Monday, December 26, 2011

Environmental Vow 18: Radical Politics and Activism

Radical Politics and Activism

I suggested previously that there was a second motivating factor besides religious faith, namely patriotism.  As I pointed out, however, the calamities of the 20th century pretty much debased that coin in the minds of most thoughtful people.  It is possible to stretch the definition of “patriotism” to embrace more than just “king and country”, though.   What if people build their lives around support for some set of noble ideals, such as “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”?

 Over the last three hundred years or so millions have built their lives around this sort of thing.  Indeed, there are a great many people today who are involved in this form of politics that is specifically focused on environmental issues, namely small and large “g” greens.  Surely something like a form of “eco-patriotism” offers some sort of locus for changing people's behaviour in order to deal with the coming eco-catastrophe.  Unfortunately, I would argue that any sort of patriotism, not matter what its foundation, has found its coin just as debased as that of the old “king and country” type.  Moreover, any attempt to deal with this legacy have made it particularly vulnerable to the “do your own thing” poison that has damaged so many other elements of our society.

The first issue that people have to wrestle with is the impact that Marxism and Fascism have had on the popular imagination and how they still profoundly affect the thoughts of people who aspire to a radical form of environmental politics.  Radical politics was the primary guiding force for a great deal of social transformation during the 20th century. People find it hard to believe right now, but up until the Second World War, there were very active Communist parties throughout the Western world----even in the United States and Canada.  There were also various flavours of Nationalist, Fascist, Socialist parties with vast followings that had huge impact on the day-to-day life of many people.  Since the demise of the Fascist powers and the collapse of the Soviet Union, all this activity seems to be passe, if not down right incomprehensible.

The problem is that these grand experiments in using politics to reconfigure society all ended very badly.  Fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan, and Communism in Russia all culminated in dictatorships that either left their nations as occupied piles of rubble despised by the rest of the world, or couldn't even guarantee that their citizens would be able to find any soap when they went shopping.   All of them created police states and committed crimes against humanity.   These terrible past examples have created a “brand” so poisoned that anyone involved in any sort of radical or activist politics immediately risks being labeled a “Communist” or “Nazi”.

At first glance, this would strike most greens as being profoundly unfair.#  I would suggest, however, that there is a grain of truth to these accusations.  The point is that once one steps outside of “social convention” in politics, the unconscious popular sentiment is that we risk opening a Pandora’s box or stepping onto the slippery slope.  This is because what holds society together is the fact that the overwhelming majority of citizens hold onto pretty much the same worldview and honour a set of conventions about what issues are and are not “on the table”, and, what does or does not represent a “reasonable” demand for change.  Once one leaps over these unspoken boundaries to suggest, for example, things like an end to economic growth, the radical redistribution of wealth, or, mandatory birth control, this fragile consensus risks being shredded.

       Policy planks like these three, if they seriously have any hope of being implemented, would radicalize opposition to the point of violence between different factions of society.  At this point, political differences cease to be settled through stylized political activity (i.e. voting) and instead get worked out with guns.  That is politics the way the Nazis and Bolsheviks did it.  So while it is unfair to call the pacifist Green candidate a “Nazi” or “Communist”, the “kook” heckler does actually have something of a legitimate point.   If political goals become radical for large numbers of people, the citizenry will become polarized, and if taken far enough,  it is inevitable that the means of politics will become violent.

The popular imagination understands this on some sort of inarticulate level, which is why most people have a horror of radical solutions.   Instead, most ordinary folks want to see change that comes in incremental or evolutionary steps instead of being through radical or revolutionary programs.  This inclination flows from two springs.  First, there is the idea that “revolutions devour their own children”.  That is to say, that once society gets turned upside down the social forces that sweep away the old order sooner or later get turned on the revolutionaries themselves.  The examples of the terror of the French revolution and the purge of the old revolutionaries from the Soviet Union and China come to mind.  Secondly, there is a feeling that when the revolutions devour their children, the people who end up on top seem to be the same sorts of people who were in power before.  The cliche for this process comes from the 1960’s rock band the Who, who coined the phrase “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.   Absolutist monarchs in France, Russia and China all ended up being replaced by absolutist dictators, namely Napoleon, Stalin and Mao.  Ordinary folks might have some sympathy of the ideals espoused by radical activists, but they generally have grave suspicions about what would happen if these particular people ever got any real power.

A lot of people who are attracted to one type of green politics or another will find my position hard to accept.  But I think, however, that if they really work at trying to understand what politics really is, they will find the above assertions make a great deal of sense because one situation follows from the other almost like a geometric deduction.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fear, or, Entitlement?

I try not to follow politics all that much, but there's been a lot of weird stuff happening in politics land lately, and it can't help but get me thinking.  For one thing, there's been a lot of strange stuff coming down the pipeline about gay bullying at schools.  There's been a rash of teenage suicides by gay teens at Ontario schools, so a lot of authority figures have been making "It gets better" videos for YouTube.  Here's one from the Premier of Ontario.

This is actually more than just a platitude.  The Premier is passing new rules that force all Ontario schools to agree to support "gay straight alliance" groups if students want to start them up.  This has many religious people up in arms, because they say that it infringes on their rights.

Liberals have been tap-dancing around this issue, but the overwhelming fact of the matter is that this really does infringe on people's religious rights.  If you look at a lot of religious groups, they do teach that we should hate gays and lesbians.  Indeed, there are individual quotes in the Bible that suggest we should kill them.

 "If a man lies with a male as with a women, both of them shall be put to death for their abominable deed; they have forfeited their lives."  (Leviticus 20:13 NAB)

Of course, it also says in the same place that we should kill anyone who hits or curses their father, commits adultery, atheists, people who believe in other religions, etc.  But the main thing is that the current, oral tradition of very large religious congregations teaches that we should ostracize, bully and abuse homosexuals and lesbians.

Is it any wonder that naive children act on these teachings of the church?

The question is, therefore, whether or not politicians should be going after church teachings and outlawing the ones that are causing real suffering to children?

This is not a straight forward question.  Enlightened politicians, like the Premier, have an obligation to avoid letting the baser elements of society whip the public into a frenzy of hate.   It isn't enough to be right, it's important to do the most you can to avoid harm.   This means that when a politico is faced by an evil, manipulative scumbag that just might be able to mobilize the public if they throw around enough lies, falsehoods and innuendos,

they should be willing to consider bending a little in order to avoid a greater catastrophe.

The problem is, however, that if we pander too much to the religious bigots in order to deflate their attempts to mobilize the public, we run the risk of letting said bigots win half a loaf through just threatening to go for the whole one.   And that in turn, raises the issue of whether the forces of darkness can eventually take over by forcing one compromise after another compromise out of the other side.

There are a lot issues raised by this 'cultural warfare', but two come to my mind which I think are both very important and very rarely raised.

The first one is the way liberals almost invariably let the bigots wrap themselves in the mantle of "morality".  I personally don't think that it is moral to preach hatred and intolerance towards people because of their sexual orientation.  I don't think hatred of any form is moral.  I also think that it is very important to understand people who are different, even if we do not approve.  I also believe that if people who are intolerant did try to understand the people that they don't approve of, they might find that their intolerance is totally unjustified.  It may not be true that "to know all is to forgive all", but I do believe that "to know all is to forgive a great more than you would have before".

Not only do I think that intolerance is immoral, I also think that will-full ignorance is too.  Indeed, I think that there is a great deal of will-full ignorance in our society.  People who refuse to really look into important issues---such as global warming---and instead simply believe what is tremendously convenient to their worldview are being will-fully ignorant.

I understand that traditional religion doesn't consider hatred, intolerance or will-full ignorance as being immoral.  But I think that if people of good will pushed ordinary folks on the issue, we'd find a great many citizens do think of them that way.  The problem is, that most liberals are so committed to the language of moral relativism that they refuse to use this, the strongest weapon in their arsenal.

The second issue that comes to mind in this debate is the way bigoted people seem to be manifesting some sort of outrage against their loss of a certain type of privilege.   The problem is that if you were a white, middle-class, heterosexual, Christian, male, you used to be "on top of the heap".   This meant that you were the last laid off, the first hired, people laughed at your jokes even if they weren't funny, and you could force other people to adhere to a code of behaviour that you believed in even if it made no sense to them.  Now things are a lot more egalitarian.  And you know what?  A lot of people don't particularly want there to be prayer in school because they are either atheist or non-Christians.  People like Perry (or the Republican primary voters he is trying to suck up to in the above advertisement) don't like losing this privilege.  Most of them are too insensitive to understand that there are people out their that don't want prayer in schools or discrimination against gays, others just don't care because they are right and those other people are wrong.

I think we need to understand how tremendously awful the world must seem to these people.    Younger people often forget this stuff, but at the advanced age of 52, I can remember when blacks were still getting routinely lynched in the American South for being "uppity", the police in Toronto were still arresting gays for being "found ins" at bath houses, my sister was flat out told that she couldn't enroll in a horticultural schools "because they don't allow women to take any of the courses", abortion was illegal,  etc.  For the older, tea-party types that are so important to the Republican and Conservative parties, it must seem like the world has been taken over by Martians.

Understanding where these people are coming from is not the same thing as accepting their behaviour, though.  We simply cannot allow these people to damage our society the way that they have been doing. What needs to be done, therefore, is the creation of a public discussion that changes the "terms of discussion" so they no longer get to wrap themselves in the mantle of "morality".   People need to stand up to these folks and use their own language.

The above Youtube parody is a step in the right direction.  Unfortunately, it can easily be dismissed as being "sacrilegious" by anyone who refuses to listen to what the actor is really saying.  I do think, though, that people like Rick Perry and his supporters need to be "carpet bombed" by people who tell them that they don't think that picking one specific quote from the Old Testament then using it to preach hatred and discrimination really fits in with the over-all message of Christ as expressed in the New Testament.

Friday, November 18, 2011

"War and Peace" and the Dao

I just got finished reading Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace for something like the tenth time (I've lost track.) As before, I found more to it than I had gained from previous readings. Since I know that for the overwhelming number of people it is considered an impossibly long, abstruse book, I thought that I'd share a little of why I love the book so much, and why I would suggest that the themes that Tolstoy discusses should interest Daoists.

 Most of my readers probably don't know much about Leo Tolstoy, but he was an absolutely amazing person. He was born into one of the richest and most powerful aristocratic families in Russia. As a young man, he gambled and whored away most of his family fortune. Bored with this life, he decided to join the army and ended up fighting in Chechnya. Returning from the war, he took up writing and was recognized as an "up and coming" writer at the age of 24. He produced an astounding amount of work: 24 novels and novellas, many short stories, 6 plays and 9 non-fiction books. As if this wasn't enough, he did this while being a very successful farm manager and while working at various projects to improve the life of his peasants and humanity in general. (The Doukhobors who live in the West of Canada had half of their passage fare from Russia paid by Tolstoy.)

Tolstoy also emerged as a major thinker in how to change society through peaceful means. His writings so impressed Mohandas Gandhi that he wrote directly to Tolstoy to ask if he could reprint A Letter to a Hindu that he had written to another member of the independence movement. His ideas on Christian anarchism have influenced people up to this day, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. (Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, he mentions that he had a copy when he was in prison at Robben Island, which he read many times.)

The book itself deals both with the private lives of various people, primarily Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Count Pierre Bezukov, and, Napoleon's wars with Russia.   Tolstoy attempts with his novel to create a grand theory of history and explain how people's private lives fit into it. One theme that he illustrates over and over again is how even though people naively believe that specific decisions are made by "great" individuals, what really happens is that web all get swept along by circumstances.

One early simple example comes from a battle.  A group of soldiers is attacked by some French cavalry.  A sergeant yells out to the men to run into some trees or else the horsemen will slaughter them.  Later on,  a colonel gets a medal for ordering his men to go into the woods, thereby saving them.   The officer is loath to turn down a medal, so he lets everyone believe that he is a hero.

Tolstoy believed that not only does fate (or, as I would say, the Dao) control history, what little control we have over our lives diminishes as we become more and more important in the grand scheme of things.  A sergeant may be able to yell out to his men to run into the trees, but a leader like Napoleon is hemmed-in by the forces beyond his control.

 Tolstoy illustrates this point by pointing out that Napoleon seemed incapable of controlling his men once then entered Moscow.  He couldn't stop the looting that destroyed all the supplies that the army needed to survive the winter. When the retreat started, he couldn't stop the army from bunching up from fear of Russian partisans, which destroyed its ability to forage for supplies.  He couldn't stop the army from trying to carry back all the loot it had gotten from Moscow, which encumbered its supply train and killed all its horses.  And he couldn't slow the column down.  (Tolstoy writes that most of the soldiers were so terrified of the Russians that they marched at the astounding pace of 25 miles per day all the way from Moscow to the border.  He maintains that this pace is what killed most of the Grand Army of Europe and many of the Russian troops who chased them attempting to do battle.)

In contrast, Pierre, who was travelling as a prisoner in the Napoleon's column for part of the trip found himself "free" for the first time in his life.  He was barefoot and living on horse meat, at the beck and call of is guards, but he found for the first time in his life that he was master of his own thoughts.  He got up when the guards told him to, slept as soon as he laid himself down, and, when something unpleasant came to his mind, learned he could just divert his attention and be free as a bird.  A man who has control over his mind is free, whereas a man who is "in charge" is imprisoned by the illusion of his own importance.  Pierre's experience is that of a Daoist who frees himself from the "land of dust".

While Pierre is a captive of the French he becomes friends with private who the French pulled from an army hospital (he was sick with a fever):  Platon Krataev.  Krataev is a representative of the "good peasant" that Tolstoy held so dear.  Krataev is filled with pithy sayings that Pierre finds apropos to the issues he faces as a captive.  He is also fatalistic and humble.  He "takes life as it comes" and adapts to the circumstances without complaint.  Eventually Krataev is too sick to keep up with the column, so the French murder him.  But Pierre is so impressed by his example that long after the war is over, and Pierre is a happily married wealthy aristocrat, his wife can draw him short on a scheme of his by simply asking him "What would Platon Krataev think of this idea?"  I believe that Platon Krataev is a pretty good example of what Daoists would call an "uncarved block".

In contrast to Napoleon's false "heroic" style of leadership, Tolstoy's real hero is Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov .  Whereas Napoleon is shown as an arrogant, pompous fool in love with grand gestures and who makes big plans about battles.  Kutuzov is shown as an old man who does as little as he possibly can to "get in the way" of his soldiers.  His genius consists in what he doesn't do, not in what he does do.  He understands that once the French invade Russia, his job is to control the enthusiasm of his men, who want nothing more than to tear the Grande Armee to pieces.   Battle between the French and Russians finally came about at Borodino, where even though the Russians left the field Kutuzov considered his men to have won a huge victory.

This is an important point for Tolstoy.  Kutuzov saw it as a victory because even though the troops were not deployed ideally, they refused to break and run like all the other armies of Europe had done in the face of Napoleon.  Instead, they simply fought off the French and if driven from a part of the field regrouped and retook it.  Eventually, simply because of lack of supplies the Russians had to leave.  But they didn't run away in a route, they simply retreated back down the road towards Moscow.  The Russians not only proved that they were as good or better than the French, the French knew it too.  That was why they retreated so quickly and in a disorganized mass instead of an organized army.

The secret as Tolstoy writes is that Kutuzov understood that he was fighting a "people's war" where every single member of Russian society was totally mobilized to resist the French.  The aristocrats refused to stay behind in occupied territory and "make nice" with the French.  The storekeepers handed out all their goods to Russian soldiers for free and burnt what was left, rather than sell to the French.  The peasants left their land and refused to sell food.  The Tsar himself in one passage says that he will retreat to Siberia and grow his own potatoes before he will sign a peace treaty with Napoleon.

The point that Kutuzov and Tolstoy understand is that people can only be oppressed if they agree to participate in their own oppression.  Men who will not make any accommodation to the people who occupy their nation will not be occupied long.   (This is exactly the point that Gandhi understood about the British occupation of India.)  Kutuzov's behaviour as described in War and Peace is a perfect example of Wu Wei.

Pierre is oppressed from having married an terrible woman, Helene, early after he inherited his title and enormous wealth.  She is very beautiful and uses sex to create a fashionable "salon" in St. Petersburg society.  She is portayed as vain, ambitious, takes lovers, and very clearly only marries the naive Pierre for his money and title.  Eventually she dies from what is implied to be a botched abortion.  Yet before he finds out that she has died, which sets him free to marry a woman he clearly loves, Pierre gains the realization that he loves Helene as he loves everyone.  He says "why should I blame her for wanting to live the life that she wants?"

This insight comes from a dream that Pierre experiences while in French captivity.  He finds himself in a study with his Swiss tutor from his student days.  He is looking at a globe.  It appears to be somewhat "fuzzy" in that it's edges seems to be moving.  On closer inspection, he realizes that the globe is composed of billions of living things----the people, plants and animals that inhabit the earth.  He hear's his tutors voice in his ears "God doesn't live up the sky.  God is Everything."   Pierre realizes that God loves everything and he should love everything else, because we are all God.  The realization about his wife is just putting this grand vision into practical effect.

It is easy for modern people who are badly poisoned by the modern versions of religion that we have had inflicted upon us to grind our teeth and shudder at any mention of the word "God".  Which might turn a lot of people off of Tolstoy.  But he is meaning the term in a very specific way, one that is a lot more like the "DAO" than Jimmy Swaggard or Pat Roberston.  Indeed, Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox church.  (I don't really think I like the DAO type of Daoism, myself.  I'm more likely to see the Dao is "that's just the way it is" rather than build some sort of giant theology around the concept, but I still really like Tolstoy and think that this is more of a quibble than anything else.)

I could go on and on about this book.  But I've already had my software erase this blog once and have to rebuild it.  I do hope that I will encourage some people to make the effort to read War and Peace .  I think someone interested in learning about Daoism would be better off doing this than trying to find some hidden gems of wisdom in their one hundred reading of the Dao De Jing.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Environmental Vow 17: Liberal Christianity

Liberal Christianity

Many people who have problems with the “Olde Tyme Religion” of fundamentalism yet still see value in the life of faith have attempted to create liberal forms of religion.  Indeed, it could be argued that these formulations are the latest manifestation of gradual reform that has taken place within religious denominations since the reformation.   As I see it, however, there is an inescapable dilemma that faces liberal religion, namely, “How does one deal with the ancient formulations of the faith?”   That is, how do you reconcile the modern worldview with the scriptures and traditions that predate the enlightenment?  How does Christianity, Judaism and Islam “work” in a world where no sensible person, for example, can believe in the literal existence of the old sky-God of the Torah?

The Liberal Christian answer has been to create something which, for lack of a better term, could be called a “humanist” Christianity.   In general terms, this is an attempt to take away the problematic elements of the Christian tradition (e.g. God, miracles, parts of the scripture that support genocide, etc) and replace them with terms and beliefs more acceptable to modern sensibilities.  Theologians such as Paul Tillich have replaced the “old man in the clouds” with the “God of the philosophers”.  That is, he gives up on any idea of God as being a human-like entity that has volition, makes choices, gets angry with sinners, etc, and replaces him with vague, philosophical formulations such as God is “the ground of all being”.   In the same way, Biblical scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann used the methods of literary analysis to point out that our “holy” scriptures are mythological documents, not historical records.  The “God” of liberal Christians is a short-hand for for a complex, philosophical understanding of human existence and the stories about Moses and Jesus exist alongside those of Heracles and Hiawatha as culture-building myths instead of historically accurate records.

I would argue that aside from the relative intrinsic merits of this sort of religious formulation, there are tremendous practical problems that result from this sort of theology.   First of all, this sort of faith requires an enormous amount of effort to sustain.  Secondly, because it cannot engage the entire congregation of believers, it inevitably becomes “hidden” behind the traditional signs and symbols of the past.  This allows a sort of “ur-conservatism”# to take hold of the religious membership, which eventually holds the priesthood hostage.   Finally, because the “god of the philosophers” doesn't have the same sort of hold over people's consciousness as the “old man in the clouds” does, even if the liberal church avoids being held hostage by internal fundamentalists, it will inevitably find itself drawn towards a sort of extreme humanism that results in a theology of “being nice”.  This effectively neuters the institution and its leadership by removing any ability to develop “prophetic” moral reactions to the great problems of the day, such as the death of Nature.

Perhaps the biggest problem with liberal Christian exegesis is that it is so intellectually difficult.  If people really do want to understand the “god of the philosophers” and “Bible as myth”, they will need to undertake a daunting ordeal that involves reading very large books composed of academic prose.  Oddly enough, however, there exists a very large segment of the religious population who eagerly devour this sort of thing. #   But the plain and simple fact of the matter is that this sort of theological orientation simply cannot ever be anything other than elitist.  Ordinary parishioners, most of who have neither the education, nor the leisure, let alone inclination, will never put in the hours necessary to understand all of this stuff.

In a sense, liberal Christianity is a bit like what Indians would call Jnana Yoga.  That is, the path to salvation that comes from certain sort of intellectual knowledge about the universe.   This form of Yoga is not conceived as something that can be followed by anything more than an intellectual elite and as such is usually discouraged for most people.  The problem with liberal Christianity is that it doesn't exist within a structure that offers other clearly-defined options, such as Bhakti Yoga (the path of “love”) or Karma Yoga (the path of “works”.)   Nor does he inhabit a rigidly hierarchical society where people simply accept that there are mysteries that only the educated Brahmins can be expected to understand.  Instead, the Christian in a liberal congregation who cannot figure out what is going on will often try to find some other sort of way to accommodate him or herself to the congregation.

One of the things about religious symbols and rituals is that they allow people to function together on a shallow level while holding very different worldviews.   This is practically feasible because symbols and rituals function on a symbolic rather than explicit level.  This allows people to share an experience without realizing how radically different their understanding can be.

Take, for example, the symbol of the cross.  Some people see it specifically through the frame of “suffering”.  That is, they believe that it shows that in some sense suffering makes a person a better human being.  This view supports the sort of people who flagellate themselves (either literally or figuratively.)  Others see it as a symbol of Jesus as the scape-goat for the sins of humanity.  The cross reminds them that ultimately the only thing that really matters is whether or not one is “born again”.  Others see it as an execution device that was used to kill someone who rebelled against unjust authority.

If you see the cross in terms of suggesting that suffering is “noble”, then it will support a position that suggests that the best response to social ills such as poverty is to learn to endure them with grace and serenity.  The more we suffer on earth, the more we are rewarded after death.   In contrast, if you see the cross in terms of Christ as the scape-goat for humanity's sins, you will tend to believe that the core of “salvation” comes from accepting that scape-goat story.  Trying to be a good person or developing some sort of serenity, according to this worldview, is at best irrelevant and at worst the sin of pride.#    Finally, if you see the cross as an execution device for rebels, then Christ's message becomes one of the necessity of being fearless in one's opposition to injustice and support for the oppressed.   Seeking serenity and belief in a scape-goat, in this view, would be mere self-indulgence that hinders the creation of the God's imperial domain.

As long as the cross exists just as a symbol without any attempt to explain it's meaning in any detail, it can unify a congregation.  The various people sitting in a pew can all have different views on its significance yet be unified by their veneration for it as a symbol.  But once anyone attempts to “unpack” the symbol's meaning, then it becomes obvious to one and all that the “unity” of the congregation isn't quite as deep as once thought.   I once read, for example, of an attempt by an artist to create a new crucifix for a congregation that involved a sculpture of Christ as an obvious black man sitting on an electric chair.#   His reasoning was that modern American Christians fail to understand that in the context of Roman Palestine, Christ was a member of an oppressed minority (a poor Jew in the Pagan Roman Empire) who had been executed by the state in a specifically humiliating manner for breaking the law against rebellion.   The statue was absolutely vilified by some members of the congregation that had commissioned his work.  As memory serves me, it was never used.   The reason why is because his attempt to unpack one particular set of meaning made it cease to be an agent of unity for the congregation and instead become one of division.

The stories of the New Testament operate in a similar fashion.  Take, for example, the story of the trial of Christ.  The anti-Semite can read the account of the trial before the Sanhedrin as an example of the evil in the Jewish soul.  In contrast, the radical can read this group as not a Jewish group, but as instead an Ecclesiastic Hierarchy.   In this case, then the story becomes one of how the religious institution subverts and perverts the values it purports to support.  It all depends on whether the readers chooses to see in the Sanhedrin the Jewish pawnbroker down the street, or, the Papal court in Rome.   As long as the congregation just refers to the story in the Good Friday service there is no source of dissension.  But once one tries to unpack the meaning and explain what the story “is all about”, then all Hell risks breaking out.

When a congregation or denomination does try to explain what these symbols mean, the results can be dire.  For example, when the United and Anglican Churches of Canada decided to not only officiate at same-sex weddings but to also allow accept  homosexual clergy many members of the church decided that this was a “deal breaker” and left.  Sometimes this even happened en-mass with the congregations either becoming independent or joining some other denomination.   For the liberals, the question about homosexuals was one of discrimination and revolved around Matthew 25:40's “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me”.   For conservatives, the issue was that of following the divinely revealed morality of God and focused on Leviticus 18:22's "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination".#

The liberals in these congregations understand from their study of modern scholarship that the Bible is a human creation which needs to be reinterpreted by each generation as its collective knowledge increases.  But for those who have not gone through the laborious effort of studying the ponderous, academic texts on the subject this willingness to jettison old moral “verities” is scandalous.  In many congregations those clergy who have developed a liberal interpretation feel themselves to be prisoners of their more conservative members of the congregation who watch them with an “eagle eye” for evidence of dangerous “back sliding”. #    Many clergy realize find that if they say what they really think on a wide variety of issues they risk being removed from their position.  Even non-clergy liberals routinely “bite their tongue” because they do not want to risk ostracism from the congregation and the fellowship they seek.

To give conservatives their due, I think that they do have something of a point.

The problem with formulations of Christianity that give a primacy to philosophical concepts (i.e. God as “the ground of all being”) and which see the scripture as a human creation, is that it takes the “old man in the clouds” out of the religion.  That really is the point of liberal religion.  As I've pointed out previously, the old formulations not only no longer seem viable to modern ears, they have positively driven the best and brightest people out of the church.  But the “old man in the clouds” is a real, palpable sort of vision that engages people and motivates them in a way that vague, philosophical musings never seem to be able.  The Benedictine Abbeys were not built by people trying to serve “the ground of all being” or who were inspired by a man-made record of ancient myths.   They believed literally in God, the afterlife and that the Bible was absolutely true.

It is difficult to objectively quantify the level of a person's commitment to a religious vision, but one plausible way of doing so is to track the amount of money individuals with a specific type of religious orientation give to their religious establishment of choice.   The clear tendency seems to be that the more liberal a person is, the less they give to charity.  One study, for example, showed that when people were separated into different categories of “conservative”, “moderate” and “liberal”, they each donated, on average, $3255, $2,926 and $1,879 respectively to secular charities.  In addition, they also donated, on average, $1,841, $1,115 and $499 to their place of worship.#

There are a great many possible explanations for this difference in financial support.  I am not a statistician and this is not a book about that sort of analysis.  But it certainly seems obvious that if someone literally believes that there is a sky-god looking down on her from “on high” who can and will punish her directly for her behaviour, then she will modify her behaviour accordingly.  In contrast, someone who instead believes in some sort of vague philosophical principle will not feel a similar sort of need to act.

This is not to say, however, that conservatives are better people than liberals.  Human behaviour is extremely complex.  Our behaviour is driven by compulsions and drives that have very little to do with what we consciously believe about the universe.  The conservative who feels that the eye of God is always on him may still end up getting drunk on Saturday night and beat up his wife.  Similarly, the Liberal who doesn't believe in God or an afterlife can still live a life of calm sobriety.  The Gospel of Matthew expresses this point well:  “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”#   But having said that, the fact of the matter is that our behaviour is driven not by calm reason, but rather by emotions.  And “the old man in the clouds” is a much more powerful emotional driver than “the ground of all being”.  Moreover, it is a lot easier to get emotionally engaged in the stories of the Bible when we see them as being directly handed to us by God instead of as a collection of myths written by ancient people living in a long-dead world.

If the liberal no longer believes in the old man sky god, then what, ultimately, is the basis of her faith?  If we talk about God as “the ground of all being” we are really talking about “how the human mind works”.  And if we see the Bible as a collection of ancient myths written by fallible human beings, then we are really talking about “how the human mind has seen things in the past”.  Ultimately, liberal religion is a form of humanism.

And with humanism, we come back to the same problems I identified with Abraham Maslow's ethic of self-actualization.   The problem with this type of religion is that it no longer has any room for what Christians call the “prophetic spirit”.   That is, if one's religion does include some element of the “old man in the clouds”, then it is possible to believe that one is following his commandments and that you have the authority to demand a great deal from people.  You can say that they should turn from their sinful ways and that God wants them to build an abbey in what is now not much more than a swamp.  In contrast, if God is “the ground of all being” and an idea that was inherited from our ignorant ancestors, it is going to be a lot harder to generate the necessary enthusiasm to get much of anything off the ground.

And once you remove any sort of appeal to divine authority, you get left with Protagoras' saying that “Man is the measure of all things”.  At that point, it's pretty hard to push Christianity much farther than Douglas Adams'# characterization of Jesus' message:  “Why can't we all be nice to one another?”  Prophets are not “nice” people.  They offend when they point out where people fail to live up to some sort of ethical ideal.  And they also sometimes suggest that there are social goals that are more important than the comfort of the population.    Old Testament prophets could argue that God wants people to eat locally-grown, organic food and take the train instead of flying.   Humanists are left with “wouldn't it be nice if people thought about the consequences of their actions?”   Neither appeal is going to change the behaviour of the majority, but I would argue that a larger minority of Conservatives is going to effect a greater change than that of Humanists, simply because their appeal is based on more basic, emotional drivers.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


One of the things I've been seeing in quotes from and about the "occupy Wall Street" protesters is that they are creating a form of "true democracy".  As someone who has spent decades actively engaged in trying to understand and manifest in some sort of concrete fashion what "true democracy" could be, I thought I'd write a post about it.  Oddly enough, in thinking about the subject I've found my path leads back to the Dao, even though I originally saw it as just a side line.

I was involved in building Canada's fourth major party, the Greens.  My finger prints were at one time all over both the constitution of the Green Party of Canada and Ontario.  I've also been told that decision-making structures that I designed have also been adopted by other groups.  So this is one of those tiny little niches where I actually am a bit of a "world-class expert".  This knowledge has not been acquired easily, however, as each and every lesson learned involved agonizing work with some of the most mulish, idiotic people I have had the bad luck to meet.

One of the first things I learned was that "democracy" means a wide variety of different things to different people.  Unfortunately, for a surprising number of people it simply means that they always get their own way.   Luckily, I've found that the majority of people believe instead, that "democracy" means letting people have their say and then going along with what the majority believe.

This held true for the Green Party membership as well, but unfortunately, there was a subtle subtext to the self-selected group of people who had a Green membership.  That is, the overwhelming majority of them would not take action to "shut up" or "marginalize" people who disagreed with the majority.  This is probably one of the core Green beliefs and something that separates them from the vast majority of people.

This ideal makes sense if you consider that these members usually represent an extremely marginalized minority within their own home community.  For example, Greens believed in an end to economic growth long, long, long before you could even write about the subject on an Op Ed page in a newspaper.  The only suggestion by "mainstream" voices was the old Club of Rome report Limits to Growth that came out in 1972.  And when it came out, it initiated such a firestorm of opposition that whole industries of bullshit were designed in order to lessen it's impact on the imagination.  Most notably, this included the concept "sustainable development" and the "Brundtland Commission".

(Primarily, this was a remarkably successful campaign by a coalition of business and politicians of all stripes to create "plastic words" that would suck out all of the clear and startling meaning from "Limits to Growth" and replace it with a phrase that seems to mean the same thing, but in actual fact means whatever you want it to.   "Sustainable Development" purports to be about economic activity that will allow for the sustaining of the environment, but most people really use it to mean a system of environmental regulation that will allow economic growth to continue just as it always has.)

If someone comes from a community where they are used to being totally marginalized as the local "eco-freak" or "tree-hugger", they usually have an extreme sensitivity towards ostracizing someone else for having an unpopular belief.  As a result, Greens not only had enormous tolerance towards other people, they were willing to follow a form of decision-making that they called "Formal Consensus" in order to accommodate all points of view.

There are a great many different ways in which formal consensus can be done, but the system that Greens rather unconsciously stumbled into using is what is usually called the "Polish Parliament" system.   In effect, the Green Party in Canada for many years believed that the only way it could make decisions was if not one single person objected to a specific proposal, or, every single person present at any meeting had an absolute veto.

This would be bad enough, but in addition, the Green Parties of Canada did not have any sort of delegate system.   This meant that all anyone had to do to participate in any meeting (and wield a veto) was to show up.  And I mean anyone, because there was never any attempt to even force people to prove that they had a membership or were not cards-carrying members of some other political party.  Indeed, there were people who showed up for years and created all sorts of chaos who steadfastly refused to buy a membership because they didn't believe in the value of political parties, per ce.  (When I asked one of these guys why he continued to show up, he said "I just wanted to share my experience and wisdom with the Greens.")

As you might imagine, this system pretty much destroyed any chance that the Greens would ever be able to accomplish much of anything.  Not only did it hamstring the party, it ensured that it was almost impossible to build the membership.  I was very successful in building up the membership in my home riding, for example, but every time I brought people to a convention they would be so appalled by the chaos that they their interest in the group would drop off to nothing immediately afterwards.  As a result, I stopped encouraging new members to get involved outside of the riding.

Eventually, after ten years the Green Parties' membership had dwindled to the point where even the most obstinately "nice" members believed that there was no way that we could continue this way.  What happened was I able to convince the party in a plenary session to suspend the Polish Parliament system and have a simple majority vote on changing to a new system.   While my proposed alternative allowed a small number of individuals to delay passage of a resolution until their concerns had had ample time to be listened to and maybe accommodated, it did not give either an individual or very small minority the right to thwart the majority.  This passed by an overwhelming margin and we had a new system.  (This was my invention, but it has been called the "Bonser Method" because a fellow named Greg Bonser was the moderator---and a piss poor one too---at the GPO convention where I managed to get it passed.  As Ronald Reagan once famously said "You can accomplish much if you don't care who gets the credit.")

You would think that once we had something like a functional system for collective decision-making in the Green Party things would improve.  Well, they did but structural dysfunction ultimately proved to be like the Hydra that Heracles was forced to battle.   Every time people were able to solve one problem, it seemed like two more would spring up to take their place.  For example, the membership wrote a constitution where elected individuals were supposed to be personally responsible for doing specific jobs.  What this meant was that the Board that governed the party found itself unwilling/incapable of setting priorities or creating long-term plans because each individual member of the board felt that they had their own personal mandate to do their specific "task" as they saw fit.

In one example, the person who was elected as the Board Secretary decided that the only sort of minutes that he would submit to the party were actual, complete transcripts of the meeting that he had done himself.  And since he was a very poor typist, it would take months for those transcripts to come out and reading them was a very tedious job.  Yet when I got a volunteer to write up a set of "unofficial minutes" and had them out to the membership the day after the meeting, I ended up being censured by the Chairman for overstepping my authority.    As you could see, keeping the elected secretary happy was more important to the Chair (and the other Board members) than actually letting the membership know what was going on.

 The fundamental problem that I had run up against was that there really is no such thing as a system of governance or decision-making that can force people to be fair and open about things if the average official doesn't really want to be fair and open, or, can't understand the problem.  Similarly, if the odd official really does want to "do the right thing", there is no way that they can prosper in the system and do good unless a lot of the rank-and-file members are willing to support her.  If most people are too busy or indifferent to get involved, or even pay attention, then various players for a variety of reasons will figure out ways to either consciously or unconsciously "fiddle" the system.

The overwhelming majority of Green Party members not only didn't know anything about the internal politics of the party, they had absolutely zero interest in learning anything about it.  I thought long and hard about this and came to the conclusion that while the majority of people in all parties know little about how their party actually works, the Greens know even less simply because people who join the Greens tend overwhelmingly not to be "people people", but are instead "ideas people".  That is, Greens are up in arms about the environment simply because they have spent a lot of time reading books about climate science and such.  In the same way that most mainstream politicians know absolutely nothing about science and ecology, most people who are either small "g" and large "G" greens know absolutely nothing about human society and how large institutions work.

And I'm not saying that the people who fought long and hard against coming up with anything like a functional Green Party were evil Machiavellis out to create an empire.  Instead, they were like children blundering around in the control room of a space ship and totally unaware of the enormous damage they were doing by playing with the switches.

I might also add that I too was one of those children.  I am someone who has spent most of his working life by myself (riding in a tractor seat, swinging a mop, walking a beat, etc) and as a result, know precious little about what makes other people "tick".  In addition, my PTSD has resulted in a volcanic temper based with the underlying assumption that when someone is mulish or obtuse that they really do know what they are doing and that they are trying to "fuck things up" on purpose.  Someone with greater insight into human nature either would have been a lot more diplomatic and as such accomplished more, or, (more likely) have understood the odds against me and never bothered trying in the first place.

Towards the end of my tenure in the Green Party I spent most of my time telling people that they had better "smarten up" and come up with something like a functional system or else someone from outside would come in and take over the party.  This, indeed, is exactly what happened.  In the case of the Green Party of Canada, what happened was a famous environmentalist by the name of Elizabeth May decided to join the party and run for the leadership.   At that point, the Green Party pretty much became the "Elizabeth May Party" and ceased to be much of anything else but a vehicle for promoting her particular view of environmentalism.  And getting her elected into Parliament (which it eventually did.)

Please note, I am not suggesting that Ms. May is any sort of a Machiavellian.  She is just an extremely hard-working woman who has devoted her life to pursuing a long list of important causes.  But she had never been a member of the Green Party before she decided to run and had absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of the party's internal issues or  history.  Moreover, she brought in a huge number of members who's only interest was in seeing her elected---because she is famous----and who's understanding of the complex issues behind the Green crisis are extremely limited.  The result is that the Green Party no longer has anything like a fundamental critique of either mainstream society or our political system.  It really is just another political party now.

To bring this back to the Wall Street protesters.

Looking at the protests, I could not help but think that they were all going down a similar blind alley that the Green Party traveled when I thought that it might be able to accomplish something.  Their statements about creating a "new form of democracy" through some sort of consensus structure is doomed to fail for the same reasons it did in the Green Party.  (And it also failed before in the women's movement for the same reasons, see the great essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness.)

But I was listening to a professor  on the CBC talking about the Wall Street protests this morning and she made a very important point that I had missed.  She said that it didn't matter if anything practical comes from these protests.  What is important about protests is a change of consciousness.  And the protests against Wall Street for one reason or another have made it possible for people in the media and government to talk about redistributing wealth and increasing taxes again.  In the same way, the civil rights movement, women's liberation, gay rights, etc, movements didn't "accomplish" anything except change how people thought about some issues.  And when enough people had changed their opinions, then governments were able to take concrete legislative steps to actually change society in accordance with these new ideas.  And once society had changed enough, it eventually became increasingly hard for people to "get away" with the sort of casual sexism, racism, homophobia, etc, that were simply "the way things are" when I was young.

In the same way, the Green Party was able to raise issues about things like the need to end economic growth and live in a sustainable manner even though it eventually morphed into not much more than "Liberals in a hurry".

Those protesters out on the streets who think that they are creating a whole new world and a new way of doing things are right.  But not in the way that they think that they are.  The radical experiments in formal consensus and citizen assemblies are simply too poorly thought-out to be able to work.  And the movement that they are creating is simply too weak and fragile to avoid almost instant co-optation.  But the ideas that they are throwing out into the world will spread like dandelion seeds and take root in some of the most unlikely places.

I might also add that their analysis of the crisis we are facing as a society is flawed because it doesn't goes much deeper than identifying the greed of the bankers and other big business people.   Instead, I would argue that the economy has hit the limits to growth that the Club of Rome recognized so long ago.  Both climate change and Peak Oil are absolute limits that are ending the idea of economic growth that our entire society and culture is built around.  If you asked the people protesting on Wall Street who is "at fault" most of them would suggest that it is "the one percent" that they identify.  But the real problem, IMHO, is that our entire society is based on endless growth and we are hitting its limit.  The "one percent"r's are simply the specific individuals who find themselves in that slot and the political system that they have corrupted is just the inevitable result of the whole idea of progress.  And if you asked most of the protesters, (and certainly the people who think that they are doing something good), you'd learn pretty quickly that the only problem with the "system" is that it failed to deliver the goods they wanted, not that the whole idea that it can do so indefinitely is impossible on a finite planet.

There is one point I would take from the decades that I put into struggling in the Green movement that I would like to share with my readers, though.   I pointed out a while back in one of the Vow of Sustainability Environmental Vow chapters  that freedom is not really about having "choice" between one option or another.  Instead, I suggested that a more sophisticated definition comes from Cicero :   "Freedom is participation in power".   In other words, the freedom that a citizen has in a free and democratic society doesn't come from voting, but instead from participation in the actual process of government----through things like joining the Green Party or protesting on Wall Street.

I would add to Cicero's insight one of my own.  The only way we can "participate" in power is if we understand that we cannot accomplish anything of worth while through brute force but only insofar as we are moving in harmony with the times.  To be a free citizen in a democratic society it is necessary to participate in society instead of being a passive by-stander.  But to be a spiritually self-consciously free citizen, it is necessary to have some sort of personal distance from the great events of our times and understand how much we are all like leaves floating down the stream of the Dao.

So as a Daoist I can support the protests on Wall Street and suggest that they will probably do some good.  But I also have to understand that much as I would like these people to understand the deeper issues involved, I realize that they are not ready to understand that no matter what government does we simply cannot go back to the "good old days" and must, instead, learn to accommodate ourselves to a new way of doing things.  They will learn, but not through some sort of rational process but rather because they simply will have no other option.

That's the way the Dao is------.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Environmental Vow 16: Buddhism

Bringing in a Third Option

I hope that I have been persuasive with at least a few of my readers to the point where they believe as I do, that something like faith and duty are necessary for mobilizing humanity to save the planet.  Moreover, I also hope that they have been able to follow my explanation why traditional formulations are no longer acceptable to most citizens.  I also hope that people have followed my description of why Maslow's suggested ethic of “self actualization” has failed to fill the void.  Finally, I'd like to think that my little digression dealing with the complexities of freedom articulated clearly why I think it is important to reject naive assumptions about the relationship between the individual and the collective.

In effect, what I am suggesting is that in order to mobilize society in a way that will allow us to really deal with the problems that the human race will face during the coming time of environmental catastrophe we will have to develop some new way of mobilizing society.  This unifying force will have to mimic the best parts of faith and duty, without falling prey to the limitations that are all too obvious to modern people.  It will also have to avoid the problems that I have identified with the ideals of “self-actualization” and “follow your bliss” and instead has more in common with Cicero's ideal of “participation in power”.  

In the next part of this essay I'm going to examine some new trends in our society that I think show some promise about how we might be able to work our way out of the present mess.  


The big push to develop the new ethic of Self-Actualization or “Follow your bliss” came from a rejection of both patriotic duty and religious faith as the key motivational force in a person's life.  It was pretty obvious to a society that had gone through things like the reformation, the enlightenment and the World Wars that there needed to be something else to motivate intelligent people beyond religious faith and patriotism.  That is why thinkers like Maslow tried so hard to come up with some sort of replacement.   Unfortunately, in practice his suggestion quickly degenerated into not much more than “do your own thing”.  This is pretty thin gruel to live on in an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity.  It is totally insufficient to support people going through a period of crisis like the present ecological collapse.

Large minorities have decided to maintain their allegiance to traditional faith, which has led to the increased militancy of Protestant Fundamentalism and a sort of creeping Roman Catholic Fascism that places all power in the Pope.   Coexisting with and mostly overlapping with them are extreme patriots who exhibit a similar sort of belief in the value of the military and Executive authority to the exclusion of both the Legislature and Constitutional safeguards.   Beyond these reactionary tendencies, I would suggest that there are other, more promising currents at work.

One example is the emergence of North American Buddhism.   Even though it is difficult to find hard numbers, it appears that the number of Buddhists is growing very quickly in North America1.   While much of this growth comes from Asian immigration, a significant fraction (estimated at about 20-25%2) are Western converts of European descent.   While the absolute numbers of actual converts are quite small, the important point to remember is that Buddhism is not just another flavour of the Middle-Eastern religion once held by most North Americans, it is significantly different in what it understands a religion to be.  The fact that it is becoming a significant minority player on the North American religious scene is extremely relevant----not because of its numbers, but rather because of what it says about how the general public increasingly views religion itself.

The Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all defined by the relationship between the believer and God.  This relationship is defined by a codified belief system that comes from divine revelation, tradition and ecclesiastic institutions that provide definitive “orthodox” interpretations of that revelation and tradition.  It is very important that the “believer” believe in what orthodoxy teaches or else bad things will happen---excommunication, execution for heresy or apostasy, and, eternal damnation.   In effect, it all comes down to loyalty to a cause.  If someone breaks ranks and starts thinking for herself, an angry hierarchy---both ecclesiastic and divine---will punish her for disloyalty.

Buddhism is very different.  It sees the world in terms of impersonal forces and scientific laws.    For this system there is no point in believing a creed on faith except in the provisional sense of taking advice from someone more experienced and experimenting to see if it works as described.  Moreover, a belief without understanding is seen as worthless because it means that it cannot be applied to a given situation with the sort of “skillful means”3 that is necessary to jump the gap between theory and practice.   There is no “angry God” who punishes you after death---just your own unresolved internal conflicts that manifest themselves as hallucinations on the deathbed4 or the impersonal law of karma that will create consequences that continue after the individual has expired.5  

What is important is the specific effort one puts into gaining real insight into what it means to be a human being.  This is achieved through a myriad of different practices that are tailored to different types of people who have lived in many different societies.  As such, a perennial question that is asked about Buddhism is whether it is a religion at all, or “just” a philosophy of life or school of applied psychology.  It is because of this emphasis on the process of self-investigation instead of a revealed belief system that even a thorough-going, self-proclaimed atheist such as Sam Harris is able to suggest that there is much of value in the Buddhist tradition.6  

This is not to say that Buddhism is exclusively or even fundamentally a science of the mind.  In many ways it is similar to the Abrahamic religions in that it also has a belief-system that has developed a complex enculturation process aimed at fostering a specific sort of mindset.  It has sects.  They have rituals.  Its monasteries and nunneries have rules of behaviour similar to the rules that govern Christian monasteries.  But it does have that one significant distinction in its core beliefs are---at least theoretically---based on the personal experience of individual monks and nuns, as opposed to submission to the will of an unknowable God, and, the Ecclesiastic hierarchy that speaks in his name.  

In a variety of ways this basic Buddhist message has at times been twisted and made into something that more resembles the Abrahamic religions.  For example, Zen Buddhism has made a fetish of lineage that has given far too much power to some Zen Masters, which they have gone on to abuse.7   Similarly at least one master of the “crazy wisdom” tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the late Chogyam Rimpoche, has been accused of abusing the extreme authority given to him by his followers.  In addition, the Institutions that govern Zen Buddhism were co-opted by the Imperial Japanese Empire in support of brutal oppression of other nations.8   Similar problems also exist in just about every other  branch of Buddhism.9   In each of these cases the well-known injunction of the Buddha that all his followers should be “lamps unto oneself” was ignored in favour of the ideal of the “Master” who's understanding was so greater than an ordinary human being that they were told to ignore the promptings of their own reason or conscience.

But having acknowledged all of these particular problems, there is still at the core of Buddhist religious tradition a central vision that suggests that people should ultimately not submit to any authority except themselves when it comes to spiritual matters.  One recent version of this statement that seems to be widely copied on the Internet states it thus:

Believe nothing on the faith of traditions,
even though they have been held in honor
for many generations and in diverse places.
Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it.
Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past.
Do not believe what you yourself have imagined,
persuading yourself that a God inspires you.
Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests.
After examination, believe what you yourself have tested
and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.10

 Moreover, I would suggest that it is exactly this ideal of intellectual freedom that is most appealing to Western converts.

Is it possible that a Buddhist-based religious revival could occur in the West during our coming “dark ages” of ecological collapse?  Could Buddhist monasteries play as important a role in saving nature much as Benedictine ones did in saving Western Europe?

Unfortunately, I think that that is an overly optimist read of the situation.  Western Buddhism's emphasis on the importance of introspection as a means of gaining enlightenment has resulted in a significant tendency that allows naive followers to ignore all other elements of the human experience.  I have, for example, a wall-hanging that I purchased from an order of Tibetan monks that says

Mind is the forerunner of all states.
If with a mind that is calm and clean,
With him does bliss follow,
Mind is supreme, all are creations of mind.
One speaks or does a thing,
Like the never deserting Shadow.11

Obviously, if “Mind is supreme”, then the environment is a secondary issue that a good Buddhist shouldn't invest much energy into preserving.   Unfortunately, I think that this rather flippant understanding pretty much accurately sums-up the worldview of many, if not most Western Buddhists.

The Tibetan monks that I purchased this hanging from understood the fallacy of this point of view.  That is why when they gave their demonstration of harmonic chanting they also insisted on showing a debate between two monks on Buddhist theory.  (Unfortunately, since it was delivered in Tibetan instead of English, this point was lost on just about everyone in the audience.)   The point they were trying emphasize is that meditation---while key to Buddhism---is only one element of a far bigger system.

Almost the only element of Buddhism that most Western Buddhists see are meditation classes.   And in substance, these almost invariably work from a therapeutic instead of a religious model.     Psychotherapists serve a significantly different role than do religious teachers.  Religions are supposed to tell us things about the universe---what is “right”, what is “wrong” and how society should work.  Therapists, on the other hand, are only legitimately concerned about the individual they are treating.   Ultimate issues are set aside so they can focus exclusively on how to help an individual person become more functional in her day-to-day life.  That is why psychiatrists, for example, assume the posture of being “non-judgemental” in their interactions with the client.  Meditation taught outside the structure of the Eightfold Path is non-judgemental, but within its bounds, it is very much the opposite.

The Eightfold Path is an attempt to find the absolute essentials that a person must have in order to live a “good” life---in both senses of the word.   When we say that someone led a “good” life it can mean that it was relatively pleasant and the person who lived suffered less than most.   We can also say that a person was a “good” woman, even though she suffered from terrible deprivation---because she was a moral, honourable and engaged person.  Because Buddhism teaches that a great deal of our sense of well-being is derived from our mental state instead of the physical situation we inhabit (e.g. “Mind is the forerunner of all states---”), it believes that it is impossible to separate these two definitions of “good”.   In effect, the fact that the two senses of the word are linked reflects a fundamental truth, not a mere happenstance of language.  For Buddhists, enlightenment is not just a mental state that can be scotch-taped onto just about anyone.  Instead, it is the result of having a certain way of looking at the world and behaving in a certain way.    

The Eightfold Path of Buddhism is an attempt to link together both sides of “good” in an easily remembered prescription for how to live the best possible life, both in terms of personal satisfaction and in terms of morality.   The are:  right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and, right concentration.    Note that the Western popular understanding of Buddhism---derived from all those meditation classes---usually only includes the last two, “right mindfulness” and “right concentration”.   Almost no emphasis is placed upon any sort of theoretical understanding of humanity and its place in the universe, or, “right view” and “right intention”.  (This was the element of the Eightfold Path that those Tibetan lamas were trying to emphasize in their scholarly debate that I mentioned above.)  Nor is there any emphasis usually placed upon how a human being should interact with his society at large, or, “right speech”, “right action”, and, “right livelihood”.   If there is any attention paid to “right effort”, it probably revolves around how much effort a person should put into their meditation practice.

The key issue that explains why Western citizens are usually only exposed to and embrace the last two parts of the Buddhist Way centres around the issue of renunciation.   Buddhism in Asia has primarily been a religion of monks and nuns.  In the West, it is primarily a religion for lay people.   Monks and nuns are people who have made a very conscious choice (at least the ones who entered the convent voluntarily) to live a certain way and give up a wide range of opportunities and activities that are taken for granted by most of the general public.  The idea is that as a way of training the mind (as well as being able to form a stable community) monks and nuns voluntarily agree upon living a very specific way.  This special way of living has been codified in different ways by different Buddhist sects and traditions---just like orders of Christian monks and nuns have adopted their “rules” that govern their life.   And if you look at the rules that exist, you can see that they are in some cases very specific.

Theravada Buddhism, which is one of the older schools of Buddhism, has a very large number of rules and regulations governing the behaviour of monks and nuns.   A collection of rules, the Bhikkhu Pāṭimokkha, has been translated by Buddhist scholar of the name Thanissaro Bhikkhu and published on the Internet.12  Here are a few bits and pieces so readers can get a flavour of the rules and regulations.   From the chapter titled “Pārājika: Rules entailing expulsion from the Sangha (Defeat)” comes:

Should any bhikkhu intentionally deprive a human being of life, or search for an assassin for him, or praise the advantages of death, or incite him to die (saying,): "My good man, what use is this evil, miserable life to you? Death would be better for you than life," or with such an idea in mind, such a purpose in mind, should in various ways praise the advantages of death or incite him to die, he also is defeated and no longer in affiliation.

From the section titled “Saṅghādisesa: Rules entailing an initial and subsequent meeting of the Sangha” comes this:

Should any bhikkhu — corrupt, aversive, disgruntled — charge a bhikkhu with an unfounded case entailing defeat, (thinking), "Perhaps I may bring about his fall from this celibate life," then regardless of whether or not he is cross-examined on a later occasion, if the issue is unfounded and the bhikkhu confesses his aversion, it entails initial and subsequent meetings of the Community.

Obviously putting a hit on someone is not monkish behaviour, but it is also against most societies' legal codes anyway.   Suggesting suicide as an option or bearing false witness are not usually dealt with by civil courts, but it is also easy to see that these would be very serious crimes in a spiritual community.  I don't think anyone would find these rules onerous to follow.

But these codes tend to have many, many rules that govern many different elements of monastic life.  They exist because it is really difficult to get people to live together in these sorts of communities without having them blow up due internal friction.  These are a very few of these more “practical” rules.

Should any bhikkhu accept robe-cloth from the hand of a bhikkhunī [a Buddhist nun] unrelated to him — except in exchange — it is to be forfeited and confessed.

Malicious tale-bearing among bhikkhus is to be confessed.

The damaging of a living plant is to be confessed.

Should any bhikkhu knowingly lie down in a dwelling belonging to the Community so as to intrude on a bhikkhu who arrived there first, (thinking), "Whoever finds it confining will go away" — doing it for just that reason and no other — it is to be confessed.

Monks shouldn't have “special friend” nuns that do favours for them.  Monks shouldn't be “tattle-tales” and “gossips”.   Monks shouldn't trample the flowers at the monastery.  Monks shouldn't intrude on the private space of other monks.  These are simple rules aimed at keeping the peace.

As anyone who reads through these long lists of rules---and all the Buddhist sects have their own---can see, being a monk or nun was, and still is, very much not an issue of “follow your bliss”.   Instead, it is a pretty heavy undertaking that involved a radical restructuring of a person's priorities and physical surroundings so he can integrate himself into a community that survives on very limited resources.  It is very much the same sort of radical renunciation that a Benedictine monk took when he decided to give up his life as an aristocrat and became a brother who would drain swamps, cut hay and get up in the middle of the night to sing divine services.  Of course, in both Buddhist and Benedictine cases the change was a lot less dramatic for those who jumped into monastic life from being a poor peasant.  But it was, and still is for modern Buddhist monastics, a very far cry from the life of the middle-class North American who takes a few meditation classes, begins a regular meditation practice, and begins to call himself a “Buddhist”.

I've raised this point as an outsider to the Western Buddhist world and had several very engaged people reinforce this assessment.   For example, one person responded to a blog posting with the following comment:

For thirty years I taught Buddhism in various capacities; as a monastic, as the Abbot of a Temple, as a Prison Chaplain, in courses as Junior Colleges. The one aspect of Buddhism which I found impossible for the students to absorb was renunciation. Any time renunciation was brought up (and you can’t really talk about Buddhism without discussing renunciation since renunciation is central to its world view) people would argue that renunciation is not necessary, or no longer necessary, or that it is misguided; that one can have everything one wants on a material level as well as spiritual attainment. In discussions I have had with other Buddhist teachers my experience has been affirmed, they also found it literally impossible to communicate the place renunciation holds in Buddhism. (One wit put it that Buddhism in the West is ‘the upper middle class way’.)13

So while traditional Buddhist abbies might very well serve the same function as the Benedictines did during the Dark Ages, Western Buddhism doesn't have at its core the same commitment to lifestyle change that Eastern Buddhism had through the Eightfold Path and different monastic codes of conduct.  Instead, I think it can be said that it has been “infected” by Maslow's self-actualization ideal to the point where people simply aren't willing to accept the renunciation prescription that is encapsulated in the Eightfold Path and various monastic codes.

Having said that, it still is profoundly worthwhile to see that so many Westerners still want to find a religious option for their life that also includes the notion of “be a lamp unto yourself”.  Moreover, it is important to realize that even if people do not immediately twig onto the Eightfold Path, the very act of deciding to follow a regular meditation practice is itself a much greater commitment than that usually required by the Abrahimic religions.  For those people who do stick to a meditation regime, there is a significant chance that they will want to pursue a deeper understanding of Buddhism, which will in turn lead them towards a more authentic experience.  But the end of a road is not the beginning, and many a traveler never makes it all the way.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Types of Compassion

I had a bit of a discussion with my significant other a couple days back that got my juices flowing. We started talking about how it appears that the governments of the world really won't do anything at all about greenhouse gas emissions until it is much too late to prevent significant change.  I suggested that the thing that gives me hope is the option of geoengineering.   That is, that it should be possible to manipulate the climate in order to deal with some of the worst aspects of climate change, which would give humanity time to work at our greenhouse gas emissions.

Mention this subject to most people and they get very nervous about monkeying around with the climate.  I do too, and all things being equal, I'd be opposed to even thinking about it.  But things are not equal, they are seriously out of whack.  And even if we have serious qualms about what would happen with geoengineering, we might end up having to do it if we want to avoid climate catastrophe from runaway climate feedback.  If we get into a feedback loop like that, we could end up with a population crash that would result in billions of people starving to death as their agricultural systems collapse.

What surprised me about this discussion was the blythe way my significant other contemplated the nasty, horrid deaths of these people.  It isn't because she lacks compassion, indeed, she freaks if her cat catches a bird and makes a huge personal investment of her scarce resources to help friends when in need.  In this sense, she is a far more compassionate person than I am.  Yet I become extremely fretful over the prospect of billions starving in a way that she doesn't.  Could it be that Stalin was right when he said "One death is a tragedy;  one million is a statistic"?  

Being the wise person she is, my fiancee didn't get all emotional about this, but instead talked the point through with me.  She said that if a village of people were starving right in front of her she would get involved in trying to help them. (Of this I have no doubt.)  But contemplating numbers in a theoretical scenario was too abstract for her.  In contrast, when I am confronted by an actual person who is in dire straights, I often become fearful about that person dragging me down, in a way that she does not.

Ultimately, who is the more compassionate person?

Another element that she pointed out was that no one on the earth is able to avoid a death sentence and one way or another, the population has to shrink.  We all die.  My response was that it is better for people to die of old age than for them to die of hunger.  I'd rather that the population shrank through birth control than through a mass die off.  She could respond, "yes it would----but what are the chances of that happening?"   Not great, of course.

This leaves us with another issue.  If the population doesn't crash because of climate change, and it simply will not decline any other way, won't geoengineering simply postpone the inevitable and ensure that a population crash will come for some other reason?

She makes a very good point.

At this stage, all I can do is try to analyse my emotions and try to understand why I get so cranked up about climate change.   I understand that emotions are the drivers of behaviour.  I have been very involved in a wide variety of environmental projects simply because I get so emotional about all this stuff.  But this emotional response ceases to productive when things have reached this stage.  The rational response is to understand that the Dao is not going to deal with climate change the way I would have wanted it to.  Instead, it looks like we are on the edge of a crazy mega-experiment that will directly affect the lives of everyone on the earth.

My emotions, therefore, come down to a sort of existential dread, and not much else.   In a sense, my fear of the nasty, painful death of billions is ultimately connected to my fear of personal death.  If I can accept either one with equanimity, I can accept the other.  I understand this point intellectually, but not "in my bones", as the Zen people say.  When I can do this, then I will have achieved true equanimity.

I suppose many people who call themselves "Daoists" would say "well duh".   Certainly many folks I've met seem to not be able to understand why it is that i fret about this so much.  But I've always had a certain suspicion that this sort of thing is worthless unless it comes from real soul-searching and perhaps even suffering.  My feeling is that glib affirmations rarely stand significant stress tests.  So until someone really understands the horror of existence, they don't have the right to suggest that it is nothing but an illusion.  My better half has suffered a fair amount in her life, which is why I tend to believe her when she makes statements about this sort of thing.  Perhaps others I've met have too, and I was too callow to understand that.

Either way, I've spent a lot of time ruminating on the issue of compassion, what it means for the future of the earth, and whether my equanimity will ever be able to completely stand in the face of mega-suffering.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Environmental Vow: Part 15

Some People's Curious Unwillingness to Admit That Sacrifice Even Exists

There is yet another issue at play that needs to be discussed:  the relationship between “freedom”, “choice” and “sacrifice”.  I think one of the best ways to understand the relationship is to consider the significant fraction of the public that has been so seduced by the ideal of “do your own thing”, that they seem to believe that the concept of personal sacrifice is conceptually impossible.  Primarily, this boils down to the notion that no one ever does anything that they do not want to do simply because if they didn't want to do it, they wouldn't.   This response often comes out in conversations similar to the following one that I once had with a friend after I mentioned to her that I had decided to never fly again.

“Why would you decide to never fly in an airplane?”
“Jet aircraft release a lot of climate changing C02 into the atmosphere, so I've decided that this is a sacrifice I can make for the good of future generations and Mother Nature.”
“No, it's not a sacrifice. You simply choose to not fly.  You're afraid of flying, aren't you?  Don't worry, it's safer than driving a car.”

What I believe is happening in these sorts of situations is that people are confusing several different things for a variety of reasons and on the basis of that confusion jumping to unwarranted conclusions.

It is true that people often do announce that they are making a sacrifice for the greater good when in fact what they really are doing is seeking social recognition and status for their actions.  The corporation that “donates” money to a university but expects public recognition, a tax write-off and demands to set research priorities is an example of this sort of “giving” that really turns out to really be a purchase.   This sort of “sacrifice” is really a very self-conscious act of hypocrisy.  A more subtle, unconscious type of hypocrisy can also cloud sacrifice---as when a grasping parent demands constant attention by children for the “gift” of birth and nurturing until the age of majority.  An even more subtle case involves the sense of self-worth that can come from “doing the right thing” when everyone else isn't.  This sort of behaviour is common in religious organizations and usually labelled “self-righteousness”.   Finally, as in the example above, the “sacrifice” could be an excuse to cover up some other, not necessarily self-serving, reason for following a course of action---such as when my friend assumed that my decision to stop flying was just an attempt to hide my fear.  

In the case of environmental activism, it certainly could be the case that some people in leadership positions are enamoured by the attention they receive from the media and citizenry.  This cannot be a universal phenomenon, however, simply because for every person in a leadership position there needs to be many more who are supporters.  If only a small number of people involved in a situation can bask in the glory, it cannot be the case that everyone is in it for the prestige.  

And the issue isn't just one of activism.  People routinely “do without” in order to support some sort of higher ideal.  For example, a woman who has a child doesn't “want” to go through childbirth, have her sleep constantly interrupted or clean dirty diapers, yet she does these things willingly because they are necessary if she is to be a mother.  They are undesired yet necessary means to a desired end.   In much the same way, soldiers do not want to advance into battle and all monks have problems with at least some elements of monastic routine---yet they accept that these undesired things are necessary to pursue the desired ones.   In a similar vein, some people do choose to live without an automobile, not fly on airplanes, eat relatively inconvenient and expensive locally-grown, organic food, etc, because they think that the act is in defence of Mother Nature.

Yet, like my friend, many people are loathe to admit this.  I suspect that they often do so for two reasons.  First of all, if they admit that they didn't actually like doing the unpleasant means that they already do, they might feel that they are betraying the desired end.  In the case of a mother, she might feel that she is betraying her child if she admits that it isn't much fun washing dirty diapers.   Secondly, if a person admits that people do often do unpleasant things in order to pursue some other desired end, an implicit moral imperative comes into play.  When Henry David Thoreau went to jail rather than pay taxes in support of what he considered an unjust war (against Mexico) a visitor asked him why he was behind bars.  Thoreau's response was to turn the tables on the questioner and ask him “Why aren't you in here with me?”

This raises another important point.   When I brought up Cicero's definition of “freedom” as participation in power, I suggested that the relevant issue is engagement in the process.   I went on to suggest that the emotional connection with the community that comes from engaging with it has a lot to do with the experience of living a “free” life.  I would also suggest that there is an other element of engagement that needs to be considered:  personal responsibility.

A lot of people understand “freedom” in terms that take out any sense of personal responsibility.  That is, “freedom” for them is just another aspect of consumerism---like when you wander down the isle of a grocery store and have to choose between Coke and Pepsi.   This sort of consumer “choice” is totally value-free because there is little (if any) difference between the two options.  Both are  carbonated sugar-water beverages flavoured with cola nut extract, produced by multinational corporations and packaged in disposable aluminium cans.   There are consequences to both a person's health and to the environment (both negative) if a person decides to purchase either one of these products, but there is none at all over which particular brand.   If you look at people's lives, you find that even though North Americans have an enormous ranges of choices in their lives, the practical impact of those choices is limited---mother nature and your liver don't care whether you purchase Count Chocola, GMC and a split level as opposed to Lucky Charms, Chrystler and a ranch style.

This type of choice wouldn't be a problem but it has become so ubiquitous in our consumer society that many people confuse this “choosing” with the sort of important morally-based decisions that we have to make as both individuals and a society.   This leads to a conflation of the idea of consumer choice with democratic referendum.  Consider the sort of routine arguments that come about from public planning.  If the city suggests that suburban sprawl damages the economic and environmental viability of the community, and therefore zoning should be changed to force higher-density development, at least some members of the community will start arguing that developers “only build what people want” and if “people wanted higher density, they'd build it”.   This argument totally misses the point that the benefits from living in a low-density suburb go to the individuals that bought the home whereas the costs (such as increased infrastructure expenses) are paid for by the entire community.  

In situations like the planning of cities, freedom as “participation in power” involves getting the entire community involved in the process through elected representatives and hired staff who are expected to think about the good of the entire community.  In contrast, freedom as “consumer choice” narrows the terms of reference to “what's in it for me?”   Amongst other things, freedom as “consumer choice” is freedom devoid of any personal responsibility for the consequences of your individual decision.  “Participation in Power”, in contrast, suggests some sort of engagement with the wider community (i.e. the other people “participating”) that places a burden on the individual to think of the consequences of his decisions on these other people (and, by extension, the community of nature.)

Almost all environmental decisions suffer from this confusion of consumer choice and free choice because almost all environmental problems are the result of choices in the way people live their lives.  If we continue to labour under the assumption that being able to live “freely” ultimately means not having to think about how the impact of those choices will affect other people, it is hard to see how anything at all can ever be done to avoid ultimate and total catastrophe.   In effect, if the world is going to deal with the environmental crisis and remain a democracy, people are going to have to make personal individual sacrifices in how they live their lives.  As Mohandas Gandhi would have said, people are going to have to learn how to “Live simply that others may simply live.”