigenetic inheritance, will be at least as well adapted to its environment as its parents, if not better. But if this strategy is to work then a large population is required to allow sexual recombination of genes to prevent a genetic bottleneck. Inbreeding causes mutations to build up too quickly and can be fatal to a species. Thus the smallest viable unit of humanity is not the individual, the couple, or even the extended family, but the tribe made up from a number of clans which in turn contain several extended families.

Other kinds of relationships are also essential. For example, in a city where no one grows food, everyone is reliant on distant producers they will almost certainly never meet to supply them with food. Water comes through miles of pipes and sewerage leaves through more miles of pipes. We exist in a web of relationships that sustains us.

The question then becomes, why are we so focussed on individuals? The answers are complex and would take too much time to articulate in full. One answer is that there is a distinct advantage to some individuals when we all think of ourselves as individuals. For most of us there is safety in numbers and individualism means we are less able to defend ourselves (and our wealth). This can be and is exploited by rogue individuals (the elite) who operate not like apex predators, in fact, but like parasites: they benefit at our cost, but both go on living. Through the socially liberal times when wealth sharing was the fashion this was less obvious. But since Neoliberalism took hold at government level, inequality has been rising again. In the last 30 years 90% of people have seen their wealth eroded, while the top 10% have seen substantial increases. All the gains in wealth have been at the top. What we have instead of wealth is more sophisticated entertainment! Or once expensive goods produced under slave-like labour conditions in third world countries that make us feel rich. It's the old trick of bread and circuses again. 

There are good arguments for seeing ourselves primarily as members of a community rather than as individual free agents. At the very least we need to be be far more highly attuned to how we relate to those around us, how we rely on each other to survive. People we rely on for food and water, shelter, for example ought to be important to us. Their well being is our well being in a very real sense. We ought, for example, to see taxes, not as the amount the government takes from us, but as our contribution to the general welfare. It's how we look after teachers, nurses, firemen, police and military who carry out tasks that benefit everyone. If we do not look after them, then our own welfare is put at risk. Unfortunately the elite are wealthy enough to avoid paying small amounts of tax and compensate by spending large amounts on educating their kids, private health care and so on. It's cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. 

Unfortunately the basic myths and metaphors of our modern society tend to blind us to important aspects of nature like symbiosis and highlight incidental aspects that benefit only the few. The reason for this is that for some centuries the myths of the people have been controlled by elites. Before industrialisation folk had their own stories, their own music, their own ways. Each community had their own versions of these, though as Michael Witzel has discovered we also share some myths across most of humanity. Now we all draw from a central well that is controlled by elites. The internet does offer a kind of ersatz alternative: margarine to the butter of a healthy human community. It looks and spreads like butter, but it is what it is: yellow grease.

The underlying myths and metaphors are what make the stories we tell sound plausible. Those of us who want change need to be aware of our own myths and metaphors. We can challenge old, poisonous views like "survival of the fittest" applied to human affairs. We can recast the story. We know that we cannot simply force collectivity onto people. That doesn't work. We also know that certain aspects of collectivity have a downside. Innovation and creativity require eccentrics pursuing their own goals and leaders drawing people along with them. But there must be a happy medium in which we honour our symbiotic, communal nature of life without sacrificing individuality completely. The odds are against us because the media used to communicate ideas and values to the masses are controlled by the elites, mostly run by people who are comfortable wielding their little modicum of authority, and tasked with distracting us from the serious business of life. But if we don't keep trying to shift the ground by choosing different myths, then we abandon humanity to a dystopian future. 


Buddhist Interdependence

It's often assumed that systems thinking (which is a broad label for the kinds of ideas I'm writing about here) is "just like" the Buddhist idea of interdependence. I can see why systems thinking is attractive to Buddhists, but it has hardly anything in common with traditional Buddhist thinking, despite what some modern writers would have us believe. To begin with these is no sign of any interest in interdependence in the early Buddhist texts. Dependent arising is largely focussed on mental states and these are not interconnected, but arise in a strict series, and the conditions of which are precisely stated (either sense object, sense faculty, and sense cognition; or the nidānas or upanisās). It is only once Buddhists begin to apply Dependent Arising as a Theory of Every that we see interdependence emerge as a subject. And even then it appears to draw on Vedic religious ideas as much as Buddhism. Interconnectivity is a feature of the Vedic worldview which bases religious power on the ability to identify and manipulate correspondences between things in this world and things in heaven. 

Even so the chief sources of interdependence, such as the Gandhavyūha Sūtra, point to interdependence being a metaphor for śūnyatā. The idea being that all dharmas have the same important characteristics of lacking svabhāva (meaning precisely that a dharma cannot be a condition for its own existence). Thus if one can understand even one dharma, then one can understand them all. Or at least, one can understand of them all, that aspect which has soteriological value. Of course that soteriological value is often confused with an ontology, but it need not be. The image typically used for this way of seeing dharmas is Indra's Net: a net covered in jewels with the special property that each reflects all of the others. Far from pointing to some mystical dimension of reality, it is illustrating śūnyatā in metaphors and symbols rather than concepts. Despite the fact that Buddhists saw pratītyasamutpāda as a Theory of Everything, this more basic idea continued to exist alongside it. Perhaps because meditators seem to revalorise the importance of examining experience and undermine any grandiose philosophising that has been going on, from time to time. 

For most Buddhist intellectuals, for most of Buddhist history, "nature" has been seen as part of saṃsāra. And when Buddhists have imagined paradise, they have imagined it in decidedly unnatural ways: as perfectly flat, covered in precious stones, populated by beings who don't have sex and are born by apparition in gigantic lotus flowers, and so on. If Buddhists were nature lovers, there is little sign of it. It is true that some monastic rules seem to suggest that monks were proto-environmentalists, in fact the principle was that they not be a burden on the people who supported them. 

This has not stopped modern Buddhists from adopting the principles of ecology and environmentalism and claiming kinship between the two worldviews. I think this kinship is far from obvious. That said embracing environmentalism is a sane response to the damage that industrialisation and globalisation has caused and are causing in the world. When the climate of the whole planet is being nudged in a direction that is inimical to human life, any narrative that motivates people to take mitigating actions is better than none. On the other hand this can back-fire as has happened with the story of climate change. Too much of the climate change story has been built on unsound foundations, which has given wriggle room to those who wish to avoid thinking about it. And now it is probably too late to prevent catastropic change, at least James "Gaia" Lovelock thinks so.

On a cautionary note, I think the idea that this translates into "saving the planet" is hubris. The planet, life, will be fine no matter what humans do. It has survived for 3.5 billion years and suffered much worse than our manipulations (e.g. global ice-ages, comet strikes, planetary scale volcanism, mass extinctions). We tend to think of ourselves as the most advanced form of life, but in fact all forms of life presently around are equally evolved. Bacteria are the dominant form of life, with fungi a close second. And this will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Everywhere people have been, excepting space, bacteria beat us to it. From Antarctica to the hottest hot springs; from the upper atmosphere to the deepest depths of the ocean,; in the purest streams to toxic waste dumps; bacteria find a way to live and often share that ability with other species.

At the moment we have the basic metaphors and myths about nature, the environment, and our place in it wrong. What we have all seems to be based in Neoliberal ideology, or to have been developed along it and share the basic values of Neoliberalism. It's not in harmony with how nature actually is. And this means that we are not in harmony with nature, or with each other. We see ourselves all wrong. We only exist inside a series of nested and over-lapping communities. At the moment we are afflicted by parasites that are sucking our blood. If we see to the health of the communities we live in, then the parasites will most likely be dealt with quite incidentally. At least this is what nature is telling us.

In the Triratna Buddhist Order we have this image of the Order as being like the thousand-armed form of Avalokiteśvara and each one of us being like a hand, playing our part in the compassionate activity of the bodhisatva. My implement is a symbolic pen. I like to think of Gaia having a near infinite number of limbs, and every organism playing a part in a harmonious and efficient organism, gloriously surfing the entropy wave together.

~~oOo~~



Further Reading
Lovelock, James. (2000) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford University Press.
Margulis Lynn. (1998) Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. Basic Books.



20 June 2014

Spiritual III: Demesnes of Power

Caged or Fleeced?
from right-wing journal The Spectator
arguing for more individualism. 
So far we've looked only at what the word spiritual means and what frames it is associated with. In other words we've been focussed on the conceptual space delimited by attaching the adjective spiritual to various nouns and verbs. Now we need to think about who is using the adjective to make their nouns and verbs special. And how those people operate within the conceptual space. In other words we need to look at the politics of spiritual. As a first step this essay will outline a view of contemporary Western politics in which modern ideas of identity play an active role in shaping individuals into subjects. This leads into a consideration of the impact of Romanticism on the political landscape and Foucault's view of the subject as a construct whose purpose is subjugation.

Politically spiritual is tied up with notions of authority, and authority is an expression of power. The essay will argue that spirituality is concerned with channelling power in religious communities. In the Buddhist context we take on to surveil and police our own inner life as a service to the community, and as long as we are seen to be doing so, the community repays us in belonging.

Apologies, but this essay is long. I hope not too long that people won't read it, but I can't see how to split my treatment of spritual into any more parts. And in any case I want to move on to other subjects. So to begin with we need to look at the modern idea of selfhood and identity and to see how it is shaped by the discourses of power which have dominated the Western World for some centuries now.



The Modern Self.

"... history is read narcissistically to reconfirm one's present sense of identity and any potentially disruptive awareness of alterity is suppressed." - Lois McNay. Foucault: A Critical Introduction. (p89)

Individualism is one of the guiding lights of modern Western Society. Philosophically it seems to stem from 18th century Utilitarianism and the associated attitudes of Mercantilism. It is epitomised in the trade-fuelled Libertarian governments of the 18th and 19th centuries and more recently in the Neolibertarian governments (conservative and progressive) that have dominated the Western world since at least the 1970s. It's the mentality that, for example, enslaved Indian peasants to grow opium and then went to war with China to make certain of continued profits by ensuring that Chinese peasants consumed the dangerous drug. These days the East India Company has been replaced by the IMF and World Bank, but the bottom line is still profit.

Present-day individualism benefits the rich and powerful in two main ways. Firstly by telling everyone to pursue their own good (their own desires) it divides the population and prevents effective opposition to Neolibertarian aims of creating the perfect conditions for businessmen to become rich and powerful. Secondly it justifies the means used by businessmen to become more rich and more powerful (e.g. political economies based on mythological "market forces"; use of ultra-cheap labour abroad; evasion of taxes; etc.). Individualism gives the illusion of freedom. We are more free to choose our religion in the West than at perhaps any time in history. We have greater choice of breakfast cereals or TV channels too. But we are enslaved to an economic system that regards us as units of production, that characterises every human being as perfectly self-centred, manipulative and ruthless in pursuit of their own best interests. From the point of view of those in power, the religion of the masses and their breakfast cereal have the same value, or at least the same kind of value.

The more we exercise our individual choice, the more society fragments. And the more society fragments the less effective we are as a collective. We out-number the rich and powerful by at least 100 to 1. So we could stop them if we wanted to, just by acting in concert. We've seen a number of successful revolutions in the last few decades where the people simply gathered and demanded change in sufficient numbers that they could not be ignored. Former Soviet Eastern Europe went this way. But because we feel free we don't resist our slavery. "Spiritual but not religious" is one of the most exquisite examples of this pseudo-freedom. We have complete freedom of religious belief because it has no longer has any economic implications. We are encouraged to have our own individualised religion, partly because organised religion is what bound communities together for centuries (perhaps forever). If being spiritual was a real threat to profits, it would be illegal. Where collective action is perceived as a threat, as ironically it is in communist China, then religion is tightly controlled and rouge groups persecuted.

© Tom Toles
Meanwhile we work hard for minimum wage and 2 or 3 weeks of holiday a year, in a world of absolutely astounding productivity and unimaginable wealth. And yet we never have enough. This is a deeply rooted feature of Merchantilism: the poor only work hard enough to meet their needs, so the rich make it almost impossible for them to meet their needs, despite vast surpluses and enormous waste. Think, for example, of all the food going to waste! Estimates in the UK are that 30% of food produced is wasted. All that wasted food helps to keep food prices high, while those who grow it over-supply and cannot earn a living on the prices they get. House prices (in the UK at least) are kept artificially high to hoover up any extra wealth we might accrue. The point at which we might feel we have enough, and might thus stop working so hard, is kept out of our reach.

Merchantilism is predicated on everyone working as hard as they can all the time in the knowledge that worn out workers can easily be replaced. When you accept payment for work, you are expected to give everything you have in return, however low the wage. Of course the system is imperfect, but measurement techniques have become ever more intrusive in recent decades. In addition one of the main messages of the school system is conformity: "do as authority tells you". Schools are able to enact and enforce arbitrary rules such as dress codes and to exclude pupils from eduction is they refuse to conform. In Britain school children routinely wear ties (I still find this shocking). University education is gradually changing for the worst as well, becoming more and more oriented to the demands of Merchantilism.

In addition, government policy consistently encourages high unemployment levels (unemployment is an invention of the Merchantilist system) in order to keep wages down. And while real wages continue to fall, executive salaries rise exponentially. An executive may earn more in a single year than the average employee earns in a lifetime. Of course governments regularly promise full-employment, but they simply cannot afford anything like it. Without high unemployment wages would sky-rocket and severely impact profit. In addition we are constantly encouraged to want more, to buy more by the representatives of companies than make things we don't even need. Thus the goal is always moving, and the game is rigged so that we could never reach it if it was. And yet few of us consider quitting the game. Most of us are not equipped to function outside of society, even the outcasts depend on society.

Many of the gains won by a century of concerted action by labour unions have been eroded or completely lost. The adversarial relationship between labour and capital led to excesses where labour was able to seize power. The UK seems to be firmly on the road back to Dickensian relationship between capital and labour in which all power in the relationship is held by capitalists. Only this time the capitalists are vastly more wealthy than they were in Dickens's time. Wealth has certainly been destroyed by the repeated economic crises since 1973, but the 1% are wealthier than ever.

Most Western states have implemented some kind of "safety net" that were initially conceived of as offsetting the damaging social effects of Merchantilism. The impulse behind the welfare state grew out of humanitarian urges of the late Victorian period and a recognition of the hardship caused by industrialisation and the unemployment that was built into the economy to keep wages low. But in the UK it has grown into a vast control mechanism. The economy is structured so that whole sections of society must rely on welfare payments - which are called benefits. The benefit being the up side of an economy which can simply shut down the industries that provided employment for whole towns and industries, creating long-term, generational unemployment for which the poor are blamed. To take the state pound nowadays is to invite the state to surveil and scrutinise one's life to a degree that would make Catholic priests envious. The state can for example, examine one's bank accounts and engages in regular interrogation of recipients and draconian examinations of "fitness". Despite endemic unemployment the unemployed are seen as morally reprehensible. Taking money from the state is seen in moral terms as incurring a debt, especially by conservatives (the reasoning behind the "moral accounting" metaphor is explored by George Lakoff in Metaphor, Morality, and Politics).

For an alternate view on the modern self see Adam Curtis's documentary The Century of the Self. Curtis explores Freudianism in relation to the rise of democracy. Democracy is seen as releasing the primitive Id of the masses producing the horrors of WWI. The irrational masses required control via the manipulation of their unconscious via propaganda (rebranded as "public relations").
But it's not only the unemployed who are tempted with "benefits". Housing is now so expensive in the UK that a clear majority of new claimants of Housing Benefit (a welfare payment provided specifically for housing costs) are in work. Housing Benefit is a £17 billion annual subsidy to landlords to allow them continue to gouge unreasonable profits from the market and to restrict the supply of housing to keep prices high. At the same time British society promotes the ideal of home-ownership as the acme of individual identity. The agony the average British wage earner is going through is exquisite, and many of them are convinced it is because of bogus reasons such as immigration.

Meanwhile the media don't just sell us things we don't need. Apart tax payer funded broadcasting, all media is paid for by advertising, including most internet content. The media has a vested interest in shaping our behaviour towards consumerism, towards views which promote the goals of Merchantilism. The media began employing psychologists to make their presentations more effective back in the 1920s. (See the Adam Curtis documentary for an account of this). They use subtle techniques to "nudge" our behaviour in a direction that is good for business. For them it was a problem that social conventions were against women smoking for example. So Edward Bernays cooked up a publicity stunt which linked smoking to the suffragette movement and painted cigarettes as "torches of freedom". Great result. Women felt more free by becoming addicted to a harmful poison, and began to die in their millions from tobacco related illnesses. Again the illusion of freedom disguises the reality of bondage.

This is not a conspiracy theory. I don't think that dark cabals are meeting behind closed doors to arrange it. I think its a dynamic of civilisation, an emergent property of the kind of social system we have based on a huge number of factors. And for the most part it's happening in the open. Governments are open about their beliefs and about their methods. The media are less open, but investigations like Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent (a book and a film) have left us in no doubt about how they operate.

So individual identity in modern times is shaped to fit into this worldview, not simply Vitalist and Dualist, but Utilitarian, Merchantilist and (pseudo) Libertarian. Spirituality is no threat to this because it is focussed on the spirit and the immaterial  and leaves the body emeshed in the world and subject to market forces.


The Curse of Romanticism

If we look more closely at the referrants of "spiritual" we see a considerable overlap with the concerns of Romanticism. A concern with the immaterial over the material; with the unseen over the seen; with nature over culture; with experience over reason; with eternal life, even eternal childhood conceived of terms of in spontaneity and innocence, over death and the loss of naivete. The material world is less interesting than the afterlife; human beings less interesting than spirits (the higher and less material the better). According to French mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.
The goal of the spiritual is escape from the material world where we inevitably die and, in the Indian worldview, die repeatedly. We escape (even if only in imagination) the material, relative, contingent world—i.e. saṃsāra—for an immaterial (outside space and time), absolute, eternal world—i.e. nirvāṇa. And when someone like Nāgārjuna tries to point out that the dichotomy is meaningless, we simply invent some new transcendental escape route: e.g. the dharmakāya.

By the beginning of the 20th century most Westerners were politically aware enough to have good reason to distrust authority figures, both spiritual and secular. The wealthy and powerful collude against the poor and oppressed to keep them divided, poor and oppressed. This was made easier by the rise of the middle-class, the administrators and facilitators of the rich and powerful, aspirational with respect to security and comfort and instilled with aristocratic contempt for working people. The popularity of Romanticism also worked to the advantage of business people. A few drug-addled, spoiled brats from the upper-classes who wrote sentimental poetry that made individualism seem desirable for the masses. The kind of freedom from responsibility or the need to work for a living, the kind of freedom that only comes with inherited wealth and privilege, became a thing for everyone to aspire to. Partly as a result of this, people have drowned their awareness in intoxicants and particularly the middle-classes have Romanticised this as a kind of freedom, though as before it leaves their bodies in bondage to profit. After a weekend "on the lash" as the Brits so eloquently call it, Monday morning means a return to bondage. Or after a lifetime of bondage we retire to freedom in old age. Except old age has been consistently redefined to make it less accessible.

At it's worst the hippy movement encouraged everyone, though in effect mainly the newly wealthy middle-class progeny of the post-war baby-boom, to disengage from politics and society. Like their Romantic heroes, the baby-boomers were sexually promiscuous, leading to a huge upsurge in sexually transmitted diseases. They were intoxicated, leading to drug and alcohol addiction with massive impact on families and society, and many new cases of psychosis and early death. And they were free of social conventions which boiled down to political disengagement, allowing conservatives to set the social and political agenda by exploiting the subsequent breakdown in the value of collectivity. Conservatives simply acted in concert and over-whelmed the divided progressives.

After decades of letting conservative business interests set the public agenda, we've got to the point where even the Left implement Neolibertarian economic policies. Sometimes the Left are even more assiduous in pursuing these policies, because they are trying to prove themselves on terms set by conservatives.

Romanticism might have started off as a necessary correction to the mechanistic views of scientists flushed with success as the beginning of the Victorian Era. But it has simply become another way in which we play into the hands of those who would economically enslave us. SBNR is the perfect religious view for a Neoliberal ideology. The political disengagement that typically goes along with individualistic spirituality is perfect for the powerful. Escapism relieves the frustration and tedium of modern work, leaving us resigned to wasting our best years for men who earn more in a year than we will in a lifetime. Contemporary spirituality is escapism. By focussing on the immaterial it denies the value of the material, and this plays into the hands of those who control the material world. We end up fighting Māra's battle for him.


Foucault

Michel Foucault argued that to be a subject is to be subjected - thus providing an important counter-weight to Romanticism. The self we identify with is, in fact, mostly shaped by external forces. Reflecting on my own life I see that my self-view has been shaped by many institutions: schools, church, medical clinics, hospitals, government departments, workplaces, unions, clubs, secret societies, professional associations, the news/entertainment media; by people playing their own social roles: family, in-laws, friends, peers, colleagues, romantic and sexual partners; by people playing various official roles such as doctor, psychiatrist, teacher, priest, politician, police, lawyer, accountant, psychologist, guru; by abstract institutions such as time, wealth, money, wages, taxes, property; by abstract issues such as gender politics, sexual politics, national and international politics, national identity, post-colonialism, multiculturalism; by the fact that I emigrated twelve years ago and had to retrain in many of these areas and add class awareness. The list goes on and on. My personal input into who I am is rather minimal. Virtually every I feel myself to be is inherited or imposed on me rather than emerging out of my being. Sure, my basic psychology is broadly speaking nature; but my identity is almost pure nurture.

Almost all of these institutions aim to subject, to subjugate, me through shaping my subjectivity so that I subjugate myself. That is, for me to see myself as naturally subject to the limits, controls and definitions of society. For me to unthinkingly obey prohibitions and taboos. The constant threat is that failure to conform redefines the transgressor as other. And for the other the rules are different, less optimal, less conducive to well being, often harsh. To be other is to be sanctioned and excluded. The veneer of civilisation on how we treat others is very thin indeed. One sees all this play out in simpler forms in primate societies. It's well worth reading Jane Goodall's book In the Shadow of Man, in order to get a sense of how human society is an extension of basic primate society. The fundamentals are all similar.

Our very subjectivity is a construct which we have built in concert with society from birth. Forget the metaphysics of self, we don't even understand the politics of self. And Buddhism also plays it part in creating an acceptable subjectivity. We use "precepts" as a way of reminding other Buddhists about what is acceptable behaviour: we surveil and police each other. We emphasise that a Buddhist must take on to be ethical, rather than allow ethics to be imposed on us (with explicit comparisons to other ethical systems). When we criticise each other, it is often not for the act itself, but for the failure of self-control, the failure to conform. We explicitly invite others to subject themselves to Buddhist values which we extol as the most sublime set of moral values ever enunciated. Who would not want to subject themselves to sublime taboos, especially when part of the narrative is that no evil thought goes unpunished? Buddhism channels the power inherent in social groups in a particular kind of way, with particular kinds of narratives. It is not exempt or outside this social dynamic, despite all the transcendental narratives, Buddhist humans and still just humans.

Buddhism uses carrots to make obedience seem attractive, and sticks to make disobedience seem frightful. Just like every other primate group. This is how primate groups ensure collective survival. But it is open to exploitation. Even amongst chimps, as the story of monstrous Frodo of Gombe Stream suggests. Frodo used his size and aggression to cow the Gombe stream group and to terrorise neighbouring groups. The usual social controls, often operating through the "person" of the alpha-female, failed with Frodo.

Along with conceptions of subjectivity which are aimed at controlling individuals, Foucault points out the role of institutions which institutionalise social forms of control. We are shaped, but imperfectly and so society creates conditions in which it can exert control over any stray desires and urges that pop up. Religion is a partly a formalisation of certain social controls, aimed at subjecting and controlling the tribe. This has clear survival value. For Buddhists this manifests as belief in karma and enforcing of precepts. Karma is, like God Almighty, a supernatural surveillance agency that knows whether you've been bad or good. Karma makes the Panopticon seem an amateurish fumble. Be good or go to hell, has always been religion's trump card.

Today we don't see ourselves as dependent on friends and neighbours. We see them as accessories, as optional. The average person has just enough individual wealth, and is so steeped in the rhetoric of individualism that they are convinced they can go it alone, or at least with their mate and children in tow. Communities are bound by mutual need. If we assume that we don't need anyone, then we are not part of the community. And divided we are conquered by the more powerful. These days they make our captivity pretty comfortable, and a lot of the time we can forget we live in bondage. We lap up the narratives of virtuality—virtual friends, virtual pets, virtual communities—without seeming to notice that they are virtually useless compared to the real thing.


Authorities and Adepts

Despite rampant individualism, we cannot override the fact that we are a social species. We arrange our society in a uniquely human way, but still retain some features in common with other primates. And I think this insight may point to a weakness in Foucault's attempts to problematise society. We can't really live without it. Which is why we accept virtuality as ersatz society.

Many of us accept authority figures (alpha-individuals) and feel more secure having one around. In effect we like someone to tell us how to be individualistic, like teenagers who dress alike to symbolise their rebellion against conformity. Some of us prefer to try to unseat authority figures whether in an attempt at wresting actual power from them (pretty rare) or in a kind of impotent passive rage against authority generally (pretty common). Some of us have an ideology which is against authority figures on principle, like eternal teenagers. There's a lot of pressure on us to be neotonous, to remain childish because, like children, people with childish ideologies are easy to manipulate. A surprising number of Buddhists seem to be against any authority figure and any form of collectivity.

Every domain has it's authorities and adepts. And the spiritual domain is no exception. Spiritual long referred to that which pertained to the church. 200 years ago adding the adjective spiritual to nouns and verbs was how the Church marked out its demesne. In that tradition becoming an authority in the church was relatively arduous. Priests were often the only educated people in their milieu. The great universities were founded to educate priests during the so-called Dark Ages. However with the modern decline of the power of the church to impose standards and the rise of religious alternatives (particularly the freelance gurus of India), the adjective spiritual has been co-opted by non-church groups. The demesne of spiritual and all it's power and resources is now hotly contested. Anyone can become a spiritual authority or a spiritual adept with no effort or qualification. The demesne is haunted by frauds and hoaxes, but this seems not to slow down the commerce in all things spiritual.

In Buddhism we have a great deal of anxiety over authenticity and authority. We see a lot of ink spilt over whether our scriptures are authentic while modern scholarship, including my own, is constantly casting doubts. If the texts are authentic, then just what authentically are they? Similarly Buddhists enunciate lineages at great length in the hope that this guarantees the authoritativeness of authorities. However, Sangharakshita has shown that lineage is no guarantee of anything: see Forty-Three Years Ago.

This is not a new priority, but visible at all stages of Buddhist literature. The question of who is a spiritual authority and who is a spiritual adept, and just what that entitles them to say and do are constantly under review. It's always difficult to tell. (See How To Spot an Arahant). And of course Western Buddhism has been more or less constantly dealing with the problem of authority figures who defy norms and break rules. It is notable that commentators seem to fall back on Judeo-Christian notions of justice when this happens. A crisis of behaviour almost always becomes a crisis of faith and the faith we grew up with very often shapes our opinions more than our convert beliefs. 

Even the individualist tends to have a "spiritual teacher" someone who is both spiritual themselves in some exemplary fashion and who who is an expert in spiritual practice and thus able to oversee the practice of others. This relationship may be personal or be at arm's length through books and videos. And we may hedge our bets by picking and choosing from spiritual teachers of various kinds. But we still look to someone to define what is spiritual: what we should believe, and what we should do about it. And this gives those who play the role of teacher considerable power. Indeed with direct disciples who abdicate personal authority and decision making to a guru, the problem is even more acute. It's interested that despite early flirtations with spiritual masters, we now tend to follow teachers instead. The obedience implicit in the disciple/master relationship doesn't sit well with individualism and has been famously disastrous on a number of occasions. Being a celibate teacher in a sexually promiscuous society seems to be an especially fraught situation.

I've already touched on the Foucaldian critique of the inner self as envisaged by the Enlightenment. My take on this is that the Enlightenment self, characterised especially by rationality, is a feature of Neolibertarianism via its Utilitarian roots. Utilitarianism is caught up in the Victorian over-emphasis on a particular kind of rationality. We see it in the "rational choice" models of economics, which let the developed world's economies fall into a major recession with (almost) no warning in 2008. I've been critical of this view of rationality in my writing e.g. Reasoning and Beliefs; or Facts and Feelings. Foucault's study of the fate of the irrational person in post-Enlightenment society traces the ascendency of this view. and particularly examines the power exercised over those who seem to be unreasonable or irrational. We can contrast this with the Romanticisation of spirit and the self in reaction to an overly mechanical view of the universe.

The political side of spiritual can be seen in this light: that it represents an exertion of power to control the individual, and that individual consents to be controlled. By obeying norms we find belonging. Belonging is essential to the well-being of human beings, and has always provided one of the strongest levers against the individual: conform or be excluded. In a hunter-gatherer society conformity conveys benefits that outweigh the costs, but in a settled society (with cities etc) the dynamic is far more complex.

In Libertarian ideology this is turned on it's head. In the Libertarian view no benefit can outweigh the cost of conformity. The Neolibertarian ideology is one adopted by the 1% of rich and powerful. It says that everyone is free to make a profit. The fine print however is pure Mercantilism: the person only has value to the extent that they contribute to profit making. Self-employment is fine, even admirable, but unemployment is immoral. In this ideology arguing for more taxation on profit is irrational since it interferes with profit making; in the jargon it's anti-business. The purest form of profit making is the effortless increase in wealth obtained from owning land that goes up in value due to external factors. Profit without effort. It's almost a religion in the UK and almost completely exempt from taxation (compared to wages and profits). To some extent the individualism of SBNR partakes of this ideology. Let no one interfere with my spirituality. Magazines are full of ads promising spiritual attainment with no effort. And there is a spiritual 1% living in relative luxury on the proceeds of this economy.

Attempts to break out of this thought control often take the form of what we in the Triratna Order call therapeutic blasphemy, where one deliberately breaks taboos, such as prohibitions against blasphemy, in order to loosen the grip of a lifetime of conditioning in Christian values. Sangharakshita used this example of positive blasphemy in his 1978 essay Buddhism and Blasphemy (Reprinted in The Priceless Jewel [pdf], 1978), written in response to conviction of the editor and publishers of the Gay News for "blasphemous libel" in 1977 (see BBC summary of the case). The use of antinomian and transgressive practices in Buddhist tantra dating from perhaps the 8th century onwards appears to have a similar purpose.

One might think that Buddhism at least would inform a better kind of government, that countries where Buddhism is the state religion would tend to exemplify Buddhist values. However, the opposite is more often true.


Buddhist Politics

Think for a moment about the forms of government associated with nominally Buddhist countries. Traditional Asian Kingdoms and Empires have been, like their Occidental counterparts, harshly repressive, imperialistic, racist and rigidly hierarchical. There is nothing particularly attractive about the forms of government that have developed in the Buddhist world.

Today the three main Theravāda countries, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, are all run by authoritarian, repressive governments. Either military governments as in Burma, or militaristic. Thailand declared martial law last month.

Mahāyāna countries have not produced more compassionate forms of government on the whole: China, North Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Tibet. Bhutan might be the only exception, but the peasants there really are brainwashed into seeing their royal family as deities to whom they owe fealty, obedience and obeisance. A form of political control once employed by the Tibetans as well. There's nothing particularly admirable about virtually enslaving the peasant population in order to support a huge number of unproductive men. A system that produced a major shortage of marriageable men, and yet such poverty than brothers often clubbed together to share one wife. Of course one cannot condone the Chinese invasion of Tibet on those grounds. The brutal repression of the Tibetans and the widespread destruction of their culture has been heartbreaking. But pre-invasion Tibet is Romanticised by Westerners (this is the theme of Don Lopez's Prisoners of Shangrila which is worth reading).

For those who hope to implement Buddhist control of Western countries the question is this: based on which historical precedent do you see religious government of our countries as a good thing? Churchill did say:
"Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
The governments of nominally Buddhist countries are amongst the most repressive in the world, no matter what period in history we look at. In fact Buddhism makes for poor politics precisely because it is traditionally disengaged. And the engaged part of engaged-Buddhism is coming from external sources. A Green government might be a good thing, but one that values the natural world would mostly likely be better than any form of Buddhist government. No one who denies the reality of people or suffering should have access to power over people.


Conclusion

We'll probably never get rid of spiritual in Buddhist circles, certainly not on my say so. Religious people use the religious jargon of the day, just as the authors of the early Buddhist texts used Brahmanical and Jain jargon. Some times the re-purposing of a word works out, sometimes not. Brāhmaṇa retained its Vedic meaning and caste associations despite attempts to assimilate it, while karman or dharman became naturalised and have now even been Anglicised. The argument over whether or not Buddhism is a religion, or a philosophy, or a spiritual tradition, or whatever, goes on.

And old habits die hard. Spiritual is a word we use partly as a lure, a familiar term for those who are dissatisfied with ordinary life. "Mundane life sucks? Try our all new/old spiritual life, guaranteed 25% more satisfying! We're so confident that you don't get your money back." Spiritual is a handle on what we do that outsiders can grasp and given the jargon laden claptrap some of us come out with, something familiar comes as a relief. It provides what Frank Zappa used to call Conceptual Continuity.

But all of this goes on in an economy of power. Spiritual discourses aim to shape a particular kind of subject for a particular kind of purpose. And the explicit purpose, spiritual liberation, may mislead us into thinking that by taking on the discourses of spirituality we are becoming more free. In fact very few people achieve liberation and most of us are in bondage. Unfortunately the politics of the day is easily able to exploit the myth of liberation to better enslave us. Power exploits our naive dualism and over-concern with the mental or immaterial, to enslave our bodies.

To some extent we suffer from "the world that has been pulled over our eyes to distract us from the truth." This line from The Matrix draws on Gnostic ideas about the world. In fact the rampant escapism of spirituality does make it easier to create compliant, obedient subjects who work hard to create obscene profits for the 1%. Like the middle-classes who facilitated Merchantilism, the cadre of disciples channel power within communities.

But it's not the end of the world. There are benefits to being religious and a member of a religious organisation. Buddhism's lessons on life are actually pretty helpful a lot of the time. The practices are worth pursuing in their own right. It's just that ideally we'd all think about our lives a bit more. And especially reflect on where our views come from.

~~oOo~~



12 June 2009

The Group and the Individual

One of the distinctive teachings of Sangharakshita has been his exploration of the dynamics of groups and individuals in relationship to them. I've always found it helpful to keep in mind. My thinking in this area is also influenced by Colin Wilson's seminal book The Outsider, and by the first spiritual influence in my life: the Richard Bach story Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. I'm also a fan of Jane Goodall's book In the Shadow of Man about her time studying chimpanzees at Gombe Stream which I think provides many insights into our social nature. From these disparate sources and personal experience I have strung together a kind of personal narrative about groups.

We humans are social animals. This is the first thing to understand, and remember. We are social by biology and psychology. We do not have any choice in this matter - as humans we are defined by our relationship to social groups. The average person will participate in a number of groups over their lifetime. Family is the most important in early life, but as soon as we start to socialise outside the family our peers have a massive influence as well. We have school groups - classes, years, school - sports groups, interest groups, political groups, etc. Generally speaking, and genuine loners not withstanding, we operate best in groups - it is natural, and beneficial.

The key quality of a group is that it provides support and stability - of various kinds. As social animals we are psychologically attuned to groups and feel lonely without one. Loneliness can become a pathology. Groups fulfil, or help to fulfil, our biological needs - the lower end of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Groups conserve - they preserve culture, and custom and keep it alive. Again, we don't fair well without these. So groups are necessary and beneficial, but there is a dark side to the group. Groups can become riots or mobs, or can perpetrate larger more heinous corporate acts like slavery and genocide. Groups seem to have the capacity to act in ways that are not simply the sum of their parts, that is not individual behaviour writ large.

Now spiritual growth or progress is, at least as far as Buddhism is concerned, an individual matter. Each individual is responsible for their own conscious acts and the consequences of them. Each one can choose to be moral or immoral, to pursue higher states of consciousness or not. Groups are what Sangharakshita has called the lower evolution - progress is collective, very very slow and limited to the cultural or material sphere. The individual undertakes the higher evolution which is an evolution of consciousness. This focus on the individual consciousness is a relatively new thing in human evolution - dating from only about 2500 years ago. It was the Buddha and his contemporaries in India, Asia, and Europe who began to promote the individual, to examine the individual and to conceive of the individual as the unit of progress rather than the tribe or family or nation. The period when this began to happen is sometimes called the Axial Age - and is broadly speaking the eight centuries centred on the fourth century before the common era.

Now the group generally speaking has two responses to an individual who - for what ever reason - stands apart: assimilation, or anihilation. In the former case the group seeks to coop the member back in, to lull them back to sleep, to coerce them to conform. If this doesn't work, or the group is oriented to the other strategy then the individual is cast out - whether figuratively or literally - or in extreme cases killed. Shunning is a practice common to the Christian and Buddhist traditions for instance! There is a very rare exception to these in the case of the powerful leader. Sometimes someone has such charisma that they single-handedly change the group to their way. But even then things can still turn nasty as many martyrs have discovered.

So any person who sets out on a spiritual journey is likely to experience turbulence in their relationships with groups. This is a given because they are trying to be different. Sometimes old relationships simply break down under the strain. This is something that has to be born by each individual, they don't necessarily set our to break bonds or upset the status quo, but it is almost inevitable at some point. The group values the group per se, over any one individual, and this is why groups persist and are supportive. It is natural for a group to react this way!

A lot of this will be familiar to most people in the FWBO - it's a core Sangharakshita teaching. One of his aphorisms is "the group is always wrong!" However, as is the way with these things the teaching is taken too literally. A manifestation of this is knee-jerk anti-establishment attitudes and behaviour. Sometimes people are simply critical of any group activity or any form of collectivity. This can be seen as a reaction against groups. The person still defines themselves in terms of the group, rather than membership they focus on opposition. Some of this is down to disappointing experiences of organised religions, some to unresolved psychological conflicts, and any number of other reasons. But it ignores our fundamental needs, and is impractical.

One of the first things the Buddha did on becoming enlightened was to set out to tell people what he had discovered. He sought out the most receptive people he knew and they soon saw for themselves the breakthrough. Thus a collective was created that continues to exist in many forms around the globe that we call sangha. As Jamie Lee Curtis's character says in A Fish Called Wanda - "the central philosophy of Buddhism is not 'everyman for himself'". Jump to the future and we find that the sangha needs structures to facilitate communication, it is helpful to have people organising events, and to create venues for practising and teaching. We need these institutions, else we do not create the best conditions for our own practice, and for helping other people to find the Dharma and take up the practice as well.

Like most religious people Buddhists believe that everyone could benefit from doing what we do - I am a fervent believer of this in relation to Buddhist practice, though doubtful about taking on religious beliefs. Although we need to be a true individual, evolving our own consciousness, in practice this is difficult. Supportive conditions, including a positive social network of like minded people, are essential. This means that there is always likely to be a tension between the group and the individual.