Thursday, June 5, 2014

Buddhism in an Age of Manufactured Impermanence

Beautiful iris. Soon this photograph will be all that is left. Some might say the same of the Earth itself. That because nothing lasts, we shouldn't care that much if fracking has become a worldwide activity, or species extinction is happening at an alarmingly fast pace these days, or that the rainforests that many of these disappearing species live in are also disappearing, being shredded for profit. It's all inevitable, some say. I even here this kind of thing from some Buddhist practitioners, using the absolute side of the teachings to justify not attending to the care the relative side is calling us to do, especially when it comes to the non-human life on this planet.

Greed and utilitarianism seem to compete on a moment by moment basis with the recognition that the poisoned water is us. That the murdered pelicans are us. That the oil soaked land cannot possibly be separated from the marrow in our bones.

This majestic oak tree has thrived in a park near my house for longer than most of the residents in St. Paul, myself included, have been alive. Someday, like everything else, it too will die. Will it die of natural causes, or will humans take its life for some mundane or sinister purpose?

Modern civilization seems to be in the business of manufacturing impermanence. We create purposely defective products. We kill far, far more than we need to sustain ourselves. In the name of security, we blow up and poison everyone and everything in sight that is deemed a "threat." In this worldview, dandelions are terrorists. Children murdered in warzones are collateral damage. Endless hours and dollars are expended on creating technology whose sole purpose is to kill, eliminate, obliterate.

In the climate we live in, the impermanence teachings of the Buddha ancestors feel pretty impotent after a certain point. They might be of great help in creating a certain freedom of the mind. However, when applied too much to the social/world context, they become little more than reinforcement for the nihilism that's behind all the murder and destruction. It doesn't really matter that the teachings themselves are not at all nihilistic. The subtleties are too easily swamped, the raft too easily sunk.

Here's another thing. There's not enough love of the non-human world in much of modern Buddhism. Especially Empire Buddhism - that which thrives part in parcel with colonialism and the capitalist economies it spawned. Sure, we talk about love sometimes. But almost always with a healthy dose of non-attachment as a side dish, or even main dish. It's as if we do not trust the process of learning and awakening that comes with the maturation of love. Instead of living through the needed ferociousness of passionate attachment during love's formative years, too many of us opt either to be detached wallflowers or stunted puppies who endlessly miss the opportunities to grow out of infantile attachments that can't possibly help us to serve the world.

Ironically, I think it's time for some manufactured impermanence. Only instead of directing it at all the things that sustain life, let's direct it at all the things that destroy life.

For Empire Buddhism, this might mean burning down some of the cozy huts and being willing to step into an attachment to the well-being of the planet that we accept is desperately needed, even if it's a hindrance to "individual" enlightenment. It may also mean a need to tip the scales away from focusing on the impermanence teachings. Or to reconsider how to offer these teachings in a more targeted way, so that their profundity doesn't just become another cliche in service of destruction. One way to begin to address this is to stop seeking balance. Perhaps emphasizing impermanence when speaking about mind states, for example, but emphasizing protective love when speaking about social concerns and the planet.

What good are the bodhisattva teachings if we aren't willing to wildly apply them to the very Earth that gives each us our breath? Doesn't it strike you that without a planetary focus, all our efforts to help other humans won't amount to too much more than rearranging chairs on the Titanic?

Do not take that last question as minimizing human service and support of other humans. That, too, is always needed. And no doubt for many, it will be the main, if not sole focus of their efforts in life.

What I'm saying is that on a collective level, it's necessary, but not sufficient anymore. We no longer can be a self absorbed species, endlessly living out a collective adolescence. That is, we can't continue doing so without serious, most likely dire consequences as a result.


David Ashton said...

I completely agree. Using the absolute as a reason not to attend to the relative is a dangerous trap.

Mountain Cottage North Carolina said...

This is a beautiful call forward ... to all of us who are interested in stepping up to realize that we are one ... And then we can see the world .. and this earth from a different perspective, which will not allow us to hide from who we are ... from loving and caring for life ...

n. yeti said...

There are worlds more lovely than ours, where impermanence and its sting is lessened by lengthy lives of joy and harmony. And yet in these worlds, achieved by good karma, the shining beings who dwell in them cannot hear the Buddha dharma as do we, here in our hurtling death trap of vain glory, greed, poison, and deep confusion. Thus at the end of their long lives of joy, they fall back to lower births. This may be seen as metaphor, or as literal reality, but the point of awareness of impermanence at the absolute is not, in my view, to justify samsaric misery in the relative. This I feel is a grave misconception. Unsurpassed awakening has faith as its cause. I feel that to see such dharmas of worldly troubles as passing manifestations without self substance is to understand what gives rise to them, which buddha always said is mind. This takes great faith, against all appearances. I think that if we wish to transcend temporal reality, with its inevitable sorrows, and most Buddhists I encounter in the west perhaps do not, preferring instead to dwell in ignorance of that which gives rise to this, then we must engage in practice by limiting entanglements to perceive that which is concealed to ordinary mentation. This is not to condemn karmic yoga or practice of the perfections in daily life, nor to take away from the beautiful and eloquent reminder toward compassionate action above. However, the buddha manifested to teach us to renounce, not to become entangled. I don't think this means do nothing; in fact, in the dhammapada we are reminded if something must be done, then do it. But to suggest that turning back from phenomenal manifestation toward their source in mind, which was and still is a core principle of various schools, is of itself compassionless seems to me far more of a trap. It may seem that way, but it is not. Unfortunately there are not many who understand this, whereas the immediacy of solving the world's ills can be seen, at least superficially, as sufficient toward enlightenment, because it is the right thing to do.

Nathan said...

Yeti, I think some of the distinctions you're making are essential debate points between Theravada and Mahayana. There's not nearly as much talk about "transcendence" in the Mahayana teachings, particularly in this case the bodhisattva teachings. Or perhaps it's more accurate that transcendence is viewed differently in the difference schools, as well as renunciation. The trantric schools go even further in my view than the Mahayana schools on all this in terms of fully embracing the whole, including especially all the desires that tend to entangle us.

Sometimes, I think these approaches are just different entry points and containers for the same thing. Other times, I wonder if the different Buddhist schools are really aiming in different directions from the same beginning source. And this at the deepest level; I'm not even speaking to the masses of folks who have more mundane hopes and goals around their Buddhist practice.

"I feel that to see such dharmas of worldly troubles as passing manifestations without self substance is to understand what gives rise to them, which buddha always said is mind."

This is the emptiness side of the equation, which I fully agree with. I'm speaking more about taking care of the relative side, even knowing that it's all fleeting and without fixed self. I don't see either side of the equation as being greater or less than.

I just figure that if we're all, or most of us, are dead because the planet has been poisoned and damaged too much to support our lives, then there won't be any practice or awakening left here. Yes, that might happen soon enough, regardless of what we do. And eventually conditions will change even if we "right the ship" in the short term. But I think the times call for some urgency around the Earth's condition, and our impact on it.

n. yeti said...

I need to meditate on this, but would like to carry this exploration deeper if you are willing. I am clearly in the minority in my view on the matter but I mistrust any "ideal", particularly in regard to the bodhisattva way. I would say at this point the tathagatagarba sutras (of the mahayana) seem to point toward the imagelessness of bodhicitta.

Nathan said...

For myself, it's not really about an ideal per se. It's about skillful means. Practical applications to alleviate suffering.

I do think that the "giant scale" qualities of bodhisattvas in the teachings, such as in the Lotus Sutra, can sound idealistic. If not totally otherworldly. Sometimes, I wonder if they're as much a hindrance as a help.

Anyway, one thing I'm interested in is how different generations of practitioners, in different times, places, and conditions, manifest something different (at least in relative terms.) Part of the original sangha's response to particular social conditions was to reject the fixations of caste, and eventually of gender (to some degree). My sense is that part of the modern, collective sangha's response can be (maybe ought to be) around climate change and planetary health. Which is slowly starting to happen in some places.

In terms of impermanence teachings - since I placed some focus on them above - I'm interested in how to increase the possibility that they will actually be heard. Instead of becoming mere cliches that dharma students click off in response to difficulties or conflicts.

Another thing based on your first comment - forgive the lack of clear paragraph direction here - but I think the message many dharma students do need a hell of a lot of right now is variations of this "Unsurpassed awakening has faith as its cause." I find flimsy faith, or lack of faith in practice, to be a commonplace experience amongst my fellow sangha members (and myself.) And I know we're not alone. It seems particularly challenging for anyone who was raised in a monotheistic tradition and who, upon breaking with that tradition, tossed all such notions to the curb. Even though I agree in the importance of the impermanence teachings - being one of the three marks - it seems to me that faith underlies the whole works.

n. yeti said...

There is so much in what you are saying I agree with. In fact as we've discussed the spiritual life, ethical life, in general, I feel we are in tune with each other by and large. As you observe, there are more or less well established doctrinal debates at play here.

Whether the approach is through impermanence or (this in my case) by meditating on dependent origination, it seems the great linchpin of it all is realization of mind, and from this continuous realization, skillful action and boundless compassion arise spontaneously in the absolute or relative spheres as needed.

So back to the question at hand, yes, frankly, I think our planet, species and perhaps life as we know it is doomed. I don't believe it will ever be otherwise. But rather than confuse this point of view (which I recognize is pessimistic) with nihilism, I think what can be done is to renounce the oppressive affliction of mind which manifests as worrying about the world's doom. In this way we can take up the fight so to speak, in smaller ways, perhaps, more spontaneous ways, and thereby practice the perfections where we are and how we are in the scope of our mundane lives, neither wasting our virtues nor creating of them more desires and attachments, frustrations, and sorrows when we find our world going to hell in a hand basket.

We can't all be mother Teresa. But we can be who we are, where we are, as we are right now.

Nathan said...

"I think what can be done is to renounce the oppressive affliction of mind which manifests as worrying about the world's doom."

I'm totally on board with this. There's a need, in my view, to both have some urgency about the planet's condition and also to let go of doom and worry about our extinction.

n. yeti said...

How does the koan go? If you run to avoid the rain, you still get wet?But good on you for it anyway, Nathan. For not letting your virtues go to waste. You are a true gem.

Inge said...

Very thoughtful post and something I wondered about too. It seems we are inundated with so many things that are harmful to all sentient beings; food, water, air, etc. Its hard to keep up. I agree we seem to be arguing over the way the deck chairs are arranged while the ship is sinking.

A couple of weeks ago I watched the 60s movie "Dr. Strangelove" and the message of the movie was relevant today. If you haven't seen it, I highly suggest it.

The way I try to look at things is to do what I can to stop the direction we are going by 1. sharing information via social media 2. In person protest/awareness 3. Send letters to my representatives.

I understand the meaning of impermanence but that doesn't mean we humans have to make it happen quicker. It is my duty as a member of the planet who is lucky enough to be alive and enjoy all the beauty Mother Earth has to offer, to ensure future generations get the same opportunity.

Nathan said...

"I understand the meaning of impermanence but that doesn't mean we humans have to make it happen quicker. It is my duty as a member of the planet who is lucky enough to be alive and enjoy all the beauty Mother Earth has to offer, to ensure future generations get the same opportunity."

Yes. Definitely. Somehow, the "ensure" piece of the equation needs to get more attention/action amongst Buddhist practitioners.

I saw Dr. Strangelove years ago. It's amazing how some films and stories stay so relevant and even border on prophetic.

Nathan said...

Yeti, I think I found the source to that koan you offered.

" There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything."

--Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

n. yeti said...


Yes, brilliant! Miyamoto Musashi, from the book of five rings. That's it. Highly recommended to zennists as well as martial artists. After all, the bodhisattva Manjusri himself wields a sword to cut all delusion. Can we wield the sword of wisdom in the face of earthly destruction, indeed of all that is experienced and known? Keep on keeping on, my dharma brother, keep on keeping on.