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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Faith=?!?!?! The Buddhist-inspired art of Montien Boonma

Montien Boonma was a Thai artist whose contemporary paintings, sculptures and installations have been exhibited here in Australia. I had the chance to view his work in 2002 at the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane. It was at the same exhibition that I first saw Nam June Paik's TV Buddha, which remains to this day one of my favourite video installation. I probably didn't recognise it then but looking back, I'd say that the encounter with Boonma's and Paik's works was when I felt the first stirrings in my heart that would lead me to the Dhamma in the following two years.

Anyway, Boonma was someone who was deeply acquainted with dukkha. He lost his wife to breast cancer in 1994 and succumbed to brain tumor himself in 2000. He was influenced by the teachings of Bhikkhu Buddhadasa and Ajahn Chah. You can read about his Buddhist-influenced artworks:

I was reading the exhibition catalogue and what really fascinates me about his work is the recurring motif of the question mark (?). Apparently, Boonma covered the walls of his wife’s hospital room with question marks. These marks represented the unknown, surprise, discovery and hope. Boonma saw faith as a never-ending cycle of questions and answers, with answers only creating more questions. 

You can see the use of the question mark in the links above. In some of his other works, he juxtaposed the question mark with the exclamation mark. So you get a motif that looks something like that: ?!?!?!?!?!?!?! In the English language ?! is called an interrobang, an informal punctuation mark that expresses surprise. But here's what Boonma says in relation to Buddhist meditation (extract from catalogue):

When a momentary cessation of egoism occurs through meditation, the mind becomes intensely sensitive to perceptions; the alert mind constantly questions and apprehends reality and the present moment. In this context, Boonma explained his repeated use of question marks and exclamation points: 
"The question mark is the symbol of the unknown realizable through meditation. The spiral shape of the question mark represents the movement from the outer to the inner (and vice versa) achieved by concentration. When we grasp the unknown, we feel it but cannot express it. The exclamation mark is a symbol of this feeling of realization.
What did Boonma mean by "when we grasp the unknown"? To him, the question mark (?) represents what we do not know, which is the obstacle. When realization occurs, the exclamation mark (!), a mark of surprise, expresses a kind of hope, a not-knowing, a sense of discovery. As Boonma explained, "I perceived a gap between these two ... the question and the response these ... two are never ending. A response can turn into the subsequent question. It's like our mind." ForBoonma the form of the question mark (?) signals something to be answered. It also signifies the spiral or circle between the eyebrows that represents the Buddha's superhuman nature.

I find Boonma's life story and the stories he tells with his artwork very inspiring and insightful. I hope you find something of value in them too.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Doubting the Kalama Sutta

OK, this is the post I said I'd write to expand on the earlier post, 'We need reasons to believe in this world', where I discussed the relationship between faith and ethics. The Kalama Sutta is from the Pali canon (the earliest extant Buddhist texts) and is regarded by contemporary Buddhists to be a very important text. It has been described as ‘the Buddha’s charter of free inquiry’ and even, ‘the Magna Carta of Buddhist philosophical thought.’ The sutta recounts the sermon given by the Buddha to the Kalamas who, confronted with contradictory teachings offered by various wandering holy men, ask the Buddha for advice on resolving their uncertainty. This passage (from Soma Thera's translation) is often cited as the pith of the Buddha’s response:

Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon tradition, nor upon rumour, nor upon scripture, nor upon surmise, nor upon axiom, nor upon specious reasoning, nor upon bias toward a notion pondered over, nor upon another's seeming ability, nor upon the consideration 'The monk is our teacher.' When you yourselves know: 'These things are bad, blameable, censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them... When you yourselves know: 'These things are good, blameless, praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them.

The Buddha, it appears, is warning against dogmatism and blind faith, encouraging instead an attitude of rigorous free inquiry and personal verification, and indeed even a certain empirical, scientific method.  According to such an interpretation, it would appear that the Buddha was advocating a kind rationalist-empiricist epistemology to resolve uncertainty and doubt. I have encountered people invoking such an interpretation to argue that Buddhism doesn't really require faith because it encourages followers to 'know for themselves'. There is one immediate problem with such an argument: faith or saddha (Sanskrit: sraddha) is one of the Five Faculties and is mentioned in other places as well, so it cannot be dismissed. It is sometimes also argued that if Buddhism admits faith, it is only after it has been ‘tested’ and ‘verified’ and rendered ‘non-blind’. There is also a problem with this argument: the Buddhist goal of Awakening, for example, is not something that can be 'knowable' in the conventional sense of the term until one has attained some degree of Awakening. How then does one 'verify' faith when the Buddhist path is framed by the 'unknowable' horizon of Awakening? Perhaps, this is where we brush up against the limitations of an epistemological interpretation of the Kalama Sutta. How else might we interpret the sutta?

About two years ago, I was passed an essay by Stephen Evans entitled 'Doubting the Kalama Sutta' (the essay is available here). Like most contemporary Buddhists the Kalama Sutta meant a lot to me, and my understanding of the sutta and way of thinking about Buddhism was largely informed by the rationalist-empiricist epistemological interpretation described above. However, upon reading Evans' essay, my understand of the sutta and approach to Buddhism was significantly reoriented, giving me a new appreciation of faith. Here is the summary of Evans' essay (note: I'm not trained in the Pali language so I cannot comment on the accuracy of his translations; I highly recommend his essay regardless of whether you know Pali or not):

Firstly, Evans reconsiders the existing translation of key terms in the text to argue that the ‘uncertainty’ experienced by the Kalamas was a kind of indecisiveness rather than doubt.The question for the Kalamas, he argues, was not so much ‘What teaching is true?’ but ‘Whose teaching is true?’ This is a different approach to ‘truth’ than that of early Orientalist scholars whose interpretations of Buddhism continue to influence the understanding of Buddhism today. For the Orientalist truth is not so much a question of ‘who was it that knew something’ but of ‘what was it that could be known.’ (such an approach to 'truth' is characteristic of modern western thought) But if we were to follow Evans’ arguments, the emphasis then shifts away from ‘what’ to ‘who’. This means that the kind of truth that the Kalamas were after is not—as those favouring a narrow rationalistic-empiricist reading of Buddhism would argue—the truth of objective knowledge. Noting the nuances of the Pali language, Evans does concede that the question ‘Who speaks the truth?’ could be used to both enquire about truth statements and about who is giving an honest account of oneself. But given the cosmological assumptions of the time, he maintains that it is unlikely that the Kalamas distinguished between these two possible meanings: one ethical the other epistemological. This underscores the fact that it cannot be unambiguously argued that the Kalamas are seeking epistemic certainty. The question of ‘Who?’ is as much about ethical issues as it is about objective knowledge. 

Secondly, Evans points out that in the criteria given by the Buddha for accepting/rejecting a teaching (i.e.: ‘... when you yourself know: “These things are bad/good ... blameable/not blameable ... are censured/praised by the wise ...’), the Pali word (dhamma: a word with multiple meanings) that is translated as ‘things’ in this instance refers more accurately to ‘fundamental attitudes and actions’ rather than ‘doctrines’ or ‘truth statements’. This means that an epistemological reading of the passage becomes unlikely, for ‘it is not clear what it would mean to blame or censure statements. Neither is it clear how blame or censure would bear on their truth.’ He further adds that the Buddha does not in fact say that one should know whether the fundamental attitudes and actions are true or false, but whether they are kusala or akusalawholesome (skilful, virtuous) or unwholesome (unskilful, unvirtuous). Evans thus argues, ‘We would seem rather to be in the realm of ethics than of epistemology, and the Sutta would seem to offer a model of ethical reasoning, a method rather of determining the good than the true.’

Thirdly, Evans notes that that while it is believed that an enlightened being will come to understand such things as kamma and rebirth with certainty, and even transcend them, until one reaches that state there is no empirical way of proving it. The Buddha appears to admit this, if only tacitly, in the text itself (in the later part of the sutta the Buddha appears to be saying that regardless of whether kamma and rebirth are true or not, a virtuous life is its own reward). This then suggests that the Buddha did not preclude a gap of uncertainty even as he enjoined the Kalamas to ‘know for themselves’ the harm and benefits of various attitudes and actions. To this extent, ‘knowing for oneself’ what is good or evil isn’t achieved solely by empirical ‘testing’ and ‘verification’ (which can only ever be partial) but also by an implicit appeal to wise counsel and tradition, which in turn informs one’s decision to follow any teachings. Evans thus concludes:

the method given for making a decision leaves a gap of uncertainty, which is to be filled by an act of faith. An act of faith, indeed, is what the Buddha’s discourse here elicits... The phrase ‘know for yourselves’ is sometimes invoked to show that Buddhism does not require faith [or to compare Buddhist faith against other ‘blind faiths’]..... [H]owever, the phrase could be translated as ‘Should you yourselves come to feel that’, suggesting the possibility that the method is not intended to be rigorous, and that it leaves ample room for a gap of uncertainty to be filled by faith.

An ethical interpretation of the sutta allows us to address the question raised earlier about 'verifying' faith. Following Evans' arguments, I choose to have faith in the Buddha's teachings not because I've 'verified' such things as kamma, rebirth, or Awakening, but because I have felt the wholesomeness of applying the teachings in my own life. Insofar as these teachings have allowed me to develop wholesome mindstates and actions, I have reasons to have faith in them. This does not 'verify' the teachings as such; I cannot really say that my faith is 'non-blind' because there is always a gap of uncertainty to filled by faith. But this leap of faith is not an unthinking leap for it is guided by ethical considerations of wholesomeness/unwholesomeness, of whether my thought, speech and action (which are always performed in relation to others) honour the Five Precepts (and other virtues like the brahma-viharas or paramis) or not.

The decision to follow the Five Precepts has to be repeatedly taken. In the course of my everyday life, I am faced with many situations that require me to decide whether to act in accordance with these ethical principles or not, whether to commit myself to wholesomeness, skilfulness or not (e.g. when I encounter a rude driver I have to decide whether to lose my temper or not, or when I do not get what I want I have to decide whether to relate to the situation with acceptance or cling onto regret, etc). Insofar as my decision to act with wholesomeness and skilfulness is framed by the 'unknowable' horizon of Awakening, each ethical decision I take to move towards the horizon is thus also a movement of faith. In this sense, my actions are always committed 'in good faith'. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Oh no, those 'religious others' are performing democracy/fighting for freedom better than 'secular us'!

I said in the previous post that I will discuss the intersection of faith and ethics via the Kalama Sutta, but I'm postponing that till the next post because some thoughts came to me and I want to put them down while they are still fresh in my mind. 

I was clearing out old group pages in my Facebook profile when I came across the page for the Burmese monks protest of 2007. It occurred to me that it has significant parallels with the current situation in Egypt, especially the mass prayer-demonstration that occurred on the 'day of departure' which I had posted about previously. To give a visual representation of the parallels between the two events:

Yet, I'm not seeing much 'netivisim' (e.g. Facebook groups, callouts for petitions, etc.) in my social network re: Egypt. Of the two religions involved, Buddhism has considerably more cultural cachet than Islam in so-called secular liberal societies, so this isn't really surprising. I didn't make this suggestion in my previous post but I think it is not unreasonable to wonder: Does the status of Islam as the religious 'other' of so-called secular liberal democracies go some way towards explaining why the West has not been more forthcoming in supporting and celebrating the Egyptian's fight for democracy/freedom? (Note that this is implicit in Zizek's opinion piece but he doesn't express it.)

As it turns out, Zizek was on Al-Jazeera with Tariq Ramadan, the noted Muslim theologian-philosopher from Oxford University. Using Zizek again as a launching pad, as it were, I'd like to ponder on some questions related to the religion/secular duality. Anyway, the video is worth watching, if only to see how Ramadan was trying really hard not to break into laughter when listening to Zizek. I want to pick up on something that Zizek says very early in the video (from around 3:00); it is quite funny how he expresses himself:

I can't quote exactly what Zizek said--not with all the twitching and gesticulating going on (he speaks VERY emphatically). But he was more or less saying how the Egyptian's fight for democracy/freedom debunks the notion widely assumed in 'western liberal' cultures (the assumption is there whether we care to admit it or not) that 'Muslims prefer fundamentalist authoritarianism' or that 'Arabs have their own way of doing things'--which while appearing to be a tolerant stance is in fact racist and prejudicial. More specifically, the point I want to pick up on is what he says about how 'they are doing democracy better than us.'

By 'us' Zizek is clearly referring to western liberal societies. In view of the 'day of departure' mass prayer-demonstration and the supposed mutual support between Christians and Muslims, this is a very damning point because it demonstrates how religion plays a central role in their mass-enactment of democracy, their collective fight for freedom. I'm only halfway through the video so I don't know if Zizek or Ramadan goes on to mention this, but for me (and I'm elaborating on what I've suggested previously) this is an important point to highlight, NOT because I'm advocating for institutional religion as a political force as such, but because this problematises the separation between state and religion in so-called 'secular' western liberal states of which we are ever so certain and proud. The imbrication of religion in the successful enactment of 'democracy' in Egypt and its neighbours provides a good vantage point to highlight the arbitrariness of the opposition between secularism/religiosity, between state/church, which in the case of the US can be argued to be a kind of political subterfuge, given the very obvious political influence the Christian Right wields . 

This, it appears to me, is one way of interpreting Zizek's claims in his opinion piece that western liberal states appear uncomfortable about the whole affair when one expects them to come out in full support and celebration of this mass-enactment of democracy and freedom. But as I've pointed out, Zizek doesn't seem to go on to consider the role of religion for the people of Egypt. 

[I want to address some possible objections to what I'm saying. Firstly, 'What do you mean they are doing democracy better than us? We do rally against political injustice too.' Yes, but it is hard to deny that the 'political public' in western liberal states is rather fragmented, and that even in those instances where we witness mass protests or demonstrations there are segments of the public which are in opposition or are simply apathetic about the issue at hand. In short, there isn't a strong collective will. What we are witnessing in Egypt, however, appears to be a more unified movement, a concerted expression of collective will. Secondly, 'Well, these people may think that they are fighting for democracy/freedom but insofar as they are supported by religious groups they could very well end up with another authoritarian government, or worse a kind of theocracy.' This is a possibility that is impossible to know in advance, not to mention that much of the talk in the western media about the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood is trumped up, reflecting more the ideological investments of the US in the region than the reality on the grounds. For those 'secular us' in western liberal democracies to dismiss what is happening right now--the mass demonstration of the Egyptian people speaking/acting as one--on this presupposition that their actions will only instate a fundamentalist theocracy is an insult to these people who, as the photo above shows, are putting their very bodies at stake in the name of democracy/freedom (though it is also at the same time an honouring of the sacred). To withhold our support on the basis of such a presupposition is also hypocritical, a betrayal of those very democratic values of freedom we claim to uphold which are being reflected back to us in the very actions of those 'religious others' who, to put it bluntly, are not sitting on their arses talking about how important democracy is but are putting their lives at risk to defend those values. So personally for me, given that guns are firing, given that lives are in danger, I choose not to doubt the integrity and potential of their fight for democracy/freedom--my decision to take a more hopeful view is the least I can do to show my solidarity with these people: a gesture of goodwill, a sign of our shared humanity, our collective struggle (regardless of race, religion, nationality, gender) against oppression and tyranny.]

So what I'm drawing attention to here is, again, not Islam as such, nor am I calling for an unreflexive celebration of institutional religion. What I want to question is the secular/religion duality which, it seems, both 'secular' and 'religious' societies have taken as self-evident. What we are witnessing suggests instead that the duality may not be self-evident or inevitable--it is not something that necessarily 'goes without saying'. But the more interesting question is: regardless of which end of the polarity we situate ourselves, what if we do not take this duality for granted? Given what we've witnessed, what possibilities are there if we do not take 'religion', or conversely the 'secular', as the absolute Other nor oppose them in a strict dichotomy? 

I can only speculate about the secular western context I'm in. Perhaps, the so-called secular west should take seriously what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has said years ago about 're-enchantment', something which is already underway whether we care to admit it or not. Not giving appropriate attention to this, I think, would only lead to a whole host of problems. To be clear, I am not advocating a collapsing of religion with politics as such. I've come across the distinction between 'secularity' and 'secularism', and I think it is worth considering, at least for the purposes of critical discussion: some prefer 'secularity' over 'secularism' because the former implies a mode of organising society and politics which doesn't (as a matter principle) give up the hard-won achievements of the (European) Enlightenment and the modern age, while the latter, as the 'ism' implies, can be and has been used as a universalising concept, to the detriment of both 'secular' and 'religious' societies.


To connect this with my Buddhist interests: in a way, I'm trying to think of religion and secularism non-dualistically. I have encountered the objection that it is a mistake to essentialise Buddhism (as some writers have) as a kind of non-dualistic philosophy. This is a valid point, and we should certainly avoid reducing Buddhism to this or that. Nevertheless, there is a significant strand of non-dualist critique which can be detected from the early Pali canon to Nagarjuna to the Huayen school to Zen to contemporary teachers, academic and non-academic, like David Loy and Stephen Batchelor. Regardless of whether one agrees with these figures/movements or not, non-dualistic critique is a helpful tool for unravelling some of the conundrums facing us today, pivoting as they are on various unhelpful dualities like religion/secular, migrant/citizen, homo/hetero, for instance. 

So in an indirect way I am aiming to address the religion/secular duality. At the moment, given my limited expertise I can't offer any solution as such, but can only aim to unsettle this opposition, to make this duality appear less obvious, less self-evident than we have taken it to be. This overarching aim is the critical horizon orienting my research into 'spirituality', 'faith', and 'ethics' which is by no means, if it is not clear by now, an unreflexive celebration of religion, Buddhism or otherwise.


Am watching the rest of the video. Turns out Zizek does highlight the point about the strong influence of religion in the US and also uses the term 'secularity' to distinguish what it is about 'the secular' that is important. The video is really interesting for thinking through the internal contradictions (and even hypocrisies) of secularism and democracy as western liberal states have conceived them. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

We need reasons to believe in this world

The title of this post comes from Giles Deleuze's Cinema 2: The Time Image. I'll quote a few more lines from the paragraph in question below, but before I do so I think I need to clarify a few points about my interest in 'belief'. 

I believe the word 'belief' is disturbing for many people today. Certainly for so-called new atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens it is something that must be eradicated (with utmost contempt and ridicule it seems). While I agree with the arguments they make against religious extremism and fanatical belief, I nevertheless believe that the notion of 'belief' can be thought otherwise. For a start, it is a turn of phrase that we've all used from time to time, haven't we? I've used it twice already in this paragraph and I by no means am 'believing' in a fanatical way... :) 

If you are someone who feels strongly against 'belief', I can understand why. I do not deny the problems associated with 'belief' as it is conventionally thought, nor do I pretend to have the solutions to these problems. What I want to do here is merely engage in a kind of extrapolative thinking--which is kinda wanky I suppose--but it can sometimes be helpful to let the imagination take flight. Anyway, I hope to eventually draw connections to what I've learnt in Buddhism. So if you are interested in Buddhism and are kind enough to stay with me, I thank you in advance.

Deleuze, along with Derrida and Foucault, are the three philosophers who interest me the most. While I'm most familiar with the work of Foucault (as I'm sure you can tell), I am by no means an expert on him or the other two--they are not exactly easy to read! I do sometimes wish that I've had the opportunity to learn more about the philosophers of the analytic tradition because I think it would help me to be more aware of the 'blindspots' in my thinking, given my very obvious bias towards continental philosophy. Anyway, a general critique that has been made about Deleuze, Derrida, and Foucault is that their de-essentialising philosophies lead to nihilism, leaving no bases for engagement in the world.  However, consider Deleuze's writing here:

The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in events that happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us... The link between man and the world is broken. Henceforth, this link must become an object of belief: it is the impossible which can only be restored within a faith. Belief is no longer addressed to a different or transformed world. Man is in the world as if in a pure optical and sound situation. The reaction of which man has been dispossessed can only be replaced by belief. Only belief in the world can reconnect man with what he sees and hears... Whether we are Christians or atheists, in our universal schizophrenia, we need reasons to believe in this world. It is a whole transformation of belief. It was already a great-turning point in philosophy, from Pascal to Nietzsche: to replace knowledge with belief. But belief replaces knowledge only when it becomes belief in this world, as it is.

The gender-bias in his language aside, this passage strikes me as very hopeful. It certainly doesn't come across as nihilistic to me. Now, given how Deleuze is often deliberately (and some would say excessively) allusive in his writing, he is clearly not asking that we 'believe' in the clinging, unthinking manner that we witness in fanaticism of all sorts, religious or otherwise. I am very new to Deleuze's work, and given my poor knowledge of the philosophies he engages with, I do not grasp the full implications of what he is suggesting. But taking the above passage as it is, certain phrases resonate with me: 'the impossible'; 'transformation of belief'; 'belief in this world, as it is.' I'm still trying to work through what I think I've understood. In the meantime, let me enlist the help of Brian Massumi who in an interview discusses Deleuze's ideas about belief, faith, and hope:

I do think, though, that the practice of joy does imply some form of belief. It can’t be a total scepticism or nihilism or cynicism, which are all mechanisms for holding oneself separate and being in a position to judge or deride. But, on the other hand, it’s not a belief in the sense of a set of propositions to adhere to or a set of principles or moral dictates. There is a phrase of Deleuze’s that I like very much where he says that what we need is to be able to find a way to ‘believe in the world’ again. It’s not at all a theological statement — or an anti-theological statement for that matter. It’s an ethical statement. What it is saying is that we have to live our immersion in the world, really experience our belonging to this world, which is the same thing as our belonging to each other, and live that so intensely together that there is no room to doubt the reality of it. The idea is that lived intensity is self-affirming. It doesn’t need a God or judge or head of state to tell it that it has value. What it means, I think, is accept the embeddedness, go with it, live it out, and that’s your reality, it’s the only reality you have, and it’s your participation that makes it real. That’s what Deleuze is saying belief is about, a belief in the world. It’s not a belief that’s ‘about’ being in the world, it is a being in the world. Because it’s all about being in this world, warts and all, and not some perfect world beyond or a better world of the future, it’s an empirical kind of belief. Ethical, empirical — and creative, because your participation in this world is part of a global becoming. So it’s about taking joy in that process, wherever it leads, and I guess it’s about having a kind of faith in the world which is simply the hope that it continue ... But again it is not a hope that has a particular content or end point — it’s a desire for more life, or for more to life.

Again, I find the above to be a very hopeful vision of life which challenges received understandings of 'belief'. While I usually prefer to use the word 'faith' over 'belief' to avoid the negative connotations associated with the latter, in this instance I think the two can be used as synonyms. I've previously explained that I am influenced by Derrida's ideas about faith, which is linked to ethics. In my very rudimentary understanding of the (very dense) essay, 'Faith and Knowledge', Derrida complicates the distinction between the two, arguing that it is not possible to place one before the other--it is this aporia of 'the impossible' that demands of us ethics. There's this line I like a lot from the essay where he appears to speak of faith as:

an abyss... a desert in a desert, there where one neither can nor should see coming what ought or could--perhaps--be yet to come.

This, I think, connects with what Massumi is suggesting about a belief that doesn't entail any set propositions as such, about a kind of hope without any particular content or end. This is a kind of faith that cuts right through our very being, embedding us fully within this world but which also opens us up to the incoming of what I have previously discussed as 'the absolute future'.

The above resonates with what I've learnt in Buddhism. It may be objected that Buddhism is in fact about transcending the cycle of birth and rebirth, to develop a healthy, equanimous detachment (not to be confused with indifference) from the world rather than to desire more to life. Yes, this is true. But I nevertheless think that the above is not entirely incongruent with Buddhist ideals because we can find similar advice across different Buddhist teachers and traditions. Sayadaw U Pandita, for instance, explicates Buddhism as liberation teachings for 'this very life'. My first meditation teacher S.N. Goenka characterises the Buddha's teachings as 'the art of living'. And regardless of what tradition one follows, it seems to me that while the goal of the Buddhist path is to move towards Awakening, all traditions would say that to crave or cling onto that goal is to set oneself in the opposite direction. In this respect, the goal of Awakening--to paraphrase Derrida--becomes that which we ought or should not see coming: it is best suspended as that which remains yet to come. Moreover, the most basic expression of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, begins by stating the truth of dukkha: the advice that this life is indeed full of 'warts and all' and that the first step towards Awakening is to accept it 'as it is'--what Deleuze also says above.

Above all else, what resonates with me most in the above understanding of belief/faith is that it positions ethics at the forefront, as the compass for navigating life. I find a similar understanding in Buddhism, particularly in the Kalama Sutta, a text which is often mistakenly cited as evidence that in Buddhism 'faith' is of lower priority than 'knowledge'. I will save this for the next post: the Buddhist path, as I've come to understand it, requires a constant movement of faith, a movement always guided by ethics.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Spirit of a World Without Spirit (part 2): political spirituality

Just some further quotes to extend on my points in the previous post. But first let me say that I am not a religious nuthead, nor am I a Christian or Muslim--well, if this wasn't obvious, are you blind?! :)

Anyway, this is a photo from The Guardian of Egyptian protestors praying during the 'day of departure' demonstrations (photo credits to The Guardian here):

According to the Wikipedia entry on the event which collects info from different news sources:

Two million Egyptians flooded Tahrir Square to participate in Friday day prayer in Tahrir Square. Egyptian Christians and others not performing Friday prayers formed a "human chain" around those praying to protect them from any potential disruptions

I was rather touched by this, because it demonstrates for me not religious fervour or fanaticism, but the strength of a collective human spirit, a 'political spirituality'--something which, as I've suggested in the previous post, was emerging from Foucault's late work and which I'm trying to explore in my research. I quote again the interview he gave about the Iranian Revolution. His remarks, uncannily, describe what is happening in Egypt too:

The people demonstrated, the tanks arrived. The demonstrations were repeated and the machine-guns fired yet again. And this occurred in an almost identical way, with, of course, an intensification each time, but without any change of form or nature. It's the repetition of the demonstration. The readers of Western newspapers must have tired of it fairly soon. Oh, another demonstration in Iran! But I believe the demonstration, in its very repetition, had an intense political meaning. The very word demonstration must be taken literally: a people was tirelessly demonstrating its will. Of course, it was not only because of the demonstration that the Shah left. But one cannot deny that it was because of an endlessly demonstrated rejection. There was in these demonstrations a link between collective action, religious ritual, and an expression of public right. It's rather like in Greek tragedy where the collective ceremony and the reenactment of the principles of right go hand in hand. In the streets of Tehran there was an act, a political and juridical act, carried out collectively within religious rituals--an act of deposing the sovereign ('Iran: The Spirit of a World Without Spirit', p. 216.)

And to expand on the last bit in the previous post where Foucault suggests that at the heart of the Iranian Revolution was the people's will to change their very mode of being, these are his exact words:

In rising up, the Iranians said to themselves--and this perhaps is the soul of the uprising: "Of course, we have to change this regime and get rid of this man, we have to change this corrupt administration, we have to change the whole country, the political organization, the economic system, the foreign policy. But, above all, we have to change ourselves. Our way of being, our relationship with others, with things, with eternity, with God, etc., must be completely changed and there will only be a true revolution if this radical change in our experience takes place." I believe it is here that Islam played a role. (p. 217).

Let me reiterate that this post is not about Islam as such. My point in posting about these events is to suggest that it is possible to take an ethically and politically enabling Foucauldian reading of 'the spiritual', which I take as involving a person exerting effort to work on transforming one's relationship to oneself. If you are familiar with Foucauldian ideas about governmentality--about the 'government of truth'--his late work appears to be suggesting that a 'political spirituality' can be a force for contesting 'the politics of the self or subject'. He expressed such sentiments in 'A Question of Method':

How can one analyze the connection between ways of distinguishing true and false and ways of governing oneself and others? The search for a new foundation for each of these practices, in itself and relative to the other, the will to discover a different way of governing oneself through a different way of dividing up true and false—this is what I would call ‘political spiritualit√©

Political spirituality, then, as I understand it, involves the subject's relationship to the self, the mobilisation of new relationships between the subject and truth, relationships that do not recapitulate, and hopefully disrupt, the dynamics of regimes of power. Political spirituality is at the same time an ethical practice, an art of ethics. I am exploring this via Buddhist knowledge practices. Other knowledge practices could of course also enable the mobilisation of political spirituality. But again, this would require first a rethinking of 'the spiritual' and its cognates in a world without spirit, of not taking their meanings as self-evident or inevitable. The events in Egypt, for me, is an indication that such a task is indeed worth undertaking. 

The Spirit of a World Without Spirit

The title of this post is from the preceding statement (but which is never quoted) of Marx's famous declaration that religion 'is the opium of the people'. The full passage from which the famous line is quoted can be read on Wikipedia. I quote here just the two sentences in question:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The word 'soul' instead of 'spirit' is used in this translation. But these two words have been and can be used as synonyms. And I think in this instance, 'soul' or 'spirit'' is not used to refer to some intangible essence that is separate from the body or matter as such. (Moreover, as a Buddhist I certainly do not hold the belief of an enduring soul essence.) In this instance, the words invite metaphoric or figurative readings: e.g. 'Let's focus on the "spirit" rather than the "letter" of the document' and 'That guitarist plays with a lot of soul'.  

Anyway, what prompted this post is the situation that is currently happening in Egypt where we see the people coming together as a collective to push for political change--a potential revolution. What is interesting is that as far as I can tell from news reports, the demonstrations and protests are not prompted by religious extremism or religious fervour as such. As it turns out, the popular political philosopher Slavoj Zizek has made such an observation in an opinion piece for the The Guardian entitled, 'Why fear the Arab revolution?' An interesting read, especially when read alongside Noam Chomsky's take on the event, 'It's not radical Islam that worries the US--it's independence'.

I know I've recently written about Zizek and here I am talking about him again. Let me clarify that I do not have a personal vendetta against him. I do not engage with his philosophy in my work and only have a general understanding of his ideas. For the record, I think he is a very sharp thinker who makes some very important critiques of the current global political environment. His style of speaking/writing is often deliberately provocative, but I think this is sometimes necessary to provoke reflection on things that are easily taken for granted--and I must say I do find him quite entertaining. In his opinion piece, he makes the following conclusion:

The hypocrisy of western liberals is breathtaking: they publicly supported democracy, and now, when the people revolt against the tyrants on behalf of secular freedom and justice, not on behalf of religion, they are all deeply concerned. Why concern, why not joy that freedom is given a chance?

Zizek's comments would no doubt puzzle, if not annoy, many people. But I think his suggestion about the 'hypocrisy' of western liberals is worth reflecting on. In any event, my aim here is not to analyse his evaluation about 'western liberals' (whoever they might be) as such. What I want to do instead is take his comments as a starting point to ponder about the possible relationship between 'the spiritual' and a revolutionary 'collective/political will'. 

Zizek believes that the people of Egypt are revolting on behalf of secular freedom rather than on behalf of religion. This is not an unreasonable assessment of the situation, given that there doesn't appear to be any overt religious agenda in the demonstrations and strikes. Nevertheless, I wonder if he has overstated himself in this regard. I wonder if this reflects a certain (Western-centric) presumptuousness on his part. I grew up in Singapore, and throughout my childhood and teenage years have known many Muslim friends, becoming quite close to some of them. In my experience, 'the spiritual' is never separate from their everyday lives. (Note here that I am talking about 'the spirit' of Islam, not the unhelpful stereotype of 'religious fervour' that the Western media tend to associate with Islam.) 

Insofar as 'the spiritual' is interweaved into all aspects of life in Islamic cultures, it suggests to me that it is inaccurate to assume that religion (or 'the spiritual' at any rate) does not play a part in the potential revolution in Egypt. To explain what I mean, let me draw a parallel between the situation in Egypt and the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The two events are obviously not the same because religion played a central role in the Iranian Revolution, where demonstrations had begun from as early as August 1978. Nevertheless, the potential revolution that is happening in Egypt now is taking place in an Islamic culture--just as it was in Iran. In an interview entitled 'Iran: The Spirit of a World Without Spirit', Foucault displays a curiosity about the relationship between 'the spiritual' and a 'collective/political will' against institutional power; he says:

People always quote Marx and the opium of the people. The sentence that immediately preceded the statement and which is never quoted says that religion is the spirit of a world without spirit. Let's say, then, that Islam in the year of 1978, was not the opium of the people precisely because it was the spirit of a world without spirit.

I know I'm talking about Foucault again; I do engage with other thinkers in my work, but Foucault is a key thinker in my current research and it also happens that I'm writing about him now. Anyway, I think what he says about Iran can be transposed onto the situation in Egypt. Let me quote other bits from the interview (summary can be read here):

Foucault starts by claiming that the important question about Iranian revolution is “what has  happened in Iran that a whole lot of people, on the left and on the right, find somewhat  irritating?” (211)  He claims that Western intellectuals usually observe two dynamics in  revolutions, “the contradictions in that society, that of the class struggle or of social  confrontations” and “a vanguard . . .that carries the whole nation with it” (212-13), and that Iran  showed neither.  He raises the question of the role that religion played to erase these two  elements in the uprising.

Foucault then addresses the idea of the “collective will” of a governed people: “I don’t know whether you agree with me, but we met, in Tehran and throughout Iran the collective will of a  people . . . This collective will, which, in our theories, is always general, has found for itself, in Iran, an absolutely clear particular aim, and has thus erupted into history” (215).    
When Blanchet compared the feeling in Iran to the Cultural Revolution in China, Foucault  countered that there were still a conflict among the people in China: “Now what struck me in  Iran is that there is not struggle between different elements.  What gives it such beauty, and at the  same time such gravity, is that there is only one confrontation: between the entire people and the state threatening it” (216).  Foucault claims that at the heart of the revolution is not just a change of relationship with the government, but a change with every aspect of their daily life and being, which is where Islam played a role (217-18). 

OK, I've rambled on quite a bit. To come back to the aim of this post which is to speculate on the possible relationship between 'the spiritual' and 'collective/political will'. Following Foucault's remarks, and insofar as we can draw a parallel between the revolts in Egypt and the Iranian revolution, it would seem that 'the spiritual' can galvanise a 'collective/political will' against injustice. Now, 'the spiritual' is of course a contested term, and this is precisely what my research is addressing. But following Foucault's late work where he turned to the ethical knowledge practices of late Antiquity and the theme of 'the care of self' (I'll try to post more about this in the future), 'the spiritual' involves a transformation of one's entire mode of being. As quoted above, it involves 'a change with every aspect of their daily life and being.'

To relate this to my interest in Buddhism and its potential ethico-political contributions to our contemporary environment, I think it is not unreasonable to paraphrase the aim of Buddhist spiritual practice as changing every aspect of one's daily life and being. The Iranian revolution and the collective revolt in Egypt, then, raise interesting questions about how 'the spiritual' is not simply about transforming a person's mode of being. Perhaps, under certain conditions, 'the spiritual' is the force which could galvanise a 'collective/political will' against institutional power, injustice, corruption, and all that--problems facing not only authoritarian societies but so-called liberal societies as well. Perhaps in a world without spirit, spirit has yet a role to play?