Showing posts with label Politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Politics. Show all posts

18 December 2015

The Problem of Class and Popular Buddhism.

Lim Soo Peng
One of the major problems for all Buddhists is that, in the inherited tradition, there are far too many ideas, attitudes, and practices for us to make sense of them all. This is made worse by the many internal contradictions in the tradition. We can really only understand a small subset, usually carefully cherry-picked for consistency. This problem is not helped by the history of repeated schism and reformation. With the formation of sects, differences of opinion about what constitutes orthodoxy (correct opinion) and orthopraxy (correct practice) become polarised and then sclerotic. The opposite happens when syncretic movements come along and combine various elements, including some from other religions, to create new sects. The situation is more complex because the traditional Indian sectarian factions do not always translate to other cultures. So the ancient Chinese, for example, perceived a relatively unified tradition coming from India (cherry picked by Indian and Central Asian monks), but they created their own indigenous factions that fractured along different lines than Indian Buddhism even while retaining some of the Indian sectarian jargon. 

When people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic (WEIRD) countries (henceforth "weirdos") began to interact with Buddhism they also suffered from this problem of information overload. And like the Chinese and Tibetans they also had their own agendas, their own culture, history, and politics that shaped the way that they saw Buddhism and the way they used it. In order to make Buddhism manageable, weirdos did what other cultures have done. They sorted Buddhist ideas, attitudes, and practices into categories, using their own perceptions of some traditional categories overlaid with local ideas.

A particular obsession for weirdos is the myth of original Buddhism as a category. Original Buddhism includes some aspects of received Buddhism and excludes others based on WEIRD values as the main criteria (this is also called Buddhist Modernism). To some extent this preoccupation with "origins" and "original" emerges out of the Protestant movement. Protestantism was founded on a rejection of the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the day and an attempt to, as they saw it, return to a more authentic religious experience in line with "original" Christianity. In this case the Bible, as a record of the original Christianity, was the guarantor of authenticity. Contrarily they relied on the Bible in vernacular languages to convey this authenticity. On the other hand, this pre-occupation is one that many Buddhists through history have shared. Buddhists like to claim that their teachings reflect the original ideas of the putative founder of the religion, with accretions removed and distortions corrected. Many lineages were artificially constructed so as to suggest that innovations could be traced to the Buddha for example.

One of the criteria that weirdos bring to categorising Buddhism is class. I'm not entirely sure that I fully understand class, but these are some observations which draw on my attempts to understand the British class system over the last decade and a half. One of the themes that I will try to explore here is the way that concerns with class and authenticity overlap in WEIRD Buddhism.


European ideas about class are still decisive in understanding British culture. For centuries land owners and capitalists have demonised working people as lazy and immoral (see Mercantilism: Six Centuries of Vilifying the Poor). To combat these perceived failings, those in power have always organised matters so that the poor have to struggle to make ends meet. In a world where computers and mechanisation have increased productivity a thousand-fold, the pressure is always on the poor to work harder and for less wages, while the wealthy take an every greater share of the profits produced by labour. A recent New Economics Foundation report showed that only 61% of British workers have a secure job that pays a living wage, in the same week that our government hail the lowest post-crash unemployment figures. Wages are so low, at the low end, that many full-time workers require government handouts to make ends meet. In today's world there is no a priori reason why anyone should work hard, because we could all meet our basic needs with minimal effort. In order to justify everyone working hard, working hard has become an end in itself, become a virtue, almost a sacrament. Hard work purifies the poor and makes them worthy (in this worldview). To help rationalise working hard, we are also under constant pressure to participate in aspirational consumerism (including snobbery about products and brands). Since the 1970s this has focussed on using credit to buy what we do not need and cannot afford. Once in debt, one cannot stop working (see my account of debt and morality in Why Killing is Wrong).

The wealthy of Europe despise working class people despite the fact that their labour is still a primary source of wealth - they are like vegetarians who hate vegetables. A sort of general disdain is explicit everywhere in the British class system. In the class worldview, being poor is a sign of laziness and immorality; being rich is a sign of industriousness and virtuousness (despite all evidence to the contrary). And working people are generally poor, at least by comparison with the upper classes, because of the structure of the economy. The wealthy of Britain, aided by the middle-classes (as administrators and managers), systematically oppress the workers and try to ensure that work is oppressive. In the relatively liberal times of the post-WWII years, the distribution of wealth in the UK evened out to some extent (working people could afford to own their own home for example). Similarly pay and working conditions improved under the influence of labour unions for about a century, until the 1980s when the powers of unions were legislated away by a parliament determined to shift the balance of power back towards the idle rich. Since then trend is reversing so that pay and working conditions are being degraded, inequality is on the rise, and the wealthy are consolidating their grip on power. There is class war here already, it's just that it's not the proletariat who are waging it. (see for example my economics blog on the government's use of non-linear warfare techniques).

What I particular want to draw attention to here is that the first substantial European contacts with Buddhism were: some of the most important meetings happened amongst the elite of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, amongst the sons of wealthy industrialists and minor aristocracy, at a time when the poor had almost no rights: they could not vote; were subject to cruel punishments such as execution or transportation to Australia for relatively minor breaches of law; had lost access to common lands etc. By contrast, privately educated, privileged, wealthy young men, who saw themselves as exercising the natural right of their class to rule the world. (See particularly the Evolution and Empire section of my essay The Politics of Evolution and Modernist Buddhism) found roles as administrators in the Empire or as mid-level officers in the military forces that kept the Imperial thumb on the "natives". Some of the main characters are evoked in detail in Charles Allen's book The Buddha and the Sahibs. All credit to those men. They had the independence of mind, the confidence, and enough freedom from convention to go out and rediscover Indian Buddhism and the education to begin to decrypt what time had encrypted. But we need to see them in context: they saw their domination of India and of Europe as a natural consequence of their innate superiority. It was these men who set the template for the British engagement with Buddhism. Through them the idea of "original Buddhism" became a foundation myth of WEIRD Buddhism. The rediscovery of Indian Buddhism sparked off a series of attempts to rediscover what the original Buddhism, taught by the Buddha might have been like.

Popular Buddhism

How WEIRD Buddhists
imagine themselves
Class, colonialism, and the original Buddhism myth gave rise to fault-lines in Buddhism from the WEIRD point of view. Original Buddhism was sharply distinguished from what we can call "popular Buddhism". Popular Buddhism is the Buddhism practised by the despised classes, i.e. working people and the poor generally. And in Asia this meant not simply workers and labourers, but foreign and dark-skinned workers. The history of racism in British culture at home and as a feature of British Imperialism is complex. It would be foolish to characterise it in simplistic and one-sided terms. But racism has certainly been a feature of British identity and to some extent it remains a marginal feature. Racism is still prevalent in pockets. In Victorian times, and until quite recently, ordinary working people in Buddhist countries were almost inevitably characterised in classist and racist terms as child-like, irrational, superstitious, foolish, and credulous. Forms of Buddhism practised by such people could hardly be taken seriously by the weirdos. When it comes to Buddhism this attitude has not really changed. If the masters of the poor in these countries were at least rich, they were also seen to participate in the same superstitions and to place themselves at the feet of monks. So they could not be taken seriously either.

Modern day Indian Buddhists
In contrast to the labouring people and their superstitious masters were the wealthy, largely indolent, and often corpulent monks, who had long since eliminated women from their ranks. At this point "forest" monks were completely invisible. Monasteries often controlled the land the workers laboured on and ordered the lives of the poor through "education". The first item of education for every lay person being how to treat monks with respect. Clearly these monks had a lot more in common with the representatives of Empire than with their own subjects. They were wealthy, literate, and actually venerated by the people. If there was ever going to be a meeting of minds between Asian Buddhists and WEIRD ex-Christians then it was between monks and colonial administrators.

Before long, the idea that Theravāda monks were the true representatives of Buddhism in Europe was cemented. I think the dynamic was different in the USA. Americans got interested in Buddhism almost a century later, after the fall of the British Empire and at a time when the USA was emerging as a world superpower, along with the rise of the military-industrial complex. Buddhism caught on amongst the counter-culture which was looking for non-conformist role models and alternative visions (this is something of a theme in US history anyway).  Americans seem to find the Romantic figure of the Japanese Zen master attractive. The true individual, living in a militaristic state, but free of social conventions. Later "crazy" Tibetan gurus played into the same myth. Similarly the lay run Pure Land organisations struck a chord with American Protestantism, where in Europe it offended the hierarchical sensibilities.

Class and Popular Buddhism

So, in Europe the congenitally wealthy, university educated elite were the first intermediaries, interpreting Buddhism, and setting the agenda for engaging with Buddhism from the beginning and through the formative period of many WEIRD Buddhist organisations. In Britain, Buddhism is still largely the preserve of the middle-aged, aspirational, middle-classes and the academy. Popular Buddhism is still largely despised by mainstream Buddhist groups. There is a tendency to look down on those who does not conform to the "original Buddhism" myth. "Popular Buddhism" is a term of derision and dismissal. But popular Buddhism is by definition popular. The vast majority of the hundreds of millions of Buddhists in the world practice some form of what we would call popular Buddhism, or to hone in on the problem from the WEIRD point-of-view, they are traditional lay Buddhists who do not meditate.

Within WEIRD approaches to Buddhism there are two broadly based camps: Rationalist and Romantic, both strongly affected by class attitudes. The original Rationalists and Romantics were both part of an educated elite. Rationalists embraced the Enlightenment and perhaps over-identified with it. Romanticism grew out of rejection of the excesses of rationalism. Contemporary Modernism  Buddhism is a mish-mash of these.

Rationalists disastrously misinterpreted the nature and function of reason. Basing themselves on preconceptions that probably go back to ancient Greece, they misunderstood reason as an abstract, disembodied, purely logical process distinct from embodied processes like emotions. They marginalised emotion in their philosophy, and set in motion a number of dehumanising political and economic memes that we are still struggling with today - the most egregious being Free Market Capitalism (driven now by Game Theory).

In the Rationalist account of Buddhism, original Buddhism must have been rational because Rationalists identify with the rational elements in our own history. In this account traditional Buddhists are getting it wrong because they practice magic and superstition. They are also wrong to venerate monks who do not exemplify the values of the enlightenment, but are more like the Catholic priesthood that Martin Luther was rebelling against. Ironically, it's unlikely that the Iron Age Indians shared the Victorian misconceptions about reason. In this account the Buddha is a man with an ethical plan to make us all better people through enabling us to govern our emotions through logic. The person is inadvertently personified in the TV and film character of Commander Spock of the Starship Enterprise. A "man" who tries to live by logic alone, though he clearly fails and is constantly rediscovering his human side. 

In the Romantic account of Buddhism the Buddha was a mystic who discovered the true nature of reality (a Western preoccupation that has no parallel in early Buddhist thought) by breaking through the illusion of the world to the world beyond. The other world, the true world, is beyond rational thought, beyond comprehension and can only be experienced, it cannot be talked about. Sometimes it takes the form of realising an inner essence which is the world as well (a meme from the early Upaniṣads). In this account, traditional Buddhists are getting it wrong because they do not meditate and therefore can never experience the liberating mystical insight of the Buddha. Propitiating monks and spirits is all very well, but unless one has the mystical experience for oneself, one is just going through the emotions. Not meditating is a form of surrender to the mundane world, virtually a capitulation to Materialism. Ironically the Iron Age Indians certainly did not share the Romantic view of emotions. Romantics disastrously misinterpreted the nature and function of emotion. They saw emotions as more authentic than reason and cultivating strong emotions as a way to be more authentic. Romantics tend to fall victim to the dualistic fallacy of the matter/spirit dichotomy - emotions being associated with spirit and reason with matter.

Most Buddhists are exposed to both of these narratives and to some extent draw on both of them when they conceptualise Buddhism. The result is unsurprisingly confused. The Buddha was a man who transcended his humanity through mystical experiences. Out of these mystical experiences came a supremely rational, ethical teaching. One seeks to understand the nature of reality (by most definitions, an objective realm independent of experience) by paying attention to experience, though even in Buddhist psychology experience is inherently subjective. Buddhism must be rational, but not too rational. And mystical, but not too mystical. The true Buddhist experiences an abundance of certain emotions, but never the wrong kind. We seek a non-dual matter/spirit duality. The contradiction, it seems, is seldom apparent to believers.

The one thing that everyone is agreed on is that traditional Buddhists are doing it wrong and that the taint of popular Buddhism is to be avoided. WEIRD Buddhists (including so-called "secular "Buddhists) are still trying to eliminate all the pesky "popular" elements from Buddhism, to purify it and to refine away the dross from the ore of received tradition to expose the pure gold of original Buddhism. 


In the WEIRD world Buddhism is still largely the preserve of educated, middle-class, Baby-boomers. In fact religion generally is in decline as more and more people reject it, and generations of believers simply die out. Buddhism does continue to attract new converts within this atmosphere of rejection and distrust but in quite small numbers. Middle-class British people are aspirational, which generally conflicts with Buddhisms rejection of material aspiration. The middle-classes embrace the values and attitudes of the upper-classes and aspire to "rise up" to that level (metaphors of verticality are embedded in discussions of religion: see for example Metaphors and Materialism). Hence the popularity of TV shows like Downton Abbey. They are fascinated by the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and can never get enough dramas set in the upper-classes. They reject the values and attitudes of the working-class.

Simon Evans on 
Stand Up for the Week.

The idea that the working classes might become aspirational is frightening because it is associated with Communism. At the very least labour unions in Britain were capable of causing havoc and holding the country to ransom to line their own pockets. The aspirations of the working classes must be deflected into triviality or at least into the desire to become middle-class. Where middle-class people have become slaves to their credit cards, working poor people have tended to suffer more from loan-sharks. And as educated, middle-class, right-wing comedian, Simon Evans, pointed out in 2013, "the poor are fat". The obesity epidemic is disproportionately prevalent amongst the poor. Evans is highlighting, tongue in cheek, that problems like obesity prevent the poor from changing their situation. The fact that the wealthy have promoted cheap food that is packed with sugar, salt, and fat because it is an easy way to make a profit (just like dealing crack is easy once you get people addicted). Then a paternalistic state tuts at the poor choices made by the poor and seeks to "nudge" them in the right direction while leaving the wealthy shit-food manufacturers to make an "honest" living. Similarly the onus is on addicts to stop smoking, rather than on tobacco companies to stop selling their toxic weed.

The theme of making Buddhism "accessible" to working class people is one that has been explored in the middle class media. For example Tricycle Magazine: "Making Buddhism accessible to working-class people." (1 Aug 2011). Google "working class Buddhism" and one sees a slew of such articles, (which also suggest that the class problem is just as prevalent in the USA). The fact is that most WEIRD Buddhist organisations not only do not cater for popular Buddhism, but we do not countenance popular Buddhism. We are not interested in popular religion. Our identity is partly bound up in being an elite. And like the elite in the British class system, we think that we are destined to rule the world (sort of). We like to think that we can save the human race from itself and that when humanity finally realises that we are the saviours, that they will thank us. We think, "If only they would follow our example", but frankly if our example was so amazing the world would be beating down our doors wanting to know our secret. The fact is that most of us are ordinary, at best, and do not inspire mass appeal. We simultaneously reject what is popular and wish that what we do value would become popular.

The fact is that most people don't want to devote time to individual religious exercises. They have families, peers, social obligations and favour communal activities that strengthen their sense of belonging - that why our churches are empty and our massive football stadiums are full on the weekend. We tell them that social obligations are a hindrance, because there are suttas that say so. We often fail to see that even monks have social obligations. Unless they already see these obligations as a hindrance, then people are unlikely to be receptive to our message. If they do see social obligations as a hindrance they're likely to be maladjusted to life and make poor practitioners. We Buddhists have not fully grasped, it seems, the social nature of the human being. Or we try to take the place of a social group - but still rejecting the "trivial" socialising that forms an effective human group. On one hand the general decline of religion tells us something important about what we might offer then as a religion. On the other hand what people want from religion (a social context, consolation for the unfairness of life and death, etc) we tend to look down on. It's no great surprise that Western Buddhism has not inspired mass conversion and that we barely number 1% of the population (including traditional Buddhists!). On the contrary, it's amazing that we have attracted so many people to our worldview.

A lot of my recent work has involved doing archaeology on Buddhist ideas and trying to show that major innovations are usually based on perceived deficiencies in the Buddhist tradition. For example I have tried to show how the problem of action at a temporal distance, that emerges from the internal conflict between pratītyasamutpāda and karma, proved deeply problematic for Buddhists. It gave rise to ideas like the Doctrine of Momentariness, the Sarva-asti Doctrine, and the Ālayavijñāna. One conclusion that emerges from this is that modern critiques and polemics are not necessarily simply misconceptions of a fundamentally sound and sensible tradition. On the contrary at various points in history the tradition of the day perceived the received tradition as unsound and nonsensible and set out to rectify the problem. So criticism per se is not necessarily problematic. And critics are not necessarily heretics - the most influential Buddhists have always been critics, not to say polemicists. 


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.


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. 


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.


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.

10 April 2015

Will the Dalai Lama Reincarnate?

Over the last couple of years Tenzin Gyatso, aka the 14th Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan people has been dropping hints about the tradition of his reincarnation. When China joined in the conversation it was briefly mainstream news, covered by, amongst others, the BBC and the Economist. Some of the news coverage is sort of neutral in a bemused way. The world is still intrigued by a religious leader who has charisma. Some of it (like the Economist editorial) is openly hostile to the Chinese and passionately in favour of the Tibetans and the religious traditions of Tibet.

In answer to the question "Will the Dalai Lama Reincarnate?" we must, of course, say, "sorry, but no such thing is possible" (See There is No Life After Death, Sorry). The facts of death are not entirely relevant to the question, however, because the continuity of wealth and power is more important than the metaphysics. The wealth and power associated with the office of Dalai Lama is such that without a reincarnation a serious crisis would ensue as contenders sought to fill the power vacuum and control the wealth and property associated with the office - including that in Tibet and elsewhere.

The Tibetan word tulku (sprul sku) means something like "incarnation body". It refers to a select group of Tibetan individuals who are said to have the ability to reincarnate.  That is, they are not simply forced by the logic of the Buddhist doctrine of karma to undergo rebirth in which the connection between the dead and the reborn beings is one of conditionality. Instead, the same being is reborn with their personality. Beings able to do this are thought to be bodhisattvas of the highest order, who come back time and again "to help beings". The fact of Tibet's previous policy of isolation never really comes up in definitions of these compassionate beings who for centuries only reincarnated in Tibet. This is because the myths and superstitions surrounding the institution hide a far more mundane purpose. 

My view has long been that there is nothing particularly "spiritual" about this phenomenon. Apart from the fact that it violates the Buddhist metaphysical rules of life after death (by maintaining a continuity where none can exist), it is more obviously related to political and economic problems faced by a celibate clergy who amass wealth and power. The Catholic church forbade marriage and progeny to its priests in order to prevent the watering down of Church wealth and power by seeing it leak away to progeny. In Japan the opposite happened, with once celibate monks marrying and passing on control of monasteries to their oldest male child (primogeniture is another way to prevent the dilution of wealth through generations). Just so, it is the continuity of power that drives the tulku system. Not only is there personal continuity, but tulkus retain ownership of property.

It might be worth re-emphasising that Buddhist monks and monasteries have historically accumulated enormous wealth and wielded considerable political power. Buddhists benefit from a culture of donations to monasteries and clergy and from tax exemption. Occasionally this has bankrupted the state in which Buddhists function. Historical research also shows that far from being passive recipients of cash, monks were almost always involved in commerce and usury. The quaint myth of monks not handling money is a good story, but in fact any long established monastery is probably very wealthy and the current crop of monks are in charge of using that wealth and the power it represents for good or ill. Once wealth accumulates, there are inevitably disputes over who controls it and how that control is passed on from generation to generation. It is in this light that we must see the tulku system in Tibet.

Until the Chinese invasion of Tibetan the monasteries controlled a huge majority of the land and capital in Tibet. Tibet was a religio-feudal state. According to one newspaper report:
"Until 1959... around 98% of the population was enslaved in serfdom. Drepung monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa, was one of the world's largest landowners with 185 manors, 25,000 serfs, 300 pastures, and 16,000 herdsmen. High-ranking lamas and secular landowners imposed crippling taxes, forced boys into monastic slavery and pilfered most of the country's wealth – torturing disobedient serfs by gouging out their eyes or severing their hamstrings." The Guardian. 11 Feb 2009
The idea that Tibet was some kind of paradise when the Chinese invaded is a Romantic fantasy. Which is not to say that the Chinese approach was desirable either. According to the same article, life expectancy has almost doubled since 1950 to just 60 years. Indeed the inequity of life in Tibet was one of the excuses given by the Chinese for invading and sacking the monasteries of Tibet. In this we see reflections of the great Tang purges of the mid 9th century or the similar program in 16th Century Britain. While there is no excuse for the cruelty and violence of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, it will help to see it in the context of historical conflicts between religious institutions and governments. 

The wealth of the Tibetan nation was tied up in monasteries run by an elite of men (the ecclesiastical hierarchy was strictly patriarchal). Wealth on such a scale poses serious succession problems when the owners die. Since the stakes in terms of influence and power are extremely high, the machinations that would go with succession were particularly complex. The Tibetans solved this in a unique way. In its mature form what happens is this: after a leader dies, their estate (land, personal property, and notional charisma) is held in trust for them, usually a designated alternate from amongst the elite takes control, or in some cases a regent is appointed to administer the estate (or in the Dalai Lama's case the state) in the mean time. After 3 or 4 years have passed a search begins, guided by divination and other superstitious methods, for a precocious infant boy born at the right time. The infant must pass some tests, though anyone familiar with children of this age and the role of double blind testing will be able to surmise how the chosen child makes the "right" choices. 

The selected child is then cloistered and rigorously (and to some extent ruthlessly) trained for about 20 years to literally become their predecessor. Because of the psychological conditioning involved in the training, and since the curriculum is always the same, it tends to produce the same kind of individual: one well suited to being in charge of the wealth of Tibet. Just as the Francis Xavier is thought to have said "Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man", so the Tibetans rely on the power of conditioning to shape early promise into just the right kind of ruler. 

One moving account of the harsh training endured by tulkus can be found in the biography of Dhardo Rinpoche (see Suvajra. The Wheel and the Diamond : The Life of Dhardo Tulku. Windhorse Publications, 1991). Of course not all boys make it through the training and become the right kind of man. But those who don't are generally treated with kindness and allowed to retire quietly. In the past the tulkus operated like kings and barons; now they operate like Vatican officials. 

As it happens this is kind of religious totalitarianism was a very efficient form of government and created relatively stable political conditions in Tibetan, and certainly allowed the monks to wield an almost absolute control over the populace that Communist China could only dream of. However, no system is perfect and we know from the present Dalai Lama's own biography that power-struggles occur. The dissension of Kelsang Gyatso against the rest of the Gelugpa Order is an example that has been much studied and commented on in the West. And indeed the succession problems within his movement, the New Kadampa Tradition, or even in the organisation founded in American by Chögyam Trungpa, make for interesting reading. 

The present Dalai Lama is the product of this political system. Negotiations having broken down, the Communist Chinese invaded and annexed China in 1949-50. Gyatso was handed the dictatorship of Tibet aged just 15 because a leaderless Tibet was too vulnerable. However, after nine years of tense collaboration, there was an uprising and subsequent purge of the Tibetan government. Gyatso fled Tibet and became the leader of the Tibetan diaspora. He is still revered as a god in Tibet, however, and this continuing worship of him has been a bone of contention between the Tibetan people and the Chinese authorities. It is true that in recent times Gyatso has tried to hand political power to the Tibetan refugee community, instituting elections for the government in exile, but he continues to be the only Tibetan politician known to the outside world, both a figurehead and spokesman for the Tibetan Liberation campaign. He is also the head of the Gelug order and thus controls its extensive property and wealth. 

As time has gone on and it has been increasingly obvious that China is not planning to hand Tibet back to the Tibetans, and that world governments have no interest in getting involved except to complain about China's human-rights record from time to time. China routinely ignores such passive interventions as they know that the world has no leverage with which to make them change. In a sop to the exiles, the UN offered to recognise the same ecclesiastical titles for Tibetan leaders that representatives of the Roman Catholic Church use. Thus devotees now routinely refer to the Dalai Lama by the Pope's traditional title of His Holiness while other important clergy are referred to as Cardinals, i.e. His Eminence.  His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso has tried various strategies to shift Chinese intransigence on Tibet: attempts at cajoling, shaming, and finally negotiation and compromise all failed. China has nothing to gain by negotiating.

Tenzin Gyatso has aged well and lived to a ripe old age, but he is now old and will soon die. And with increasing age has come the realisation that his death will either trigger the traditional search for his replacement. The Tibetan community in exile has experimented with non-Tibetan tulkus with decidedly mixed results. The Spanish toddler Osel Hita Torres was "recognised" as important Tibetan leader, Lama Yeshe, by the Dalai Lama and along with the training had many special powers attributed to him as befits a saint. But he balked at the rigorous training and ended up dropping out. Many of his inherited disciples apparently still believe he is Lama Yeshe, though its not entirely clear how they rationalise his apparent indifference to what they believe. 

Over the last five years or so Gyatso has made a number of passing statements about this reincarnation and produced a document outlining the variations on the tradition that might apply (for example this statement from 2011). He has toyed with reincarnating in the West (less often since "Lama Yeshe" crashed and burned), with reincarnating as a woman, and other variations. However, in the last year his message has come into focus on the question of whether he will reincarnate at all. He has hinted that he might not. The hints appear to be testing the water to see how his idea plays out in various spheres. Why would the man/god who has come back to spread compassion amongst all beings for 14 lifetimes, suddenly decide to stop? Is the world now so full of compassion that it does not need any more? Or is it that the Tibetan people no longer need his leadership. Sadly the reasons appear to be far less "spiritual".

It's been obvious for years now that with the Chinese ensconced in Tibet they can and do control who is chosen as a tulku and what training they receive. This was the case with the Panchen Lama, of whom there were two incarnations, one acknowledged by the Tibetan community in exile and one by the Tibetans in Tibet and Chinese government. The former candidate disappeared. A similar thing happened with the Karmapa, the head of the Kagyu Order, who also goes by the Vatican title His Holiness. It is apparent that when Gyatso dies that there will be at least two candidates for the post of Dalai Lama. One will be found in Tibet proper, endorsed by the Chinese, and installed in the Potala Palace; and another will be found, probably in India amongst the diaspora and denounced by the Chinese as an imposter. The people of Tibet, being rather superstitious, will be in a difficult position to say the least. They worship the Dalai Lama as the living embodiment of their religion, as a god in effect if not in reality. If the boy who takes over is raised by the Chinese to be open to continued Chinese rule then Tibet loses hope of independence for generations to come. Only the complete collapse of China could undo such a development. Remember that no other world power is even willing to acknowledge Tibet's right to independence, let alone willing to come to their assistance in resisting the Chinese occupation.

We get some sense of how unlikely the suggestion that the Dalai Lama will not reincarnate is likely to be taken. Dhardo Rinpoche also said that he would not reincarnate and his wealth is strictly small beer. But this did not stop the Tibetan establishment from seeking out and installing a boy as his successor. It seems unlikely in the extreme that the Tibetan establish or the Tibetan people would accept the end of the institution of the Dalai Lama. 

This is the situation facing the ageing Tenzin Gyatso. With him will die all hope of independence for his people precisely because he is an embodiment of a bizarre system of religious governance that invests him and his successors with an almost absolute power, not to mention considerable wealth. We can easily imagine that he now curses, albeit it in a kindly and jovial way, the centuries of tradition that has left him in this position. Few of the 14 Dalai Lamas are interesting enough to be remembered as individuals, but he will be remembered as the last before the total control of Tibet by the Chinese. Many people find the Dalai Lama an inspiring figure. He certainly has grace under pressure and embodies many of the values that Buddhists hold dear. But the tradition will mean that the world will treat his reincarnation with all the respect he has earned. And that successor will almost certainly be a Chinese puppet. 

An interesting side-issue is that Tibetan Buddhism is once again becoming popular in Mainland China as restrictions on religious observances are relaxed along with economic strictures of Maoism. Thus, not only will the government control the Tibetan people by proxy, but it will also mean that they retain control over Buddhists who give allegiance to the Dalai Lama. It is this question of loyalty to the state that has undone many of the minor cults that have sprung up over the years, with Falun Gong being a stand-out. For any state, the problem with religious people, of any sort, is where their allegiance lies (the same concern is regularly articulated here in Britain and in the coming election immigration is a major issue). China expects and demands allegiance to the state. Not only is this a Communist doctrine, but it fits with centuries old Confucianist doctrine of filial piety as well. If they are smart, the Communists will be paying attention to history, and in particular how the emperors of the Sui and Tang periods used Buddhism to legitimise their absolute power. Control of the Dalai Lama means his unwavering endorsement of and support for their government. 

Almost everyone will have noted the irony of the government of China insisting that the Dalai Lama reincarnate per the religious traditions of Tibet. I doubt anyone has failed to grasp why they have weighed in on this matter. For all that the political system of pre-invasion Tibet was oppressive by modern standards and rife with inequalities of all kinds, no one would have wished the devastation wrought on Tibet by the Red Army still full of revolutionary zeal, nor the China-wide catastrophe that was the Cultural Revolution. The carnage was on a par with the worst ravages of 19th century European imperialism in the Americas, Africa, India and Polynesia. And that is saying something. The continued economic imperialism from China and attempts to suppress Tibetan culture continue to be a source of misery and discontent for some Tibetans. History shows that people's who are colonised and become dispossessed fair very badly. So in criticising traditional Tibet, I am in no way endorsing Chinese rule.

That said, one cannot deny that in this latest move the Chinese are playing the politics of Tibet in a masterful fashion. Compared to the clusterfuck that is modern Western imperialism in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Chinese have been very astute in biding their time and preparing the ground for a take-over of the office of Dalai Lama, which will cement the relationship between the two countries. The Chinese have played the long game and are about to win a generational victory. They will almost certainly never have this kind of control over the Uighurs for instance, because there is no single point of leverage like the Dalai Lama. The unique form of government used for centuries in Tibet to maintain almost absolute power over the Tibetan people has been their undoing. It is precisely ability to mould a promising infant into a leader that the Chinese government will exploit to control Tibet in the stead of a dictatorship of Buddhist monks.

When Buddhist countries (and I think we can include China in this) conceive of such anti-liberal, anti-democratic forms of government, it must give us pause to think about whether the goal of a Buddhist world is really worthwhile pursuing. As I've pointed out previously, Buddhists countries all too often have authoritarian, dictatorial, not so say, militaristic governments. At the very least Buddhist countries are no less likely to be dictatorships that those infused with other religions. In practice Buddhism seems to have very little to offer in terms of governance, at least going by historical manifestations. Having studied the history of Buddhism, I find myself strongly in favour of secular democracy (with proportional voting) as the least worst form of government. 


07 November 2014

Why I am Not a Feminist.

Entertainer Bill Bailey
is a feminist, apparently. 
I don't like our Prime Minister David Cameron. I don't like him personally. I can't stand his puffy face, his mannered voice, or his inflated moralising tone. I certainly don't like his politics (to the extent they are visible over and above his pandering to various right-wing interest groups). I usually refer to him as David Camoron. As hateful a public figure as I've ever known.

Last week he fell foul of the media for not capitulating to pressure from women's fashion magazine, Elle, to be photographed wearing a tee-shirt with the legend "This is what a feminist looks like". This was after Opposition leader, Ed Miliband, and coalition partner and Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, were pictured in the media wearing a version of the tee-shirt. Leaving aside that Ed and Nick are rating very badly in the polls in the lead up to a general election and are apt to do anything that might win a vote, and leaving aside the detrimental effects on women from reading magazines like Elle, a lot of men have been donning the tee-shirt and/or declaring that they are feminists. Looking at the men (mostly entertainers and politicians) wearing these tee-shirts they all seem to be famous for two things: craving attention and craving approval. Neither profession is the acme of moral rectitude or (self) respect.

The attitude seems to be that if you are for gender equality then you are a feminist. I find this peculiar. I suppose these men who declare themselves to be feminists are trying to express solidarity with women's struggle for equality and against oppression. While I also feel a sense of solidarity for women's struggles, I don't imagine that this makes me a feminist any more than loving women makes me a lesbian. This tee-shirt incident and some other cues got me thinking about my relationship to feminism.

Feminism as I Understand it.

My education in Feminism was ad hoc and informal. My mother self-identified as a feminist from my earliest memories of her (at least from the early 1970s) though I couldn't really give a coherent account of that that entailed (mostly it seemed to be about hating my father and various other men). When I moved to Auckland and started attending high-school many of my friends were women and this has continued to be true my whole life. I've always respected intelligence wherever I've found it. One of my close friends at high-school, Mary, was a much more thoughtful feminist, who became an academic and does research in Women's Studies and Sociology. We had many discussions in the 1980s and 1990s about some of the basic ideas of Sociology and Feminism. I wasn't always convinced (particularly on the subject of the gender identity nurture/nature argument), but I could see that women had been oppressed historically and that despite some gains there was still some way to go. 

Some of my women friends at university in the mid-1980s were ideological Feminists who were entranced by Dale Spender and similar authors. It was from these friends ca. 1985 that I first heard the idea that "all men are rapists and that's all they are" (a quote from a character in Marilyn French's 1977 novel The Women's Room). My friends tried to argue that this was in fact true and worked through the logic with me. At the time this left me speechless. Did my friends really think of me as a rapist and only a rapist? Rape being such a heinous crime, to be lumped in with rapists because I was born male was a bit of a shock. This remains one of my strongest impressions of feminism. 

After graduation and a period of drifting, I began a 15 year career as a Librarian. 90% of librarians are women. All of my bosses were women during this period. Most of the professional women I knew in that phase of my life were self-described feminists and were also reading French, Spender and other Feminists. I never had a problem working for and with women in general. I admired many of the women I worked for and with.

Some of the key figures in my intellectual development since have also been women. My first meditation teacher was a woman called Guhyaprabhā. Sue Hamilton transformed my understanding of Buddhism to the point where I am effectively a Hamiltonian. Jan Nattier is my idol as a researcher and writer. Collett Cox helped me to understand the Sarvāstivāda and the larger problems in Buddhist Doctrine. My views on evolution were profoundly influenced by reading Lynn Margulis, who was also a vocal feminist (I'm persuaded by her views on Darwinism and Victorianism). I also trained with some formidable women martial artists back in the day. The country I grew up in gave women the vote in 1896, I believe we were the first country in the world to do so. New Zealand prides itself on egalitarianism and also led the world in equality and anti-discrimination measures for women.

As a result it seems straightforward and indisputable to me that, for example, woman ought to receive equal pay for equal work; or that women ought not to be discriminated against simply for being female. I actually find the segregation of women in sports odd. Except perhaps for contact sports, where physical size is an issue, I see no reason to have separate women's leagues in most sports. It shocks me that the UK is so backward in the area of equal pay and slow (even resistant) to change. I am dismayed by the backward attitudes in places like Saudi Arabia (and their sphere of influence). In my writing, I long ago adopted the neutral third person pronoun (they, them, their) instead of the masculine pronoun when referring to people generally. None of which makes me a feminist.

My understanding of feminism is, as I say, rather ad hoc. The key feminist idea seems to be a particular reading of history. Rather like Marxists do, feminists see history as a history of struggle of one group against another. But instead of class against class, feminists see history in terms of the systematic oppression of women by men, and women's struggle for emancipation from this oppression. This has stronger aspects (e.g. all sex is rape; women have been enslaved by men) and weaker aspects (e.g. gender roles are imposed on children by society). The goals of feminists on this reading include over-throwing patriarchy and deprecating all gender specificity in society since it is inevitably used as a tool of oppression. 

Men and Feminism

Clearly feminism is a big subject and there are a range of attitudes. Some feminists are quite fond of men generally and some are quite hostile. I'm sometimes shocked at how open women are in their hostility towards men in general. I grew up understanding that sexist jokes and generalisations about women were unwelcome and unhelpful. But I now regularly hear sexist jokes about men, and I myself regularly seem to be stereotyped as "stupid", "inarticulate" or "unemotional". I've lost count of the times that women have said to my face "I hate men". According to some feminists men are responsible for "raping" the planet too. When I speak up, as I usually do these days, the accusation is usually hastily qualified "of course I don't mean you". I am a man.  If you hate men, you hate me. And discrimination on the basis of sex is just sexism. I was briefly trolled by some women on Twitter this year for a comment I made on entitlement, and told that my hat (a black felt trilby) indicated hatred towards women.

As I understand it, the feminist position is that I am, as a man, by nature of my birth, complicit in the systematic oppression of women through all time. This outlook has a number of corollaries. As a man of English descent (in Britain I'm referred to as "white") I am complicit in historic and present-day slavery and all the oppression due to Imperialism and Colonialism through the ages (I should say that I abhor the use of "white" and "black" as racial or ethnic terms, but in the UK they are standard and it's hard to avoid them here). As an educated man, and despite my solidly working class roots, I am complicit in the oppression of poor, uneducated people. I am supposed to have had all the advantages denied to women and to live a privileged life. I wish. My chief blessing in life seems to be having a good memory and curiosity, but I grew up in the cultural and intellectual desert of a working class family, on the edge of a small town in New Zealand, amidst a community deeply affected by alcohol & drug addiction, violence, and the worst downsides of colonialism. My life history includes far too many instances of being abused, assaulted, and bullied by both males and females. I've been left with life-long mental health problems and now chronic physical health problems. But apparently all that matters is that I am "white" and male. A "stupid fucking white man."

It seems to me that men who declare "I am a Feminist" are confessing that they feel complicit in the oppression of women. I never have felt complicit in that oppression, nor felt any sense of commonality with oppressors. To the best of my ability I have never been complicit in oppressing anyone (though I'm not perfect by any means). Indeed I have been oppressed and continue to feel oppressed by society.

The very labels are divisive. As though all women have more in common with each other than they do with any man and vice versa and are united in this opposition. Or that all white people are the same. I just don't get this level of pigeon-holing. For example I feel I have far more in common with women friends and family than with male strangers. Or with women who suffer mental health problems than with neuro-typical men. Or with women members of the Triratna Order compared with men who are not members of the Order. Or with just about anyone in the street compared with politicians in Westminster or the CEO of a major bank.

The idea of men as no more than beasts is expressed in the myth of Beauty and the Beast. Marie-Louise von Franz (The Interpretation of Fairy Tales) has referred to this story in particular (along with Cinderella) as representative of female individuation myths. In von Franz's Jungian perspective, the story tells us that a woman relates to her inner masculine sub-personality (animus) as a beast to be tamed. This process of taming and transforming the energy associated with the experience of animus is what the Beauty and the Beast story illustrates. It is also the plot of every single Mills & Boon romance. However most flesh and blood men are not beasts, nor can we be turned into Prince Charming through domestication. We are a mix. Some of us can be beastly (often because we have been brutalised in growing up), but some of us are angelic, and most of us are somewhere in between. War and art seem to define our edges: Hitler and Bach. None of us are helped by projected psychological dramas. Taming one's inner masculine is a very different thing from relating to a man. The same is absolutely true in reverse. Men are sometimes helplessly caught up in projections of their own inner feminine onto women. With disastrous effect on their relationships with women. 

Raising Men.

As for virtually all mammals, evolution has left human males (on average) with a larger body size, physically stronger than most females, and more aggressive. This is only because female mammals typically select larger more aggressive mates. Larger more aggressive mates are more effective protectors of foraging territory and the community. Though there are always trade-offs for this form of specialisation. A community must work hard to integrate, larger more aggressive members (primates mainly do this by grooming). Our communities are less and less willing to work in this way and more likely to demonize aggression ("all men are rapists"). With no external focus aggression can turn inwards on the community. We see this and/or pointless wars everywhere. But humans add an extra twist. Often the most powerful people are not the largest or most aggressive, but the most persuasive. Those who can persuade others to do their bidding, can and dominate societies. After all Julius Caesar & Napoleon were notoriously short of stature. Politicians are professional persuaders these days and not much else. If this is domination by persuaders is oppressive, it is almost always oppressive for the majority of men as well as women. This is the 1% lording it over the 99%. In my view this is a far more productive critique of history than one which posits the mere domination of women by men. Women have been (and still are) oppressed by men, but this occurs within a larger context. The emancipation of women stands alongside the need for the emancipation of people of colour, for example. Discrimination per se is a much larger topic than discrimination against women. Special interest groups are always needed in these circumstances to highlight particular issues, but special interest groups cannot be allowed to define the issues. 

Though the media often focus on crimes against women as a group, men are far more likely to be murdered or to be victims of violent crime. (ONS) We rightly feel a sense of repugnance for sex crimes, but for example in the UK 68% of murder victims were male, which means that men are more than twice as likely to be murdered as women are. We need to ask why the media don't play on this statistic the way they currently play on crimes against women or children. Men of colour are, almost everywhere in the Western world, the victims of institutionalised racism from the police. They are stopped, searched, and arrested far more often, and given harsher sentences than pale skinned men. Men make up the bulk of the spiralling prison population and a majority of the men in prison have mental health and/or drug problems, and/or come from backgrounds of abuse and homelessness (US Justice Dept). A disproportionate number are men of colour. Men in prison are typically already brutalised when they get there, but certainly brutalised by the time they get out. When we look at the situation with regards crime and say "men are beasts" we are ignoring the degradation that is required to bring men down to that level and blaming the victims.

Like most men of my generation, I was largely raised by my mother and educated by female primary school teachers. I was raised to moderate how I used my strength with women even when it seemed unfair, as it often did in my neighbourhood where girls were just as likely to be the aggressors in conflict. One was not supposed to win fights with girls even when they started the fight; but one was not supposed to lose fights with other boys either. The line between bully and sissy was thin when I was a boy.

Positive male role models were few and far between. Most of the men I have known in my life have been floundering around wondering what the point of their life is. Many of the men in my family have had addiction and mental health problems. While we can all applaud the strides made by Feminists towards securing equal status in society for women, unfortunately in parallel there has been a devaluing or even a demonisation of men and a destruction of male social contexts. Male stereotypes are relentlessly negative or unobtainable, just like female stereotypes. Except, where female stereotypes are frowned on by liberals, male stereotypes are still being actively promoted.

My Dad was dyslexic. At school, he would go up to the blackboard to spell a word, get it wrong every time, and be beaten by the teacher in front of the class every time. Years of daily public beatings and humiliation, plus the tragic accidental death of his older brother in WWII, the early death of his Mum from cancer and his Dad's subsequent slide into alcoholism, the violent breakdown and breakup of his marriage, and yeah, Dad was a bit tongue tied at times, a bit emotionally repressed. He found it hard to express himself in words. Words only ever betrayed him. Though if one only paid attention to what he did with his hands he was a marvel (he kept his vintage 1928 Austin 12/4  in working order and did the most beautiful brick-work I've ever seen). There was little or no understanding or help available to my Dad. He was just expected to man-up and soldier on from an early age (to "harden up" as my older brother and his wife say to their son). And that, as much as anything, destroyed my Dad.

When I think about the ways in which feminists I know characterise men, and the relations of men and women, they simply don't seem to apply to my own life. They are too simplistic and blunt to be useful to me as a way of understanding myself better.

The Problem

If anything I think men and women need to work together to create a better world. If any part of our society has a problem we all have a problem. At present its clear that the main problem in the world is that we are dominated by a hegemonic group of hyper-persuasive men and women, the 1%, who are parasitising the rest of society: the new, neolibertarian aristocracy. They have more or less captured government and public opinion in most countries, if not directly, then through powerful lobby groups with huge resources and through ownership of the mass media. They take far more than they need, offer as little as possible in return, and use their wealth to try to insulate themselves from the day-to-day realities of human life as far as possible. Nothing much new about the set up, except the mechanisms they currently use, especially their ability to persuade followers, are far more efficient than ever before. They resist liberalism, resist moves towards equality, and resist anything which threatens their hegemony. Step over the threshold of any major corporation and you leave liberalism and democracy behind. Corporations are feudal fiefdoms, where the only stakeholders who count are shareholders looking for short-term profits. If it is 1% who are promoting inequality and oppression, then a polarised, gender based approach to the problem, which blames all men, simply cannot help. The average man (as ever) is just a pawn in a much larger game.

Oppression is evil, but it is something that affects us all. There is an active force oppressing us all and we need to stand together against it. I don't see feminism as a unifying force or a rallying cry. It doesn't even appeal to all women, and it offers little for men, except a limited popularity with some women. When the voice of feminism appears to be a women's fashion magazine you know that something is deeply wrong. Feminism has certainly benefited women in the West and I do not mean to denigrate or dismiss feminism or feminists. But I don't think feminism is broad enough in its outlook to tackle the problems we face today or that the feminist view of history is productive of solutions for the broader problems of inequality and the capture of wealth and power by the modern day aristocrats. For example, what is the feminist response to climate change? Even if you removed all men from the equation, the women of the 1% would carry on regardless, because their values are not shared with feminists. We need to claw power back through laws that ensure good citizenship on the part of business. That power ought to go equally to men and women.

So for all these reasons (and others) I'm not a feminist. No one's asking, but I wouldn't wear the Elle tee-shirt (I would not want to be associated with a fashion magazine for any reason). I might wear a tee-shirt that said "this is what the 99% look like", but on the whole I try not to use my clothing as an ideological platform. The statement I prefer to make is that nobody owns me or can buy my opinion. If anything my cause is the cause of sober reflection on what is really happening and a refusal to just go along with the crowd.


Update (8-11-14): I didn't go looking for this, it was retweeted by William Gibson: Myla Dalbesio on Her New Calvin Klein Campaign and the 'Trend' of Plus Size Modeling. In this interview in Elle magazine, model Dalbesio, who is a very skinny young woman says:
“It’s kind of confusing because I’m a bigger girl,” Dalbesio says. “I’m not the biggest girl on the market but I’m definitely bigger than all the girls [Calvin Klein] has ever worked with, so that is really intimidating.”
It's views like this, and the accompanying photographs that lead to Body Dismorphic Disorder in young women. Elle's connection with feminism would seem to be rather tenuous, more so that of male politicians and entertainers.