Towards a Radical Culture of Awakening

Talk delivered 30 October 2011 at the WCF conference “Western Buddhism: Engaged Buddhism ?”

“Suffering I teach and the way out of suffering.” So Part One of this talk will explain how the origins of social suffering lie ultimately in the human condition itself. And Part Two will offer a way out of social suffering.


Buddhists regularly remind themselves of their great vow “to save all beings”. This can be something of a koan, with several (not necessarily incompatible) meanings. In the contemporary situation we might make a start with “I’ll do my best to save all beings from global catastrophe.” We can take a further step and impart some Dharmic depth by vowing “to liberate all beings from the state of delusion which ultimately drives them towards that catastrophe.”

Delusion means here the customarily unconscious state of mind where we believe we can fill our underlying sense of lack (as David Loy calls it), escape our gnawing sense of root insecurity, and maintain a strong sense of being a separate and secure identity. We endeavour to do this through a range of acquisitive, aggressive and other, more subtle, behaviours. But these delusive behaviours fail because of the insubstantiality and impermanence of all phenomena (including a “solid” self).. This failure generates a deep sense of frustration and bitterness which the Buddha called dukkha -- misleadingly translated as “suffering”.

Thus Hubert Benoit refers to our unwinnable life-long law suit with reality. Along the way our delusive behaviours can cause a lot of pain to others. Collectively and cumulatively they have now brought us to the brink of a planetary abyss.

Twenty or thirty years ago, when socially engaged Buddhism was struggling against a general disapproval, most Buddhists appear to have believed that “society“ was no more than an aggregate of individuals. This view was famously voiced by Mrs Thatcher, when she proclaimed that “there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women and their families”. So most Buddhists believed that all that was necessary was to bring more and more individuals to wisdom and eventually we could achieve an enlightened society – welcome to Sukhavati ! This atomic view of society seems less common nowadays.

Incidentally, another objection levelled at our engagement in movements for radical social change (and protest movements of any kind) was that the headiness of such involvements would deepen our delusion, and that we should wait until we were enlightened -- however many lives it took . (I recall David Brandon dubbing our detractors Mañana Buddhists !). In reply, Robert Aitken roshi and others maintained that it was these delusive emotional attachments and revulsions which were themselves the ground for developing our awareness practice. The new socially engaged Buddhism was thus a contributor to the emergent “Everyday Buddhism” introduced later in this paper.

“Ideology” : the institutionalisation of delusion

It is elementary sociology to argue that when individuals interact socially they create shared systems of belief and behaviour and the institutions which embody them. These, moreover, appear to take on a life of their own. In this way individual delusion becomes institutionalised.

For example, since the 1980s and until recently it was widely assumed that (preferably unregulated) corporate profit was the ultimate measure of social happiness and well being. The capitalist system by which we live is still predicated on this. (Though it is an ideological corruption of the views of Adam Smith and other founders). A humane chief executive who departs too far from this ideology will fear to lose out against his company’s competitors and will risk the ire of his shareholders.

For institutional delusion I have coined the term “ideology”. By this I mean a more, or less, explicit set of social beliefs and assumptions which serve to support and inflame personal delusion. Ideology claims to present an objective view of reality, but it is more a matter of what we are is what we see. Thus George Orwell defined it as a “subjective contamination of reality”, which, in its wildest manifestations (Josef Stalin, George Bush Jnr.) could amount to “masturbatory fantasy” . Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are examples of “hard” ideology. The globally still dominant “soft “one is the theology of free market capitalism, promoting its popular religion of consumerism.

The alternative social wisdom therefore involves what William Blake called a “cleaning of the windows of perception” and striking off the “mind-forged manacles” which hold us in bondage even more effectively than oppressive objective authority. The existential liberation from the distortions of ideology requires in its place guiding social theories.

Let us examine more closely the magnetic power of ideology.

Firstly, it nourishes the hungry and fragile sense of self with feelings of righteousness, of certainty, which it craves There is always a vision splendid, such as endless economic growth which will ”inevitably” bring wealth and happiness to all, akin to the once “inevitable” proletarian revolution. Above all, ideology can give meaning to life.

Secondly, it provides the lonely self with a sense of belongingness – “This great movement of ours”; “This great nation of ours”, and the cant from politicians’ mouths about “the British people”.

Thirdly, this belongingness is supercharged by reference to those others, beyond the pale, who are not like us, cannot be trusted, and constitute a threat – scroungers, towel heads, heretics. Upon them we project all ouf own hidden fears and anxieties. Thus, ideology has not infrequently been powerful enough to move people to cut their neighbours’ throats and embark on genocide, whether frenzied or calculated.

Fourthly, ideology creates ideal opportunities for individuals (or small and ruthless interests) to power up their ego and make their mark. The many, who so commonly suffer from feelings of personal inadequacy, lust after the need for heroes, nowadays called “celebrities”, with whom they can identify, and who are manufactured by the mass media (which specialise in stoking Buddha’s third delusive “fire” –ignorance).

Thus ideology powers up and legitimises Buddha’s other two “fires”. These are acquisitiveness, which has reached previously unimaginable heights thanks to advertising and limitless credit. There is also, of course, acquisitiveness of others’ land, their labour, their culture, their bodies, and the greedy exploitation of all of the planet’s resources, including other species. Secondly, there is the heady exercise of aggression, of power over others which is inspired and legitimised by ideology.

Part Two: The Way out of Social Suffering

The Two Blessings

My first rite of passage, as a youth of seventeen, was to receive my party card, from a veteran of the International Brigade, wounded at the Ebro. The card carried a quotation from Lenin, enjoining me to dedicate “all my life, all my energy, to the liberation of mankind”

Several decades later, sadder and wiser, I received the refuges, with a black rakusu, from Genpo Roshi, and again I vowed to liberate all beings.

Much of my life subsequently was to create a single Dharmic practice and perspective, for myself and others, out of these two great vows. In other words, to make the inner work and the outer work one.

These two events in my life encapsulate the two great traditions and opportunities with which history has endowed humankind.

First, there are the great emancipatory movements for social justice, for a truly democratic commonwealth, for national and gender liberation, for peace and, latterly, for ecological sustainability. Arguably, the beginning was in the “Good Old Cause” of the 17th century English revolution, with the Arab Spring as the most recent achievement. The greatest and most enduring has been socialism in all its variant forms. For decades it has been, in Jeremy Seabrook’s words “ the great sustaining myth of millions of down-trodden men and women”. And as the global explicitly “anti-capitalist” movements begin to coalesce, its promise is renewed.

These emancipatory movements have achieved much, but the present sad state of the world attests to their relative failure, fatally eroded by ideology, whether the “hard” from the one side or the “soft” from the other.

The second great tradition and opportunity is that of spirituality, east and west, by which I mean the contemplative inner work tradition to be found in the world’s great religions. Of these I believe Buddhism has developed the most intellectually sophisticated and wide ranging “inner work” systems, and is best placed as a catalyst for the work which lies ahead.

The weakness of received Buddhism, however, is that it never developed a sophisticated social theory or, most notably, a concept of social justice ripend by the humanism of the Western enlightenment. Why this was so need not concern us here. Sufficient to say that Buddhism has, in general, subordinated itself to the prevailing political and economic powers, on which it has been dependent. Indeed, it has in many ways lent its support to those powers, ranging from the promotion of a socially retributive doctrine of karma to the disgraceful episode of Japanese “imperial Zen”.

I believe that the historic opportunity to fuse together these two traditions , of

social liberation and existential liberation, has now been thrust upon us, as the long cumulating fires of greed, aggression and ignorance threaten to consume our civilisation.

How to fuse together the inner and outer work of human liberation

Let me say that I value the support of monastics for Buddhist social engagement, as expressed in the writing of Ajahn Buddhdasa and Thomas Merton. Nonetheless social activism and service are, in my view, inadequately served by practice derived exclusively from Buddhism’s monastic tradition, in which sitting meditation is commonly (though not always) of central importance.

An exclusive or predominant diet of sitting meditation may not be the most helpful practice for the awakening of 21st century laypeople. They lead such busy lives that in most cases they are unable to sustain a sufficient meditation practice that has, as it were, sufficient critical mass to transform their lives. Secondly, many respected teachers, like Charlotte Joko Beck, have maintained that, in their experience, so often meditation does not readily transfer as mindful response to the challenges of daily life. It may even lead to what Jung called a “spiritual by-passing” of everyday life, as in the case of seasoned meditators whose personal lives are a very poor reflection of their Dharma practice.

Hence the growth of an “Everyday Buddhism”, where a profound intimacy with the ups and downs of everyday life, with its self-discomfitures great and small, which is used directly to change the ways in which we experience them. This intimacy is achieved by practices of emotional awareness well rooted in the body, together with an awakening to the stories the self tells about the self. It is much deeper and more visceral than the mindfulness of dish washing and the like, valuable though that may be.

This historic shift in Western Buddhist practice, initiated by second and third generation teachers, increasingly includes the introduction of an element of social interaction in meditation retreats, pioneered by Norman Fischer, A. H. Almaas, Gregory Kramer, Vajragupta and others. Indeed ,this shift was pioneered by John Crook in his development of “Western Zen Retreats” as part of the WCF retreat portfolio. Be it noted, however, that sitting mediation is retained in all these developments as a vital element in the cultivation of wisdom and compassion.

The above range of “Everyday Buddhism” practice and teaching is well suited to gradually dissolving the self-serving, delusive pull exerted by activism and by service also.

Practitioners of inner-path spiritualities, transpersonal therapists, and all who appreciate the social significance of the inner work need to build networks which can support the development of a socially radical culture of awakening, a “wisdom revolution”. . This will be founded on a critical mass of steady state men and women sufficiently at ease with themselves and others as to be able to resist the seductions of both hard and soft ideology. In this culture of awakening the cultivation of a profound self awareness will be as normal as is the present concern for physical well-being and good diet,

The present “mindfulness revolution” in America, which is now beginning to take root here, is reaching broadly (if not yet deeply) into society, beyond traditional spiritualities. It will prove essential in floating the deeper, and more radical and ethical, movement for social change which I have in mind.

Activists, with diverse spiritual backgrounds, working in many different fields of endeavour, could meet monthly as mutual support affinity groups., hopefully with an experienced mentor visiting periodically, and networking with other, similar groups. The “Base Groups”, established by the (American) Buddhist Peace Fellowship have pioneered this approach, and the Network of Engaged Buddhists has recently established its first “Amity” group in the Finsbury Park area of London. Perhaps the Bristol Chan Group will initiate the first Amity Group in this city ?

There is a Spanish proverb “God save me from my friends, from my enemies I can save myself” It is the working with others that can prove most challenging for activists. At least one Transition Town group has collapsed as a result of discordant, uncompromising voices. Might it not become a routine practice in committees and other decision-making groups for each participant first to share his or her personal “agenda” , going in as deeply as they dare ?

A wide variety of trainings is already available. There is Donald Rothberg’s superb book “The Engaged Spiritual Life”, which is full of do-it-yourself exercises. Joanna Macy, through her books and workshops, has contributed hugely to the inner work movement . Present at this conference is Maitrisara, a first class trainer in N.E.B, in her own Triratna sangha and elsewhere.

There are plenty of Dharma-compatible wheels to put our shoulders to, ranging from the New Economics Foundation to the Green Party, though some require deeper self-awareness and stronger nerves than others !

There are more of us than might be supposed. In every place I have worked there have always been at least one or two people who burned with a bright and relatively smokeless flame. That is to say, I could with them readily discuss and resolve even controversial and difficult work problems, without having first to negotiate my way though all the subtle ego stuff I encountered in so many of my other colleagues. It is noteworthy that these “steady state “ colleagues were rarely involved in any formal spiritual practice, so far as I knew.

Christopher Titmuss has referred to the enfeebling “fetishism of results” found in change organisations. The self puts in years of time and effort and therefore expects the gratification of achieving the desired results. Failure may entail burn-out or withdrawal. The spiritually informed, however , labour on, beyond optimism and (as T. S.Eliot counselled) beyond hope, but in a world of possibilities.

Let Mike Jenkins, poet of coal mining Merthyr Tydfil, which has suffered more than anywhere else in the UK from corporate greed, have the last word: “I am the no hope canary, singing in the deepest galley, below vaults of borrowed money.”