A few weeks ago, at the Drammen Sacred music festival near Oslo, I gave a talk titled “Buddhadasa’s Buddhism and Nurbakhsh’s Sufism – Different Roads to the Same Destination“. With that talk and this blog post, The Garden of Liberation project or prototype has begun to exist.
Bringing religion or spirituality to bear upon our impending cultural and societal transformation is a theme that some of my friends are passionately interested in. And others are not. Indeed, some of my closest people are passionate about abolishing religion, considering it an obstacle to progress and an evolutionary step back – into irrational mores and values of the past, based on the belief in the supernatural.
I am passionate about reconciling those differences.
In this essay, which builds on what I told at Drammen Sacred, I will take advantage of some real-life developments in the Suan Mokkh (The Garden of Liberation) forest monastery in Thailand, to highlight that the essence or meaning of religion is not necessarily what most of us believe it is; and that an interest in what I’ll end up calling religion may be a natural and timely response to the situation we are in – as humans, and also as scientists and scholars. (A concise and intuitive-artistic big-picture view of the essence of religion is given in Appendix II.)
But this essay, and The Garden of Liberation project that is outlined in it, are not only or even primarily about religion.
I am about to share a crescendo of themes and insights, beginning with the essence of Buddhism and of religion, and continuing with the reasons why this essence gets garbled and transformed into something entirely different or even opposite. We shall then see how by focusing on this single instance of miscommunication, our communication might be reconfigured. And how by working with communication in that way, we may help a variety of transformative memes inform the next phase of our societal and cultural evolution. (I am using the word meme as Richard Dawkins did, namely to denote a basic unit of cultural inheritance, cross-fertilization and evolution, or metaphorically ‘a cultural gene’.)
Not the least, I want to tell you an interesting story, which is what the Suan Mokkh forest monastery invites.
At 9:30 PM on last New Year’s Eve, the kind of time when, I was imagining, my friends in the West would be just beginning to warm up for celebration, I was already in bed. And what a bed it was! If I tell you that the concrete surface was covered by a straw mat, you would get a wrong idea of luxury and comfort, because this mat was less than a millimeter thick – the kind of thing you might put under your cereal plate, only of course larger. The pillow was a matching one – it was carved out of a solid piece of wood! The bell would wake us up next morning at 4:00 am, so that at 4:30 we would begin meditation. The last, vegan meal would be served each day at 12:30.
After the 10-day silent retreat at the International Dharma Hermitage of the Suan Mokkh forrest monastery, I would be retreating deeper into the forest, into the international section of the monastery called Sumedhaso Donkiem, where I would be living with the monks the way they do: sleeping in a one-person forest hut called kuti; still waking up at 4:00 am for meditation; following a monk to collect alms in one of the villages in the area; sharing the only meal of the day at 9:00 am; ending the day with another long meditation. Indeed most of the day would be spent in meditation, combined with sweeping fallen leaves along a maze of forest paths.
Upon return to Oslo I would continue in the simple lifestyle I began at Suan Mokkh – waking up early for meditation, eating wholesome food, practicing… well, you’ll see what exactly in a moment.
If you are now thinking that all this must be an exercise in self-induced suffering, as my mother thought when I first told her the story, then you are completely mistaken, because exactly the opposite is the case: It’s the elimination of suffering that Buddhism is all about.
And if you are wondering why someone like myself who is not a believing Buddhist would do this sort of thing, and even write about it in his academic blog, then just read on, because that’s exactly what I’m about to share.
The Buddha’s discovery
During mu stay in The Garden of Liberation, I learned to perceive Ajahn Buddhadasa (1906-1993) – the enlightened monk who initiated it in 1932 – as a man who was endowed with an exceptionally clear, modern, and I could even say scientific mind.
And so in Ajahn Buddhadasa’s writings the Buddha too appears as a man with an exceptionally clear, modern and even scientific mind – who made a discovery, closely similar to what we call ‘a natural law’, about the nature and the origins of human suffering; and how a specific kind or cause of suffering, whose technical name is Dukkha, could be eradicated.
How relevant is Dukkha?
In the course of this essay we shall reach conclusions which, I anticipate, will surprise you. But for now, suffice it to say that I come from a middle-class family whose members are generally successful, healthy and caring toward each other other. Whatever suffering has remained, and still divides my people’s daily experience from the kind of serenity and togetherness that are in principle possible – it is mostly due to just that, just Dukkha.
I have no difficulty extending this picture up the social ladder – to the so-called 1%, or the 0.01%, and all the way to the very top. I also have no difficulty extending it down the social ladder, all the way to its very bottom. Although there, of course, the culprit Dukkha might well sometimes be in the people on the other side of the social ladder.
The Buddhist formula pointing to the Dukkha-related suffering is “birth, old age, sickness and death”. Don’t be deceived by its literal meaning – its subtle and central message is that even the kinds of suffering that are so much part of our lives that we normally consider them unavoidable can in fact be reduced and even eliminated, by suitable practice.
But Dukkha is not relevant only to suffering. Dukkha gives its characteristic emotional overtones to practically all sides of our daily life and culture, including what we know as love relationships and marriages, and love songs and poetry.
You will get a more precise idea of the nature of the Buddha’s discovery if you see it in the context of the ‘laboratory’ in which it took place – the forests of ancient India. Here is how Rabindranath Tagore described it:
[I]n India it was in the forests that our civilization had its birth, and it took a distinct character from this origin and environment. It was surrounded by the vast life of nature, was fed and clothed by her, and had the closest and most constant intercourse with her varying aspects. […] Having been in constant contact with the living growth of nature [the man’s] mind was free from the desire to extend his dominion by erecting boundary walls around his acquisition. His aim was not to acquire but to realise, to enlarge his consciousness by growth with and growing into his surroundings. He felt that truth is all-comprehensive, that there is no such thing as absolute isolation in existence, and the only way of attaining truth is through the interpenetration of our being into all objects. To realise this great harmony between man’s spirit and the spirit of the world was the endeavor of the forest-dwelling sages of ancient India.
The Indian tradition recognized the sort of achievements that were accessible to the forest-dwelling sages as the highest ones:
There were the virtuous, the wise, the courageous; there were the statesmen, kings and emperors of India; but whom amongst all these classes did she look up to and choose to be the representative of men? They were the rishis […] who having attained the supreme soul in knowledge were filled with wisdom […]
And so it was not altogether unnatural in this sort of cultural climate that even a young prince, Siddhartha, would withdraw into a forest to pursue this highest goal.
The research that went on in those forest labs was not in its essence different from what goes on in our university labs – people observed, made conjectures, tested them, shared the results, tried again. But what they experimented with was different – those were various forms of meditation, breathing, diet, physical exercise, emotional and ethical attitudes… Their laboratory instruments were their own bodies. The results of their research were their inner states and conditions.
Twenty-five centuries ago from of one of those forest labs came the news: Venerable Siddhartha found a way to nirvana! And to enlightenment! And in his enlightenment he saw the nature of a major part of human suffering, and how it may be eliminated. People flocked, both kings and commoners, to seek advice, and to drink wisdom from the source.
The community around this enlightened teacher and his teaching grew. Centuries passed. Buddhism became recognized as one of the world’s major religions. So that eventually even I, as a boy growing up in a distant country in Europe, like so many other boys worldwide, naturally knew about it.
The question may, however, be asked – To what degree did my knowledge about Buddhism reflect the Buddha’s original discovery?
Or even – To what degree might the knowledge about Buddhism of a practicing Buddhist still reflect the Buddha’s original discovery?
By looking into those questions we will be focusing on the main theme of this blog, which is the condition of our communication and knowledge work; and how their condition might be improved; and with it also our own condition, and our future.
Ajahn Buddhadasa’s rediscovery
Having as a young monk seen the limitations of the book-and-monastery approach to Buddhism, in 1932, Phra Dharmakosacarya ( who later became Ajahn Buddhadasa, ‘the slave of Buddha’, and an influential reformer of Buddhism) undertook to recreate and repeat the Buddha’s experiment.
He learned Pali, to be able to read the original texts, and carefully reconstructed and adopted the Buddha’s forest way of living and practice, including his meditation technique called Anapanasati. And he experimented extensively.
In this way Ajahn Buddhadasa found that
- the Buddha’s experiment was repeatable – he, and the monks who joined him over the years, were able to reproduce and experience the elimination of Dukkha, and savor Nibbana, a natural consequence
- ‘the Buddha’s Law’ (if you’ll allow me to apply this contemporary metaphor to the Buddha’s original discovery) was not only different – it was in certain significant ways opposite from the way the Buddha’s teaching was usually interpreted and understood
The essence of Buddhism
You may now imagine me sitting in the Suan Mokkh library, the morning after I arrived, and a week before the International Dharma Hermitage retreat would begin, reading my first Ajahn Buddhadasa text. At that point I knew nothing about this man. And the ideas I had of Buddhism were the common ones – that Buddhism was founded on the belief in reincarnation: If you live virtuously in this life, your next incarnation will be better. And if you persist over many lifetimes, you may eventually reach ‘Nirvana’, a condition where you no longer incarnate but continue to live in bliss as a disembodied spirit, and in that way put an end to earthly suffering.
The book I was reading, whose title was “Heartwood from the Bo Tree”, was about to turn my understanding of Buddhism upside down. The Bo tree is the tree under which, according to the tradition, the Buddha reached enlightenment. So the title of this book alluded to the very core, the essence of Buddhism (understood as the Buddha’s original teaching).
The first thing I learned was that Buddhism had nothing to do with beliefs of any kind:
To call something a foundation of the Buddhist Teachings is only correct if […] it has a logic that one can see for oneself without having to believe others.
And in particular, that Buddhism had nothing to do with reincarnation:
The Buddha refused to have any dealing with those things which don’t lead to the extinction of Dukkha. Take the question of whether or not there is rebirth. What is reborn? How is it reborn? What is its kammic inheritance? These question are not aimed at the extinction of Dukkha. That being so, they are not Buddhist teaching and they are not connected with it.
So what then is the essence of Buddhism?
There is a section in the Majjhima Nikaya where someone approached the Buddha and asked him whether he could summarize his teachings in one phrase and, if he could, what it would be. The Buddha replied that he could: “Sabbe Dhamma Nalam Abhinivesaya”. “Sabbe dhamma” means “all things,” “nalam” means “should not be”, ”abhinivesaya” means “to be clung to”. Nothing whatsoever should be clung to. Then the Buddha emphasized this point by saying that whoever had heard this core-phrase had heard all of the Teachings, whoever had put it into practice had practiced all the Teachings, and whoever had received the fruits of practising this point had received all of the fruits of the Buddhist Teachings.
The technical name for ‘the Buddha’s Law’ is Paticcasamuppada (Dependent Origination), which is a step-by-step description of a process by which Dukkha and clinging arise, and how they may be eliminated. This is not a place to discuss Paticcasamuppada’s details, so let me now again only point to what might be its key message. Buddhadasa points to it with a short formula, “I” and “mine”:
We must see that this “I” and “mine” is the root cause of all forms of Dukkha. Whenever there is clinging, then there is the darkness of ignorance. There is no clarity because the mind is not empty; it is shaken up, frothing and foaming with the feeling of “I” and “mine”. In direct contrast, the mind that is free of clinging to “I” and “mine” is serene, filled full of truth-discerning awareness.
So we must firmly grasp the fact that there are two kinds of feeling: that of “I” and “mine”, and that of truth-discerning awareness, and that they are totally antagonistic. If one enters the mind the other springs out. Only one can be present at a time. […] Freedom from “I” and “mine” is truth-discerning awareness. […]
What Ajahn Buddhadasa pointed to as the spell of “I” and “mine” is of course closely related to everyday egoism:
If we are empty of egoism, there is no consciousness of “I” and “mine”. [Then] the disease cannot be born, and the disease that has already arisen will disappear as if picked up and thrown away. At that moment, the mind will be completely filled with Dhamma. This accords with the remark that emptiness is truth-discerning awareness, emptiness is the Dhamma, emptiness is the Buddha, because in that moment of being empty of “I” and “mine” there will be present every desirable virtue in the whole Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures).
We can now grasp the meaning of the title of the book I was reading, The Heartwood of the Bo Tree: The actual physical bo tree has no heartwood – the inside is empty. Hence the metaphor – the essence of Buddhism is the emptiness, the non-attachment or non-perception of anything as being ‘I’ or as belonging to oneself.
Making sense of this essence
How can we understand this? How is “clinging” related to Dukkha, and to everyday suffering?
Polyscopy (the approach to information and knowledge I have been developing over the past two decades, which is the theme of this blog) allows for understanding profound ideas and notions like the ones above with the help of simple metaphorical images. As I was reading the above lines, I already had a suitable image ready: I imagined the “clinging” that the Buddha talked about as an inner, mental and emotional tensing up or cramping. I imagined Dukkha as the suffering that results from a cramped inner condition, where we – incapable of dancing with the natural fluidity of life’s movement – struggle to bend it and subjugate it to our will; and to control and subjugate others.
“Truth-discerning awareness”, or ‘enlightenment’ as it is popularly known, may then be understood simply as a cramp-free inner condition, in which our mindset spontaneously reshapes itself according to the realities that surround us, and reflects them accurately as a surface of a calm lake would.
How is this emptiness or dis-identification related to the cessation of suffering? A hint is provided by the following metaphor.
Imagine yourself walking down the street, and passing by a couple holding hands, happily in love. Perhaps you didn’t even notice the couple. And if you did, the feeling they gave you would probably be just pleasant.
Imagine now that one of the couple was your man or woman. Imagine your heart pounding, your face turning red…
Let this simple metaphor point to the possibility that our perception of something or someone as ‘mine’ may make this sort of difference – between joyful passing by, and intense suffering.
“But wait a minute”, I imagine you say, “what you’ve just described was not a perception of reality but reality itself – didn’t you ask me to imagine that the person I saw holding hands really was my woman or man?”
I will answer with another hint: It is exactly this change, from perceiving something as the reality, to perceiving it as only a perception – that is likely to be the key step in our impending cultural and societal transformation. I will come back to this hint and explain it in a moment.
‘Orthodoxy’ strayed from the essence
But what about the Buddhist belief system, its metaphysics? What about reincarnation? Ajahn Buddhadasa explained:
The real meaning of the word “birth” as the Buddha meant it is not the birth from a mother’s womb, that’s too physical. The birth that the Buddha was pointing to was spiritual, the birth of the clinging to “I” and “mine”. In one day there can be hundreds of births; the amount depends on a person’s capacity, but in each birth the “I” and “mine” arises, slowly fades, and gradually disappears and dies. Shortly, on contact with a sense-object, another arises. Each birth generates a reaction that carries over to the next.
The reincarnation theory would have us believe that we have a lasting identity, which we cannot be rid of even at the point of dying. But what the Buddha intended was something quite thoroughly different – that the self is indeed an illusion (or as we might prefer to say today, a product of our socialization, see further below):
It is hard to say when this incorrect explanation first arose. But the fact that it is incorrect is easy to show because it is contrary to the original Pali Scriptures. It is contrary to the purpose of Paticcasamuppada, which is to destroy the “I” concept.
Similarly, Nibbana (or Nirvana) is not the end of physical incarnation, Buddhadasa explains. The literal meaning is “coolness”. Nibbana is the kind of word that a child in Prince Siddhartha’s time might have used to say that the soup needed to be cooler. As an inner condition, Nibbana is a state we may be experiencing – and losing – many times each day, losing it every time the “I” perception is reborn, giving rise to Dukkha, and to suffering. The goal of the Buddhist practice is to remain in this state permanently – in which case also certain lasting and more profound psychological and cognitive advantages gradually become accessible.
But how did the reincarnation theory then become part of Buddhism? How did it happen that not only I, as a boy growing up in a distant part of the world, but even so many believing Buddhists – acquired a distorted idea of the Buddha’s message and teaching?
It is not difficult to see what happened: At a certain point, the belief system of the old religion, to which the Buddha as a reformer was indeed opposed, came in through the back door and ousted the host. Buddhism turned into a “universal theory” (see Science and Religion).
Parallels with other religions suggest themselves, and I leave them to you to explore as an easy but important exercise.
The essence of religion
Having in this way rediscovered the essence of Buddhism, Ajahn Buddhadasa undertook an extensive study of the world religions. He concluded that they share the same essence:
Ordinary, ignorant worldly peo0ple are under the impression that there is this religion and that religion, and that these religions are different, so different that they’re opposed to each other. […] Those who have penetrated to the essential nature of religion will regard all religions as being the same. Although they may say there is buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Islam, or whatever, they will also say that all religions are inwardly the same. However, those who have penetrated to the highest understanding of Dhamma will feel that the thing called “religion” doesn’t exist after all. There is no Buddhism; there is no Christianity; there is no Islam. How can they be the same or in conflict when they don’t even exist?
The point here is that the people who have attained this “highest understanding” have clearly seen that the only thing that truly exists, beyond and independent of our linguistic and cultural constructs, is just Dhamma – the nature, and the natural law.
The reason why I had no difficulty believing that there was indeed this subtle natural law, was that I had the unusual fortune to study three other ways to practice and experience its existence and its consequences, under three similarly daring and authentic Oriental masters. In Appendix I, I am sharing a few taste bits of this practice illustrating its nature and goals, to add some real-life texture and flavor to this sweeping conclusion that Ajahn Buddhadasa made.
I should also mention that the significance of this natural law extends well beyond spirituality or religion. Alders Huxley even called it “the basic principle underlying the practice of every art”:
The great truth discovered on the spiritual level by the masters of prayer, that “the more there is of the ‘I,’, the less there is of God,” has been discovered again and again on the physiological level by the masters of the various arts and skills. The more there is of the “I,” the less there is of Nature – of the right and normal functioning of the organism.
Let us for a moment ignore that we’ve been talking about ‘Buddhism’, and about ‘religion’. Let’s just focus on the factual or phenomenological part of the story: Someone practiced in a certain way, and reached a certain experience; someone else practiced in a similar way, and reached a similar experience. Perhaps then regardless of what you may think about religion and its essence, you will agree with me that there is a subtle natural law that connects unselfishness or selflessness as practice with a certain better condition and functioning of the human organism – simply because a number of different people in different times and traditions experienced and affirmed its existence (see further examples in Appendices I and II).
In what follows I will refer to both this natural law and any specific attempt or way to place it into culture, and have it influence its evolution and thereby also our evolution as humans, as Meme X. By framing it as meme or ‘a cultural gene’, I want to highlight its potential to cross-fertilize with other memes and influence our culture and institutions, and our life itself.
By calling it X, I want to suggest that
- it hasn’t yet acquired a name and citizenship rights in our culture
- it has multiple posible concrete names given in different traditions, hence it is right to consider it ‘a variable’ (a generic name that can assume different values)
- it is not yet sufficiently understood, and it may even still need to be ‘discovered’
Of course, when I say this, I am talking about our own culture. Meme X has been discovered and rediscovered many times in the past. Its existence might have been the worst kept secret in the history of mankind; but it has somehow remained a secret.
The role of culture
This title may seem strange: Does culture really have a role? And what do I really mean by “the role” anyhow – the role in what?
I speak here about “the role” in two related but distinct contexts:
- the role in our society
- the role in our impending transition from an unsustainable way of existing and evolving to something different and better
You have probably noticed that in the traditional or ‘conventional’ scheme of things ‘culture’ is not really tied to any explicit purpose. Culture is simply what it is — institutions, practices and beliefs that we see around us and that we associate with the word ‘culture’. A disadvantage of this approach to defining things is that it reifies the status quo, and thereby inhibits evolution and change. How can we even think of improving an institution or practice or belief, if we don’t tie it to a purpose as a reference point?
Before I propose a solution, which has been developed within polyscopy (I emphasize that this is “a” solution, the multiplicity of views and viewpoints is in polyscopy’s very name), let me illustrate the problem.
Whatever your definition of ‘culture’ might be, you will probably agree with me that part of its social function is to take care of culturally relevant memes.
How is our culture handling Meme X?
The answer is obvious – it just isn’t!
We only need to look around to see that: We are surrounded by advertisings, whose role is to increase our appetite for things, to make us desirous and wanting. Similarly, our entertainment industry and our media informing are competing for our attention, by overstimulating sensory impressions of all kinds.
Our culture (if we can still call it that) is instructing us to pursue happiness in a direction that is opposite from the one that follows from the Buddha’s Law and the Meme X!
The reason for this is also familiar: We have an economy where the success and even the very existence of a business, and the employment and the livelihood of its people, depend on its ability to sell us stuff. And so we’ve employed our best communication design talents and our powerful media technology in a culture-wide effort to make us want more. To convince us that we need, deserve, desire… more and more.
And so our culture (if it still merits that name) is being recreated by economic interests, to misguide us and mis-evolve us – as suitable to those interests!
This cultural bias acquires a dramatic side when we see it against the background of our global condition. Here a giant on whose shoulders I like to stand is Aurelio Peccei, who made it clear (1) that we must make a turn (a new direction, and motive, for development) and (2) that the ‘steering wheel’ for making this turn has to be found in culture (see Science and Religion):
The downward trend of human fortunes can be countered and reversed only by the advent of a new humanism essentially based on and aiming at man’s cultural development, that is, a substantial improvement in human quality throughout the world.
Peccei also wrote that
The future will either be an inspired product of a great cultural revival, or there will be no future.
By liberating ‘culture’ from its reification as the existing practices and institutions, we can empower ourselves to envision and develop better ones!
If you’ve been reading this blog, then you are aware that polyscopy is conceived as an approach to communication and knowledge that suits our culture in transition. In polyscopy, definitions are conventions. Those conventions are usually made by pointing to a role. In this way we can assign roles to institutions, and to other things as well. We can then see how well, or how poorly, our institutions and other things suit those assigned roles; and what we may need to do to improve them. (I emphasise that there’s nothing conclusive about those polyscopy definitions, on the contrary: Many diverse definitions re possible, and indeed desired. Each of them might point to a specific role, and to specific measures that may need to be taken to improve the performance with respect to that role.)
In polyscopy we defined culture as ‘cultivation of wellbeing‘. The word ‘cultivation’ is explained by analogy with planting and watering a seed (recall that the word ‘culture’ is etymologically related to the cultivation of land).
What is the point of this definition? What practical difference might it make?
The idea here is to point to certain specific and quite wonderful benefits we humans may reap from culture – provided we direct our attention and communicate in certain specific ways.
Meme X is a case in point.
What I’ve nicknamed “The Buddha’s Law” is closely analogous to the natural law that governs the transformation of a seed into a tree, as a result of watering: We don’t see the tree grow as a result of watering. We wouldn’t know about the possibility to plant and water the seed just by looking at the seed; and even dissecting the seed and analysing its anatomy scientifically would not be of much help. We must therefore rely on suitable communication (of repeated human experience, connecting an action with an effect) to make cultivation possible. But once the social mechanisms necessary to support it are in place, planting and watering the seed will make the difference between an apple eaten up and the seed thrown away, and a large tree full of fresh apples in each new season.
Is Meme X pointing to a similar possibility? And if it is – why hasn’t this possibility been realised in daily practice?
Here is where the communication becomes a most interesting challenge: Those among us who have experienced Nirvana or Nibbana tell us that “Nibbana is the supreme”; but telling it to those among us who have not experienced it is like describing the beauty of the sunrise to a blind! Let’s hear Ajahn Buddhadasa again:
As for saying that Nibbana is the supreme happiness, it is an expression in the language of relative truth, a sort of enticing propaganda in the language of the common man used because in general people are infatuated with happiness, they want nothing else. So it is necessary to tell them that Nibbana is happiness and what’s more it’s the supreme happiness. But truly speaking, Nibbana is greater than happiness, beyond it.
Notice that the kind of possibility that is the theme of Meme X and of this essay is triply subtle or obscure:
- its effects (very much like the effects of watering a tree) become manifest only in the long run; we cannot perceive how a certain practice (unselfishness or selflessness) produces a certain effect (Nibbana, or wellbeing)
- its effects are inside of us; when it succeeds, it influences our ability to feel – joy, rupture, love… or literally ‘how we feel’, that is, how we respond emotionally to what happens outside of us; and yet the good feeling will still be experienced as being caused by something that is outside of us, such as a beautiful day, or a beautiful world
- its effects cannot be understood by our conventional mechanistic-causal thinking (again rather like the effects of planting and watering a seed)
The results of physical watering (such as the apples) everyone can see, and taste. The results of this inner, cultural one are hidden inside. And the very nature of this ‘watering’ is, of course, similarly hidden.
What a wonderful communication challenge!
And that challenge – that is what our project is really all about.
As you’ve surely noticed, we have now a most wonderful assortment of media tools and techniques; yet we don’t quite what to do with them.
Put those things together, and you’ll have no difficulty seeing why I’m so much looking forward to developing this project!
The role of religion
The definition of religion that’s been created and used in polyscopy is rather more interesting and general than what is normally thought of as religion; but this definition requires a bit more space to explain than what we have here. So let’s for the purpose of this conversation define religion as simply the custodianship or curatorship of Meme X. We may then conclude that part of the function of religion is the development of Memeplex X – which includes all memes and other things such as music, ritual, beliefs, rules and habits of conduct, architecture… that together enable the communication, internalization and blossoming of Meme X.
You’ll have no difficulty noticing that the ‘religions’ we’ve inherited from the past are at their very best only rough approximations of the ideal religion (that might be possible if we put our minds and bodies to the task, with contemporary knowledge and technology.) And that at their worst, they are its very opposites.
You’ll also have no difficulty noticing that a culture practicing unselfishness or selflessness, by giving advantage to the interests of others and of the community, by developing a respectful or loving attitude toward all beings, would be far more likely to create a ‘sustainable’ or ‘thriving’ society than the culture we currently have.
But there’s of course a stumbling block – what we perceive as ‘our personal interests’; or the prisoner’s dilemma, if we should be more technical.
It must therefore be reassuring that in an informed society, transcending our naively conceived ‘personal interests’ might well be recognised as our personal interest par excellence – being a way to pursue personal wellbeing beyond, and indeed well beyond, what is reachable by our currently prevailing naive or uninformed or misinformed ‘pursuit of happiness’.
To highlight the exact role of Meme X and of religion, let me now introduce another concept. In polyscopy we talk about wholeness as an ideal condition of a system where nothing essential is missing (a human body needs both the heart and the liver to function properly), and where all the parts function in synergy and harmony and syntony (to use the favored word of Erich Jantsch and of my friend Alexander Laszlo, of whom I’ll say more in a moment). We may now be able to perceive Meme X as a missing piece in our societal and cultural wholeness — the piece that we now need to even understand that wholeness is indeed possible, that collective wellbeing and individual wellbeing can stand in perfect synergy, that one is not reached at the expense or negligence of the other.
The role of religion is, then, simply to help us replace that missing piece, and in that way make our culture, and society and ourselves, more whole.
In a world where ‘religion’ is so often associated with closed-mindedness and violence, it may be refreshing to see that there’s a possibility to abolish the virtual monopoly that the corresponding institutions now have on Meme X, and on its discoverers and progenitors; to give religion a new life; to enable its institutions to evolve beyond their present form – which is so often just a degenerate variant of a form they acquired many centuries ago.
Religion (etymologically related to ‘ligament’) has always served as ‘connecting tissues’ binding a society together. This renewed religion may naturally also serve as connecting tissues – for an entirely new society.
The role of science
During the Enlightenment, with the retreat of religion and of tradition, science acquired the key social role of founding truth and worldview.
A meme knocking at the door of our culture to be accepted as “an idea worth spreading” – through education, public informing and in other ways – must first pass the check on its guard post: Is this ‘scientifically proven’? Are the language it’s expressed in and the worldview it is founded on compatible with the language and worldview of science?
How does science deal with Meme X?
The answer is of course that it just doesn’t.
(I must say at once that this sort of sweeping generalization may work as a ‘mountain-top view’, where we see the forest but not the trees. But as soon as we go down a bit and inspect the trees, we see that there are instances where science is used to found religion – and indeed, even in our own midst. Professor Dejan Raković has been doing that for many years, as a quantum physicist. The related work we are now doing together will be the theme of “A collective mind – Part Two”; see an early report in the post The Foundations Frontier).
It is not difficult to see why: As Stephen Toulmin observed in Return to Reason (see Return to Reason), science was not created for its role on the guard post, but as a certain way to explain the natural phenomena. Science came into that role more or less by accident – because the worldview science created served for explaining the natural phenomena so much better than the ‘Holy Book’-based worldview did; and because it was generally assumed that worldview creation was just the right way to do the “guard post” function as well.
But then something most interesting happened: As Werner Heisenberg observed in Physics and Philosophy (see Science and Religion), science disproved its earlier worldview; and replaced it with a whole new one!
Let’s revisit this book, which I so often quote, and the situation around it, to carefully see what this means.
Heisenberg was an extraordinary scientist, who got his Nobel Prize when he was barely in his 30s, “for the creation of quantum mechanics”, which he did in his 20s. It is therefore most significant that in his 50s, summarizing the achievements of modern physics, he concluded that (“one might say that”) “the most important change brought about by its results” might be in the dissolution of a “narrow and rigid” frame of concepts that the 19th century science had created, which made “those parts of reality that had been the object of the traditional religion [seem] more or less only imaginary”. There can be no doubt that Heisenberg was warning us that what was happening on “the guard post of our culture” was (1) damaging to culture and (2) no longer legitimate. And that he was pointing to the value of proving it illegitimate – in a way that is legitimate to that same “guard post”.
The logical consequence was that the operation of the “guard post” should be changed.
But there was a paradox: Having evolved as a way to explain certain kinds of phenomena in certain specific ways, science had no way, and naturally also no interest, to change and adapt to its role on “the guard post”. Or to any other role. Science is simply what it is; and so it does what it does.
But what is now to be done about that “guard post” bit?
If you’ve been reading this blog post and this blog sufficiently ‘between the lines’, then you have surely noticed that that’s what I’ve been talking about – and indeed also doing – all along.
Some of the more interesting developments are still waiting to be written up and published as “A collective mind – Part Two”.
The people who have looked under the surface of our large and threatening ‘contemporary issues’, concluded that they are caused by the inability of our basic institutions – the corporation, the monetary system, the governance… to adapt to the changing needs of what they called “the post-industrial society” (see “Toward a scientific understanding and treatment of problems”). As we have just seen, also our institutionalised creation of truth and worldview might suffer from the same difficulty.
We may now once again conclude that our core problem – and hence our key opportunity – is not in any specific institution, but in the way all our institutions have been evolving.
But isn’t it exactly there that Meme X might make a difference? Just imagine a society where giving advantage to others and selfless service to humanity are widely understood as the informed person’s way to ‘pursue happiness’!
Coming back to our new situation, or to”the world problematique” or “the predicament of mankind” as Peccei and The Club of Rome called it, it must now be refreshing to see that the solutionatique may be as straightforward as heeding the admonitions of some well known and well informed people, which were made already a half-century ago. In the Thrivability Strategy manuscript and especially on the PolyScopy portal (which now exists as a rough mockup not yet ready to be publicly shown), I am elaborating the details of this scenario.
The role of liberation
By naming his forest monastery as he did, Ajahn Buddhadasa emphasized the role of liberation. What is this role?
What exactly do we need to liberate ourselves from?
What Ajahn Buddhadasa found was that grasping and clinging or more simply selfishness creates for us and in us a whole variety of prisons, in which we live voluntarily without being aware of their existence:
Although that which imprisons us is only one thing, namely upādāna [attachment, grasping and clinging], this prison takes on many different forms. There are dozens of styles and kinds of prison. If we take the time to study every type of prison, it will help us to understand this phenomenon much better.
I will here focus on only one of those “prisons”, which is not often talked about, although our present condition and our future depend acutely on finding a way out of that specific one.
And I’ll introduce it with the help of an anecdote.
At the beginning of one of our regular Amigos international meetings on Skype, I proposed, with tongue in cheek, that we focus the day’s conversation on (Luke 12:50-53):
Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against one another, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
It was Sunday, and so my joke proposal could have fitted the occasion. But the Amigos is not a Bible study group; we meet to work on positive social-systemic change, or technically and more precisely to “bootstrap the theory, practice and ethos of collaborative systemic innovation for the well-being of all”.
So what was the point? How are the above quotation and systemic innovation related?
And how is the above quotation related to our theme?
Christianity (understood as the Christ’s original teaching) is easily understood as an instance of Meme X – a way to wear off the grip of “I” and “mine” through a certain specific kind of practice: If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. But then the above quotation doesn’t seem to fit in at all! Will not this charitable attitude that is the essence of Christianity tend to unite us, not divide us?
This apparent paradox is resolved by observing that there’s ‘a bad guy’ in our story.
Logically, there’s got to be one. If Meme X is so good on all sides and so natural, then why aren’t we living by it spontaneously? Why do we even need the practice and the institution of religion?
And when we create institutions to help us learn and cultivate Meme X, why do they tend to fail?
And more generally – Why do so many of our institutions tend to follow a degenerative pattern in their evolution? And why aren’t we aware of that?
We have now reached a theme that I experience as uniquely interesting. This theme has been at the center of my interest for quite a while.
This is also a theme where polyscopy is being put to test: Can it help us illuminate and frame the nature of our situation, and find a way out?
The framing I have been toying with is called homo ludens (man the player as in “game player”). I have just recently talked about it at a convention of German students through Skype, and I proposed it to them as a missing piece of information they might need in order to make sense of the world they are entering, which we have created for them. And as an empowerment they might need to receive from my generation, to be able to do what they need to do.
To understand the meaning of the homo ludens formula, imagine a compulsive gamer sitting in front of a computer. Imagine his mother coming in, urging him to face the reality of his situation, which is rapidly getting out of hand. But our gamer doesn’t want to hear that – the reality he is living in is the ‘reality’ of the game; and there he’s been quite successful! (Indeed as it turns out, his ‘success’ has been based quite a bit on him abandoning this other reality; which has, to use Karl Jung’s keyword, become his shadow.)
Long story short is that when we put together suitable insights, which have been reached in diverse disciplines, we can understand how and why we’ve been evolving in the homo ludens way – ignoring our bio-physical and socio-cultural realities, and living in a ‘reality’ created by our institutions. Here are some highlights (the insights become alive when told through the stories of the people who brought them to life):
- Antonio Damasio, a leading cognitive neurologist, studies the way our mind works and concludes that we are not conscious decision makers, as Descartes (and our socialised understanding of ourselves) made us believe; that the content of our awareness is controlled by embodied pre-conscious filters; he publishes his findings in a book titled “Descartes’ Error“
- Pierre Bourdieu, a leading sociologist, as a young man and a fresh graduate of the prestigious “École normale supérieure”, observes the fallacy of the ‘official narrative’ in the Algerian war; and the transformation of the Kabyle traditional culture by modernization; notices a subtle mechanism where our socialization or culture and institution formation, and empowerment and disempowerment, are transmitted from body to body without conscious awareness; describes these insights as “the theory of practice“
- Wilhelm Reich, the youngest of Freud’s famous disciples, observes the rise of Hitler in Berlin, and later in Vienna; realises how submission to authority is embodied through socialisation – and at what cost to our psychological and emotional wellbeing; writes a pair of books with shared subtitle “the emotional plague of mankind“
- Sergei Chakhotin, a friend and younger collaborator of Ivan Pavlov, follows the ascent of Hitler at close range; realises how close (political) propaganda is to the kind of conditioning that Pavlov applied to his dogs; writes “Le viol des foules par la propagande politique” (I don’t quite agree with the way this title has been translated into English)
- Yuval Noah Harari, a historian writing and currently the best selling author of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind“, observes that what enabled our species to conquer the world, and the single advantage we have over other species, is our ability to organise ourselves in effective ways, or more precisely, to evolve certain effective forms of human organisation – by creating myths and turning them into shared beliefs
Harari gives us another important clue, when he reaffirms (based on relevant research) that we have no reason to believe that this sort of societal evolution has made us happier.
To whom or to what did our conquest of the world and our successful evolution then serve, if not our wellbeing, or happiness, or wholeness?
We let the archenemy of religion deliver us this last piece:
- Richard Dawkins observes the workings of Darwinian “survival of the fittest” evolution, and concludes that its true and only benefactor is the best adapted gene, or meme; writes “The Selfish Gene“
You may now imagine various forms of societal organisation emerging, competing with one another, often violently. The more aggressive ones prevailing over those meeker ones, and “inheriting the Earth”.
Harari gives us money as the prime example of a successfully shared myth that shaped our society or socialization. But there’s another, perhaps even more to the point candidate. And interestingly, Harari has it already in the title of his book – without pointing out that it’s a myth! By calling ourselves “sapiens”, we have given our species a distinguished place in the living world – of the beings who truly know, and truly aspire to knowledge. But once the subtle reasons for our present situation are properly understood (and as we’ve just seen, we already own the knowledge that is required for that, we only need to put it together), we will have to acknowledge that a more accurate framing is to consider ourselves as homo ludens.
Evolving to become the homo sapiens will then emerge as the next phase in our evolution; and as the natural way out of our problems.
To put Meme X and “the essence of Buddhism” into this picture, you may imagine that our metaphorical compulsive gamer has an avatar he’s identified with; and that the objective of the game he’s been socialized to accept as reality is to improve this avatar’s position in the game, even when that’s clearly at the cost of his own real-life condition.
It is clear that the dis-identification from this avatar is the key first step each of us will need to take, if we want to be part of a global solution.
You may have noticed a touch of teasing in the homo ludens formula; which is not inapt, you will also notice, if you consider the serious side of this matter – which I don’t need to remind you of.
Whether he’s a scientist or a priest, a banker of a company employee, the homo ludens ignores the purpose of his work. He simply learns to perform in his profession as one would learn the rules of a game; and he plays in it competitively. Occasionally he changes the rules – but only when that will increase his odds of winning.
What he’s playing for is often but not always position and wealth; sometimes it is just the esteem and the self-esteem belonging to the one who knows – the God’s laws; or the nature’s laws.
With this sort of playing and ‘knowing’, the homo ludens can create a dysfunctional or even dying world without knowing that.
Coming back to our German students, and to our younger generation in general, you might now be guessing why I felt that we, I mean our generation, owe them this message, which I framed by the homo ludens formula.
To see this clearly, imagine one of those students who is about to make an re-evolutionary step and become a homo sapiens.
What she’s beginning to see is a human world that is, according to our best experts, misconstructed and about to collapse on her shoulders. And yet she sees that the education she’s about to complete prepared her to join that world as its replaceable part – it didn’t empower her to change it. She sees that the the economy she’s expected to join has been conceived as a sort of a non-zero-sum worldwide casino, a way for people with money to extract more – not as a way to enable people like her to earn a living and contribute to common good. She sees that the media news captivate her attention with spectacular events such as wars and suicide bombers – which she finds of no use in her efforts to orient herself in this sort of world, and be part of the solution.
In the homo sapiens scheme of things, all this could only be explained as results of some macabre and self-destructive civilisation-wide conspiracy – the possibility of which of course the rational mind must at once reject. And so our student would have to admit that she simply doesn’t know, that she simply cannot understand what’s going on. And fall back on role playing.
Don’t we owe her at the very least this message – that we are not the homo sapiens we claimed we were, but the homo ludens?
As any social reformer would, the Christ knew well that before we can follow a new way – before Meme X can unite us, and guide us to evolve in a different way and ultimately “build the kingdom of heaven on earth” – we must liberate ourselves from our existing socialised allegiances, identities and realities. And that’s the essence of (my interpretation of) that passage I’ve quoted.
A consequence of this liberation is what Ajahn Buddhadasa called “the truth-discerning awareness”; and what is usually called ‘enlightenment’. Perhaps the 21st century Enlightenment might be a suitable name for the global re-evolutionary change we might hopefully now – if all goes well – go through?
We have been using the word ‘enlightenment’ in two distinct meanings: as liberation of human reason from institutionally-imposed mythological consciousness; and as spiritual enlightenment. Beautiful to see them converge to a single meaning.
The role of information
By now this must be clear: In the homo ludens scheme of things, information serves to ‘gamify’ our worldly existence – by telling us how the world originated, how it functions, and what we must believe in to function in it ourselves.
In the world that’s now becoming real, information must serve for our liberation.
In polyscopy the role o information is expressed succinctly and visually by the bus ideogram you see on top of this blog, where information is represented metaphorically as the light we need to steer our technologically advanced and rapidly moving civilisation. What this ideogram is saying is that we cannot just continue using our inherited way of producing information; that we must design it for the purposes it needs to serve.
In recent decades many insightful authors have pointed to the extraordinary moment in history we now find ourselves in. The systems scientist Bela Banathy for example wrote, in “Guided Evolution of Society” that
We are the first generation of our species that has the privilege, the opportunity, and the burden of responsibility to engage in the process of our own revolution. We are indeed chosen people. We now have the knowledge available to us and we have the power of human and social potential that is required to initiate a new and historical social function: conscious evolution.
And in “Designing Social Systems in a Changing World” Banathy compared the change we are facing to the change that happened when we discovered agriculture, and began to cultivate our biophysical environment. What we must learn now is to harness the power of our own social organization to shape our environment, and our culture, and ourselves.
In this situation it becomes especially important to be able to take care of the kind of memes that can give substance to this next phase of our evolution – as the agriculture meme once did.
I began to develop polyscopy two decades ago when I realised that
- Meme X was not alone – there were other similarly hidden cultural quantum leap possibilities
- Purposeful communication – the one that is liberated from our worldviews, and focused simply on communicating culturally relevant experiences – might be exactly what we need to become able to realise them in practice
An example of another transformative meme is the nature of effort and the possibility of effortlessness, which I talked about in this interview I gave in 2004 to Croatian Vjesnik. At the Einstein Meets Magritte interdisciplinary conference (envisioned as a place where scientists and artists would meet to co-evolve solutions to contemporary issues), in 1995, in a section called “Worldviews and the Problem of Synthesis” I contributed two articles:
- a prospectus or statement of purpose showing how the conventional scientific approach to information and knowledge may be extended to enable putting together heterogeneous insights such as the ones just mentioned, to create over-arching and direction-changing insights
- an application of this method to produce an insight into the paradoxical nature of happiness or wellbeing; and guidelines for an informed ‘pursuit of happiness’
Of course, while written communication might be necessary, it is not at all sufficient. Over the years I developed a course called Movement and Qi, where a variety of physical practices were taught. I showed that all of them point to a single essence. I first taught this course in the Norwegian Association for the Blind, and later offered it as a regular course at the University of Oslo Recreation Department. I also traveled and offered it as a weekend course. Fredrik Refsli and I developed an advertising campaign to make this meme accessible to the contemporary and especially academic people and to raise interest – we placed a couple of these flyers, reflecting entirely different motivating issues and learning outcomes, on various bulletin boards around the campus.
With Norwegian poet Erling Kittelsen (who translated several classical Sufi poets into Norwegian, including Rumi and Hafez) we created the Rumi in Oslo project. Its goal was to “express the eternal message of the classical Persian mystical poet Mevlana Jalaludin Rumi [Meme X] in the language of modern arts”, see this early flyer. This project still lives – recently we (Erling Kittelsen with poetry, Trygve Seim with solo saxophone and I with real-life story telling and dialog) were invited to perform in the KulturLab project – see this announcement.
The Garden of Liberation project
The goal of The Garden of Liberation project, which is initiated by this blog and the corresponding talk at Drammen Sacred, is to (as we might say) federate Ajahn Buddhadasa’s insights and the Meme X by
- linking these insights with related ones, through a carefully designed and open social process, and thereby giving it a contemporary foundation, by which it may be empowered
- developing state-of-the-art communiacation, with media etc…
- strategically placing it into public awareness
- connecting projects with re-evolutionary potential, and helping them exchange memes among themselves, and with the rest of us
The blog post A collective mind – Part One will suggest what this might practically mean.
Ajahn Buddhadasa clearly saw the need for this type of work – and created “Spiritual Theatre”, where monks and artists were invited to create and exhibit pieces of art that communicate and explain Dhamma. But this was more than a half-century ago, and a lot more can be done through collaborative use of contemporary media, and suitable social organization.
By doing this project, we want to create a template – how to fededrate, and more generally found, communicate, internalize, support, combine, cross-polinate… memes that have transformative potential. Help the transformative memes not remain confined in the communities where they were developed, but reach out and help all of us evolve further.
Our plan is to do this within our World Evolutionary World Tribe (WELTribe) project, and in that way use it as a vehicle to develop this project further as well. WELTribe has been conceived by my Amigo Alexander. As a systems scientist, Alexander has worked closely with some of the leading people in evolutionary systems science, including Russell Ackoff, Bela Banathy and of course his father, Ervin Laszlo. But Alexander has brought this line of work a significant step forward – by envisioning that the systems scientists will not only inform the evolution of the human systems, but also be an active part of it; and by giving (what I called here) the Meme X a prominent part of this evolution. As the President of the International Society for the Systems Sciences two years ago he initiated systemic self-organization in the systems sciences toward that end – see his incoming presidential address. Alexander is now developing the Leadership for Systemic Innovation Ph.D. program at Buenos Aires Institute of Technology, as this program’s director. He is developing an educational program that will help people raise to the occasion and become leaders in a positive evolution of our institutions and other systems.
The goals of WELTribe will be to
- locate the international communities or projects where culturally relevant memes are being developed
- link those communities together, and with our society at large, so that they may in effect serve as ‘evolutionary learning laboratories’ for the rest of the society, learn from each other and allow us to learn from them
- find ways to extract, express, empower… the resulting transformative memes and to feed them back into our society, thus enhancing its evolution
The Curating Emergence of Thrivability Systemic Integration Group (CET SIG), which Alexander developed within the International Society for the Systems Sciences, will serve as an institutional home for this project, and for others similar projects. In this way, the CET SIG will serve as an institutional home for evolving better ways to evolve.
But all this communication and interconnection work can of course at best only support, but definitely not replace the real thing – The Garden of Liberation, where Meme X can be experienced and internalised; where one can learn the associated practices; and experience first-hand the kind of society and culture that may grow on it as foundation.
Back to The Garden
“New Year – time to begin a new life” said Ajahn Poh, an impressive and ageless holy man, who used to be the Suan Mokkh Abbott already in Buddhadasa’s time, who came to greet us foreigners at the beginning of that first evening of my retreat in the Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage. Beginning a new life – that’s what the International Dharma Hermitage was created for.
Having through his experimentation and rediscovery acquired what he called “the truth-discerning awareness”, Ajahn Buddhadasa could easily see the relevance of what he found out to our contemporary society and culture. In 1989 he established the International Dharma Hermitage to
- help people realise the essence of their own religion
- create a mutual understanding among all religions
- free humanity from the constraints of materialism
International Dharma Hermitage first of all offered us the experience of liberation from the clutter of material things, noises, sounds, preoccupations… that contemporary living has surrounded us with. And then most importantly, it offered us all that was needed to reproduce what I called “The Buddha’s experiment”, carefully put together.
As a real garden, the International Dharma Hermitage only offered its fruits, for us to pick up according to appetite or hunger or need. And yet as I looked more carefully, I could see a complete assortment: Listening to recordings of translations of Ajahn Buddhadasa’s speeches to meditate upon; ‘detoxification’ of our preoccupations and senses through simple and serene living; a repertoire of techniques and practices… Even the key original scriptures or suttas were there – available for chanting “only to those who want that”, both in the original Pali and in translation. An example is the Anappanassati Sutta, which describes the original Buddha’s meditation practice, which is taught and practiced in the retreat.
As a work of love, the International Dharma Hermitage offered us an experience of what the world could be like if the Meme X would prevail – by the gentle-loving sound of its morning bell; by its wholesome-tasty means; by the ponds which offered us rich symbolism to reflect on and internalize, as we walked around them; by meditations that lasted throughout the day, but where we never had to sit more than an hour at a time (although we could if we wanted to).
But all this was of course only a taste bit. To truly engage in reproducing ‘The Buddha’s experiment’, the Sumedhaso Donkiem is provided as a place where international aspirants may stay longer and do the necessary inner work, with the help of all the key elements of the Suan Mokkh memeplex.
I’ll add the following highlights to what’s already been said:
- living and practicing in the Suan Mokkh way
- the Patticasamuppada lecture by Ajahn Mehdi, which offered a deeper immersion into “the essence”
- a conversation with an advanced monk that Ajahn Mehdi invited to talk with us
- visits to the village, and seeing how the village community and the spiritual community exchanged love and food; a poor woman would offer a small fried fish and a bowl of rice; Ajahn Mehdi would offer a prayer, or advice to the children; I remember a man stop his pickup truck and turn off the engine, and wait in namaste until Ajahn Mehdi walked by (in the village, I walked respectfully a few steps behind him).
After graduating from law school, Ajahn Mehdi practiced in the Thai legal system for a year, and then having experienced the Suan Mokkh monastery life, decided to opt for this latter. Now walking barefoot by my side, on the way back from the village, he would often stop to point to a plant. It appeared to me after awhile that every second plant around us had some healing properties – which a monk living in nature should know about.
Having been back in Oslo for almost a year, I can recognize with gratitude the invaluable help I received in Suan Mokkh along the way to liberation.
This Christmas I’ll be coming back for more.
|Master Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh||Master Li Jun Feng||Grandmaster Sang Kyu Shim|
I had the unusual fortune to study and practice in three ways that are closely similar to what Ajahn Buddhadasa considered to be the essence of Buddhism, under three similarly visionary Oriental masters:
- Li Jun Feng, the Headmaster and Founder of Sheng Zhen Gong
- Sang Kyu Shim, the martial arts Grandmaster and the president and co-founder of the World Martial Arts Association
- Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, Master of the Nimatullahi Order of Sufis
To illustrate the similarity with Ajahn Buddhadasa’s teaching, I will now share a few anecdotes focusing on one of the three, Nimatullahi Sufism – and only hint at the other two.
It was about three years after I began my practice of Sufism, that I understood the meaning of the word nafs. (This word is sometimes translated, roughly and inaccurately, as ‘ego’; but for the purpose of our conversation it is best to think of it, simply, as roughly synonymous to Dukkha.)
I was horrified: How much energy, how many opportunities… I was wasting just by serving this strange inclination of my psyche! I decided to do whatever I could to remedy this problem.
The basic approach was clear – to undernourish the nafs, to have it gradually loosen its grip, atrophy its muscle. A common technique is to serve something other than oneself. (You will easily notice how this sort of service, even at the risk or expense of one’s life, might be a core theme in the martial arts.)
At that time the dervishes were meeting in my house. And so I found it natural to practice by making tea, serving meals, opening the door… to the dervishes who came along. My house had a smaller apartment, and I invited Mr. Kiandad, an older Dervish who had for a number of years lived in the Teheran Khanneqah (Sufi house), and who was well versed in the Sufi culture, to be in charge.
And so with time, as I felt the grip of my nafs wear off, I was more and more able to enjoy the simple serenity of the practice of serving.
But then Master Nurbakhsh asked Mr. Kiandad to return to his family; and he put me in charge of the community and its affaires.
I was in trouble! Persian Sufis are traditional people, and there is naturally a place for a patriarch or leader, someone who is respected and looked up to. But every time I would find myself in the leader role, even when I would say my “Ya Haqq” to signal the beginning of a meal, I could feel my nafs flair up!
I don’t need to tell you this – nothing could be more pathetic than an egotistical boss of the dervishes!
And so for a long time I was really quite unable to assume anything close to a leader role. All I was able to do was – to continue making tea, serving meals, and opening the door.
A central part of the Sufi practice, perhaps the central part, is called ‘adāb’ and translated as ‘behavior’.
When I talk about adāb, I always remember the Sufi festival called Dig Jush, an occasion where perhaps a couple of hundred international dervishes would assemble in Master’s premises in London; and the situation in front of the bathroom. If even one person decided to take a long shower in the morning when everyone was getting up, that would have resulted in a long line, frustration and chaos. Yet this one person was conspicuously missing in the assembly. The long line somehow never occurred.
When Master Nurbakhsh later established his residence on an apple farm in the Oxfordshire County, the adāb was practiced by just working together. There was no other formal practice, not even scheduled meditation. After working with someone for days I would perhaps find out that in the ‘real’ life he was a director of a bank in Jeddah; or a taxi driver in New York.
In a memorable conversation with the ecologist Brian Goodwin, in his office at the Schumacher College where he taught ‘Holistic Science’, he told me, even before I had a chance to tell him about my interest in Sufism: “In the nature we must be like the Sufis: Nonexistent!”
In 1997 I organized a Sufi concert at the Oslo World Music Festival, by inviting two Nimatullahi dervishes who were excellent musicians, Davood Azad from Iran, and Houman Pourmehdi from the USA. Since they’d never met before, they practiced for one month in my house, filling it with heavenly music from noon till midnight.
One day a dervish invited us for dinner to a nearby town. After we ate, he showed us a video recording of a ritual practice that, as I was told, the Qaderi dervishes performed once a year. Having entered a deep trance through a ritual dance with live music, the Qaderi dervishes began piercing their bodies with sabers, swallowing razor blades and doing all manner of incredible things without any signs of injury or bleeding. Several times I looked at my dervish friends to see their reactions, but they were just watching calmly, their faces suggesting that that’s just the sort of things that the Qaderi dervishes do.
When we finished watching, to test my understanding of the dervish culture, and to also see if they considered those things to be real, I asked whether what we were seeing was what was called karamat (a traditional word used for uncommon abilities of the dervishes)?
“No” Davood answered, “this is nafs (show-off, or ego). For us, karamat is nisti (nonexistence).”
Having participated in a meditation ritual with Shaikh Kabir Helminski and his sangha, in a large eagle nest-like round tent erected on top of a ridge in the hills near Santa Cruz, California, I was sitting on the floor of his living room, and demonstrating a sitting Sheng Zhen Gong form. I was guessing my host’s thoughts: Wouldn’t it be nice if we could skip over all the troubles and hard work of the Path, and reach the same effect through a sequence of meditative body movements?
So I told the Shaikh that, since the Sheng Zhen Gong was a recent development, the community didn’t yet have a chance to develop a tradition of adāb.
Shaikh Helminski smiled: But adāb is everything!
I know this is getting way too long; but that’s exactly the point: If you are familiar with polyscopy, then you’ll recognise that all that’s been said so far was ‘a square’ – it was verbal, analytical… But polyscopic information must also have ‘a circle’ – that conveys the main point concisely and directly to our intuition and senses, as visual or artistic messages do.
My introduction of The Garden of Liberation at Drammen Sacred indeed did have ‘a circle’. I concluded my twenty-minute talk, and opened up the dialog, by pulling out my tar and improvising a chant of two lines from a poem by Hafez – which concisely and beautifully render Meme X – the theme and the message of The Garden of Liberation project.
I’ll mention that those two lines are from Hafez’s 14th-century Divan; which centuries later inspired Goethe to write his own Divan, and another poetic rendition of Meme X:
Und so lang du das nicht hast,
Dieses: Stirb und Werde!
Bist du nur ein trüber Gast
Auf der dunklen Erde.
(And as long as you don not have it| This: Die and become!| You are only a dismal guest| On the dark earth.)
In this soundtrack you may experience a five-minute rendition of Meme X, where the mentioned two lines by Hafez are first recited in Persian, then in English translation with explanation, and then chanted accompanied by tar. A taste bit of the event at Drammen Sacred.
Already the word ‘dervish’ highlights the parallel between (the essences of) Sufism and Buddhism: The practitioners of Sufism don’t call themselves Sufis – that would be too much of a claim of achievement. The word is, rather, ‘dervish’ which literally means ‘poor’. The ‘poverty’ here is of course of the spiritual kind (not clinging to anything as “I” or “mine”).
Hafez’s paradoxical prayer to God, to make him wealthy with poverty (and contentment), is a message to us from another era, but eternally repeated – that contentment is not reached by trying to satisfy our every whim (and in that way nourishing miscontentment); but by nourishing contentment – through the practice of generosity or ‘spiritual poverty’.
This picture will illustrate my main and final point:
Let this photo from the first edition of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan suggest that once we have meaningfully organised ourselves around the timely task of curating it and communicating it, Meme X will unite us in a whole new culture, just as its various historical and contemporary misinterpretations have tended to divide us. It will help us learn from other cultures and combine what we have learned to evolve further — just as its historical institutionalisations, and denials, have tended to hinder us from learning and evolving.