Archive for April, 2013

Does Buddhism really deny life, with all its vast plenitudes and richness of invention, in the way it is often presumed to? Or is the idea – and the reality – of abundance central to its vision of life? The literature of canonical Buddhism is replete with the imagery, tales and promises of life in the round, the full and the rich. But it also comes with a few qualifying caveats.

The Buddhist universe is often described in plethoras of many-worlded glory: the different pure realms to which virtuous Buddhist practitioners are bound as the natural result of this-worldly devotion are remarkable for their richly-described abundance of happiness, wealth and long-lived prosperity. There are Buddhas and their retinue in each, and if for example the Buddha of devotion is Amitabha ‘of infinite light’ (as it is for much of East Asia and its Western diaspora communities) the bliss of such devotion is promised to be eternal and unbounded.

Still more, Buddhist enlightenment is not limited to some future life outside this one, but is the very condition of this life and world itself, that we are only blind to: this world now is already the paradise, if we could only see it, taste and treasure it. And herein lies the caveat: such blindness, at its very worst, engenders the various painful ‘hell-realms,’ both hot and cold and many-pronged, as the obverse of the reward for virtuous practice. And they are as abundant in their pain and suffering, as their counterparts are in wealth, health and freedom from suffering.

The good news is that the pain and suffering aren’t intractable, and can be permanently sundered. The particularly Buddhist news is that having started on the path, one’s ideas about abundance – what it is, why we value it, why we seek it – may change, and may change radically, so that it is not some objective notion of abundance that proves the case, but a relative, subjective one. In one of the central canonical texts of the Mahāyāna tradition, the 2nd-century C.E. Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, abundance is literally figured into the mise-en-scene and the ensuing narrative. Vimalakirti (‘Stainless Reputation’) is a lay Buddhist master, who while feigning an illness invites vast numbers of enlightened and divine beings, monk and nun faithful, so-called ordinary folk and even innumerable animals and sentient creatures into his tiny room which miraculuously is able to hold them all, and expounds to them the teaching of the prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) philosophy.

What is almost unique in this popular text (and subsequently highly important for the pragmatically-minded spirituality of China and East Asia), is that this Buddhist adept is an ordinary if wealthy man, yet also an enlightenend being who seeks to inspire all sentient beings to the knowledge and practice of the way (dharma) of the Buddha. With his infinitely diverse audience at his bedside, Vimalakirti teaches that all freedom, all abundance of object and thought, feeling and hope, is born and dies in the mind that understands the suffering nature, impermanence, and essencelessness of the phenomenal world (the Three Marks of Existence). That when we understand the way all things actually exist, rather than how we would wish them to, then the riches of all the ten directions and the three times, as vast as space, become ours; and anything else pales in comparison.

This is an inspiring, also perhaps a grandiose vision, that might seem remote from our more quotidian concerns. But what else does Buddhism really point to in these visions of both splendor and pathos? Are their hells and heavens really real, whatever that might mean, and what do they mean for us here, in this world we already know?

The Desire realm
We could probably start understanding what they mean by considering some basic existential facts. Buddhism characterizes life as we know it in this human realm as being dominated by desire: for all kinds of things, whether they be Tim Tams or new cars, fame or political power. Different people desire different kinds of things, as well as some in common. We all crave pleasure, security and freedom from discomfort, but we tend to have different ways of achieving them. Some of us derive comfort from the vantage of a couch, a TV, chocolate or ice-cream stores, and a steady diet of DVDs; others from minimizing their needs and living with very little – as monastics do in most of the world religions, deprived of most of the comforts the rest of us take for granted.

This is strange – shouldn’t we all derive the same sense of abundance from the same things? But clearly we don’t, and differ quite markedly in our preferences, and our literal psychological experience of them. What does this tell us? Perhaps, that what defines the value of things is not their apparent inherent nature, but how we perceive them by virtue of our own minds. Their value then is not purely a function of the external world (despite some consensus on ‘things of value’), but more concretely of how we constitute them psychologically.

And when we consider the quantity of abundance, the disjunction between differing needs is even wider. Some of us need only one or two Tim Tams to be satisfied, others need (or think they do!) the whole packet. What is the balance here, the natural scale or the objective marker? Clearly, in an existential if not a scientific sense—nutritionists can tell you how many calories you should ideally consume, but not precisely why you should safeguard your own health—there is none. It really is up to us. Which is where freedom and self-empowerment comes in. But more of that in a moment.

If the world, as it is for Buddhism, is characterized by desire, it is also characterized by what are called the Three Marks of Existence, mentioned earlier: dukkha (suffering, or unsatisfactoriness), anicca (impermance) and anattā (selflessness). As beings driven by desire (animals on the other hand are dominated by fear) we humans relate with these three marks, or facts, from our default-position of need or desire of various kinds. We 1) suffer because we have too little, or too much, of what we (think we) need, and also because 2) whatever we get hold of to satisfy our desire is only temporary and must be continually renewed to keep satisfaction constant over time, but still worse 3) can never be completely achieved because what , or more precisely who, we think we’re satisfying doesn’t actually exist in the way we assume it does. In other words, this me who desires, who needs, who continually must be satisfied, is only partly real, and partly an illusion. And desire feeds on that illusion, as a junkie does on his drug of choice. For Buddhism, where that illusion of ‘me’ is very strong and very fixed in the mind, it is certain that uncontrolled desire reigns supreme. And this is where abundance, critically, comes in.

Too little in too much?
In consumer-capitalist culture, we have mistaken abundance for the mere quantity of whatever temporarily satisfies us. But have we adequately questioned whether the causal link between quantity (material abundance) and satisfaction, works the way it is supposed to? If I have unlimited chocolate and DVDs to feast on over the weekend, I ought to experience that abundance as equally unlimited. But do I? In reality, I will feel over-indulged and even exhausted and ill. If I need more to crave my satisfaction, is there a point where it will be reached? It may, but as Buddhism sees it, it is also likely that encouraging more consumption only leads to a more fixed habit of need, which simply reinforces on a psychological and even physiological level the craving for a certain minimum-level threshold of satisfaction.

Of course there is genuine and important pleasure in good food, fine wines and erotic stimulation at the right time, in the right place and context of our lives, and hopefully for most of us, such ‘Epicurean delight’ stays fairly fine-tuned—even if finally the best-lived sensory life might not bring the ultimate happiness some of us, and certainly Buddhists, may seek. While for others it can tip the balance into serious addiction and its extremes in eating-disorders, self-harm and even life-threatening pathology.

What is critical here for Buddhism is how this balance is a function of the mind, rather than the object of craving itself. The problem doesn’t even lie in the drug itself (though of course some are dangerously addictive), but in the mind that engages with it. A mind, or psyche, that is dominated by the deep delusion that pleasure and the happiness that results from it lies in things themselves, will be more vulnerable to the abuse of things, whether it be chocolate, sex, heroin, or power. A mind that becomes more and more aware that satisfaction lies in the mind itself rather than in the object it craves, becomes more and more attuned to its own homeostasis and the happiness and well-being that result from it.

The mind understands that a few Tim Tams and just one or two DVDs, or even none at all, is intrinsically happier and more abundant in that happiness, than the mind that has a surfeit of both but never achieves satisfaction from them (or most likely anything else either). And this is because the problem of satisfaction is not one of having enough pleasureable things to enjoy, of their sheer abundance, but of how we enjoy, appreciate, and value them. Of course, the body is naturally satisfied by good wine, food, and sexual stimulation, but there is clearly a physical and mental limit to those joys also. Too much of them, and the body and mind feel worn and wasted, tired and burdened with their ‘abundance,’ even depressed: the petite triste of too much stimulation, release, and indeed, satisfaction. It seems we may well suffer in getting too much of a good thing—Mae West and her perennial wisdom notwithstanding!

The mind that enjoys and the thing enjoyed
The crux here, and this is the largest part of Buddhism, is about the kind of mind that knows this, and can distinguish between the illusory abundance (quantity) of having endless satisfaction through things, and that of knowing that actual fulfillment is a quality of the mind that experiences them. In this case abundance would be a capacity of the mind, a way of enjoying what we have, however modest it may be. In fact the Buddha recommends having comparatively little for precisely the reason that you don’t need more of something to appreciate its quality as such. But which of these is the focus for our society, or political and economic system?

No Super-Savers Mars Bars for guessing (not yet, anyway!). Why should we be surprised that the majority of internet content is pornography? And that much of the developed world is increasingly characterized by the diseases, both mental and physical, of over-consumption, addiction and surplus production? For Buddhism, these are all symptomatic of how our minds are, how we experience what we already have, not of what we actually need in real terms to be happy and appreciate our so-called, and perhaps misguided, ‘abundance.’ And on an environmental and political level, can the whole world really aspire to match the levels of purely material abundance of the USA, Australia or Western Europe, and is it even desirable it should?

This is where we can return to the freedom and self-empowerment I briefly mentioned earlier. If the Buddhist way of life is above all concerned about understanding why and how we experience the pain and suffering we do, rather than what we think we need to avoid them, then it will naturally try to get to the bottom of how that mind works. This is why Buddhist meditation, and the practice of retreat from our habitual modes of consumption, is so important. It wants to understand and try to map out why we are caught up (it seems for a whole lifetime!) in these modes, and whether they really serve our happiness and well-being or not. It wants to get to the root of this mind that is dominated by desire, that craves objects of satisfaction, that even where it gains these, still somehow remains unfulfilled. And it does that through the simple practice of self-observation.

Another caveat: I just said ‘simple,’ but maybe it’s not so simple. After all, if I’ve spent a decade or more smoking, and drinking a little more than I need to, or generally being led by my appetites rather than leading them, it might not be so easy to just stop or reverse them. The tide of habit built over long time becomes who we are, and how we are, in a literal sense. We need to start with the pause- rather than the stop-button. And the process of self-knowledge, in this sense, last a whole lifetime. The important thing is that we should give ourselves the opportunity to truly understand this ‘six-fathom length of body and mind’ in which, as the Buddha proclaimed, we may discover the joy of profound enlightenment—and, naturally, everything that keeps us from that knowledge.

That we even have this opportunity is a cause for gratitude, and the value of being born in this human form is so great and rare that even to have reached this literal point we are all in here and now is already proof of the abundance that awaits us on the Buddhist path. And this introduces the idea not merely of material and psychological abundance, but the ethical and affective abundance of the bodhisattva—that being who devotes all her own abundance to the moral and emotional well-being of everyone else.

The abundance of the Bodhisattva
Earlier I mentioned the Mahāyāna sutra in which the wealthy layman Vimalakirti teaches the buddhadharma (the Way of the Buddha) to innumerable beings, all gathered in his ‘ten-foot square room.’ The critical thing about this particular layman, however, is that he is also a bodhisattva, or a Buddhist practitioner who has achieved great existential realizations of truth, and has combined these with genuine compassion and concern for the suffering of others. And it is a metaphor for the superabundant nature of the bodhisattva’s wisdom and compassion, that Vimalakirti is able to hold these infinite numbers of beings within his own domain, and bring them, as a bodhisattva is pledged to do, to the realization of enlightenment themselves.

The abundance that is pointed to here, however, obviously has little to do with showering others with gifts and shopping-vouchers and Bonanza-style handouts. It’s not even about making donations to charities so that ‘starving children’ in the ‘Third World’ might have enough dried rations to get through the summer. (There is nothing wrong with such charity in itself, except that it needs to be seen in the larger global context of greed and dependency that keeps the dynamics of inequity in place). The charity of the bodhisattva goes deeper than that. And that is because she is concerned not merely to keep people materially satisfied, but to introduce them to the nature of the cycle of need, acquisition and temporary satisfaction that keeps them ultimately unfulfilled in the first place.

The bodhisattva wants to awaken people to their own minds and spirits before merely satisfying their bodies, so that they can empower themselves to their own awakening as well. Vimalakirti teaches his audience that true abundance lies in the confrontation with the finiteness of life, and the revaluation of values that implies: not so we rush out to merely ‘experience’ as much pleasure as we can in our span of years, as if the sheer biochemical soup of adrenalin-charged hedonism is actually all that human happiness amounts to.

Unlike that utilitarian ethic that dominates our own time, based on a naturalistic equation between wealth and happiness, the Buddhist ethic for human abundance is geared to recognizing all that we don’t, and can’t ever ultimately have, so that we truly value and savour what we do, and indisputably, can have. In Zen practice, a dedicated adept experiences the bliss of satori in seeing the cherry-trees blossom for the first time (even when he has seen them a hundred times), or savours the poignancy (the Japanese mono no aware) of the passing of physical beauty in an aging woman. (The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi has made a virtual way of life from this realization.) For Buddhism, these are the highest abundance indeed. So that what makes abundance abundant in Buddhism is not how much of it you have, but how you have and relate to it—even and especially if it is very little by conventional standards. And this works two ways: the act of giving is a wealth that can’t be denied. It is all the greater when offered from a place of relative poverty: the psychological benefit is proportionately that much more.

That which is given might be very little, or merely seem so to some outsider’s view. I once spent a week in a very poor village in central Burma, and despite the scarcity of resources there was no doubt that the villagers there enjoyed a high degree of psychological, emotional and even, relatively, material abundance. Is it possible that it is our own post-industrial, economically-driven notion of abundance that has it wrong, and that the time has come for us to learn from those who, superficially, have ‘less’?

Buddhism leaves the question open for your own discovery. But in doing so, promises that no matter what you do, or don’t have, you have precisely what you need to live a truly abundant, and happy, life. Just as it is.

Published in WellBeing Abundance magazine, print issue, Australia, April 2013

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This essay discusses the general context for the Tibetan self-immolations of 2009 to 2013, as well as the sole Western self-immolation committed in solidarity with them by an English Tibetan Buddhist monk in November, 2012. The essay was published in print (March, 2013) and online (April 3, 2013) in Overland Literary Journal, and is copyright to the author.


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An interview with Overland Journal‘s David Brun accompanying a longer essay (The Year of Great Burning) which briefly discusses the political and ethical nexus shared by the (to date) 112 Tibetan self-immolations between 2009 and 2013, the single Western self-immolation in solidarity with those, and the more general context for Buddhist non-violent, and sacrificial, resistance including the decades-long movement for democracy in Burma.


Please tell us about your field of study – how did you find yourself researching the Tibetan resistance?

I’ve been around Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan diaspora, in Australia, India, the US and Europe, for more than a decade now, so it’s been in my experience a while. My gravitation back to the academy has been partly about wanting to formalise the raw, contested, difficult, uncertain nature of a lot of the territory of social resistance, especially where it intersects with more spiritual or metaphysical concerns, as it centrally does in Buddhist non-violence. This got me into the Burmese context post-2007 and the Saffron Revolution, and only since the last year or so when the surge of Tibetan immolations really consolidated the latest phase of resistance, focussed on the larger Tibetan circumstance itself. It was a terrible fortuity that a Western monk, Ven Tunden, and someone I actually knew, a few months ago magnified and crystallised a lot of the issues that interest me, in his own sacrifice. A terrible, great gift – to a world that barely knows it.

You mentioned traveling in Burma and some of its bordering countries as part of your research on political prisoners. Would you care to speak a little more of this experience and how it might have contributed to writing this essay?

I’d been writing about Burma for some years but it wasn’t until actually going there for the 2010 election and being with the people themselves that the full nature of their experience began to come clear. And that was breathtaking, shocking, inspiring and deeply unsettling in terms especially, again, of how it reconfigured for me the frequently squandered privilege of so-called first world democracy. My own involvement was minimal yet crucially tied to Western privilege. It was only in my last 24 hours inside Burma that I faced the surveillance of regime security and those hours viscerally communicated a very distant echo of what I witnessed in my Burmese friends. Even then I was always, categorically, immune from abuse in a way they never could be.

There are few things that permanently change your entire worldview but being in Burma has for me been one of them. It was hard to fathom the depth of selflessness and commitment with which political prisoners not merely (when lucky) survived literally unthinkable ordeals of dehumanisation, but were able to return from that limbo to speak with unimpeachable authority of what it means to resist pathological power in non-theoretical, even transcendental terms. (The same absolute value is manifest in the Tibetan acts as well, except that their witness is precisely their mortal death.) They blew all the boundaries of Northern bourgeois entitlement and the ethos of myopic self-interest it normalises. (Ven Tunden’s immolation similarly confronts that whole superstructure.) I haven’t been more inspired anywhere than by those activists who give us all reason to be grateful for their demonstration of what it means to give unconditionally (rather than take, conditionally) in ethical-political, and ultimately human-spiritual, terms. At the same time, that victory is bittersweet, vulnerable to the reciprocal recognition it needs to really take cultural root – as I point to in the essay. My essay tries to pick up on how that recognition might contribute to a wider culture of honouring the extreme but generally marginalised gestures that, it seems to me, keep the global witness to (authentic, rather than economically-mediated) freedom alive. In that affirmative sense, there are no ultimate political or economic boundaries, and they remind us of that by joining hands with others who are doing the same – or trying to – across the world. Of course, the majority of them are anonymous. So that a Tibetan monastic, a jailed Burmese journalist, and Ven Tunden, are the same, powerfully bonded, universal archetype, even in their obscurity.

Are self-immolations openly discussed in the Tibetan Buddhist community or is the topic shied away from?

It’s not a question with an easy answer because variable contexts result in different sorts of exposures of trust. It probably really depends on the nature of the discussants and who and what they represent. Some are naturally cautious and others are firebrands. Most generally keep to the counsel of the Dalai Lama who only qualifiedly praises the immolations and hopes they’ll soon end. Many are concerned for their tenuous security in places like India, but even countries like Australia, where complicit Chinese surveillance and faux-PR propaganda compromise effective activism. (China is good friends with everyone, after all, especially loyal Tibetan subjects. Not to mention its willing Australian bedfellows.) Psychologically, there is clearly a mixed blessing of pride and shame that makes sharing opinion extremely charged, especially with such a proud but generous people as the Tibetans are. They give everything they have, but not their honour, and the self-immolations could be seen as both admissions of despair, and, again, a transcendental freedom – by virtue of the whole superstructure of karma, awakening, nirvanic supersedence of ‘this suffering realm of samsara’. So failing some cultural initiation into that mythic-religious mindset, they are careful in how they project a certain self-representation: martyrs only on their own terms, and not that of geopolitical expediency. They want their rightful autonomy, not indifferent charity. Respect, not pity. Political commitment, not rhetorical self-exoneration.

Are you planning on turning this essay into a larger work?

It definitely grows beyond my expectations. Last year I finished writing a novella on the Burmese experience, which proved to be a deep-sea dive in getting much more deeply under the psychic skin of the same events. I’m hoping to return to Burma to check out how Western promises are turning out for the people on the ground and the NGOs and other grass-roots organisations trying to serve real needs. So far I can see a few KFCs are sprouting up in Rangoon which, the dictatorship notwithstanding, only three years ago was one of the most enchantingly decrepit, atmospheric and captivating cities in the world. The free world is already changing all that. But, of course, everyone wants KFC, whether they do or not, and democracy (especially US-style paternalist democracy) always comes with the most pernicious price.


(published online April 3, 2013)

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