The Buddhism that I discovered through the Beats was not entirely new in the West. In fact, it had been entering it for over a century without great fanfare, whether through Asian immigrant communities, Western scholarship or converts. Ironically enough, during the very period of the 20th and 21st centuries when Western culture and values have seemed triumphant, a spiritual decay at the heart of this culture appears to have created an opening for Buddhism. The story of how this has happened is of some importance.
It starts with loss. Our culture seems to be one that is haunted by it. It is as if we modern men and women have lost our sense of place in the world, our place in the very rhythms of birth and death. At this time when people measure their lives in terms of popularity and fame, it sometimes seems that nothing of value remains. Fleeting passions and manias infest people’s minds with images and distorted facts. It is as if we are living in a valley of dry bones where the only noises are the rustle of yesterday’s newspaper with its story of an already-forgotten celebrity and the voice of Big Brother sounding from the electronic screen. Consequently, we are forever chasing happiness, hoping to find it in the forgetfulness of pleasure. Similarly, not knowing who we are, we seek confirmation of our identity through the chatter of social media. However, we find in either place only frustration and insecurity.
Of course, as Buddha pointed out, suffering afflicts all sentient beings and hence is undoubtedly present in all cultures. However, maybe our culture is unique in selling the promise of happiness so strongly but delivering only disappointment and bewilderment.
To understand how this has come to pass, we have to begin with the past. In other words, we must ask, in the fashion of Buddhist reasoning: ‘What are the causes and conditions which have given rise to the apparent phenomenon of our deracinated and dissatisfied culture?’
To begin, one might concede that the Renaissance was undoubtedly significant in shaping some of our contemporary sensibilities. This recovery of the best elements of Classical civilisation produced, in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, a culture that was focussed on man ‘as the measure of all things’ – part of a shift towards modern individualism. However, it is probably more accurate to say that modern Western culture began with the sixteenth-century Reformation. It was this cataclysm that shattered the world of medieval Catholic Christianity in Western Europe, a culture which, despite its many faults, had nurtured a sense of the unity of the sacred and secular, and thus given men and women a secure notion of their rootedness in the world.
At the heart of the medieval vision was a notion of a cosmic order into which humankind was folded. It was a hierarchy comprising humans, saints, angelic orders and God, and, of course, the denizens of purgatory and hell. Reflecting the vastness of this vision, the Catholic culture of the time was spacious enough to accommodate everything from the scholarship of the monastic orders to the devotional cults of the peasantry, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
In 1517, the German Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther (1483–1546) – followed, a few years later, by Jean Calvin (1509–1564) in Geneva – shattered the world of Catholic Christianity. Luther and Calvin’s new theology eliminated devotion to the saints, jettisoned purgatory, abolished the monastic orders and dispensed with the role of the priesthood as the intermediary between man and God. Through removing these structures that securely located the individual life within a spiritual and social context which was greater than the mere individual, the two Reformers broke the chain that had connected the sacred and the temporal. It seems also that, in insisting on the absolute privacy of the individual conscience alone before God, they unintentionally gave rise to a new alienated individualism, for, from now on, humanity would be cut off from the mediating assistance of the priest and saints.
To this interior transformation of what it was to be religious, Calvin added the sanctification of work, through his notion that one’s profession was a divine calling or ‘vocation’, and this, together with his depiction of wealth as a sign of divine favour bestowed only upon those who had been chosen by God, brought into being a culture that was remarkably favourable to the growth of a capitalist economy. In due course, these cultural and economic shifts would sweep away the mediaeval ordering of society, together with its religious forms.
In this way, the old spiritual world was fractured, and our sense of having a place within an ordered cosmos was lost. From that time onward, Christianity, even in its new guise – and despite the ambitions of the Protestant Reformers – has only continued to cede territory and authority to other blueprints for meaning and happiness, most notably those stemming from the worlds of politics and science. However, strangely enough, in these two systems, one may still discern the ghost of Christianity, as we shall see.
In recent times, political ideology has thus come to enjoy some of the unquestioning faith that was previously accorded to religion. The roots of such a development actually lie in the Reformation itself, when Luther’s attack on the hierarchical authority of Catholic Christianity in matters of religion soon spilled over into a demand by Anabaptists and other revolutionary Millenarians that society and authority should be leveled: a re-ordering that they associated with the return of Christ and his thousand-year kingdom over which he would rule together with the just. Although the German Peasants’ Revolt of 1525 and the various uprisings of the subsequent decade in Europe were crushed, they were harbingers of what was to come.
In the event, it would take nearly three centuries for a revolutionary movement finally to succeed in its aim of a total reconstitution of society, when the French Revolutionaries seized power at the end of the eighteenth century. However, by this time, the essentially apocalyptic Christian view of history that had been revolution’s initial impulse had been obscured. Revolution was to be, from then on, in the hands of the officially secular and anti-religious. Nevertheless, all revolutionary movements up to the present day are, in important respects, still indebted to Millenarian Christian views. All these movements anticipate an apocalypse that will consume the unrighteous and be followed by the age of perfection to be enjoyed by the just – as, indeed, the post-Reformation movements had envisioned.
Despite the aspirations of its devotees, who are still highly influential in our culture, utopia has not put in an appearance. Its failure to do so should alert us to the intrinsic and inescapable flaw in this pattern of thought: its externalisation of the search for perfection. Contrary to what political ideologies assert, a totally positive re-ordering of society cannot take place in the absence of an interior transformation. Unless the actual roots of the suffering that we inflict upon ourselves and others are dissolved in the individual heart, political action is, at best, doomed to disappoint, and is more often likely to be disastrous. In short, as Buddha taught, it is only by cultivating a freedom from the tyranny of selfishness through sustained attention to ethics, meditation and wisdom that any engagement with the world can be well-founded. This is a point to which we will return in Chapter 4.
By contrast, political ideologies, even those which seem benevolent in their intentions, rely for their energy upon the notion of external enemies – often, one suspects, to spare their followers the challenge of the confrontation with the enemy within. We see this time after time, when at last the revolution, having warred first with its visible enemies, finally consumes its own children, as in the French Revolutionary Terror of the 1790s. Again, we will have cause to say more about this later.
If, in recent centuries, political ideologies have offered many a supposed route to happiness, science provides another. The rise of science itself is usually associated with the intellectual climate of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the ‘Age of Reason’ and the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ respectively. In those centuries, a new type of thinker achieved prominence: the ‘intellectual’ or ‘free thinker’, who came to replace the Church-sanctioned scholar, priest or minister as the new figure of prestige and authority. Yet this development too, as with the rise of a political culture, also has roots in the Reformation. There, Luther’s insistence on the primacy of the individual conscience, informed only by the Bible and not by tradition, was a first step towards the creation of a free-thinking intellectual, even though Luther had intended only a new orthodoxy.
Even the free thinkers of the seventeenth century did not start off as explicitly anti-religious. The greatest of them, René Descartes (1596–1650), hoped, as a loyal Catholic, to endow theism with a sure defence when he argued that the existence and nature of God could be determined solely by the free exercise of reason. In so doing, he contradicted St Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of Christian thinkers, who, despite his Aristotelianism, had ruled that some matters were still the domain only of revelation and inaccessible to reason.
Unfortunately for Descartes, just as Luther before him, his work would have entirely unintended consequences. Luther had failed to anticipate that, in making the Bible available to all, he would merely ensure that now there would be hundreds of different interpretations of Scripture, culminating in one that would reject it entirely. So too, Descartes did not foresee the consequences of his innovation. He had failed to anticipate that, by the end of the eighteenth century, the free exercise of reason would reach its inevitable apotheosis in the work of truly post-Christian thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Hume, who would respectively use it to satirise religious authority, plan for an entirely secular society and demolish any case for God’s manifestation in nature.
Thus, by the nineteenth century, Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant, was a defeated and discredited force among the opinion makers of the West. The notion was by now firmly entrenched that, through the application of reason to the natural world in scientific analysis, nature could be forced to yield up its secrets. Any sense of a sacred presence in nature – one demonstrated in mediaeval Catholicism by its shrines and other holy places – had been banished, first by the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation and now by the new science. Thus grew the belief that the physical world, society and, finally, the mind itself, could all be understood and re-ordered on rational lines, and, with this, suffering would be banished. In short, the idea of the scientist as a kind of substitute God – who has assumed powers previously ascribed by Christianity to the Creator – was now in place, as slyly dissected in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein early in the nineteenth century.
There were, of course, dissenters from this mood of optimism, but even they, whether Romantics, or, some time later, Nietzsche, felt that modern humankind lived in an irredeemably de-sacralised world and was, likewise, forever cut off from the continuity of human experience present in tradition. Relatively few, such as the English poet William Blake (1757–1827), seem not to have completely accepted this.
In such a way, scientific praxis became illegitimately wedded to an ideology that might more properly be termed ‘scientism’. Although scientism claims the authority of science, it has as many unexamined assumptions as any form of theism. The roots of this grim alchemical wedding between science and ideology lie in the anti-religious philosophical materialism that grew steadily throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and now enjoys considerable popularity amongst those who regard themselves as both fashionable and intellectual.
In an amusing parallel to the optimism of the political ideologues concerning their utopian societies, devotees of this scientistic ideology confidently anticipate the day when the ‘problem of consciousness’ will be solved and all will be forced to accept the materialist thesis. In the meantime, any beneficial advances, such as, for instance, in medical care and treatment, properly due to the application of genuine scientific praxis by scientists, can be falsely claimed for materialism.
It is essential to be clear about this point: the analysis to determine which particular physical processes are implicated in a particular disorder or disease, and, likewise, the formulation of specific remedies, does not entail a commitment to any one particular world-view of the ultimate nature of reality. Hence, the medical researcher may be Christian, Jewish, materialist or Buddhist, as scientific praxis is merely based upon the observation and understanding of how particular causes and conditions interact to produce particular effects in a given situation.
However, it is by this illegitimate stratagem of disguising itself as science that scientism attempts to maintain its prestige. In this regard, it is noteworthy that it is particularly popular among those who are often untutored in science but may be hostile to religion for other reasons.
Just as surely as the blindness in political vision has had unfortunate consequences, so also with the scientistic ideology. Unchecked, there is every possibility that it will render sentient beings into mere scientific specimens, whose defects and malfunctions it imagines can be eliminated and whose lives are to be managed from the time of controlled conception to controlled death. Its ambitions are such that it is determined to deny that human beings have consciousness and moral agency, by asserting that they are mere physical matter which acts in accordance with environmental conditions. Of course, such an approach will leave intact the fundamental causes of suffering: causes which reside in the human heart itself.
When one adds to these flaws of scientism and political ideology the danger to the human capacity for stillness, reflection and wise judgement that is signalled by the proliferation of electronic media to satisfy our immediate desires, one can easily understand why it is that our culture can appear to be spiritually bankrupt. Although it has made some advances, in many ways it has only added to the sum total of unhappiness and alienation. So, what is to be done?
The first step is to admit that the solution to this crisis in modern culture is not to imagine that we can turn back the clock and all will be well. In other words, a voluntary return to theism (the belief in a creator god), in order to recover the lost unity of the sacred and secular, is not possible for most people. Freedom of thought has already exposed much that seems incoherent in theistic belief. In addition, a great deal of religious practice in the West has been fatally damaged. The very facts that popular devotion is increasingly moribund outside of certain redoubts, or that once-great monastic orders face continual shrinkage, only confirm that sombre analysis. Thus, with all due apologies to the great T.S. Eliot, who decided that salvation for the individual and the culture could only be found in the embrace of Christian tradition, there is little reason to look for aid there.
It is this fact, then, that creates a space in our culture for Buddhism, a system which, unlike its spiritual rivals, can create confidence by its very accessibility to reasoning – an accessibility made possible by its sophisticated traditions of logical enquiry and philosophical analysis. It was Buddha himself who set the tone for this in his well-known dictum that his teaching was not to be accepted through blind faith. Instead he insisted that, just as a merchant first tests the weight and purity of gold before purchasing it, so one should assess the veracity of his teachings for oneself before giving assent to them.
In the centuries after the Buddha, this emphasis upon the role of reason gave rise to an astonishingly rich body of philosophical work, which is so far little-known in the West. Perhaps the most significant of the great thinkers within the tradition were the Indian masters Dharmakirti and Nagarjuna. The former, through his work on the system of Valid Cognition, established a clear defence of Buddhist doctrines of perception, rebirth and causality, while Nagarjuna, in his Middle Way works, primarily concerned himself with elucidation of the Buddha’s teaching on ultimate truth. We will be drawing upon their work at various points in this book.
What is more, unlike systems of mere theory, Buddhism offers a system of contemplative methods through which the essential truth to which it points can be experienced directly. Thus, within the Buddhist tradition, it is not considered sufficient merely to possess the correct theory of the world, since, unless one’s actual way of relating to that world is changed, the causes of suffering will still be emotionally operative within us. In other words, the truth about reality must be cultivated or ‘brought into being’ through ‘meditation’. Thus the role of meditation is to cultivate an attention to truth so that it may be experienced at first hand. In so doing, one is, of course, following the example of the Buddha himself, for whom the truth was liberating exactly because he knew it experientially, thus ‘awakening’ from his bewitchment by erroneous views.
Unlike theism, which commences from an appeal to faith in the authority of revelation, Buddhism asks us to start with a dispassionate examination of our experience, actions and motivations. Of course, for such analysis to be effective, systematic attentiveness is required, which therefore requires us to practise meditation, so that we do not flounder in a mere piling up of ideas about the world rather than unmasking and liberating ourselves from our projections.
Through such attentiveness, founded on the twin contemplative methods of ‘calm-abiding’ and ‘insight’, we will be able to scrape away the encrusted fantasies and misconstructions that characterise our present way of relating to the world. Thus, to engage in Buddhist spiritual practice is not a matter of an uncritical acceptance of particular notions about the world but of utilising the guidance left behind by the Buddha in order that we might awaken to the true nature of that world. We will have more to say about this in later chapters.