Sunday, 5 July 2009

Joining - a problem and a process

The very act of joining a group can bring up ethical issues.

The philosopher, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ when writing about Adolf Eichmann during the Nazi war crimes trials. She said that Eichmann had followed a moral philosophy but had failed to grasp a particular point in the philosophy he claimed to adhere to - in Kant the ‘legislator’ (of right and wrong) is the moral self, Eichmann had surrendered this self and had replaced it with the dictums of Adolf Hitler - and ’just followed orders’.

When we ask to become Mitras (as distinct from Order Members which is a rather separate journey of it's own) we are warned about the ‘FWBO Files’ and we are confronted with the question ’are we joining a cult?’

In a way this does us a favour. What do we hope to achieve by ’joining’? Eichmann was a ’joiner’, Arendt observed, and he wanted to belong so badly that he joined the SS. If our goal is to have answers on a plate and to never have to think again then what we join and what the intentions of the organisation we are joining could have real consequences for ourselves and for others around us. And if that abnegation of self is our intention then do we belong in the FWBO? If not that, then what is our intention? And what people are we exposing ourselves to? After all, what if our own motives are good, and we are conscientious but we are about to surround ourselves with unquestioning followers of orders?

The strongest safety valve within this organisation, from my perspective as it stands right now, is the key role of creativity in the interpretation of the idea of the ’middle way’. this is interpreted less as a doctrine to be followed without question, and more as a way of thinking which invites us to, and ultimately requires us to, think for ourselves. Not just once, or on one occasion, when joining, but at as many subsequent occasions from thereon in that ever exist. This cultivation of awareness is more of a journey than a goal, since it can never be simply arrived at as long as we are alive, indeed, as long as we draw breath. (Incidentally, Arendt has something to offer us here. She posits an alternative view of the idea of doubt to Cartesian either/or style of doubting. Her style of doubting suggests ‘supposing this could be otherwise’ which is slightly different in texture to I believe this OR that.)

At the same meeting with the Mitra Convenor where we are told about the FWBO files we are also given a printed sheet with the five precepts, and we discuss what those precepts mean to us.

The Precepts

I undertake to abstain from taking life.
I undertake to abstain from taking the not-given.
I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct.
I undertake to abstain from false speech.
I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants.

The Positive Precepts

With deeds of loving kindness , I purify my body.
With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.
With stillness, simplicity and contentment, I purify my body.
With truthful communication, I purify my speech.
With mindfulness, clear and radiant, I purify my mind.

On the basis of this discussion we are invited to take part in a Mitra ceremony at which we will make offerings which symbolically honour the three jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

So this is the short, largely symbolic journey between not being a Buddhist, and being a Buddhist. Or at least, a Mitra. Somewhere along the way we discover that this also involves Mitra Studies, which turns out to be FOUR YEARS LONG! This feels like rather a commitment.

So we begin our studies. And we discover that meditation and ritual are not the only activities that play a part in gaining insight, but that there is something, actually regarded as a practice, called ‘talking the dharma’.

In reality, this journey cannot be measured and is neither short nor long. Each individual’s experience of this initial phase of the journey will have something in common but also be in some way unique, since it requires a series of turning points in our thinking that motivates us to take those steps.

If we think of ‘life as a story’ there has to be a turning point. In fiction, this is usually a reversal of fortunes which has subsequent consequences. It must be believable that the event could happen to the character, and yet must alter the course of events initially set up in the story. Aristotle calls this ’turning point’ device ‘peripeteia’ (and in modern Greek this means ‘adventure’) so it is not surprising that so many of our own personal stories lead us to something that feels like a reversal to some of us, and it is equally unsurprising that we identify with the story of the Buddha’s own journey.

It strikes me, as I write this, that my own discomfiture at the content of the reading for term one, which draws to a close now, has been transformed by the practice of this ‘talking the Dharma’. As I read over the material I remember thinking week by week that the content was a bit badly written and weak, and that it was frustrating that it was neither a primary text nor a high culture secondary one. I suppose I wanted it to be more like ’study’. Now that I look at it again, immediately, I am drawn in, within a couple of paragraphs, because having ’talked the Dharma’ I now know something of what is meant by this rather self effacing phrase, and the weight of what is being said in the text feels more centred and real to me, rather than being ’just’ a rather long passage of writing which I was not sure of.

I would also like to go back to this idea of what is a cult, and talk a little bit about the idea of not being so heavily invested in opinion. It could appear that dropping strong opinion is the opposite of what I have said about cultivating and maintaining a strong moment by moment awareness, and yet the way that I experience it is that I am not without opinion, but now I am more interested in experience than opinion, and that actually opinion itself is a little addictive and about developing or projecting something which in this culture is highly valued - a strong personality. Meanwhile, it seems that in Buddhism
personality itself is a contested field and something to soften on rather than to build up. In what way is this not in danger of being cultish, I wonder? I think what might be helpful to ask is; What if we apply Arendt’s version of doubt and suspend our strong belief in personality and wonder if perhaps the cult of personality is not worth questioning itself?

My project, here, has been to describe something of what it is like to begin this journey. In Mitra Studies, we have had many conversations over the past ten weeks or so, some of them rambling, all of them valuable. This has been consciousness raising within a working and workable framework, and I can feel myself growing in a different way than I have done in other kinds of study.

There is an interest in sociology, in a Marxist construction called ’cultural reproduction’. It is a simple idea with extensive application, and it is relevant to the thoughts I started with here. Marx says that within any culture that is able to continue there are the means to reproduce that culture, and that this is as true in human cultural forms as it is in nature. The theorists who have talked about this have used various metaphors to describe how this works, but in short, the point is that if you create a social group where the rules are hard and fast and questioning is discouraged or punished then you create the conditions for homogeneity, or the culture of sameness, which can ultimately become fascist. Meanwhile, if you create a system within which questioning and difference can be contained as part of that system then you create conditions under which difference is as it is, (and this is called, for the sake of comparison, ‘heterogenic’ - the metaphors are borrowed from science). In either instance, the conditions for this reproduction must be maintained for that culture to be reproduced.

I suspect that I would not be as interested in Buddhism if I were not in a modernised Sangha, but as it stands, my own journey has taken me towards and into the FWBO and my experience of it has been both of gentleness and strength in a form which I am able to comprehend, respect, and grow within.

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