Category Archives: Convention 2014

Maple Leaves in Autumn

Manchester Buddhist Convention 11 October 2014

Maple Leaves in Autumn

Presented by Kelvin Ravenscroft

MapleLeavs

What legacy shall I

Leave behind?

Flowers in spring

Cuckoo in summer

Maple leaves in autumn.

 

-Zen Master Ryokan (1758-1831)

In relation to his 1893 version in oils of his painting The Scream, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) declared:

“One evening I was walking along a path, the city on one side, the fiord below. I felt tired and ill….The sun was setting and the clouds turning blood-red. I sensed a scream passing through Nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked.” (2005 p.64)

It can be suggested that the experience of “…a scream passing through nature…’ and “…the clouds as…. blood….” presented in Munch’s late nineteenth century painting can be appropriated as a starting point from which to consider the question ‘Are there good reasons for describing life as ‘absurd’ or ‘meaningless’? Munch’s celebrated artwork has become a potent symbol for the human condition in which many people are, at times, overwhelmed by their experience of life which can lead them to engage with questions of meaning, purpose and value, particularly in relation to what can be termed the ‘dark nights of the soul’ which can arise in response to the experience of the pain and suffering of existence. Indeed, in the ancient Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes the writer declares: “I have seen everything that is under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (1:14)

ScreamThe world of the twenty-first century can be regarded as a world in which the only constant is change. Nothing stays the same. All things are in a constant state of flux and development. This echoes the teaching of the Buddha in his realization at his Enlightenment that everything is impermanent; nothing is fixed or static. Everything that exists, at both the microscopic and macroscopic levels, are subject to the process of change and development. All things come into being, grow, develop, mature and, over time, age, decline and fade away.

In a post-modern world in which there appears to be no fixed, unchanging, eternal and absolute truths but instead there is a world of a multiplicity of perspectives, ideas, beliefs, practices, world views and lifestyles existence can be experienced as being disorientating, lacking a coherent vision of what life can mean and uncertainty and ambiguity in relation to how people can live authentically.

It is possible to view a relativist approach to life as being a liberation from the dominant political, religious, moral and economic systems of the past. The evolving and emerging opportunities facilitated by the developing virtual worlds of digital technologies, for example, can be viewed as presenting creative opportunities for human beings to become the persons they truly wish to be unfettered by geographical boundaries and political restrictions. This can be seen as opening up a new world of freedom and creativity in which each individual has available to them economic, educational and technological resources which promote freedom of expression and the potential for a higher standard of living and an enhanced quality of life.

However, there is a contrary view which suggests that in a context of widening inequalities between the developed world and the developing world, where environmental degradation is rampant and where violence, conflict and war affect millions of people the post-modern vision can be regarded with some suspicion. Even in affluent societies addiction, for example, in its many and varied forms is widespread and many people experience high levels of stress, insecurity and depression and suicide is a significant phenomenon. In such a scenario the challenge with which people are presented concerns the question of how is it possible to find the motivation, energy and resources to adapt to unpredictable and rapidly changing circumstances? How is it possible to discern, discover and create meaning, value and purpose in a world characterised by what the Buddha termed “dukkha”, suffering,

In such a world how is it possible to develop and maintain, for example, any degree of political, economic, social and moral consensus? Is it actually possible to formulate a vision of society to which most people would voluntarily subscribe? Or are we actually heading inevitably and irreversibly to a world of nihilism, breakdown and anarchy? Like the prisoners in Plato’s analogy of the Cave the human condition can, at times, be characterized as appearing to be like being in a state of imprisonment, living in darkness, experiencing a superficial world of appearances and shadows unable to live an authentic, liberated life of wisdom which is in harmony with the world of the Forms and particularly the Form of the Good. Echoing the First Noble Truth of Buddhism that ‘All existence is suffering’, the human condition can be viewed as being a state in which people, both individually and collectively, experience a profound sense of despair, alienation and meaninglessness in which life is perceived to be absurd and futile.

Although since the end of the Second World War in 1945 Europe has enjoyed many years of peace the conflict in former-Yugoslavia and the ethnic cleansing associated with it brought back to many the harrowing images of former times, evoking the sense of terror presented in Munch’s Scream. The experiences in recent years of Beslan, Rwanda, Darfur, Syria and Iraq, for example, can raise profound questions about the nature and direction of the contemporary world.

Speaking of the modern condition the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1988) declared:

“Today we live in an age of crumbling and vanishing traditions. Thus, instead of new values being created by finding unique new meanings, the reverse happens. Universal values are on the wane. That is why ever more people are caught in a feeling of aimlessness and emptiness or, as I am used to calling it, an existential vacuum….” (p.64)

Frankl’s perspective recognises that the process of change has been accompanied by humankind’s incapacity in relation to developing new meanings, creative and innovative perspectives, new ways of seeing and being in the world. He suggests that the decline of what he terms ‘universal values’ has been accompanied by the phenomenon of an absence of meaning and purpose. Frankl’s use of the word ‘feeling’ in his view that people are experiencing aimlessness and emptiness suggests that an ‘existential vacuum’ is not to be perceived purely as an abstract philosophical problem or question to be solved but, rather, refers to a profound existential and ontological experience, a crisis which strikes at the very core of one’s being. Indeed, the philosopher and theologian Don Cupitt (2006) has explored what he terms

“the beliefless religiosity of modern people for whom everything has failed. They look into the void and ask: What am I and how can I become myself? How can I pull my life together and assume responsibility for it? How can I find a way of seeing the truth about life and saying Yes to it? Modern life is getting to be so spiritually desolate that I want to know how we can inject meaning and value into our lives. And finally, I want to be at ease and free, above all, free.” (p.65)

For Cupitt, therefore, the task facing each person in contemporary society is that of responding to existence head on and addressing the questions which life presents particularly in terms of considering seriously how one can become an authentic integrated self who perceives and affirms life as being meaningful, worthwhile, significant and characterised by a radical sense of freedom.

This paper arises from a workshop entitled Maple Leaves in Autumn which the writer presented at the Manchester Buddhist Convention held at St Peter’s House and Chaplaincy on 11 October 2014. The paper develops concepts, themes and ideas explored in the workshop and considers Frankl’s perspective on the human condition and its exploration of the primacy of meaning with particular reference to aspects of Jean Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism (1973) and Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus (2005) and their connection with the experience of the Zen Buddhist Joenji Temple community in Japan in their profound and inspiring response to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Reflecting upon the experience of the Fukushima nuclear disaster Koyu Abbe (2011), the Chief Monk of the Joenji Temple community has declared: “To put Buddhist belief in one word: life doesn’t go as you wish. Everyone runs into obstacles; therefore, in order to overcome this disaster we should accept that this disaster had happened and need to face the reality squarely.” He is recognising the reality that existence is characterised by contingency, finitude and impermanence. As the experience of the Buddha in his encounter with old age, sickness and death confirms, life presents challenges, which are all too often unexpected, which can shake the very foundations of our being. Suffering in its many and varied forms can have the effect of destabilising and subverting what we consider to be the reassuring predictable reliability of the positive routines and experiences of daily living. When suffering breaks into our lives it is understandable why individuals and communities ask “Why has this happened?”, “What does this all mean?”, “Why do people suffer?” “Is there any purpose to what has happened?”, “What can we do?” and “How should we respond?”. The irruption of dukkha, suffering, into our lives can present a profound existential challenge because it powerfully and painfully illustrates that our understandable and laudable aim to construct individual and social lives characterised by order, routine, predictability and some degree of certainty can, often violently, be sabotaged by forces beyond our control.

Frankl, Sartre, Camus and the Joenji Temple community can be regarded as presenting significant responses to the challenges and opportunities presented by existence and their relationship to meaninglessness and absurdity and to meaning, purpose and value. Indeed, Sartre explores key themes such as, for example, the experience of anxiety, despair, abandonment and forlornness which can be regarded as relating closely to absurdity and meaninglessness and Camus (2005) declares:

“…. man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” (p.26)

Sartre (1973) declares that “Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man in consequence is forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers, forthwith, that he is without excuse” and that “…man is condemned to be free.” (p.34) In this perspective, therefore, living in a godless universe means that human beings are faced with the burden of being responsible for their choices and actions and the consequences of how they live. They cannot project on to anyone or anything the responsibility for choosing and acting autonomously and exercising their freedom. The awareness of being alone and having to choose, however, can be perceived as being a significant burden to carry. Each person, in effect, is Camus’ Sisyphus, presented with the experience of being alone, forlorn, being solely responsible for the manner in which they respond to their existential predicament. Particularly when faced with life’s, at times, overwhelming insecurities, uncertainties, pains and sorrows it can be seen as understandable why life can be viewed as ultimately being meaningless and absurd.

Indeed, Camus’ declaration that “man stands face to face with the irrational” and Cupitt’s observation that human beings “look into the void” can be regarded as sharing the perspective that the human condition is characterised by the interplay between the experience of the “irrational” and the “void”, being in a world which is experienced as not making sense, not being ordered or purposeful, lacking a goal, direction, purpose or telos and being confronted by an emptiness, a profound sense of hollowness at the heart of existence.

The analysis of the human condition presented by Sartre and Camus and the Engaged Buddhism of the Joenji Temple community are considered in this paper from the perspective of Frankl’s philosophy and therapeutic approach of Logotherapy and related perspectives in order to consider whether it is justified to suggest that life is meaningless and absurd.

The Qualifications & Curriculum Authority (QCA) (1997) in its draft guidance for pilot work in the promotion of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development recognises that:

“Most of us have experienced, at some point in our lives, a temporary loss of spirit. this can make us feel powerless, lethargic and hopeless because we no longer believe ourselves to be equal to the challenges of life.”

The experience of not being “equal to the challenges of life” can be viewed as succinctly capturing the essence of Camus’ and Cupitt’s exploration of irrationality and the void and, it can be suggested, the profound experience of life at its challenging extremes can be regarded as a rationale for Camus’ (2005) declaration that:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest ……comes afterwards.” (p.1f)

The QCA’s recognition of the experience of the ‘loss of spirit’ would appear to be complemented by the perspective of the philosopher Sam Keen (1994) who has suggested that:

“The spiritual quest is the reverse of the religious pilgrimage. The quest begins when an individual falls into a spiritual “black hole” in which everything that was solid vaporizes. Certainties vanish, authorities are questioned, all the usual comforts and assurances of religion fail, and the path disappears. A spiritual quest is the effort to discover the meaning of life.” (p.77)

Keen’s perspective presents the view that that the quest, journey, search for the meaning of life is, ultimately, a spiritual issue. He clearly indicates that he is not equating spirituality with religion and he dramatically articulates the intensity of the experience of what he terms the ‘black hole’ of existence. It appears that, in Keen’s perspective, there is a profound sense of loss, an experience of existential bereavement, at the heart of the process of discovering, discerning and creating meaning. Such a perspective can be regarded as echoing the psychiatrist and psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski’s (1964) theory of personality development termed Positive Disintegration which affirms that the anxieties and stresses of daily living and the energy utilised to attempt to resolve the challenges which life presents enable the essence, the core self or potential of the individual to be actualised through an existential process of change, growth and development. This process of personal growth, however, can be characterised by significant personal change, what can be regarded as a letting go, a dissolution of the self, at times characterised by intense anxiety and, in extreme cases trauma, from which the core potential, the essence or true self can evolve and emerge. The significance of Dabrowski’s theory in relation to consideration of life as being meaningless or absurd can be viewed as being located in its recognition of the intensities and extremes of human existence, that facing life with all of its challenges and opportunities, although having the capacity to bring about positive change and a new perspective on life, can involve, as Cupitt suggests, ‘facing the void’ and confronting what Camus calls the ‘irrationality’ of the world. It can be suggested if that one authentically and profoundly confronts the irrationality of the void, there may well be a significant existential cost, in which order, meaning, purpose, significance and value appear to be absent or disappear. The, at times, savage intensity of such an experience, for individuals and groups, can be viewed as presenting a perspective on existence in which a sense of meaninglessness and absurdity is understandable and justified.     Like the women straining under the weight of carrying sacks of coal in Vincent Van Gogh’s powerful work “The Bearers of the Burden”, each person has to carry the burden of the responsibility for making choices, deciding how to act as a free agent in a world which appears to have no intrinsic meaning, no guiding moral principle or telos.

VincentVGogh

Vincent Van Gogh – The Bearers of the Burden; 1881

By the claim that man’s existence precedes his essence Sartre means that human beings are born into the world, they are thrown into existence with no pre-existing, pre-determined, fixed meaning or purpose. They do not enter the world with an already existing telos or goal to which their life is directed. This view arises from Sartre’s atheism. He declares (1973) that “Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no god to have a conception of it. Man simply is.” (p.28) As he does not believe in the existence of a supernaturally existing divine transcendent Being who is regarded as being the creator of all things and the giver of meaning, unlike religious Existentialists such as Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers and Soren Kierkegaard, his view is that each individual is responsible for their existence. The consequence of living in a world without God is that each individual is free to make of their life what they wish. Each person is a meaning maker who fashions out of their freedom, and the choices and actions which result from the exercise of freedom, their own personal identity. There is, therefore, in Sartre’s view, no pre-determined view of what each individual should become; each person is a free, autonomous and independent agent creating their life. Existence, therefore, is a ‘work in progress’ reflecting a creative and dynamic process of change, development and personal transformation in which each subjective self develops their own personal way of seeing the world. Each individual, therefore, has their own ‘weltanschauung’, world view, their own unique perspective on the world, their personal way of perceiving and experiencing existence. For Sartre (1973) “… man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world-and defines himself afterward. (p.28) He affirms, therefore, that each human being are the makers of their own meaning. Each person “encounters himself” which suggests that at the heart of existence is the experience of facing up to who one is and what one might become. There is, in effect, an internal dialogue within the developing and changing self which necessitates self-awareness and self-understanding. To become the person one has the potential to be, therefore, requires reflection upon experience. For Sartre, “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” (p.28) Such a perspective can suggest that life is a dynamic process of creative change, growth and development in which the challenges and opportunities with which human beings are presented are the vehicles through each person can actualise their potential. There is, therefore, inherent in Sartre’s philosophy, a forward looking, future orientated way of seeing and being in the world characterised by the realisation of one’s potential.   Such an affirmative understanding of life may be viewed as being contrary to any perspective which perceives existence as being absurd or meaningless.

Sartre’s understanding of individuals as meaning makers and controllers of their own destiny can be evaluated in terms of what can be considered to be its positive and negative aspects. His view that ‘existence precedes essence’ can be regarded as positive in the sense that his philosophy affirms human freedom. It ascribes to humankind the actuality of the freedom inherent in the potential to become the person they are capable of becoming. In this respect, therefore, Sartre’s philosophy affirms the capacity for human beings to grow, change and develop. At the heart of it, therefore, is the recognition that a key feature of human existence is the possibility of transformation at both the personal and social level.

A positive aspect of the affirmation of transformation is that Sartre’s views can be regarded as complementing the perspectives presented in the therapeutic philosophies of, for example, Viktor Frankl, (2010) Carl Rogers (1977) and Abraham Maslow (2011) who recognised the centrality of transformation in human life. For Frankl his philosophy of Logotherapy affirmed the primacy of the “will to meaning”; each person is a unique individual who, out of the raw materials of their existence, strives to fashion a life of value, purpose and significance. Rogers’ non-directive, person-centred counselling recognises that, central to the therapeutic process, is the belief that each individual is responsible for the life they create. Each person can transcend what might appear to be their life’s limitations and challenges and create a life of meaning, purpose and value. In this sense, Sartre’s philosophy of personal freedom, with its view that “existence precedes essence” can be regarded as anticipating key concepts, themes and ideas which underpin much of the philosophy of the modern Human Potential Movement and the key features of Humanistic Psychology.

The significance of transformation, both personally and socially, and the primacy of the “will to meaning” has been demonstrated in the action undertaken by the Zen Buddhist monks of the Joenji Temple in Japan following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Koyu Abbe (2011), Chief monk at the Temple declared: “I contemplated what I could do. I decided to receive the radiated dirt at my Temple. The Temple ground is vast.” Together with his community, Koyu Abbe made the decision to undertake transformative action in order to try to alleviate the radioactivity emanating from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The Temple took large quantities of the radiated soil and stored it in the Temple grounds and established a project entitled “Hana ni Negaiwo”, “Make A Wish Upon Flowers” which encouraged the local population to plant sunflower seeds and mustard seeds together with other plants in order for them to absorb and transform the radiation. In effect, the Joenji monks have taken their practices of meditation, mindfulness, contemplation and reflection and made connections between their individual and collective spiritual disciplines and the wider ecology of their Temple grounds and the surrounding towns and villages. The spiritual disciplines, therefore, engage with the environmental, social and economic challenges presented by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The deep inner contemplative spirituality of the monks makes profound and practical connections with the outer transformative challenges and opportunities of the wider environment. In his 14 Principles of Engaged Buddhism Thich Nhat Hanh (1993) indicates: “Do not avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.” Through their sunflower project the monks of Joenjai Temple are, indeed, awakening themselves and others to the reality of suffering in the world and are undertaking action aimed at alleviating some of this suffering motivated by “metta”, loving kindness.

In addition to the connections with modern perspectives on personal development Sartre’s ideas and the Engaged Buddhism of the Joenji Temple monks can also be regarded as illustrating key aspects of what has become known as the Narrative Self approach to exploring human identity and self-understanding. In the Narrative Self approach, articulated by writers such as Jerome Bruner (2003), Dan McAdams (1997), Adriana Caverero (2000) and Anthony Rudd (2012), each human life is a creative work, a work of telling one’s story. Each individual is the creator and author of their own life script. Echoing Shakespeare’s view that “All the world’s a stage”, the approach of the Narrative Self affirms that each individual’s “life script” is continuously evolving, it is free-flowing and dynamic; it is in a constant state of flux. One’s life, therefore, is akin to a dramatic improvisation or like musicians jamming and not following a pre-written score. Sartre’s philosophy, which has as its central foundation the view that “existence precedes essence”, can be regarded, therefore, as presenting to modern man an approach to life which affirms change, development, process, transformation, creativity and innovation. It can be regarded as being a philosophy which is appropriate and relevant for a post-modern, wired, world of change and is not consistent with any perspective which regards life as meaningless or absurd.

However, although it is possible to recognise and affirm these positive features of Sartre’s philosophy it can be suggested that there are also aspects of it which can be considered as having potentially negative implications. Firstly, insights of the Social Sciences including psychology, sociology and anthropology indicate that man is not born or, to use Sartre’s expression, ‘thrown’ into an empty world. Each human being is born into a specific historical, social, political, economic, ethnic, cultural and religious context. From the moment of birth, therefore, each human being is engaged in a creative and, at times, challenging dialogue with their environment and they navigate and negotiate encounters with, for example, their family, friends and peer group together with a range of social, political, educational, commercial and religious organisations, institutions and networks. There is a dynamic dialectic between the subjective self and the social and the physical world, one’s environment. Even within highly developed, economically prosperous countries there are very significant variations in, for example, the health, educational and economic opportunities which people have access to and these can impact profoundly upon personal and social physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. There is, therefore, a dynamic interaction between nature and nurture, between the experience of the individual being, as Sartre indicates, ‘thrown into the world’ and the opportunities and life chances available to them. Although such a perspective does not necessitate the holding of a deterministic perspective on people’s life chances it does recognise that, although the exercise of freedom is a characteristic of human existence, some people are more able to exercise this freedom than others.

It can be suggested, therefore, that in his existential philosophy, Sartre affirms and promotes the centrality of human freedom and the capacity to create meaning at the expense of downplaying the significance of the powerful interaction between nature and nurture and the impact of this upon authentic choice, decision-making and action and the capacity for persons to actualise their potential. Indeed, experience clearly indicates that human beings have very diverse life experiences. Although the Social Sciences do not argue for a deterministic view of human existence it can be acknowledged that, for many people, their life chances, choices and opportunities are significantly limited by the context into which they are born and socialised. In a very real sense, therefore, it can be suggested that there are perhaps significant numbers of people who, in respect of their life situation and the impact upon their lives of factors largely beyond their control, experience what can be described as lives which, at times, can be characterised a meaningless and absurd.

A powerful and dramatic example of a life lived at the extremes of existence is embodied in the experiences in the Dachau, Auschwitz and Theresienstadt concentration camps of Viktor Frankl (1984) who developed an approach to psychiatry which recognises the primacy of humankind’s search for meaning. Frankl believed that existential frustration and spiritual problems can lead to the development of what he termed “noogenic neurosis” in which individuals struggle to come to terms with the value and meaning of their lives. Central to Frankl’s philosophy is a psychotherapeutic approach called Logotherapy which aims to facilitate exploration of questions of meaning, value and purpose.

Frankl (1973) has commented that

Man’s struggle for his self and his identity is doomed to failure unless it is enacted as dedication and devotion to something beyond his self, to something above his self. (p.83)

For Frankl, meaningful existence is found in a person’s commitment to someone or something beyond themselves; meaning, therefore, transcends the ego. History confirms that despite the many and varied challenges that human beings, both individually and collectively, have faced people have the tenacity and resilience to dedicate themselves to a cause, passion or ideal beyond themselves. The achievements of the arts and culture, the discoveries and inventions of science and technology, the exploration of the natural world and of space and the deep faith embodied in the spiritual traditions of the world, for example, illustrate vividly that humankind displays a dynamic and innovative capacity for creating, discerning and discovering ever evolving multifaceted meanings. Can such a history and such a world really be experienced and described as meaningless and absurd?

Maria and Edward Marshall (2012) have noted that:

A literal translation of the term ‘logotherapy’ is’ therapy through meaning’ … it could also be translated as ‘healing through meaning’… (p.44)

Frankl’s Logotherapy is affirming that questions of meaning, value and purpose are at the heart of being human and he (Frankl; 1973) has suggested that life can be made meaningful in three ways:

…. first, through what we give to life (in terms of our creative works); second, by what we take from the world (in terms of our experiencing values); and third, through the stand we take towards a fate we no longer can change (an incurable disease, an inoperable cancer, or the like). (p.25)

This tri-dimensional understanding of meaning derives from the interpretation of life as

…. a chain of questions which man has to answer by answering for life, to which he has to respond by being responsible, by making decisions, by deciding which answers to give to the individual questions. (p.27)

Such a perspective complements Sartre’s affirmation of the necessity for exercising freedom, making choices and acting authentically.

In his summary of the implications of Frankl’s philosophy of existence for educators Thorne (1991) has commented that

In an age when values and traditions are in the melting pot, the individual receives very little help from his environment as he seeks to confront the ultimate questions of his own meaning and value. Indeed, he may for a while be separated altogether from these questions by an all-embracing materialism. (p.115)

Thorne’s reference to what he terms “an all-embracing materialism” introduces the point of view that in modern society people can be distracted from exploring issues of meaning, purpose and value as there exists a culture which promotes ‘having’ rather than ‘being’. The psychologist Erich Fromm (1978) has delineated two modes of existence and articulated an analysis of human values in terms of the distinction between the modes of Having and Being. He suggests that:

In the having mode of existence my relationship to the world is one of possessing and owning, one in which I want to make everybody and everything, including myself, my property (p.33)

In the Being mode of existence, however,

…we must identity two forms of being. One is in contrast to having, … and means aliveness and authentic relatedness to the world.

The other form of being is in contrast to appearing and refers to the true nature, the true reality of a person or thing in contrast to deceptive appearances… (p.33)

It is possible to view the “all-embracing materialism” to which Thorne refers as being itself symptomatic of the awareness, which can often be repressed, of the experience of meaninglessness and absurdity of life. In such a view materialism can be viewed as a way of avoiding life’s ultimate questions; it can become an anaesthetic, a drug, by which one hopes to ease the pain of existence. Vincent Van Gogh’s artwork The Bearers of the Burden starkly and powerfully portrays the experience of the literal burdens that people carry but it can also be regarded as presenting a poignant reminder of the existential burdens that life confronts each individual with. Each person carries, like Sisyphus, their personal rock, their own burdens.

Although Camus’ reflections can initially appear to suggest that, like Sisyphus’ experience of rolling the rock up the mountain only for it to fall down and the task therefore requiring repetition ad infinitum, there is both absurdity and meaninglessness to existence, he does conclude his analysis of the human condition with the declaration (Camus; 2005) that:

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He, too, concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. (p.119)

There appears, therefore, to be a paradox at the heart of Camus’ philosophy presented in The Myth of Sisyphus. The relentless, constant task that Sisyphus faces on the mountain can be viewed as meaningless and even absurd. What does it really achieve? What is its purpose? Does it really have any significance or value? If Sisyphus’ task, although appearing in one sense to be heroic in its struggle, is, in reality, devoid of meaning and purpose, then it can be understandable why life can be perceived as being both meaningless and absurd to which an appropriate and justified response could be suicide.   However, this is not actually the way of seeing the world with which Camus concludes his work. Indeed, he appears to present a contrary, even hopeful, view. It can be suggested that he is articulating an approach to life which, whilst agreeing with Sartre that we live in a godless universe (“…the universe…without a master…”), recognises and affirms that meaning and purpose can be discerned and located in the very act, the process, of engaging heroically and authentically with the challenges with which we are presented in life. Although Sisyphus’ task may, understandably, appear to be almost tragic in nature, destined to repeatedly engage in activity devoid of meaning, it is in his attitude and approach to, and his engagement with, his task that meaning and purpose is to be found. In his declaration that “Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world” Camus is affirming that, the stone, the burden which Sisyphus has to constantly and carry, is, in effect, the very vehicle, the channel, through which he can locate meaning. The very fact that he has to struggle with a demanding task is a giver of meaning and purpose; the rock which in one sense is the burden which he literally carries, is also simultaneously the provider of meaning. Camus’ perspective, therefore, can be regarded as being congruent with Frankl’s affirmation that life can be made meaningful “…through the stand we take towards a fate we no longer can change…” (p.25) and complements Sartre’s (1973) affirmation of optimism in his declaration that:

Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position. Its intention is not in the least that of plunging men into despair…; what man needs to do is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God. In this sense existentialism is optimistic, it is a doctrine of action….” (p.56)

Sartre therefore, presents a way of seeing and being in the world which affirms that it is through living authentically in a world without God that each person can make sense of their life, discover who they really are and act in the world accordingly. This view is a celebratory, hopeful and ultimately optimistic response to the human condition and is compatible with Camus’ perspective that “The struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” The inspiring and ennobling transformative action of the Joenji monks can be viewed as articulating and embodying the capacity for human beings to “struggle towards the heights” and for their hearts to, indeed, be filled.

It can be suggested, therefore, that although the existential philosophies of Sartre and Camus present a clear and direct exploration of the human condition with its profound challenges, their analyses also present an approach to life which complements that of Frankl in his affirmation of the primacy of meaning and ultimately cogently negates the view that life is meaningless and absurd.

Indeed, such a philosophy of hope and optimism is affirmed by Cupitt (2007) in his declaration that:

We should not attempt to escape from the terrors of existence. Instead we should by faith cast ourselves into existence in all its one way temporality, its contingency, and is transience. We must both recognise clearly what our life is, and find the courage for the solar living that nevertheless says “Yes” to life, and steps boldly out over the abyss. (p.85)

The Joenji monks and the Make A Wish Upon Flowers project in their planting of sunflowers to transform the radiated soil can be regarded as saying a joyous Yes! to life and are presenting a simple, yet profound illustration of the capacity of spiritual traditions to engage with the challenges and opportunities of life. Their transformative action affirms and embodies Frankl’s declaration that man’s struggle for self identity is rooted and located in “… dedication and devotion to something beyond his self, to something above his self.”

LargeSunflowers

Large Sunflowers by Emil Nolde

Koyu Abbe has declared: “My hope is, as we wish upon flowers, the seeds of sunflowers and many other flowers we have distributed will bloom in Fukushima and become everyone’s flower of hope and happiness for the future. I wish this from the bottom of my heart.” In this perspective the act of growing sunflowers is a practical meaningful act of transformation. As the sunflower plants absorb the radiation from the surrounding area they act as a profound symbol of transformation in the personal, social and ecological dimensions of existence. What can be regarded as a simple act of planting and nurturing seeds illustrates that simple actions have the potential to have significant, even far-reaching, consequences. Confirming the understanding of the Buddhist law of karma, actions do have consequences. How we live, what we do and say, how we relate to, and connect with, others and with our wider ecologies, all have significance. It is like the pebble tossed into the lake. Once the pebble is thrown into the water we are no longer in control of what happens. We are actively involved in the casting of the stone into the water but we are not in control of, and we cannot ultimately predict, the extent and the force of the ripples on the lake which arise from the act of casting the stone. There is a profound sense, therefore, in which in a world in which we can easily become overwhelmed by the sheer scale of “dukkha” in its many and varied forms, the inspiring and ennobling example of the monks of the Joenji Temple present us with a contemporary role model illustrating how small acts can have very significant consequences. Indeed, from a small seed a mighty oak can grow. It can be suggested that in his declaration that “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed” Jesus, in harmony with the Buddha, draws our attention to the importance of “planting seeds”, preparing the ground for, and nurturing actions, activities, initiatives and projects which can transform lives and transform, in the process, darkness into light, hopelessness into hope and despair into meaning and purpose. The Kingdom of God, therefore, is present wherever and whenever positive transformation is manifested. The Monks of the Joenji Temple gently, humbly, yet powerfully illustrate that significant transformation can arise from relatively small acts of “metta”, loving kindness, in which individually and collectively persons can create and leave a legacy. Each human being, responding to the precious gift of life in all of its fragile glory, can create the ripples on the pond confirming that, ultimately, all things exist in a dynamic, creative and interconnected web of life. Each person begins where they are, in their own context and situation. From this context they exercise their freedom to choose and act and, in this process they can actualise transformation. Inspired by the teaching and way of the Buddha, the “Dharma”, the Joenji monks affirm the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path and mindfully, creatively and with compassion for all beings bring about, at times almost imperceptibly, profound personal, social and ecological change. The Joenji monks and the Make A Wish Upon Flowers project articulates clearly and unambiguously Sartre’s perspective that “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” To be a person is to be embodied and engaged; we do not exist as disembodied minds engaging purely in rational thought. Thinking and reflection is translated into engagement with the world. We are what we do. Who we are is how we act.

Text (c) Kelvin Ravenscroft; 2014

Resources

Invisible Snow Film:

http://buddhismnow.com/2011/08/20/invisible-snow/

Invisible Snow is a moving and inspiring film clearly illustrating Engaged Buddhism. It presents a Zen Buddhist monk, Koyu Abe, who initiated the planting of millions of sunflowers and other plants, at the temple in Joenji (50 km from the Fukushima nuclear power plant) and spreading out into the surrounding area. The flowers are believed to absorb the radiation emanating from Fukushima.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Larry Ward and Cheri Maples explore Mindfulness, Suffering, and Engaged Buddhism:

http://www.onbeing.org/program/thich-nhat-hanh-mindfulness-suffering-and-engaged-buddhism/74

Souls of Zen: Buddhism, Ancestors and the 2011 Tsunami in Japan dvd

This film follows Buddhist priests through the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in March 2011. The film explores perspectives on the significant role that Buddhsim played in the care of those lost or bereaved following the disaster.

Please see: www.soulsofzen.com

References

Bruner, Jerome: Making Stories – Law, Literature and Life (2003) Harvard University Press

Camus, Albert: The Myth of Sisyphus Translated by O’Brien, Justin (2005 edition) Penguin Books

Caverero, Adriana: Relating Narration – Storytelling and Selfhood (2000) Routledge

Cupitt, Don: The Old Creed and the New (2006) SCM Press

Cupitt, Don: Impossible Loves (2007) Polebridge Press

Dabrowski, Kazimierz: Positive Disintegration (1964) Little Brown

Ecclesiastes 1:14 in The Bible; Revised Standard Version (1965) Nelson

Frankl, Viktor: Psychotherapy and Existentialism – Selected Papers On Logotherapy (1973) Penguin

Frankl, Viktor: Man’s Search For Meaning – An Introduction To Logotherapy (1984; Third Edition) Touchstone/Simon & Schuster

Frankl, Viktor: The Will To Meaning – Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy (1988) Expanded Edition; Meridian

Frankl, Viktor: The Feeling of Meaninglessness – A Challenge To Psychotherapy and Philosophy (2010) Marquette University Press

Fromm, Erich: To Have Or To Be? (1978) Jonathan Cape

Hanh, Thich Nhat: Interbeing – Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism (1993) Parallax Press

Keen, Sam: Hymns To An Unknown God – Awakening The Spirit In Everyday Life   (1994) Piatkus

McAdams, Don: The Stories We Live By – Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (1997) Guilford Press

Marshall, Maria and Marshall, Edward: Logotherapy Revisited – Review of the Tenets of Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy (2012) Ottowa Institute of Logotherapy

Maslow, Abraham: Toward A Psychology Of Being (2011 Edition) Wilder Publications

Munch, Edvard: Edited and Translated by Holland, Jill G The Private Journals of Edvard Munch – We Are Flames Which Pour Out Of The Earth (2005) University of Wisconsin Press

Obe, Koyu: Quoted in the film Invisible Snow (2011) http://buddhismnow.com/2011/08/20/invisible-snow/

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority The Promotion of Pupils’ Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development Draft Guidance for Pilot Work 1997); QCA

Rogers, Carl: On Becoming A Person (1977) Constable

Rudd, Anthony: Self, Value and Narrative – A Kierkegaardian Approach (2012) Oxford University Press

Sartre, Jean Paul: Existentialism and Humanism (1973 edition) Translated by Mairet, Philip Methuen

Thorne, Brian: Person-Centred Counselling – Therapeutic and Spiritual Dimensions (1991) Whurr Publishers

The radical edge: Returning to Buddhism in the 21st Centrury by Arthavadin

by Arthavadin, January 2015

Inspired by David Loy’s book ‘Money, Sex, War, Karma’, Dh. Vadhaka’s ideas about neo-liberal capitalism and personal concerns about the commodification and secularisation of mindfulness (as a near enemy of the Dharma) this talk was originally given to an audience of Buddhists from different traditions at the Manchester Buddhist Convention in October 2015. The following month an adapted version of the talk was given at the San Francisco Buddhist Centre. Finally, after a few further refinements, additions and subtractions the version of the talk below was given at the launch of Manchester Buddhist Centre’s ‘Triratna Night’ in January 2015.

 

 

Overview:

 

  1. A brief history of Buddhism in the West
  2. The Western context in which Buddhism is taking root
  3. A Buddhist perspective on consumerism
  4. How consumerism is shaping the Western approach to Buddhism
  5. Some ideas about how to return Buddhism to its radical edge
  6. A renunciation prayer

 

 

 

  1. A potted history of Buddhism in the west

 

Today we think of Buddhism as one of the world’s great religions but only a few centuries ago it was barely known in the West.   Awareness of what we now call Buddhism began with the colonialism in Asia. Christian missionaries and colonial civil servants started bringing back relics and stories of the indigenous religions and these emerged into fields of academic study at the newly formed departments of Oriental Studies in Western universities.

 

However, to a great extent Buddhism tended to remain a fairly intellectual pursuit in the West until the 1960s when it began to gain a foothold in the popular consciousness as a religion or way of life.

 

The 1960s – at least in northern Europe and the USA – was marked by rapidly increasing material affluence, feminism, the sexual revolution and counter-culture rebellion and experimentation prompted by the literature of the Beatniks – many of whom explicitly identified with Buddhism.

 

It was just at this juncture in the 60s that a swathe of talented Buddhist teachers from the East came West. There are too many to mention in detail but they famously included Japanese teachers such as Shunryu Suzuki who went to the USA and, following the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Chogyam Trungpa who initially came to the UK. Also around about this time westerners such as Sangharakshita who had spent many years practising the Dharma in the East returned home and began establishing Buddhist sanghas which seemed to fit in with the counter-culture zeitgeist.

 

In the last decade or so there seems to have been a further wave of renewed interest in Buddhism as a consequence of the popularity of the Dalai Lama and the boom in secular mindfulness. I’ll say more about this a little later.

 

 

  1. The Western context that Buddhism has entered

 

Wherever Buddhism has taken root in countries outside of its indigenous India, the pre-existing belief systems, attitudes and milieu of those countries have influenced the expression and form that it’s developed.

 

For example when Buddhism went to China its form was influenced by Daoism (which emphasises change and flow) and Confucianism (which emphasises social order) which resulted in the creation of Chan and then Zen Buddhism.

 

When Buddhism went to the Himalayan regions it encountered and incorporated some of the shamanic elements of Bon resulting in what we now know as Tibetan Buddhism.

 

Now that Buddhism has come to the West we must ask ourselves what is the nature and quality of the soil – the culture and milieu – in which it’s taking root? And, consequently, what is the emerging form that Buddhism is taking here?

 

It’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to be clear headed and objective about one’s own culture by which we’re so deeply conditioned and in which we are so deeply immersed. Our cultural conditioning acts as filter through which we perceive and experience the world… It provides the baseline of what we tend to think of as normal and against which we assess and evaluate other cultures. Nevertheless, I’m aware of at least eight pervasive cultural factors that I think are likely to be influencing the emerging shape and flavour of Buddhism here. These include:

 

  1. Philosophical materialism
  2. Scientific rationalism
  3. Feminism and egalitarianism
  4. Psychology – Since Freud our society has become incredibly psychologised
  5. Individualism
  6. Growing emphasis on environmentalism and whole earth philosophies
  7. Communications technology resulting in mass and social media
  8. Consumerism

 

These eight factors are not exhaustive and they’re certainly not discrete. Many, if not all, can be seen to condition each other. Each of them is worthy of a talk in its own right but this evening I’m focusing on the factor that I think is most dangerously impacting upon – and potentially hindering – the development of Buddhism in the West …..and that factor is consumerism.

 

Before I go on to critique consumerism I have to acknowledge that over the last 100 years our economic system, which is consumer capitalism, has contributed to significantly raising the material living standards of hundreds, if not thousands, of millions of people. From a historical perspective we in the West have never had so much and it’s hardly surprising that the consumerist culture is generally welcomed by the majority of people who have the good fortune of ‘enjoying’ it.

 

This evening I am not talking about consumerism from an economic, sociological or psychological perspective. I’m talking as a Buddhist. I’m particularly interested in:

 

  1. The impact of consumerism on our minds;
  2. how it influences our attitude to the Dharma; and
  3. it’s potential effect on the emerging shape and form that Buddhism is taking as it continues to take root here in the West (and the rest of the industrialised world)

 

 

  1. A Buddhist perspective on consumerism

 

At a 1997 international meeting of Buddhists in Japan, known as the Buddhist Think Sangha, consumerism was defined as:

 

“…the dominant culture of a modernizing invasive industrialism which stimulates – yet can never satisfy – the urge for a strong sense of self to overlay the angst and sense of lack in the human condition. As a result, goods, services, and experiences are consumed beyond any reasonable need. This undermines the ecosystem, the quality of life, and particularly traditional cultures and communities and the possibility of spiritual liberation.”

 

Consuming is not in and of itself problematic but consuming more than we need most definitely is… at least it is from a Buddhist perspective. But what do we mean by need? Where do we draw the line between a ‘need’ and a ‘want’? I challenge all of us to reflect upon this question

 

A factor that makes consumerism in the West today different from consumerism in previous times is that we now live and work within a global economy fuelled by consumer spending. This economic model – especially as it has developed over the last century – requires us as individuals and as a society to consume more – much more – than we actually need to survive. In fact it requires us to consume much more than we need to thrive. I recently read that within forty years Americans alone have consumed natural resources to the quantity of what all mankind has consumed for the last 4000 years! Our species is known as ‘homo sapien’ – the Latin for ‘wise man’. Given the profligacy of consumerism in the West – and the impact it is having on our minds, our relationships, society and environment – it is probably time we questioned whether we are worthy of such a noble title.

 

In order to distinguish the Buddhist and the contemporary western attitude towards consumerism I’m going to give two brief readings – one from the Cullavagga in the Pali canon (probably written 2000 years ago) and the other from the Daily Telegraph written just over a month ago.

 

SD 37.14.1 (V)

 

Culla,vagga 11.1.13-14 @ Vinaya 2:290-292

 

Then the rajah’s concubines approached the venerable Ānanda, saluted him, and then sat down at one side. Sitting thus at one side, the venerable Ānanda instructed, inspired, roused and gladdened with a talk on the Dharma. Then the rajah’s concubines, having been instructed, inspired, roused and gladdened with a Dharma talk by venerable Ānanda, gave venerable Ānanda 500 sets of outer robes. Then the rajah’s concubines, having rejoiced and approved of venerable Ānanda’s words, rose from their seat, saluted him, departed by keeping him to the right, and approached rajah Udena.

 

Now, rajah Udena saw his concubines returning from afar. Seeing the concubines, he said to them: “What now, have you see the recluse Ānanda?” “We have, your majesty, seen the recluse Ānanda.” “So, did you give anything to the recluse Ānanda?” “Your majesty, we gave venerable Ānanda 500 sets of outer robes.” Rajah Udena was annoyed, vexed, and was outraged, saying, “How can this recluse Ānanda accept so many robes? Is the recluse Ānanda becoming a clothes merchant, or is he opening a store?”

 

Then rajah Udena went up to venerable Ānanda, and exchanged greetings with him. When the cordial exchanges were concluded, he sat down at one side.

 

Sitting thus at one side, rajah Udena said this to venerable Ānanda, “Master Ānanda, did our concubines come here?” “Maharajah, your concubines did come here today.” “And what did they give to master Ānanda?” “Maharajah, they gave me 500 sets of outer robes.”

 

“But what is master Ānanda going to do with so many robes?’ “Maharajah, we distribute them to monks with robes that are worn out.”

 

“But, master Ānanda, what then do you do with the old worn-out robes?” “We turn them into cover-sheets.”

 

“What then, master Ānanda, do you do with the old cover-sheets?” “We turn them into floor-sheets [carpets], maharajah.”

 

“What then, master Ānanda, do you do with the old floor-sheets?” “We turn them into covers for pillows and mattresses.”

 

“What then, master Ānanda, do you do with the old covers?”

“We turn them into foot-towels, maharajah.”

 

“What then, master Ānanda, do you do with the old foot-towels?”

“We turn them into dusters, maharajah.”

 

“What then, master Ānanda, do you do with the old dusters?” “Maharajah, having shredded them up, we knead them into the mud, and then we will spread themout on the flooring.”

 

Then rajah Udena thought, “These recluses, sons of the Shakya, proceed very wisely; nothing is wasted!” So he gave venerable Ānanda another set of 500 pieces of cloth. And this was how a thousand sets of outer robes accrued upon venerable Ānanda.

 

I suppose what this extract illustrates is an attitude of awareness and positive frugality…. An applied awareness that ensures that everything is put to good use and nothing is wasted…. The Buddha’s middle way between indulgence and asceticism.

 

 

 

The Telegraph

 

By Rosa Silverman, and Patrick Sawer

5:18PM GMT 28 Nov 2014

 

 

…..The Black Friday sales saw thousands of shoppers engaged in a frantic hunt for Christmas bargains with up to 80 per cent slashed from big-ticket items such as televisions and tablet computers.

 

Police were called to stop fighting at dozens of stores and made a number of arrests after security guards found themselves unable to deal with the scrums.

 

Black Friday was imported about three years ago from the US, where it has long been held on the day after Thanksgiving to lure people into the shops.

 

This is the first year that British high street stores have offered vast numbers of heavily discounted items as in previous years the sales have largely been confined to the internet.

 

Police attacked supermarket bosses for failing to control shoppers. Senior officers said they had been forced to divert resources away from front-line crime fighting to deal with the chaos.

 

The worst scenes were in Greater Manchester, where at least three people were arrested as fighting broke out between shoppers, but police were called to keep the peace at dozens of stores throughout the country.

 

Shortly after midnight, when some shops opened their doors, a 42-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of assault at a Tesco in Burnage, Greater Manchester.

 

Another man was arrested on suspicion of a public order offence after police were called to reports of fighting in a 300-strong crowd at a Tesco in Hattersley.

 

A third man was held at a Tesco in Salford, after he threatened to “smash” in a shop worker’s face, police said. In Stretford fights broke out and a woman was injured by a falling television.

 

A member of staff at a branch of Tesco in Manchester was seen with a black eye after a disturbance broke out, and one shopper said the store had resembled “a war zone at midnight”.

 

 

I think we might agree that Buddhist and secular western attitudes towards consumerism are at odds with one another.

 

 

The main motivation for consumerist behaviour throughout history has largely been functional. People needed, and still need, to consume to survive – Until relatively recently our dominant pattern of consumption was related to the need for food, medicines, clothing and shelter. However, since the industrial revolution – which began in and around Manchester about 200 years ago, and especially since the Second World War, the motivations for consumption in the so-called developed economies of the West (and increasingly the East and South too,) have become much more psychological than functional.

 

 

The advertising industry, funded by massive multinational corporations, seeks to convince us that through our patterns of consumption:

 

a). We can feel more safe and secure in an uncertain and unpredictable world.

b). We can gain membership of social groups to which we wish, or feel we need, to belong.

c). We can achieve status in the eyes of others

d). We can improve our self-esteem

e). We can even self-actualise.

 

Advertising basically encourages us to believe that fundamental psychological needs (think Maslow’s hierarchy) can be met through consumption.

 

In 2013 £14 billion was spent in the UK on advertising to encourage consumer spending. That’s a lot of advertising, so much in fact that it’s almost impossible to ignore. I don’t know about you but I’m acutely aware of the ubiquity of advertising vying for my attention at every turn… on the tv, radio, internet, cinema, mobile phone. I find it extremely invasive and I don’t welcome it. An article in the weekly German newspaper Die Zeit described advertising as ‘…the dictator from which there is no escape.” I know the feeling!

Some of you will know that my first job after leaving university was in an advertising agency and later, when I studied as a post-grad, I wrote a thesis about the motivations and personalities of the men who made it to the top of that industry.   For a short time I even considered working within it as a psychologist. However, I’m pleased to say that I came over from the ‘dark side’.

 

Advertising doesn’t simply inform us of the bare facts of goods, services and experiences. Instead, it alludes to subtle and not so subtle symbols of projected ‘ideal self’. By consuming the product we are encouraged to believe that we will also consume its inferred symbolic qualities. Let’s take the example of car advertising which is so often targeted at men with disposable incomes.

 

When a car is advertised it’s very rarely depicted factually and left at that. The car we see in the advert is not just a safe and efficient mode of transport…. No, it’s so much more. It’s a symbol of virility and manhood! It’s a testosterone fuelled sex machine that purrs like a panther and promises to elevate our sense of power, adventure and status.

 

Essentially the same principles, with minor variations, are used in almost all advertising.

 

My understanding of advertising is that it seeks to achieve 3 key objectives:

 

  1. Attract and hold our attention (sparsa – contact)
  2. Encourage a positive emotional identification with the product, service or experience being advertised (Vedena – feeling)
  3. Stimulate a desire…or even better a craving… for that product, service or experience. (Tanha – craving)

 

If that list of three objectives of advertising sounds familiar it’s because it forms part of the nidana chain. Attracting and holding our attention is sense contact or ‘sparsa’. Encouraging a positive emotional identification with the product is feeling or ‘vedena’. And Stimulating a desire or craving for the product is ‘tanha’. The gap that the Buddha encourages us to cultivate between vedena and tanha is the very same gap that advertising consciously, and with the clout of £14billion behind it, seeks to close. Advertising seeks to achieve the opposite, the antithesis of the Dharma. The Dharma seeks to help us escape the wheel of becoming whereas the advertising industry (and the system it supports) seeks to keep us on it. I wonder if it is too much to say that consumer advertising is the anti-Dharma? It is one of the alluring and seductive forms in which Mara appears to us in the 21st century.

 

The Buddhist author David Loy states that the ‘market’ and consumerism has become a sort of religion – essentially an economic religion – that determines our dominant outlook and values in the West.

 

Contrary to traditional religions which appeal to a need for connection with the transcendental as well as each other our culture of consumerism encourages craving for things that can never and will never succeed in filling our existential sense of lack and emptiness.   In the past people often defined themselves by what they produced. Today, more than ever, we are encouraged by consumerist advertising and the media to define ourselves by our patterns of consumption…. by the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, where we go on holiday, the type of house we live in, the décor inside and all the other stuff that we so conspicuously and needlessly consume.

 

By mindlessly defaulting to the dominant culture of consumerism – which may be difficult to resist given its ubiquity and our deep conditioning within it – we continually reinforce a sense of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ which not only separates us from each other and the world but also from Reality…. from Nirvana. From a Buddhist perspective this is clearly unskilful, and ultimately painful.

 

It is within this culture and milieu of consumerism, this unfertile soil, so antithetical to the Dharma that Buddhism is trying to take root in the West.

 

 

  1. How is consumerism shaping Buddhism in the West and what forms is it taking as a consequence?

 

Because of our thorough conditioning and immersion in a culture of consumerism, many of us, myself included, are laden with all sorts of unconscious attitudes that we unwittingly apply to Buddhism in much the same way as we do to everything else.

 

The sorts of unconscious consumerist attitudes I’m referring to here include:

 

  • Commodification
  • Expectation of choice
  • Desire for constant stimulation and instant gratification
  • Cherry picking what we like and ignoring everything else
  • An attitude of entitlement and rights (as opposed to duties, obligations and responsibilities)

 

Commodification

 

It’s my belief that consumerism is ubiquitous and successful because it flows so congruently with the currents of samsara. We continually receive messages from the media that we will be happy when our consumerist desires are met.   However, as Buddhists, we know that ultimately our desires won’t and can’t be satisfied in any lasting and meaningful way because, as long as we remain unenlightened, to desire is our raison d’être.   To experience freedom from desire and craving means to cease to exist in the only way that we, so deeply conditioned as we are as consumers, understand.

 

On a relatively harmless individual level Buddhism is being commodified as a form of exotica and fashion. Today it’s not uncommon for people to buy and give inordinate attention to a whole load of Buddhist paraphernalia – malas, rupas, tangkas, singing bowls, ethnic Buddhist clothing and so on. I suppose the risk is that people mistake the trappings and packaging for the substance.

 

The same phenomenon of commodification can be seen in the way that the image of the Buddha has been appropriated by those want to make a profit out of a representation of calm and tranquillity in a world of chaos and hurry. Buddha statues are everywhere – especially, and somewhat ironically given Buddhist ethics, in shops, bars, restaurants, nightclubs and luxury spas.

 

Not only are the superficial symbols and images of Buddhism being commodified but, increasingly, so are its methods and techniques. In the past several years mindfulness has become commodified too.   Mindfulness is, of course, an integral aspect of Buddhism but, at least in some, it is being divorced from the Dharma, repackaged and transformed into an industry for professionals who, having paid several thousand pounds for their training, graduate with diplomas and degrees and are then considered qualified to set up shop themselves as mindfulness experts. It seems somewhat ironic that what has, for 2500 years, been freely taught by Buddhists as a means of liberating beings from samsara is now, at least by some, being taught as a profitable means of helping people adapt and adjust to it! As practicing Buddhists we know that the purpose of mindfulness is to bring people into closer relationship with Reality. It conduces to an increasingly ethical outlook and a natural letting go… a renunciation of samsara.   It most certainly is not, as some secular mindfulness exponents state, a tool for increasing corporate profits or, as I read last night, “… a technique to mentally discipline and prepare US marines for action”

 

It seems to me that consumerism is like the Borg in Startrek. It co-opts, appropriates and absorbs everything it encounters. I think we need to consider whether Buddhism in the West is falling into its clutches.

 

Choice

 

In our society we’ve become used to choice. I think most of us these days take consumer choice for granted. In fact, we tend to expect it. As far as Buddhism is concerned, there is indeed plenty of choice out there. Just look at all the different Buddhist schools and traditions represented here in Manchester. In one respect this is wonderful because with informed choice people are more likely to find a ‘fit’ that works for them. However, the risk of so much choice is that it potentially undermines commitment to any choices made. People may initially be attracted to one Buddhist tradition but then, at some point further down the line, they hit a block or wall. Maybe they get bored, disappointed or disillusioned with their teacher. So what do they do? Rather than committing, persevering and working through and learning from the challenge they’ve encountered….as would almost have certainly been the case in more traditional contexts…. here the temptation is to simply make a few clicks on the internet to find a more exciting teacher or school of Buddhism and transfer to that.

 

Once we have taken refuge to the Three Jewels within a particular tradition we are, effectively, disciples of that tradition. In the case of Triratna it means that Order Members have agreed to follow the discipline of Buddhism as interpreted by Sangharakshita….. and, as in all worthwhile endeavours, in order to make progress discipline is absolutely necessary.

 

 

Cherry picking (spirituality vs religion)

 

Cherry picking is closely related to choice. This is the tendency to select only those aspects of Buddhism and the Dharma that one likes and to effectively ignore or dismiss what one doesn’t. (“I like meditating but can’t be bothered with puja.”) This is like shopping for an outfit and rather than buying everything from the same range of clothing so that it all matches, instead buying the shirt from one clothing range, the trousers from another, the jacket from yet another and so on. In terms of buying clothes this may be absolutely fine. However, when the same principle of cherry picking is applied to Buddhism and the Dharma then the practitioner potentially ends up with a very confused and eclectic mish-mash of methods and techniques from different schools, traditions….and possibly even different religions. This results in a personalised and individualistic and highly subjective spirituality that ‘feels’ right for the individual but more often than not lacks the depth and coherence of an established tradition which values discipline and shared community with others who are on the same path (cf Charles Taylor’s ‘subective turn’).

 

 

Constant stimulation and instant gratification

 

In our consumer culture, when we want something we tend to assume that we can get it, straight away. Generally we don’t expect to have to defer our gratifications, regardless of whether that is a book from Amazon, news on the internet, a bus to arrive, service in a restaurant or a hundred other things. I wonder if we are conditioned to bring the same impatient attitude to our meditation and the pursuit of Enlightenment, which won’t and can’t be rushed. It works its magic in its own time and in it’s own way. An expectation of instant gratification may mean, when the Dharma fails to deliver quickly, that people give up on it before it’s had any chance of bearing fruit.

 

 

An attitude of entitlement and rights (as opposed to duties, obligations and responsibilities)

 

In our consumer culture we are told that the consumer is king (or queen) and has rights. In this country this attitude of consumer sovereignty has been actively and consistently cultivated by successive government administrations since Margaret Thatcher. The problem with the notion of ‘rights’ is that it creates and reinforces the fixed sense of self (or the ego) that separates us from each other. This is antithetical to Buddhism, which aims to do the opposite.   Buddhism aims to transcend the divisions between self and other by raising awareness. With increased awareness comes an increased sense of ethical duty, obligation and responsibility which results in dana or giving, loving kindness, compassion and, ultimately, altruism.

 

 

 

6.Returning Buddhism to its radical edge.

 

In an interview for Parabola magazine several years ago Mu Soeng, who had practiced as a Korean Zen Buddhist but was at that time Director of the IMS Centre in Barre, Massachusetts said:

 

“I find that the elements of consumerism and commodification are so powerful in the American culture that everything gets commodified. Even well-meaning people end up being purveyors of consumer items. That’s the power of the culture, and it’s inescapable. One thing I see again and again is that Buddhism in America is a middle-class, bourgeois movement, and it is the nature of bourgeois middle-class movement that everything be commodified. What the Buddha was trying to tell us is to throw all the furniture out of the living room, but what we are trying to do is just move the furniture around. People don’t really want to change. We are not willing to throw the furniture out. First of all, the culture will not allow it, and secondly because if we’re throwing it out, there is the fear that everything will collapse. But if you throw the furniture out there is empty space – and a relationship with space – that is more open, more spacious….”

 

Mu Soeng hits the nail on the head!

 

One of the greatest risks for Buddhism’s survival in the West is the potential for pandering to the consumerist attitudes and demands of those who come knocking at its door, giving them what they want rather than what they really need.

 

It seems to me that the Dharma is very strong medicine for a world that, for the most part, doesn’t realise it’s sick!

 

Given the pervasive, instant and usually short-term gratifications on offer in samsara the hard-won (but ultimately satisfactory) alternative offered by the Dharma is unlikely to appeal to the masses. In the 21st century, just as in the Buddha’s day, relatively few people have ‘but little dust in their eyes’…… but there are some!

 

The Buddha’s exhortation to renounce attachments to sensual pleasures, to overcome our addiction to them, is truly radical in our rampantly consumerist society.   To sincerely and effectively practice the Dharma is, I believe, to peacefully subvert the status quo. Those of us who are really practising the Dharma are part of a ‘quiet riot’.

 

So, what are we to do?

 

First and foremost we must start with ourselves. We must ask ourselves do we want to be Enlightened and free or do we simply want to have an easier ride in samsara? If we decided we want the former then consciously commit to Going For Refuge to the three jewels – the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.   Place these at the centre of our life and recommit to them regularly. Guard them as you would any jewels. Keep them safe and polish them regularly. If we look after the Three Jewels they will look after us.

 

The Buddha taught the middle way between the extremes of self-mortification and excess. We all need to consume to survive but we don’t need to be mindless consumers. We can, if we’re mindful, be in this consumerist world but not of it.

 

The way to protect ourselves and progress in this endeavour is through the application of the four right efforts so that our personal consumption becomes more rather than less skilful….and we can encourage others to do likewise. This is achieved by

 

 

  1. Preventing the arising of mindless consumption – Guard the gates of the senses. Consciously reduce or limit your exposure to marketing and advertising – and prevent sources of temptation. Don’t unconsciously surf theTV channels or internet. Remember – what we pay attention to we become. Why not get rid of your TV altogether? Consciously and selectively choose the media you read, watch or listen to. When you go shopping make a list of what you want in advance rather than deciding what you want on the hoof.

 

  1. Eradicating existing mindless consumption – Consider the motivations behind what you consume and always remember that willed actions have consequences. Consider the ethics of what you’re purchasing in terms of whether or not it’s been fairly traded and what, if any, harm has done to people, animals or the planet in it’s production.

 

  • Cultivating or fostering stillness, simplicity, contentment through mindful consumption – De-clutter your life, get into the habit of being generous and giving stuff away on a regular basis, be frugal and recycle as much as possible. Share resources. Rather than buying stuff grow it and/or make it.

 

  1. Maintaining mindful and sustainable consumption. Be mindful of what you do have and appreciate it. Express gratitude for whatever comes into your possession. Take nothing for granted. Waste nothing and look after everything in your possession. In Dogen’s ‘Instructions to the Zen Cook’ he states that the Tenzin – the cook- is mindful of and does not waste even a single grain of rice. If we are mindful of and appreciate everything in this sort of way we’re unlikely to be excessive in our consumption.

 

(If you follow these suggestions you will be going against the currents of mainstream society and, in all probability, be considered an oddball by so called ‘normal’ people.)

 

 

Sangharakshita, makes it clear that Going For Refuge is not just a question of altering our own mental states by willed effort alone. The context and circumstances in which we live and work directly impact upon our minds. So, for the benefit of both our selves and others who tread the Buddhist Path we need to do what we can to improve our external circumstances.

 

Where are we to start with this?

 

  • Invest heavily in spiritual friendships – Kalyana mitrata – we are each other’s context. The attitudes and values of the people you associate with will influence your own thinking and attitudes.
  • Actively contribute to the creation and maintenance of the sangha as the most important external condition in which to live our spiritual lives. As a member of the sangha I am not just concerned with ‘my’ spiritual life and practice. I have a vested interest in ‘our’ spiritual practice. Where sangha is strong it acts as an inspiring, nurturing and protective shield against the consumerist default position. The default position that mainstream culture and society regards as normal.

 

However, this shouldn’t be limited to our immediate environment but should extend to the wider social, economic and political influences that impinge upon it. Consequently, we need to do what we can, not just to transform ourselves but society too. If we take the doctrine of conditioned co-production seriously, then we will know that they cannot be separated.

 

 

 

Renunciation Prayer

 

My life is full and busy

Earning money

Striving for success

Status

Stimulation

And especially pleasure.

Pleasure in whatever ways I can get it:

Sex

Food

Fashions and fads

Gadgets and gimmicks.

I always want more;

Bigger

Better

Different….

I am consumed

By the need to consume!

I acquire all manner of junk

Experiences

And even people!

What I valued yesterday

I discard today

What I value today

I shall discard tomorrow.

I want this

Then that

Then something else.

I am completely enthralled

By the froth of samsara.

My greed creates suffering

For me

For others

For the world.

I am an addict

Always wanting just one more:

Chocolate

Book

Holiday

Friend

Lover…..

The list is endless!

Restless, anxious and

empty

I have an insatiable hunger

Like a black hole

I will devour

This planet

This galaxy

This universe.

I just don’t have enough!

I’ve never had enough!

I will never have enough!

The treadmill of craving

Keeps me distracted

From what I REALLY need.

Faster, faster and faster

The wheel turns.

Never moving forwards

And exhausted

I am racing towards

Old age

Sickness

And death.

Thank you Shakyamuni.

I am grateful to you

Who discovered and taught

The way to freedom

Above and between

The two extremes.

The narrow path

Straight as a shuttle from samsara to nirvana

The blissful

Peaceful

Selfless state.

My parents gave the gift of physical life.

You, the gift of meaningful life.

I bow down

And prostrate at your feet.

You are truly a kinsman of

the sun.

A bringer of light.

Dispelling the darkness.

A guide

Showing the way

Out of this mire.

All to soon

This precious life is spent.

What time I have left

I must not waste.

Heeding your Dharma

I shall strive on

Awake

To every second

Of every minute

Of every hour

Of every remaining day.

Opening my clenched fist

I shall no longer

Grab

Grasp

And cling.

Opening my heart

I shall hanker after nothing

But the truth!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manchester Buddhist Convention: October 11th, 2014

tnManchester hosts over 25 Buddhist ‘schools’ or systems of thought and practice. These include Theravada from Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma, Chan, Zen, Tibetan Buddhism of all four lineages, Triratna that aims to create an interface between different schools and the SGI that is non-monastic and whose practice is based entirely on the Lotus Sutra.

Given this diversity and wealth of Buddhist thinking, the creation of a Forum to bring these together was inevitable. This was the Manchester Buddhist Convention (MBC). Founded nine years ago, it is an annual event where Buddhists of different systems, the monastic and lay communities, meet to share learning and practice.

The early events focused on providing ‘taster sessions’ and introductions to the different schools. A few years ago we felt it was time to move on from this format and explore wider issues and deeper meanings.

DSCF5540Using the strapline ‘One Root Many Branches’, we began to explore different elements of, for example, Compassion as understood in Buddhism; of Bodhicitta and the Bodhisattva path; of what we meant by ‘mind’; of subjectivity, personal investigation, science and the scientific method. For instance – Buddhism is intensely investigative. This personal investigation uses personal experience as well as other peoples’ personal investigation. It has been argued that it is, evidence based but not necessarily within the Western framework. Does this make it less valid? We continue to explore Buddhist meditation and pain relief. Buddhism gives people strength in their own life and the work they undertake. But increasingly, we aim to address the question of how Buddhists locate ourselves in a world facing multiple crises.

The day is designed to allow people to follow a ‘strand’ throughout the day if they so wish or to ‘mix and match’. They can either choose to attend all practice sessions (from different systems), or Dharma topics, or themes (for example, these could be, ‘Buddhist action in the world’ or ‘human rights’ or ‘Gender’. There are also two discussion sessions that we select through feedback or an assessment of the year before.

This year’s theme was, ‘Buddhism Today: Relevance and Revival

Responding to the challenges we face.

DSC04967Workshops examined the local, European and global context of Buddhism and the work of ‘intra’ Buddhist organisations like the chaplaincy services and Angulimala. Other workshops posed the question of whether Buddhism had lost its radical edge – relevant in a theme that aimed to address ‘relevance and renewal’. Presenters discussed the use and associated difficulties of ‘mindfulness’ in professional contexts like the NHS. However, such training may be used more creatively in more personalised, professional contexts like the Fire services. (Faith and Fire – a creative partnership between the Fire Services and Buddhists.) One workshop examined the poignant initiative taken by monks in Fukushima who collected contaminated soil from the reactor, transferred it to the monastery and surrounded it with sunflowers. These seemed to absorb the contamination safely. ‘Gender and Buddhism’ asked why full ordination of women was uncommon. If as, many women scholars argue, this was not what the Buddha taught (it is not based on precedence, as the Buddha’s instructions were, but loss of ‘lineage’. So we ask, ‘who was in control of holding the lineage’. Many have said simply – ‘It is andro-centric book-keeping.’) There were examples of people who had simply decided to ignore the ‘rules’ and inspiring women teachers.

MBC participants have suggested that Buddhists need to be more visible in social contexts but I feel we could challenge the notion that Buddhists are not active or responsive to the problems in the world. There are endless numbers of ‘projects’, trusts and processes that Buddhists have founded and/or are involved in. So we, ourselves, seem to have swallowed the notion that we are not active. What is true, and has also been raised, is that there are few intra-Buddhist Projects. I also think, as do others, that we are not very good at meeting each other and can be mistrustful. We do not all approach the world in the same way. Some schools are proactive. Some more reserved. I have seen and heard suspicion between these approaches. Enthusiasm for the Dhamma/Dharma is perceived as an intention to ‘take over’. Terminology is sometimes contentious. Monoculturality was fleetingly mentioned in one session. These may not be an issue in countries where the Dhamma/Dharma is firmly embedded or where there is just one system present.

The MBC is an ‘inter’ and ‘intra’ Buddhist event that aims to accommodate all Buddhists who wish to make a presentation. In the course of a day, the event cannot and does not aim to go into in depth investigation of Buddhist teachings but offers a spectrum of significant topics. It has moved on from introductory sessions to raise and address some doctrinal and issue-based themes in ways that are not dogmatic but discursive and participative. It has been suggested that the MBC should organise other smaller events over the year so we will have an annual event as well as a few smaller ones. Some centres have already interested in hosting an MBC event. The MBC is organised on a zero budget with a handful of volunteers, no established venue and aims to exist on a donation basis (not well established in the West), so the continuation of the events will be contingent on donation and volunteer support.

DSCF5522At the MBC, as we learn more about each other’s specific systems we begin to explore teachings outside the confines of our own Schools and explore what we share and where we differ. I would like to think that what is happening is that instead of avoiding different practices as a threat, we are becoming confident enough to see the reality of what we often like to quote – ie – that the Buddha recognised the needs of different temperaments and so preached a huge amount of methods and paths. These cannot compete but complement each other and are intended to suit the needs of all who turn to Buddhism. The MBC offers an opportunity for us to come together as Buddhists. For me this is the single most important service that the MBC offers. The Dhamma/Dharma has taken wing and arrived in the West. This is our true inheritance. It is Ekayana – One Dhamma/Dharma.

Jaya Graves.

Manchester Buddhist Convention. 2014

First published in the Middle Way Vol 89, No. 3

www.thebuddhistsociety.org

Photos from MBC 2014

Click on the thumbnails to enlarge photos

MBC 2014 – Jaya Graves

Theme: ‘Buddhism Today: relevance and responding to the Crises of our times

 

MBC 2014 took place, as usual on the second Saturday of October – ie Saturday 11th, at St. Peter’s Chaplaincy, Oxford Road. As always, our thanks go to Rev. Terry Biddington and his team who made the Venue available to us.

The theme was decided from feedback received over the years, discussion with the Venerable Piyatissa and among ourselves – ie – the MBC Planning group.

 

As always, the programme develops through dialogue with people who respond and/or are invited to make an input. Over the years we have become familiar with areas of work that some Centres and presenters are interested in. But there is enough difference and variety to keep us lively and on our toes! Last minute withdrawals and additions make programme planning an open-ended process almost to the day before.

 

The day started with a short ceremony in the Foyer. We created a small shrine and began with chanting from different schools of Buddhism and in several different languages – Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan and English – a moving and unifying start. One person came to me and said, ‘that’s it Jaya. This is what I came for…’.

 

Responding to suggestions, we decided that instead of short ‘keynote’ inputs we would have discussion groups before lunch. So after a short ‘setting the scene’ session in the Auditorium, we broke into three discussion sessions – ‘Buddhism in Action’, ‘Tzu Chi: Buddhism as Compassion in Action’, and ‘Gender and Buddhism’. This was followed by lunch after which the programme continued in the normal pattern – ie – themed strands that could be followed through the day – Practice, Dharma/Dhamma topics, Buddhist based activity and human rights. People could choose to follow a strand through the day or vary their choices. (1)

 

As I could not split myself into 5 to attend each sessions (which I sometimes wish I could!) the report is a mixture of hearsay, feed-back and attendance.

 

‘Buddhism in Action’, explored what was happening in the national, European and Global context. (2) It addressed different levels of engagement – the national, European and International. The point was made that there are over 250,000 Buddhists in the UK but they seem not to be ‘connecting’ with their social and political power to ‘create change’. A similar point was made in the session, ‘Has Buddhism lost it’s radical edge?’(3) This could stem from the notion that ‘politics’ is somehow beneath or outside the Buddhist framework. Others say that they take it into their personal work. (4)

 

Tzu Chi ‘spoke on their activities in the UK’. Here is a comment about this session, ‘a most illuminating exploration of Engaged Buddhism with clear reference to contemporary examples of how Buddhist concepts and ideas relate. The discussion explored how the principle of rebirth and karma relates to repentance and service.’ Tzu Chi works on several fronts in Manchester – with women, with refugees and does environmental work in Cheetham.’ (5)

 

The third discussion was ‘Gender and Buddhism’(6). The session was concerned more with the ‘how’ questions rather than ‘if’– no one questions the notion that women are capable of reaching Enlightenment. We were concerned, among other things’, on gender disparity in general, epitomised by the loss of full ordination for nuns. The accusation has been made that this was a case of ‘male book-keeping’. Patriarchy holds power. There is neither precedence nor directive from the Buddha. What had/was being done about it, and how the lineage of Bhikunis could be restored were concerns. (7) Examples were given of people who had taken matters into their own hands – Ajahn Brahm in Australia who has ordained nuns as have Patriarchs in various Zen traditions. The case of Shih Chao Hwei of Taiwan who tore up the garudharmas was identified. Others spoke of nuns in the FGS, Tzu Chi (founded by the nun, Master Chen Yen), Lama Shenpen in Hookham. A visit is suggested. Tibetan Buddhism has women lamas but doctrinal positions as well as attitude towards nuns and women vary within and between lineages. ‘Equality’ needs to be the norm not a ‘gift’ of a patriarchal hierarchy. So there is some way to go!

 

‘Maple Leaves in Autumn’, presented an inspiring project undertaken by a Monastery in Fukushima after the Tsunami which had had a massive impact on the psyche of the people. The abbot and monks collected contaminated soil in large plastic bags; transported and stored this monastery grounds. Sunflowers were planted to help transform the soil and remove radioactivity. (A symbol of transformation and hope to 2 million people; it creates a ripple effect outwards) (8); a session by the Sale Buddhist Centre – ‘This was a most thoughtful, sensitive and articulate exploration of four key aspects of Buddhist belief and practice;’ Stonewater Zen ‘explored perspectives on contemporary issues and raised the question (which arose throughout the day) of ways to respond to what can appear to be overwhelming events in the world…’. Jeremy filled in at the last minute for Alan Smith of Soto Zen who was unwell. FGS, SGI, the Chaplaincy and Faith and Fire updated us on their work and led practice sessions.

 

There were two later discussion sessions. ‘Mindfulness in the NHS’ was well attended and explored, ‘the difficulties as well as delights of retaining the authenticity of mindfulness within a secular organization that is driven by targets and outcomes. Opinion ranged from a sense of ‘anything is better than nothing’, to concern that mindfulness was being stripped of its ethical mooring. (9) ‘Buddhism in the West was led by panellists. (I was handed notes from this session and write from these). The general view seems to have been that while aspects of Buddhist expression needed to change, the core elements should be retained. Some points raised questions in my own mind – eg – the dichotomy between ‘science and the spiritual’, generalisations about ‘gender equality’, ‘taking Buddhism back to the East’ where the Dharma has ‘stagnated’. I would suggest caution in these assumptions which may be views from the best intentioned and influential of teachers from the East, or from Western practitioners who travel there. There is a difference in how Buddhism is practiced in countries where it is established. This doesn’t mean it is ‘stagnating’. We may have lessons to learn from this – the value and need for Dana; respect for symbols of the Buddha. Also what Western people ‘do’ will be judged within a post-colonial discourse. ‘Working together’, is a less problematic notion. Personally, what I find alarming and painful is the growth of militancy within the monastic community in some ‘traditional’ countries. Is this not something we need to be aware of? What could be our response? Are there lessons we can usefully learn? It will be worth writing this session up as it seems to be topic to which we will return over the years – so watch this space and send us your thoughts/notes.

 

Feedback

Feedback from the Convention was generally good. These are some comments, ‘ An inspirational event’. An event for the good ‘of many sentient beings’. ‘Discussion and thoughtfulness…’ One comment regretted the loss of the ‘inspirational’ input at the start of the day’. This is something that we will need to re-consider. Others felt that there were not enough ‘practice sessions’ (however, having looked at the Programme, I think this must be a matter of personal choice); a suggestion that the sessions were ‘too wordy’. Buddhist action needs to be embedded in Dharma/Dhamma. (Again, this could have been a matter of specific presentations but also something we need to remind would be presenters.) Several people remarked that though there was interaction on one level, people who came in groups tended to remain in their group but we could all benefit from learning about each others practices and work. One person was impressed by how the topics fitted neatly with each other and the theme though each was a whole and had been developed separately. Interesting…

 

The Future

Practice and Dharma sessions will underpin future Conventions. This is, after all a Buddhist Convention, not a Convention about Buddhism.

 

Themes that seem likely to continue are ‘Buddhism in the West’. This has come up over the year and comes up in different sessions. Others could be Gender/human Rights and Buddhism; Buddhism and social action’. ‘Obstacles to practice and possible remedies’; has been requested. Hearing from others would help us develop what we do in the future.

 

The Convention planning group started out with just 6 people – a small number for an initiative that is growing in size as well as complexity. Later in the year we were joined by a cohort of energetic friends– all of whom have indicated that they want to remain in the planning group. This will indeed be a boost to planning. Sharing responsibilities will facilitate the organisation of the event. We are happy to have ideas from the attendees whether or not they want to participate in meetings. It’s good to feel that we are planning with a group of people who are interested in what is happening in the MBC.

 

Apart from personal commitment, a Convention of this size and range requires resources. The Convention started on a ‘dana’ (donation) basis. We have decided not to indicate even a ‘suggested donation’. We take seriously the notion of giving as an opportunity to give, for all. If people attending the Convention give generously, we cover our costs, offer our host a decent share and have a small ‘roll over’ for the next event. So we urge you to reflect on whether you want the MBC to continue. Perhaps as part of the discussion on ‘Buddhism in the West’, we can reflect on the place of ‘generosity/dana’ as a core Buddhist principle.

Some Reflections

Several ‘older’ supporters and even Centres are not as visible as they used to be. On the other hand, certain Centres that have not attended or didn’t particularly support the MBC attend in greater numbers. Smaller centres are more involved in the planning group. There are more people from some ‘traditional’ Buddhist countries. There are quite a number of younger faces but fewer students. More people from different ‘faith’ systems are attending. It is interesting that we seem to have many new attendees at successive Conventions.

 

My Centre is in Scotland and I practice in several different centres and feel ‘at home’ and welcomed. Because I coordinate the MBC, develop the Programme, do some personal liaison and contact and meet with individuals from different centres who are interested and concerned with the development on the Dharma/Dhamma in the West, I hear and engage in conversation to try and understand what is happening and what people and centres think. This is always a privilege, interesting, sometimes a bit disheartening. Here in the west we are privileged with a huge range of different lineages and schools of Buddhist thought. The core teachings have to be the same but approaches and attitudes can be strikingly different. There are also long memories that have created dissent and suspicions about motivations among individuals as well as Centres. Because the style of an individual or group is outgoing does not mean that s/he or it is trying to ‘take over’ or dominate the Buddhist scene. It may be just enthusiasm for the Dharma. Other Centres maybe more introverted and ‘outreach’ is more about bringing people into Centres than becoming involved in ‘intra-Buddhist’, inter-faith’ or social dialogue. I’m sure there is a need for different approaches but not a need for distrust. My hope for the next decade of the MBC is that while we continue to strengthen our own Centres, we will find some time to support the MBC or other networks trying to build a cohesive and trustful Dharma/Dhamma in the service of society and humanity as a whole.

 

The Convention serves different. It may be social, to meet other groups or to learn. For me, it constructs a Mandala, a sacred space, within which to explore meaning and exchange ideas of service, healing, love, compassion, peace, identifying what is already being done; what else could/needs to be done; provides space to investigate our own inner space, ability and commitment and re-commit to these aims.

 

  • We will post presentations and discussion session notes on the website over the year.
  • Notes will be posted
  • Presentation will be posted.
  • The Buddha may not have been overtly ‘political’ but he made political interventions and gave advice when it was sought. His work and teaching had social and political implication stemming from the injunction that these engagements should be rooted in compassion.
  • The MBC is grateful to Tzu Chi for their generous donation (as in other years.)
  • Will be a post.
  • Some men say that discussions on Gender are a ‘turn-off’. Here are a couple of sites and books: Bhikkuni Websites: Sakhyadita, Alliance of Bhikkunis. Books: Religion and Society; on our own: An Agenda for the 21st Century; Buddhist Women and Social Justice – Ideals, Challenges and Achievements. We can also explore the Buddha’s own teachings.
  • Will be a post.
  • Maybe a post. There will also be an MBC event on this topic

 

 

 

 

 

October Update by Jaya

by Jaya

Update October

 

This will be the final update so will be mainly concerned with practical things.

 

However, one or two other things that may interest you;

 

As I wrote – next year – 2014 will be the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Manchester Buddhist Convention so I hope many of those founder member and groups will feel able to attend. Many of them find that the date clashes with one or other event in their own Centres but since we are giving everyone a years notice (as, indeed we have done for three years, maybe they will be able and willing to make some adjustments to their calendar. It will be a pity if we lose that energy as, of course, the MBC is a living thing. Therefore it evolves. It will evolve differently without them. Discussion sessions will explore ‘Buddhism in the West’. Prior to this Arthavadin from Triratna, will speak about Buddhism’s ‘radical edge’ so will this lead nicely into this topic. Dave Cook will run a session on MBC – A decade of work. Hopefully we will build up a picture of work of what has happened in the MBC in that time and where we want to take it or where it wants to go – which of course is a matter of our collective will. All the sessions will be embedded in Buddhist thinking but there will be common threads with other ‘faith’ traditions, as for example the importance of compassion.

 

I’m happy to say that the Gender strand is appearing strongly. We will take a historical perspective; explore some of the challenges that are occurring. This, of course is an issue for all genders! It’s also exploratory as none of us are ‘experts’ but have some knowledge and some experience and we want to learn from others. We want to think about what next… to do this we have to face up to certain things and ask the questions.

 

We will also hear from a group that is coming together to develop work with the emergency services and others that work to heal trauma. This is a very new initiative.

 

We will also have practice from various schools of Buddhism. I am sorry that we will be missing some of the monastic community as it is close to the Katina festival (the end of the rains), which is very important in the Theravada groups. However, there will be monks and nuns from other schools who will be presenting sessions that offer a mixture or practice and discussion.

 

Now some boring but essential requests:

  • Please register, regardless of whether you are a presenter, volunteer or planning group member. This is easier than counting heads. It is purely for catering purposes as all our expenses have to be met by donations or out of our own pockets. We do not have any income apart from what is donated. This does not leave a cash surplus nor do we want to waste resources.
  • The Programme for the day is on the website. Look at it for reference and to reflect on the workshops you may want to attend. There will be no printed programmes. This has proved to be very wasteful in the past. If you wish to have a copy it is there for you to print out.
  • For your convenience there will be a hand-written Programme on a board as you enter
  • Please can you donate (give Dana – a wonderful opportunity to practice generosity!) to cover the cost of venue, food and other overheads (publicity, decorations, etc). There is no charge for the event and we would like to keep it that way.
  • If you are new can you leave your name and email address (clearly written!) so that we can contact you for future events.
  • There is a multi-story car park behind the venue if you come by car. Buses are frequent from Piccadilly station, town centre, Chorlton, Whalley range etc.
  • Lastly – pray, meditate, wish deeply for good weather!

 

Jaya Co-ordinator and programme manager, MBC

Manchester Buddhist Convention 2014: Programme

BUDDHISM TODAY:

Renewal and Relevance.

Responding to the challenges of our time.

Manchester Buddhist Convention

Saturday 11th Oct 2014 9.00 am – 17.00pm

 To view this programme as a .doc file, download it here Final Programme portrait 1

Time Foyer 1

Auditorium

2

Cafe

3.

Chill out room

4.

Library

  1. (Ground)

Oxford Room

6.Walkway

Chapel

9.00-9.40

 

 

9.45-10.00

Registration Coffee/tea

Opening Chants

 

 

         
10.05 – 10.15  

 

 

 

Introduc

tion,

Jaya-MBC

         
10.15– 10.25

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chaplaincy Terry Biddington          
10.25-

  1. 25

 

 

  Discussion

NBO – Jamie Creswell

    Discussion

Tzu Chi

Discussion

Gender and Buddhism

11.30 12.35 Lunch in the Foyer       (Please DO NOT take any food or drink into the Chapel (Auditorium)
12.40-13.25

Ist. Sessions

Sessions 1-5

 

 

Session numbers and Presenters
  1. Café

FGS- Ven Miao Duo.

  1. Chill Out room

Triratna

Dh Arthavardin

  1. Library

Stonewater Zen

John Suigen Kenworthy

4.Oxford Room

Dechen

Centre

John Rowan

  1. 5. Walkway Chapel

Womens’ Space

Oxana

13.30-14.15

2nd Session

(6-10)

6-10 6.

Manchester Centre for Buddhist Meditation Deborah Raikes

7.

Buddhist Chaplaincy

Keith Munnings

  • Kelvin Ravenscroft

    10.

    KwanUmZen

    Jibul

    14.20-15.05 Discussions:                                Discussion   Julie Williams       Discussion: Buddhism in the West     Discussion   MBC

    (Café)                                             (Oxford Room)                          (Walkway Chapel)

    Tea Break
    15.35-16.20

    3rd session

    (11-15)

     

    11-15

    11

    Community of Interbeing

    Anne Rowbottom

    12

    Faith and Fire and Manchester Group Jacquetta, Daryl Oprey, Frankie, James                   and others

    13

    The Buddhist Society Of Manchester (Sale).

    Paul Shambrook

    14

    Soto Zen

    Ven Alan Smith

    15

    Soka Gakkai

    International

     

    16.25-

    1. 35

    16.35-16.45

    Reconvene

    Announcements. Dedication of Merit.

               
    16.45 17.00 Chanting     Fo Guang Centre

    One Root Many Branches

     

     

     

     

     

    Presenters/workshop leaders (According to slots)

     

    Ist. Discussion Session: There will be three slots 10.25-11.25

     

    Network of Buddhist Organisations: Jamie Cresswell will outline some of the things going on in terms of the NBO, the European Buddhist Union and also on an international cross traditional level. In this there would be plenty of scope for projects and volunteers to be involved. Jamie is particularly concerned that Buddhists get together and work together on what might termed Buddhism in action. This will be an opportunity to outline what is possible.

    Tzu Chi: Dr. Frank Lee will speak on ‘Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s view of Buddhism in Action’ and will focus on “What is the Tzu Chi Foundation doing in the UK”. Tzu Chi’s main concern and approach to the Dharma is compassion in Action. This will be a mixture of presentation and interactive discussion.

    Gender and Buddhism: The issue of Gender has been ongoing within Buddhism right from 2,600 years ago. In recent years there is again a groundswell of questioning. Some of these have been articulated in the MBC over the years. This session will be an exploratory one, open to all – men have ‘Gender’ too! Hopefully such discussion will connect with what is happening in other parts of the world and eventually create change within different Buddhist schools with regard to provision for women, full ordination and more recognised lineage-holders. It may be a long, hard slog but it has already happened in some instances and is supported by world renowned Buddhist teachers. There will be a ‘Womens’Only’ slot later in the day.

    Presentation and Practice – 5 slots each session: 12.40-13.25

     

    1. Fo Guang Shan Centre: Venerable Miao Chen will speak on Meditation, Fo Guang Shan and Humanistic Buddhism, B.L.I.A. related to Engaging Buddhism.

    2.Triratna Buddhist Order (Manchester Buddhist Centre): Title: The Radical Edge: Returning to Buddhism in the 21st Century. Led by Dh. Arthavadin. In the 1960s and 1970s Buddhism gained a foothold in the West. It promised an alternative to the growing hegemony of consumerism and the ‘me generation’. Now, fifty years on, we must ask ourselves – ‘Has Buddhism changed consumerism or has consumerism changed Buddhism? What can we do to return Buddhism to its radical edge?’

    1. Stonewater Zen: Title: ‘Presence in our time: bearing witness to unbearable suffering’. Presented by John Suigen Kenworthy, an ordained monk in the Stonewaterzen sangha (UK) based in Liverpool and led by Dr David Keizan Scott Sensei and is affiliated to the White Plum Asanga. There are now groups across the UK. (See website for more information on Stonewater Zen)
    1. Dechen Centre: Title: ‘The Six Paramitas or the Six Perfections, the heart of the bodhisattva practice’. Led by John Rowan. The Six Paramitas are the practices of bodhisattvas, dedicated to helping all beings attain Buddhahood. If we begin to practice these even in a small measure, we will gradually begin to develop our innate potential, our true nature, our Buddha Nature.

    Dechen is an international association of centres of the Sakya and Karma Kagyu traditions of Tibetan Buddhism with centres world-wide.

     

    1. A ‘Womens’ Space’: led by Oxana Poberejnaia will explore some of issues that arise in the session in the morning Discussion session and explore some of the challenges that women face and make in relation to Buddhism and the wider world.

     

    13.30-14-15

    1. Manchester Centre for Buddhist Meditation (Chorlton): Title: Samatha Practice. Speaker: Dehorah Raikes.This is a chance for complete beginners to Samatha breathing mindfulness practice to learn the first basic stage of the practice, discuss what supports Samatha practice and explore the Five Hindrances to meditation as described in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition. Deborah practices Samatha in the Theravada school.

     

    1. Buddhist Chaplaincy Support Group (Kalayanamitra): Title: BUDDHIST CHAPLAINCY: CANYOUHELP? Speaker: Keith Munnings

    Keith practices in the Samatha tradition and has taught meditation for more than 30 years’. He has also been a Hospital Chaplain for 10 years.

    1. Kelvin Ravenscroft: Title: Maple Leaves in Autumn – Inspired by Zen Master Ryokan’s question “What legacy shall I leavebehind?” this participative workshop will explore perspectives on Engaged Buddhism with particular reference to a Buddhist response tothe effects of the Fukushima nuclear power disaster in Japan.
      Kelvin has taught Religious Studies and Philosophy in a range of educational contexts, developed and taught University courses exploring Spirituality and Personal Development and Ethics, Change and Personal Development and has led workshops internationally exploring the Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) dimensions of teaching and learning.
    1. KwanUmZen: Title:  “Just Like This is Buddha”. Presented by Jibul, bodhisattva teacher. Jibul has been a Zen Buddhist for 40 years, in the Kwan Um School for 20 years, and teaching in England since 2011 at The Peak Zen, Kubong-Sa, Matlock Bath, Derbyshire.

    The essential characteristic of the Zen tradition is “Tathata”, translated into English as “Thusness” or “Just Like This”.  Applied in perception, in action and in relationships, this is the heart of Zen practice and awakening, beyond words, before thinking — a special transmission outside the scriptures. This will be a dharma talk and discussion.

     

    2nd Discussion session. There will be 3 slots 14.20-15.05

     

    Facilitator/presenter: Julie Williams. Julie is a dramatherapist: Theme: Mindfulness Within The NHS based on experience of delivering mindfulness within the NHS to Managers Clinicians and Patients. We will explore the difficulties and delights of retaining the authenticity of this ancient practice within a secular organization that is driven by targets and outcomes. How we make it accessible without diluting its essence.

    Facilitator: Rita Ashworth. Rita is a long practitioner and is still exploring. Theme: Buddhism in the West Presenter/participants: John Rowan, Irene Wai Lin

    Facilitator: David Cooke. Dave practices in the Samatha school of Buddhsim. Theme: MBC – a decade of work… Gathering ideas for the future

    15.35-16.20

    1. Community of Interbeing: Led by Anne Rowbottom. The Heart of Manchester Sangha is part of the community of Interbeing –practising in the tradition of zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. The Heart of Manchester Sangha invite you to share a session of practice that include guided meditation, walking meditation, silent meditation, and perhaps some sharing or questions and answers –as time permits. Open to anyone who would like to join us.
    1. Faith and Fire: Jacquetta Gomes and Fire Officer Daryl Oprey, will update us on the work of Faith and Fire. Frankie Kington and a group from Manchester will introduce an initiative developing here.
    1. Centre of Buddhist meditation (Sale): Paul Shambrook will speak on ‘Practice in Daily life’. He will aim to cover what the Buddhist Society of Manchester (Sale) teaches in terms of practice and approach to the Buddha’s way.
    1. Soto Zen: Bhikku Alan Smith will speak on the kesa – the robe worn by Soto Zen monks.
    1. Soka Gakkai International: SGI will demonstrate gongyo, their twice daily chanting practice. This consists of two passages from the Lotus Sutra in a Japanese transliteration of a High Chinese translation if the Sutra, and the mantra,’ Nam-myoho-renge-kyo’.

     

    Notes

     

    We will not to use the Auditorium this year. However, we will convene there in the morning and reconvene in the afternoon to dedicate for to dedicate merit and announcements.

    The morning ‘plenary’ has been replaced by a discussion session (3 slots).

    After lunch there will be TWO presenter/discussion sessions with FIVE slots each (rather than six as in previous years).

    This will be followed by another discussion session of THREE slots each before the tea break.

    After tea there will be one more discussion session of FIVE slots each.

    We will re-convene, briefly, in the Auditorium, for dedication of merit and announcements.

    The final channting will take place in the Foyer.

    The Venue is on three levels. The rooms are numbered and colour coded for your convenience.   FOUR rooms (including the Auditorium) are located on the middle (second) floor. Room No 5 is located on the ground floor (Oxford Room). Room No 6 is located on the third floor (Walkway Chapel). There will be people to help you locate these on the day. A programme will be displayed in the Foyer.

    Please note the numbers 1-15 denote sessions, NOT room numbers. Session/room numbers are 1-5.

    The opening and closing chants will take place in the Foyer.

    Lunch will be at 11.30 to allow those for who need to eat early. A short blessing will be said before the start of the meal. Please allow nuns and monks to be served first. There will be a room allocated for Venerables. If they wished to join us after their lunch in other spaces that will be a great pleasure.

    No food should be taken into the Auditorium or Chapel.

    A board and papers for comments and feedback will be provided. Please use them. This is what we use to develop the event.

    There will also be some display tables with literature from some of the Manchester Centres.

    Apologies for any mistakes in titles, spellings, etc. These are unintentional.

     

     

     

     

    One Root Many Branches

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