The state of Britain certainly needs rethinking. The feral teenagers armed with guns and knives, some freely murdering those who object, the vulgarity of binge drinking, the vomit in our streets, the riotous prisons, the lack of respect for race, sex or age on trains and buses – these things are not common elsewhere – although other continental countries have their own problems. We need to rethink and force a rethink among the unthinking. But how? Depressive pontificating, moaning or gnashing of teeth gets us nowhere. It is sit down cogitation that is needed with both mind and heart. We can only begin in our known places. This edition of NCF includes some rethinks and some further thinks. As we continue to develop with an expanding network of small groups we will necessarily gain a larger footprint. We need to consider what print that is to be. In their own way each of our contributors has a message to offer whether as lecture, talk, pilgrimage, meditation, poetry or humour.
The Marianne Fry Lecture, 2007 1
This annual seminar of the Friends of the British Gestalt Journal commemorates the life of a well-loved psychotherapist. John was honoured to be invited to give this lecture before a national audience of around a hundred therapists in Bristol in the summer of 2007. The event took all day, included lunch and ended around tea time. The talk was followed by a long question and answer discussion session. John took the opportunity to review some of the main ideas in his forthcoming book, World crisis and Buddhist Humanism: End Games - Collapse or Renewal of Civilisation (New Age Books Delhi), which should appear in May this year. This article therefore allows our readers a preview of some of John’s ideas and hopefully encourages a purchase of the book! Eds
The scene is set beside my father’s deathbed. It was the time of the oil crisis in 1972. Dad was reading his newspaper; he’d had a serious heart attack and he was to die the following morning. That evening he was very lucid. He was reading about the world crisis of that time, and I was sitting with him. He put down his paper and he said to me, “John, you know, I always used to think I would like to come back in the future and see how everything is going on. But you know now I really don’t think I want to come back; things look just too bleak.” I was always sad about these last thoughts of my father, and I resisted them over many years. Yet, I have to confess that in the last three years I have come to have a lot of empathy with what he was saying. I am not at all sure I would want to come back in 20 or 30 years’ time. And that’s within the lifetime of my grandchildren. It’s within the lifetime of the grandchildren of all of us.
It now seems certain that in the next 30 years or so the planetary world as we know it ecologically today will change dramatically. We can already see the changes happening. Furthermore, without being alarmist, we also have to say that scientists do not know what the thresholds involved in these changes are. There could be trigger points that may bring about far more rapid and catastrophic changes than we are thinking of at the moment. It is just very uncertain indeed. Let us hope things will proceed smoothly; let us hope that we manage to get on top of it, but there are no promises.
Why did my father feel that way? My Dad was an Edwardian who had come through the First and Second World Wars, who had seen the victory of democracy over Nazism and Fascism, who had also seen the fall of the Iron Curtain and the change in politics towards what appeared at first to be a much more optimistic scenario. This was a direction of change that would have fulfilled his humanist-Christian values. He had been an engineer and was proud of all the progressive advancements in the world. He’d seen all of those things but the changes that were then occurring were disappointing and seemed chaotic. I think he felt that the world had entered a period of marked decadence. Today I would agree. I put it to you that we are living in a decadent world. And I’m also going to suggest to you that the reason for that decadence is us, you and I in our time, I mean the current Western cultural attitude to this world of ours.
What is decadence? Well the Oxford English Reference Dictionary defines ‘decadence’ as “moral or cultural deterioration especially after a peak or culmination of achievement”. The juxtaposition of these opposed ideas – moral or cultural deterioration after achievement – is a very sad one to reflect upon. We have to realise that, as Prime Minister Macmillan said long ago, we in the West have never had it so good. The scientific advances, the inventions, the extraordinary speed of communication, email and all that is really staggeringly significant and has brought about an ease and comfort in life that no previous generations ever had. Not only that, up until relatively recently the victories in the Second World War and the fall of the Iron Curtain did indeed suggest that we might be moving towards a more stable historical situation on the planet with a greater importance of the rule of law, the United Nations, a World Community, and the development of something approaching democracy over at least very large areas of the world. Yet, then what happened? Well I needn’t rehearse for you the history of the last 15 years, but I do want to refer you to another definition – the definition of the adjective ‘decadent’. The Oxford English Reference Dictionary refers to the adjective ‘decadent’ as “self-indulgent”. Now, as we’ve seen, the title of this talk is ‘Rethinking Self’ and if our world is failing on account of a decadent self-indulgence, then it is attention to the ‘self’ itself that we will need to pay attention.
I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the well-known problems of our time, the faulty politics, bad decisions, poor economics: Kosovo; Iraq; the state of the Middle East; Islamic religious fanaticism due largely to deprivation and poverty distorting Islam into the terrorism of resentment. This is matched by equally perverse and self-concerning policies of the Christian Right in the United States – the Neo-Cons. The collision of Islamic fanaticism and the Neo-Cons, if it continues, (and thank goodness it looks as though it isn’t) could produce the ending of our cultural world, both in bangs and in whimpers. Fortunately, the victories of the democrats in the recent elections in the United States show the American people are at last waking up to the mistakes of their leadership: understandable mistakes because driven by the terrible disasters in New York of ‘9/11’.
Yet these dangerous political and terrorist issues are of relatively minor concern when compared with the problems of global warming and the concurrent political resistance to adequate action in changing our economic practices in relation to ecology. Again, sad to say, it has been in the United States that the major resistance has been seen – political resistance to doing anything about the planetary ecology. Furthermore, the lack of leadership by the United States is allowing or encouraging China to produce incredible amounts of pollution as it fills the US demand for cheap goods. This pollution does not stay in China but drifts around in the world’s wind systems.
All this is the background to something else, which is perhaps the saddest point directly and immediately facing us in Britain. I refer here to the extraordinary social alienation of large sections of our young people – the lethal teenage gangs, the Ladism and the lunatic binge drinking. In Bristol, only a few weeks ago, I went to see a film and came out to the street at about 8 o’clock in the evening to find it full of drunk and half-clad young people. It was from any perspective socially disgusting. Then again, not much better was the behaviour of our football supporters in Barcelona a few months ago. The Spanish people were putting up politely with a good deal of shouting, violence and excessive bravado. Beyond these symptoms of decay, we have all the well-known effects of family breakdown. It seems that British teenagers of certain origins bearing knives and guns are becoming lethal, roaming dogs in the body politic.
I could go on like this but to do so would be merely depressing. We all know these things. So I want to make the one major point which makes our world decadent, truly decadent. We have been almost unthinkingly engaged in the spoliation and destruction of this planetary ecosystem upon which our civilisation depends. The way in which we are behaving economically and socially is bringing about climate changes that may be extraordinarily destructive over time. What is so extraordinary is that when we know we are faced with severe damage to our own planet, to our own cultures, to our own cities, we’re doing so remarkably little about it. Two days ago we had headlines about the Queen getting cross during an interview. Such triviality is typical of the media. There is very little adequate focus on the truly serious situation that we are in.
We might ask - haven’t things always been difficult? For my Dad things were pretty ominous in 1939. Yet, in 1939 it was not the state of the planet that was at stake. This is what makes the word ‘decadence’ truly potent in our time. It is unbelievably decadent, in my book, not to take this planetary issue enormously seriously as the most important issue of our current existence and one that will affect our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren enormously. Washington fiddles while Rome burns.
These pressures, these gloomy pictures, do have personal effects on all of us. I myself find that listening to the 10 o’clock news bulletin is commonly a highly depressing experience; it’s often grim. I want now to refer to the essay written by a young woman student in the University of Bath which Peter Reason, Professor of Management Studies in Bath, quoted in his inaugural lecture about two years ago. She had said: “As I approach the end of my studies I can’t help feeling that freedom is a fallacy, and that somehow I’ve been walking a predetermined path to mortgage repayments and commuting nightmares. Further, I’m not alone. Despite a whole array of graduate opportunities, there is a growing mood of claustrophobia and a sense of powerlessness. For all the relative luxuries of the Western world we are still unsatisfied, there is an unmistakable sense of longing, a deep craving for some kind of release or escape.” In quoting this essay and going on to discuss it, Peter Reason argued that what this young woman was trying to escape from was the Western world-view itself, that is the unthinking collusion in a certain image of our world that almost all of us entertain.
What is a world-view? We have to spend some time thinking about this. A world-view is that complex set of integrated social images and understandings that, as it were, passes as the norm of one’s time. A world image of a period of time drives the history of that period. You could say that the world-view of the Victorian era had to do with imperialism, to do with white supremacy, to do with the cocky arrogance of the West, to do with Christian dominance. Yet, it is also to do with the rights of man, European enlightenment, free play, democracy, and the ending of the slave trade. Such a complex made up the prevailing world-view of the majority of educated people in the Victorian era.
What is the set of components that determines the world-view of most of us today? Well, I think very few of us ever actually sit down and ask what is my world view, or what is our world view, or what is the British world view, or what is the European world view, or what is the Western world view. Of course, there’s a good reason for that – it’s very complicated.
I want to list three features of our current world-view to put to you as being characteristic of our time and which are operating for the most part unconsciously in that we don’t reflect upon them and are not educated to reflect upon them – Capitalism, Individualism and Dualism.
First of all, there is the overriding power of capitalism in its consumerist form. We have to realise that this economic system is amazingly dynamic based upon the system of business institutions that requires investment to yield products which in turn produce dividends for the investors. In order to make that cycle work, there has to be novelty, exploitation of ever more resources, and growth creating value addition beyond the cost of labour. The system naturally sustains the division between the relatively poor producers and the often tremendously rich investors. Needless to say, some of these industrial activities involve arms sales utilised in regional violence and the potential for atomic war. Nowadays so powerful is consumerist capitalism that many of the really big trans-national corporations are much bigger than national states.
If one asks who is responsible for the activity of a trans-national corporation it would be very difficult to put a finger on anyone because these are machines – machines driven by a very effective economic process. One could say that the people who are responsible are the investors, that is you and I. Yet we rarely know exactly where our funds are invested. They are invested by brokers. Only a few of us have actually conducted an ethical investigation as to what these investments are actually supporting. One of the effects of the system has been the enormous expansion in the search for raw materials into all parts of the globe involving the destabilisation of tribal peoples, the creation of enormous dams sometimes requiring the removal of whole populations, and the breakdown of the culture and language of many small peoples.2
This extraordinary system, we must realise, is historically completely new, a novelty. Before the industrial revolution the great empires of, say, the Sultans of Turkey, the Moguls of India or the Emperors of China, were all based on agricultural riches. Of course, there were trade routes, of course, there were banks, of course there was exchange – these systems were also dynamic. Yet, the limitations of agriculture and the seasonality of production meant that such empires could never gain more than a certain amount of power. Such economic systems couldn’t become endlessly progressive in the manner of post-industrial economies. Britain with its dynamic world-view of industrialisation created something entirely new when compared with any of the agriculturally based empires. It is this very European novelty, adopted by all the powers of this world that is now destroying the natural systems that it exploits.3
What is this consumerist capitalism riding upon? I put it to you it’s driven largely by another feature of our Western world-view - our extreme sense of individualism. This is the second feature I wish to stress. We value our individuality enormously, perhaps excessively. One of the crudest indications of this is the way in which every time a British or an American soldier gets killed in either Afghanistan or Iraq, flags go up, ceremonies are performed, corpses are brought home covered in national flags, relatives are informed, great sadness is publicly expressed and, because of a few hundred American dead, new policies are presented in Congress. But what about the hundreds of Iraqi civilians run over by American convoys rushing at high speed to supply their fortresses and so terribly fearful of roadside bombs as to drive recklessly through crowds of civilians smashing any cars in their way? I was reading a whole set of such accounts in yesterday’s Guardian, interviews with American soldiers now back in the States currently recording the grotesque brutality in the way in which Iraqi civilians have been treated.
These are signs of our preoccupation with ourselves as individuals and our failure to generalise this preoccupation to others with whom we fail to identify. At a subtle level, there is an extraordinary self-confidence about the individual in the West. Our education encourages us to focus on becoming the brightest boy in the school or the most beautiful girl in the class. Some very interesting psychological testing has shown how this focus on the individual creates a very selfish attitude towards purchasing, buying, being – all focused on me, me, me. Furthermore, psychological enquiries reveal a very different situation in Japan or in China where research directly comparable to that done in America has been carried out. Briefly, the average Japanese or Chinese is not particularly concerned with ‘me’. What they’re concerned with is relating to the community within which they belong. First and foremost is the family – a strong communal sense of the family. And that extends outwards to the company within which individuals work. If individualism can be said to be the hallmark of part of our Western world-view, so communalism is actually the hallmark of much of Asian world-views.4
Of course, this means the Western media are very strongly focused on things that happen to individuals – the cult of celebrities, discussions about the differences between the last Prime Minister and the present one. The focus is far more on individuals than it is on policies and viewpoints. Our general assumption of the importance of the individual is one of the reasons for the success of Western capitalism. Individuals run it and earn cash fortunes never dreamt of before
The third of the characteristics that seem to define our Western world-view at the present time is what I would call metaphysical dualism, and there are two forms of this. One is philosophical and one is religious. The philosophical form of metaphysical dualism comes from Descartes and the whole Cartesian way of viewing science. The object to be studied is completely distinct from the person or the process doing the studying. The two are kept apart. Mind and matter – the thinker and the studied – are kept rigorously separate in classical science. This, of course, promotes a kind of almost schizoid activity within science. What such a scientist actually does is not necessarily effected by what he or she values.
As you know, I’m a scientist and I have a great many scientific friends whom I respect enormously and who hold more or less this so-called reductionist attitude. But what are their values? Some people denigrate science as being somehow valueless and not contributing to our world. This is not true. The orthodox scientists of my acquaintance think very carefully about the world. But what do they feel about themselves in the world of their understanding? The scientific enquiry reveals a universe in which there is no ultimate ‘point’, just an extraordinary complicated mystery. There is no personal security offered in the investigations of science to bring comfort in the face of universal death. After all, however exciting and intriguing may be the wonders of the Big Bang or the recent discovery of some galaxy so far out it’s light was created so many millions of years ago that one can’t even imagine it – at least I can’t – and which reveals something about what happened within the first few seconds of origin of our universe, what does that mean to an individual with a mere three score years and ten of transient existence?
Most of my scientific friends are, I would say, stoics. Really, they think very much in the way of a Roman Stoic. Many would say this is the way it is, this is the way the world is, we adjust our lives to fit it. We investigate what the truth is. The truth is something we have to live with and discover. Values and idealism here tend to become highly utilitarian, because the values that such people hold are about making utilitarian differences in the world, improving the water supply, flying better aircraft, speeding up communications. Scientists are dedicated to utilitarian results that make our lives more comfortable, more ‘happy’ in a material sense. The philosopher Charles Taylor argues that what we lack are ‘hyper-goods’.5 By hyper-goods he means values that have, as it were, a fundamental relevance in some sense, not merely things being done for some utilitarian effect but things being done because it is right and proper to do them, driven by some universal perspective. Such values are not so common among my scientific friends. A mere utilitarianism in values has percolated very widely throughout our culture. We can call this a philosophical dualism. Action for utility.
The religious dualism is more potentially dangerous. What is religious dualism? Well, it’s the form of belief that has been traditional for many centuries in monotheistic cultures. The thinker reifies some abstract idea and promotes it into the key position in a discourse. For example, when we don’t understand the universe, we may well say it must be due to ‘God’. We reify the idea of a causal God and project him into the universe and go on to believe it. This is dualism in that the entity placed up in the heavens is a production, a projection of our reasoned inferences. It is not something up there to which we can be intimately related except in illusion. It is simply a metaphysical imputation. This mode of thinking is known to philosophers as logocentric discourse: a discourse which pivots around one key theme and everything else hangs on it.6 So for example, in Christianity or Islam, everything hangs on the concept of God.
I must have been a really unpleasant student. When I was at university, I was troubled about this word ‘God’, so I used to go along to theological lectures. I used to sit deliberately in the front row and of course the speaker, being a theologian, would very soon use the word ‘God’. I would put up my little 19-year-old hand and I would say “Excuse me, you have just used the word ‘God’, could you please give me a definition of God because without a definition I don’t see how the lecture can proceed”. Bastard! I never ever got an answer, which just goes to show that if you have a logocentric discourse you cannot query the logos in the middle of the discourse otherwise the entire thing falls apart.
The tragedy of these logocentric religious discourses, however, is that there is more than one of them. So we have Islam versus Christianity, where we have two versions of ‘God’ that share a lot of common history but whose rules and regulations have come down in a rather different way in the two cases. Then, because neither of them can be questioned within the belief, one side is always the infidel to the other – hence Crusades, hence Jihads.
Jihads and Crusades are fundamentally rooted in a particular kind of dualistic position and such attitudes in the modern world need to be very seriously interrogated. Yet, if you listen to the radio, if you listen to what’s going on in the world, you will find a general assumption that this kind of dualistic religious thinking is fine, nothing wrong with it, perfectly OK. Yet, the troubles between them fester. We have to discover a philosophical position allowing tolerance between the two of them. It is very difficult to find tolerance between two ultimately absolutist dispositions. It requires a third perspective, a third philosophy that might compensate for and integrate the schism between the two. This will not be easily achieved and is not yet achieved.
I’ve chosen these three features – capitalism, individualism, and dualism – as three cardinal points within the Western world-view. Now we need to understand a little more clearly what world-views are and how they may have changed through time, because none of these world-views, none of these elements in our world-views which I’ve been talking about, are in any way sacrosanct throughout history.
There is a wonderful Russian philosopher called Mikhail Bakhtin who is not very well known in this country. He is mainly a writer on the structure of novels and the way in which the novel and similar literature is related to the world-views of the times in which they are written. As part of his project, he has considered the historical sequence of world-views. He argues for three main periods, chronotopes he calls them.7 The first period is Shamanism – the ancient matrix as he says it. Shamanism is extraordinarily interesting. It’s a pattern of varying beliefs in the cyclicity of nature. It creates relationships with ‘gods’, which are actually forces of nature – forces of nature which determine the annual cycle. Its practices bring about adjustment to forces of nature through visualisation and often the use of psychedelics to create a close association between the Shamanic yogin or ‘priest’, the natural powers and the manner in which village people relate to those natural powers. Some of the Shamanistic systems are extraordinarily well adapted to the ecologies in which they exist, as in the Amazonian forest or in the Siberian tundra – quite extraordinary examples of intuitively skilled metaphysical adaptation to ecology.
The shamanic phase in the history of world-views gave place to viewpoints that we can call progressive dualism. Once overproduction of some commodities was achieved through agriculture, markets were established through the flow of goods. You had banks, you had businesses. Life was less concerned with cyclicity of the seasons, but rather with the acquisition of money and power, hierarchy, of leadership or kingship. This was a linear vision instead of a cyclic one. You got a division between authority and those who were dominated. It was in this context that the logocentric discourses emerged. You also got the emergence of high priests, bishops, popes, authorities, dogmas, coercion within religion. Here emerged a kind of authoritarianism including such things as the assumption of infallibility and the inquisition, and so on; a system of power in which the state and the religion became highly intermingled.
In the third phase, Bakhtin argues very interestingly for a period characterised by reflection, a reflective world-view. In a reflective world-view the mind of the thinker becomes aware of the nature of what it has thought, the limitation of that thought. The thinker begins to accept responsibility for what he has thought. For example, a thinker might discuss God. God? God is in his heaven. Maybe yes, but that’s just my idea. Actually - I don’t know. Mmm. That’s reflective thinking. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the thought was wrong, it just means that it was a thought and no more than a thought, a concept reified into a truth, a ‘reification’. It was the great philosopher, Kant, who really began to uncover this whole issue in Europe exploring how far we can ever understand ultimate reality when ultimate reality is always necessarily a production of our own minds. This viewpoint became a key element in so-called post-modern thinking, and therefore it’s relatively common today. Yet, here’s a surprise! As we shall soon see, it also appeared at least 2500 years ago, in the iron age of India, with the thought of the Buddha.8 We shall investigate the implication of this shortly.
So, our current Western world-view is a strange one in which we have a conflict between religious dualism and the scientific understanding of the world creating for many a deeply schizoid tension between the values of scientific exploration, the utilitarianism of economy, and the quest for something spiritual in the absence of any ‘hypergoods'. There’s an enormously confused interest in the spiritual in ‘New Age’ movements of various kinds. Most of these are easily perceived to be projections of individual minds despairing of something more relevant to life and death within a world of utilitarian values.
This Western world-view is deeply divisive yet few realise that it’s not the only one on offer. If you read learned texts about the history of world culture you quite often find they begin with Ancient Greece and proceed to the present time without a mention of the tremendous philosophical importance of India and China. Their cultures and philosophies are quite often bypassed and simply ignored. This is indeed amazing today when the literature of great Indian thinkers and great Chinese thinkers in translation is well available through superb scholarship, particularly in North America. No-one really has an excuse for assuming that world culture began with the Ancient Greeks. A lot of very important things did indeed begin with the Ancient Greeks but that’s not the whole story.
The key thing about these Asian world-views is that they are not dualist. They are holistic. Let’s take an example – Confucianism. Chinese Confucianism, which is touched also by Daoism, assumed an intimate relationship between the Emperor and the natural world. The Emperor held the ‘mandate of heaven’. Heaven was the natural world. Heaven was the universe. When something went wrong in the rule of an Emperor it was said that he had ‘lost the mandate of heaven’. This means that in Confucianism there was a connection between political power and the natural world. They are not separated by thinking that allows the natural world to be forgotten while the political world is retained. No, the political world and the natural world interact with one another. This is an important holism. And we find much of this also in philosophical Hinduism, in Daoism, and especially developed philosophically and experientially in Buddhism.
If we are looking for an alternative to our western perspectives or for a way to modifying them then I put to you that Buddhism is the most useful of these Asian visions because Buddhism is essentially a never-ending enquiry. As my friend, the philosopher Steven Bachelor, puts it, ‘Zen is enquiry’. That’s what it is – it is enquiry. We shall see in a moment it is a special sort of enquiry, but it is enquiry. It’s not an answer: it’s an enquiry.
The essential point to realise in approaching Buddhism is that it is not just a rationalised philosophy or belief system. It is based in a never-ending enquiry rooted in the methodological practice of mental yoga. It resembles science in being a subjective empiricism.9 That is to say, an experimental investigation of the nature and practices of mind rather than an objective empiricism concerned with nature as perceived and measured by a mind. Unlike psychological science, however, its prime focus is not actually mind itself, but rather suffering. One could say, rather pompously, that Buddhism is a phenomenological soteriology. Sorry about that - but it’s rather a good definition. What does it mean? What does it mean? Phenomenological means a psychologically based experiential investigation of suffering, and soteriology is the study of its function in producing 'salvation', a resolution of suffering.
So we have here a system of active enquiry, a philosophical inquisition which is aimed at understanding the suffering of the mind with the purpose of finding something which is termed ‘enlightenment’, the relief from that suffering. The most important thing is that it is rooted in mental yoga as a prime method. The yogic enquiry is the essence of Buddhism. What is the yogic enquiry? Well, to put it very simply, meditation is a yogic enquiry. Why? Because when you sit in meditation you are looking into the mind and you are saying what is this? What is this experience now? Where is it? What is it? How is it? It is endlessly going in to the nature of mind. That’s what I call subjective empiricism. It’s just as significant for us as the objective enquiry in psychology that is essentially the description of mind, and the analysis of people’s behaviour. That’s objective. It’s fine. Nothing wrong with it but it is incomplete. The key point here is that the essence of Buddhism is subjective enquiry. Buddhism parallels Science in this very fact of enquiring. Of course, these two modes of enquiry are related and we must go on discuss their relationship.
The Perspectives of Buddhism in Relation to Science
One cannot simply assert that Buddhism is like science; one has to demonstrate it. The first thing to say is that there is no dogma in Buddhism. The Buddha himself said quite clearly that here’s an argument, here’s a viewpoint – if you like it, fine, come along and we’ll participate in investigating it. If you don’t like it, fine, find something else. This has remained true throughout the history of Buddhism; there is no coercion within Buddhism. This resembles Science in that the scientist can put forward a theory, an idea, and no-one has to believe it. It’s put there to be evaluated. Of course, that releases enormous discussion between those in favour and those against but there is no coercion to believe and no personal problem if you don’t follow it. In Buddhism there is no sin, but there is the making of mistakes. This shift in vocabulary marks a whole difference. No sin, but yes, one can make mistakes and one pays for them through karmic retribution.
What is the prime hypothesis of the Buddha? It’s called the ‘Law of Co-dependent Arising’ or ‘inter-dependent origination’.10 This argues that the universe has no single origin; it has always been a flux of causes and effects. The cause A comes up, has an effect B. B has an effect C. C has an effect D. B and C may also affect something out to one side – a parallel discourse going along. So there is a network of causes and effects always going on and on and on. This is what is meant by ‘inter-dependent origination’ because A, B, C, and D are all inter-dependently related with one another. The process can also come back in a circle so that the original A is also caused by the sets of circumstances within which it arises. Buddhism is a philosophy of contingency. Causes arise and produce effects dependent upon conditions. This is an extremely simple statement, but it is enormously far-reaching. It means among other things that nothing can come out of nothing. There are always causes and effects and conditions. Equally well nothing can ever come solely out of itself for the same reason. And so on. There are therefore whole sets of logocentric, metaphysical theories which simply collapse in the face of the law of inter-dependent origination. Many of the great Buddhist philosophers spent a lot of time enjoying themselves destroying metaphysical theories through subjecting them to the arguments of inter-dependent origination.
This theory, this viewpoint, this ‘law’, is itself a hypothesis – it’s a way of seeing. The fascinating thing about it is that it has some extraordinary parallels within Science. Now I’m not a physicist, so I’m on dangerous ground here, but there is support for this general view from quantum mechanics.
The Buddhist story itself underwent evolution. The simple law of the Buddha became very much enlarged in a wonderful philosophy developed in China called Hua-yen, which is based on the Indian Garland or Avatamsaka Sutra. It contains an extraordinary metaphor, a picture of the Law of Co-dependent Arising. Imagine a huge sky, hanging in it is a net known as the Net of Indra – Indra simply being the King of the Gods. This network consists of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of diamonds, multifaceted diamonds all hanging in space. They are all mutually reflecting one another. Everything is reflected in everything else. The Empress Wu of China couldn’t quite understand this metaphor and asked a leading teacher to demonstrate it for her. So he said - well it’s like this. He fixed up a room with many mirrors – I think an octagon of mirrors. And in the middle, he put a lamp. Then he brought Her Majesty into the room and said, “This is the demonstration of the Net of Indra”, because the lamp in the middle was now reflected millions of times in the octagon of the mirrors in the room.11
When these ideas first began to come to the West, people thought that’s just amazing but how on earth does it relate to what we’re talking about in Science? Yet then along came quantum mechanics, and the extraordinary thing about quantum mechanics is that the inter-relations between the quanta, the ‘particles’ or ‘waves’ of energy, which operate as the most fundamentally known constituents of matter, perform in a way that makes that metaphor very valid indeed. I’m not qualified to go into quantum physics but my reading of the matter and checking it out with physicist friends shows that the way in which quanta relate together is in a mutual interaction of great complexity that could very well be expressed through the ancient metaphor of Indra’s net.
So, right at the foundation of Buddhist thinking we have an extraordinary parallel with some of the most advanced thinking in contemporary Science. Furthermore, if everything is dependent on everything else, one would expect that in evolution the emergence of novelty would have been dependent upon conditions. Indeed, the evolution of humanity has depended on certain conditions in the past out of which the causal processes of genetic selection produced our species.
A lot of evolutionary theory has been quite simplistic, that is up until about 10 years ago. The way in which evolutionary theorists – and I have been one of them – used to think about evolution was to think of the environment and the organism as a dualism. The organism adapts to the environment. It does this by producing broods of offspring in every generation of which the individuals vary. Some of them are more suited to the environment than others. The ones that are most suited reproduce and spread and the population becomes adapted to the environment. In this view, there is always a fixed environment and a dynamic process of reproduction which is endlessly adapting to the environment. Two things therefore – life and environment; a dualism.
Recent evolutionary theories have shown that this approach is far too simple. Why? There is a viewpoint being developed by a former colleague of mine, John Odling-Smee at Oxford, who talks in terms of ‘Niche Construction’.12 Niche is a term describing the way in which a species lives in its environment. For example, take the bird the Great Tit. It’s quite a large Tit, a member of the Paridae family. It lives in trees but will also explore food on the ground, bird tables and so on. That’s its ‘niche’. The Coal Tit, a smaller darker coloured Tit prefers conifer woods. They are a prime feature of its niche. So the question is how do species evolve in their different niches?
John Odling-Smee has argued that species play major roles in creating their own niches. How does this argument work? Well, a very simple illustration of this comes from one of my own first PhD students – Steven Gartlan – who very sadly died recently. Steve was out in Africa studying a forest monkey and he noticed that along the forest fringe the monkeys used to bring their fruit out of the forest, go 100 yards or so outside and climb up on a termite mound and eat the fruit there. What happened? They dropped the seed. The seed germinated and the forest expanded. So the monkeys were actually producing the extension of the forest which was their own habitat. There’s a feedback here. The monkeys were helping create the habitat within which they were eventually to live. It’s not simply a dualism of habitat and selection, the monkeys were participating in creating their own habitat.
This idea goes further. If you introduced some burrowing animal into a small island, what would happen? Well, first of all you had a nice neat and tidy virginal island with sand dunes and hills and a few trees. You introduce these animals. What do they do? They start creating burrows. Before you know where you are, they’ve spread widely and the whole environment is full of burrows. Now the appearance of burrows in a habitat where there have been no burrows before will produce a lot of ecological changes. The humidity of the soil is altered. The topography of the soil changes. The presence of nesting sites changes. The whole habitat begins to change as a result of the activities of the animals. So that after 10 years or so, when you come back to see what has happened, you find an entirely different habitat on that island as generated by the behaviour of the animals. The animals in relating to their habitat as first encountered have created their own domain.13 Those currently living had evolved not only in relation to the original matrix but to the changed environment created by their immediate ancestors. And the process goes on.
Now, in the case of humanity, we have extensively modified our environment to increase our use of it but increasingly we have failed to adapt to the constraints of our planetary system sustainably. Indeed, our behaviour has become adaptively dysfunctional to the extent that we are altering the climate of the planet in a manner that disturbs the entire ecosystem. By failing to curb our greedy aggrandisement, our limited capacity for reason appears to have turned into a malfunction so far as adaptive biology is concerned. We may be heading for the evolutionary denouement of extinction - a common fate for species that fail to support their sustainability in relation to resources.
Such a viewpoint is obviously a holistic position, not a dualist one.14 What we evolutionists now have to consider is the way in which the activities of organisms themselves modify the habitat to create a changing world, the niche of the species. This example shows how something like the Law of Co-dependent Arising can be a relevant if simple expression describing a modern problem, the evolution of species in relation to their habitat.
The Buddha put forward a very simple yet elegant model of the mind. It is also based on the Law of Co-dependent Arising. He argued that there are five main features of the mind in constant interaction with one another. The first is sensation. If I pinch Malcolm, he’ll feel a sensation. Secondly, there is perception. Perception is when Malcolm realises that it is John who has pinched him. Thirdly there is cognition. Malcolm is now calculating fast and comes to the conclusion that it’s a joke and not an assault (hopefully he comes to that conclusion!). And fourthly there is the conditioned historical background to his cognition. If he was a particularly aggressive person, he might come to the opposite conclusion and bash me one. So you have sensation, perception, cognition, and what’s known as Sanskara in Sanskrit, namely the pre-determining conditioning factors which affect cognition. Lastly there is consciousness. You have a whole system here in which these psychological aspects are interrelating, co-determining features of mind. Although this is a relatively simple model, it’s not so different from those we use today.
But where is the self? No self appears in this system. Self, Buddha argued, is an imputation within cognition that arises from the activities of the five features. So I’m sorry, Buddha thinks you’re just an imputation derived from your sensation, your cognition, your perception, and your predispositions and your consciousness – all that produces the impression that there’s somebody sitting there. Sorry, says the Buddha, you’re just not there in the way you think you are.
Now when a person holds onto this false impression that he or she exists as some sort of a ‘thing’, s/he will go on to examine what happened to him or her in the past and what might happen in the future and begins to create a narrative. This narrative emerges as the basis for the constitution of a self-image, an identity. Amazingly therefore in the Buddhism of 2500 years ago we find this very sophisticated idea of the self as narrative which, I think you will agree, is not far different from a lot of ideas which we hold today in modern psychotherapy and in modern psychology.
Indeed, after 2500 years, it seems we really haven’t got very much further on. These parallels show that these fundamental ideas in Buddhism are compatible with scientific enquiry and parallel much modern phenomenological research. As we have already discussed, Buddhism is fundamentally concerned with subjective rather than objective enquiry. The Buddhist Law of Co-dependent Arising came from the Buddha’s direct observation of his own mind. His Brahminical teachers had told him that if he looked deeply into his mind he would eventually discover Brahman and that would be the solution to everything. But the Buddha was a deeply sceptical thinker. When he did this meditation - and he was a superb meditator - he found that whatever was going on there was caused by something which had happened previously. There was always some kind of process or condition which shaped what the mind was doing, even to the extent that when the mind began to disappear, seemingly to become Brahman, that was simply because the removal of certain attributes of mind had left an empty space. This was not something absolute and final, rather it was part of the process of meditation. So the Law of Co-dependent Arising was born. Absolute Brahman was just another imputation.
I hope I’ve managed to persuade you that there is sufficient overlap between the empiricism of Buddhism and the empiricism of Science and, indeed, the empiricism that underlies the enquiry of psychotherapy, to justify an interest in the Buddhist viewpoint. What I want to do now is to suggest in a broad way that the manner in which our world-view needs to move is towards a holism that could repair the schizoid quality of our present split between economics and ecology, between self and other, between ‘God’ and person. What we need to do to replace that schizoid world-view is to regenerate some kind of a holism.15
Obviously, this cannot be the ancient Shamanism. Too much complex superstition is involved. Yet Buddhism, although ancient, is actually an exercise in the reflexivity of Bakhtin’s third stage in world-view history, often supposed to be a modern development. Essentially the Universe is a mystery for us. We project images and ideas upon it, logocentric visions as powerful and often mutually rejecting alternatives. Yet in relation to mystery, there can only be rational inference and inquiry as a product of our own minds. Reflexive understanding knows this and does not promote either dogma or coercion.
There are real problems for education here. One can appreciate the danger of illusions that may be fostered by ‘faith’ schools for example. Yet, in school, inquisitive teenagers may be easily excited by the universal mysteries of world, mind and self. An educational approach presenting them as open inquiry permitting debate right from the beginning, would set the young thinking, wondering, get them going. Instead of having to believe this or that about Allah, God or whatever utilitarian project was to hand – however ethically sound such beliefs may be - the fundamental metaphysical assumptions of the dominant ‘world’ religions need to be exposed as out of date – actually by two thousand years! It may then be possible to create a world of values in a world that is honestly mysterious.16, 17
Postscript after the Event
What would be the result of uncontrolled decadence? We have the fall of the Roman Empire as an example. But this time, after the extinction of the Lion, Tiger, Elephant and Rabbit, the logging of almost all forests and the exhaustion of petroleum it may be the turn of Humanity itself. Destroying the means of interdependent life, exhaustion of energy supplies, loss of land to the sea and greenery to new deserts, the vast population disturbances will generate wars of survival and chaos. With no psychological discrimination left we will hardly be in a state to fly finally to another planet circling another star. We will die out here.
May be this is natural evolution. Life itself will not pass away. A new surge of evolution will follow just as it has after five previous global extinctions. Once more the planet will be beautiful, filled with myriad life forms of complexity, rarity and beauty- only we will not be here to see it. Gaia will have heaved a great sigh of relief. Humanity will be gone. But not the Buddha Mind, the spirit of life itself. Emptiness will find new forms facing new vicissitudes. In imagination, in visualisation, the heart of things is not lost. Yet, with wisdom, we do not have to tread this path. Will there be wisdom? Will there be compassion for remaining life? Who can say? Those of us who are sufficiently aware need to make our voices heard.
1 Presentation of this article here by agreement with Friends of British Gestalt Journal. Many thanks to Dr Malcolm Parlett who initiated this invitation.
2 Boyden, S. 1987. Western Civilization in Biological Perspective. Oxford.
3 Stiglitz, J. 2002. Globalization and its discontents. Penguin
4 See: Neisser U and D. A. Jopling. Eds. 1997. The Conceptual self in Context. Cambridge.
5 Taylor, C. 1991. The Ethics of Authenticity. Harvard.
6 See further: Belsey, C. 2002. Poststructuralism. A very short introduction. Oxford.
7 Bakhtin, M. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. University of Texas. Austin
8 See discussion: Crook, J. H. 2007. Shamans, Yogins and Indigenous psychologies. In: Dunbar, R. I. M. & L. Barrett. (Eds) Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Oxford.
9 See: Crook, J. H. 1980. The Evolution of Human Consciousness. Oxford.
10 See: Loy, D. 1998. Nonduality; a study in comparative philosophy. Humanity Books. New York. Also: Macy, J. 1991. Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory. The Dharma of Natural systems. SUNY.
11 See: Chang, Garma C. 1972. The Buddhist Teaching of Totality. The Philosophy of Hwa yen Buddhism. George Allen and Unwin. London.
12 Odling-Smee, F. J; Laland, K. N. & Feldman, M. W. 2003. Niche construction: the neglected process in Evolution. Princeton.
13 For a psychological version of the above approach in application to humanity see: Crook, J. H. 1995. Psychological processes in cultural and genetic co-evolution. In: Jones, E and V. Reynolds. (Eds) Survival and Religion. Biological evolution and Cultural change. Wiley. New York.
14 A further notable and very important example of biological holism is the global perspective of James Lovelock. See Lovelock, J. 1989. The Ages of Gaia. A biography of our living earth. Oxford.
15 There have of course been Western holistic philosophies starting with Heraclitus. In recent centuries Jan Smuts and A. N Whitehead have put forward suggestions. A most recent advocate is Thomas Berry: see Berry, T. 2006. Evening thoughts: reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. Sierra Club. San Francisco. They have contrasted markedly with the main stream Cartesian approach to Science.
16 My book in press, World Crisis and Buddhist Humanism (see introduction to this article), ends by focussing on the significance of buddhistic (not necessarily Buddhist) education as a global orientation.
17 For a contrasting approach to these issues, see: Hinde, R. A. 1999. Why Gods persist. A scientific approach to religion. Routledge. London and New York.
In October 2007 my son and I took the Honda and drove to France staying in Arras in the valley of the Somme. We were looking for my Uncle Ernest’s grave. He had been an artillery officer and died of wounds during the Ancre offensive near the end of the great battles on the Somme in I917. I did not know any family member who had been there since the 20s. We found him, visiting him in his gentle resting place twice, and told him the news. The Somme on these bright October days was beautiful yet the memories in the cemeteries and monuments that scatter the war-riven landscape are both deeply troubling and strangely inspiring. One of the greatest fights had been in Mametz Wood where the disciplined Welch Regiment on its second attempt overcame ferocious resistance in a bramble filled wood with low visibility everywhere - a dreadful hand to hand business. Several notable accounts of this action have been written. In honour of these brave men and in memory of them I wrote the following.
Mametz Wood –
Human entrails hang in the branches-
Arms, legs and heads stuck in trees-
The dying lost among shell holes
Hidden by clutching brambles:
That dead German, still helmeted,
Green face streaked by black-blood snot
Propped against a trunk.
Odour of death everywhere.
Mametz Wood –
Gentle below tall, same aged trees
Dark shadows here are now our own. Brambles still impede the path
Where maybe boar are hidden.
Shades of deer float through the trees
Platoons of ghosts in distant foliage.
They rear pheasants here today
Mametz Wood -
A flash of colour upon an oak tree’s trunk
Welch flag painted there
Not long ago
Red Dragon high
Where shells once fell
And guns and blood stained bayonets
Did their work
To fill a hundred cemeteries.
This tranquil landscape of the Somme
Shines in the Indian summer sun
A mellow fruitfulness
Rolling down land and wooded rivers
Still green on this October morn.
The Sunday chasseurs stalk the ground
Their dogs at heel.
The memories do not fade
Tears still falling
Year on year
Monday, October 29, 2007