Thursday, November 11, 2010

Buddhist Anarchism: In search of?

"Never mind," by Carolita Johnson appears 11-1-10 in "The New Yorker." I scanned it in from my hard copy as a subscriber, but the publication's limits of my reproducing this cartoon themselves lead to fun.

I like the sober, parenthetical caption at the magazine's Cartoon Bank, where a legible version can be seen, bought ($195-$445), but not copied. (A guru is sitting outside a cave with two naked ladies and money floating around him, talking to a man with a backpack hanging on the edge.) 

I found this cartoon the same day I read the article that gives my entry its title. How else do an image search under these two titular keywords? Doing so now to double-check: nada, shunyata, void.

At night, home after teaching in a day that has me off to work to beat traffic at 6 to teach 9-12 and then teach from 6:30 at night to 10, two large classes totalling nearly sixty students, I find it lately difficult to sleep. Awake in the dark, I happened to read about the theory of "dependent origin" in Buddhism, summarized well by Jason Siff as "nothing arises in isolation;" this led me via My First Smartphone to Wikipedia on Buddhist Anarchism connecting two terms that I'd never joined, however haywire my synaptical fusions.
But, as I'd caromed off of this in naturally separate sections of Thomas Pynchon's "Against the Day," it should not have surprised me. Gary Snyder reflected back in 1961 and again a bit revised in '69 about "Buddhist Anarchism." He rhapsodizes but he also reflects. Here are two of his nine pithy paragraphs:

The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both. They are both contained in the traditional three aspects of the Dharma path: wisdom (prajna), meditation (dhyana), and morality (sila). Wisdom is intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one’s ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into the mind to see this for yourself — over and over again, until it becomes the mind you live in. Morality is bringing it back out in the way you live, through personal example and responsible action, ultimately toward the true community (sangha) of “all beings.”

This last aspect means, for me, supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world. It means using such means as civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty and even gentle violence if it comes to a matter of restraining some impetuous redneck. It means affirming the widest possible spectrum of non-harmful individual behavior — defending the right of individuals to smoke hemp, eat peyote, be polygynous, polyandrous or homosexual. Worlds of behavior and custom long banned by the Judaeo-Capitalist-Christian-Marxist West. It means respecting intelligence and learning, but not as greed or means to personal power. Working on one’s own responsibility, but willing to work with a group. “Forming the new society within the shell of the old” — the IWW slogan of fifty years ago

I pondered "defending the right of individuals to smoke hemp" that night, after the election in California when the fate of legalizing marijuana had at last been put before the voters who'd been since '69 (see our Wobbly-inspired Pynchon's "Inherent Vice") if not '61 musing across the Golden State what a golden state it would be if this passage to earthly nirvana came to a legal pass. While two-thirds of voters under 35 approved Proposition 19, predictably (I have not seen a breakdown on older voters or the entire electorate), they made up 20% or less of those casting ballots. As with the controversial Prop 8 two years ago legalizing same-sex marriage, I predict in time and with a better-written law, that this measure will succeed. While the Mexican cartels and the Humboldt County growers both opposed it, even if the legal weed carried a 50% tax, it'd still be 25% the price of what it sells for nowadays.

It was opposed by prison guards, alcohol & tobacco companies, and naturally most police (if not maverick San Jose chief Thomas McNamara). I heard of a flyer with an overturned school bus and a car crash combined. This impact depicts the effect many may associate with any Buddhist and/or anarchist who, like the stoner kid Otto (homage to "Repo Man," I wonder, or palindromes and infinity) on "The Simpsons," might cause if he got behind the wheel of the big yellow vehicle that mythically (if not practically much these school-budget crunched days when no fieldtrips happen) would transport your own pride and joy. The fact that no less than the DUI laws we already enforce would be imposed upon such miscreants was forgotten, as such fine print is. Also, drivers take drug tests as it is, and presumably school bus drivers are kept from pot by fear if not ethics if they want to keep their job in these recessional or depressional times anyhow.

Snyder's brand of anarchism would insist, I imagine, on principles of no harm, key to Buddhism and morality. He asserts earlier in his manifesto: "The traditional harmlessness and refusal to take life in any form has nation-shaking implications." Post-election, much as she and I differ, my wife and I reflected on how since we had grown up in the wake of what Snyder, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and dharma bums (see my review of Jack's novel), that despite the promises of whomever we elected (or opposed), that wars still were fought in our nation's name, the rich pilfered, the poor suffered, the sprawl increased, the earth weakened, the literacy wobbled, the prisons grew, the schools lurched, and the middle classes stagnated.

Today's Armistice Day, Veteran's Day, the 'war to end all wars' commemoration nearly a century after that war and now after hundreds of millions more deaths, casualties, walking wounded in body and mind. I know some of them, in my classes, a few miles away from the VA hospital. They signed up for four, eight, fifteen years to get money to make a living, to raise a family they were often far away from-- and to pay for college where I teach. We spend nearly half of the military expenditures globally, a figure no politician mentions in his or her campaign speeches. I note on Facebook today a flurry of patriotism. Only one commenter, a "liberal-hating liberal" English journalist, critiques what he sees as jingoism; another, a U.S. veteran, notes that this is one day when "liberals" must acknowledge the sacrifices others make on their behalf, but he doubts if many will do this. I've reflected at length about my evolving reactions to war and peace here: Pax Christi-Passover.

War is over if you want it? Snyder's still alive, dreaming in his Japanese-transplanted hot tub of whatever his generation led our generation to expect would turn out differently, high up there in the Sierras north of where my wife's niece lives-- on the Nevada County ridge which he and Ginsberg bought for their retreat (as Kerouac writes about in "On the Road"). Snyder settled, Kerouac published, Ginsberg marched, and so many hippies, New Age practitioners, and pot growers and consumers flocked. Some trekked into the Himalayas as the caricatured cartoon above riffs upon. Others drove off to California. Snyder speculated:
The conditions of the Cold War have turned all modern societies — Communist included — into vicious distorters of man’s true potential. They create populations of “preta” — hungry ghosts, with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles. The soil, the forests and all animal life are being consumed by these cancerous collectivities; the air and water of the planet is being fouled by them.

This Gold Rush redoubt filled with its own pretas, but spirits hungry for their own freedom rather than a Mother Lode glittering at the bottom of a sluice pan. They left the same cities that the dharma bums did, and they stayed rather than wandered. They parked their VW buses and VW bugs. They survived, if they could, as they do now by yoga studios, message therapy, and organic farming of some crop or another. I wonder how their own guru's deep ecological views have evolved? I wrote about a lengthy (of course) article on Snyder in "The New Yorker" two years ago, of which (that magazine's limits elude even subscribers who try to retrieve material-- it's on pdf and an e-reader that can't be copied) only an abstract's free. But see my own piece for context and citations.

That blog entry on "Gary Snyder, Tree Canopies & Suburbia" expands familiar themes on "Blogtrotter." The loss of open space from my Los Angeles vantage point as most of last decade has witnessed the endless construction that even today leaves one house half-built on my street where the domiciles doubled and the hills became entombed beneath concrete. We are all guilty by our own existence, if you take a radical environmentalist view, but I am not sure if this is a healthy outlook for one such as me, guilt-ridden by upbringing and it seems my inherited nature as well as nurture.

Does a Buddhist anarchist detachment from "structures of this earth," by builder or State, proposition or edict, stock investment or ballot measure, pay off? Snyder wrote in a passage I suspect reflects the '69 revision:
No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge himself in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics and social orders. The national polities of the modern world maintain their existence by deliberately fostered craving and fear: monstrous protection rackets. The “free world” has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself, the persons one is supposed to love, or the revolutionary aspirations of pitiful, poverty-stricken marginal societies like Cuba or Vietnam.
I tell my students that capitalism, in a way unimaginable even for me as an adult pre-'89, has triumphed. What alternatives are there? Nobody tries to hijack a plane to Cuba anymore, brandish the Little Red Book, or to jump off a refugee boat to return to a "re-education" camp in the People's Socialist Republic of a liberated Vietnam. Anarchism's what's spray painted on a wall by teenagers in those Exploited "Punks [sic] Not Dead" jackets commemorating a song I swear nobody listening to punk from when I started (I never stopped), the end of the '70s/early 80s, ever heard of.  As Brad Warner noted in "Hardcore Zen," spray-painting the letter "A" on a wall teaches nobody about true anarchy, and only makes more work for the poor schlub stuck cleaning the building up. While taking on the evils of the world may help, what needs to be done before that is to clean up one's own act.

Responsibility rather than blaming the Man, the System, the boss, the wife, the kids, the dog: you know this don't come easy, I suppose even if you live on a retreat on 160 acres in the mountains. Snyder, Warner (a punk bassist turned Zen monk in the world and eager encourager of open-mindedness towards the overthrow of what we don't need even in the way of Zen or Buddhism or any other construct), and their ilk remind us of the need of a true anarchist to accept what Buddhism shows as "no order"", that is, no fixed substance to the seeming solidity of this room where I type, the guidelines under which I must labor, the taps that create letters here that you receive as the workings of my own thoughts, however far you sit across the sea.

That makes our own fate all the more crucial. I tend to grouse and brood. I have a habitual mental groove of fatalism, and reacting against my own needle-on-a-warped record metaphor may not last another generation, but for me and Warner, we're old enough to keep it revolving! Snyder urged his readers and us to overcome violence, contradiction, and repression: by "taking a good look at" our "own nature through meditation. Once a person has this much faith and insight, he must be led to a deep concern with the need for radical social change through a variety of hopefully non-violent means." 

As I transcribed this, a package arrived. Two books from Penguin."The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography" (see my review) by Tetsu Saiwai in graphic art form telling of the saga from 1933 to the flight from Chinese violence, with a quick coda about His Holiness's efforts to spread the message of non-violence. As the narrative shows in the 1950s as the Communists invaded, so in the sixty years since: how can a people survive without self-defence? The crackdowns on Tibetan militancy, for some of his fellow citizens in exile and in their homeland, cause this lama to be resented by some younger compatriots, as the nation becomes increasingly monitored, surveilled, and stifled. Yet the Dalai Lama insists that rebellion worsens reprisals.

In my review of "The Verso Book of Dissent" last week, I quoted Woeser, a poet-blogger from Lhasa, in "The Fear In": “Where the fear is now minutely scanned by the cameras that stud avenues and alleys and offices, and every monastery and temple hall;/ All those cameras,/ Taking it all in,/ Swiveling from the outer world to peer inside your mind"

Murder of millions, cultural genocide, decimation of traditions, destruction of heritage, imperial railroads, in-migration by the occupiers, elimination of the native language in the schools, discrimination against the indigenous holdouts in favor of their assimilated cousins: to an Irishman this story sounds too familiar.How far can non-violent means go to save Tibet? The 14th Dalai Lama insists: "Because violence can only breed more violence and suffering, our struggle must remain non-violent and free of hatred."

The other book, the outlier, Mark E. Smith of The Fall's "autobiography" (hungrily ghosted by Austin Collings, one learns) "Renegade" may appeal to my musical anarchism, in this band that is really now as it has been for decades, the sole surviving member turned not punk comrade but reigner of terror in his long march. Maybe parallels to Mao may be instructive, as another Cultural Revolution turns a sort of Institutional Revolutionary Party in that PRI Mexican memorable if contradictory phrase.

About the time The Fall started to make a name for themselves as still a semi-stable line-up, I saw a double feature: Nick Bloomfield's "Soldier Girls" (speaking of "Nevermind,") long before his documentaries "Kurt & Courtney" & "Hollywood Madam: Heidi Fleiss" b/w "Anarchism in America." The latter intrigued punk-era me to review it for my college paper. Not sure if MES mentioned Buddhism in a song, but I listened to an early record yesterday to hear "Californians love sex and death."

The blissed-out trio in the cartoon above seem to agree, at least to #1. Odds are at least 1:4 of those depicted live in (if not as natives) of my state. As to residents mentally, musically, or geographically amidst gloomier locales, The Fall's kept the uprising of '77 alive, however convoluted, maddening, and repetitious their music can be and is-- under their enigmatic, curmudgeonly, crazed leader.

I asked Professor Laurence Cox at Maynooth, an Irish sociologist who's studied such fringe movements in the time of MES and a century before his take on Snyder (who's even older than MES, only four years my elder but doesn't look it I insist in even my most ravaged encounters with the mirror and the ego's reflections). Prof. Cox suggested I look into Snyder's "Practice of the Wild" and a "Best of" collection.

A forthcoming issue of Contemporary Buddhism will feature his article (see an earlier version) alongside scholars Thomas Tweed, Alicia Turner, and Brian Bocking. [See YouTube video by Prof. Bocking; he hosted a UC Cork Dhammaloka Day conference Feb. 19th 2011.]  It highlights their research on U Dhammaloka (?1856 - ?1914). "A migrant worker from Dublin, Dhammaloka was an autodidact, atheist and temperance campaigner who became known throughout colonial Asia as an implacable critic of Christian missionaries and a tireless transnational organiser of Asian Buddhists from Burma to Japan and from Singapore to Siam." Pursuing rumors of Hibernians on the prototypical hippie trail a century before the Beatles and the Maharishi, he'd learned of this Irish emigre who in late Victorian times changed his name, having "gone native" in whatever passed as a predecessor for Goa, Katmandu, and Benares today. He explained to me:

With two others, I've been doing more research on Dhammaloka, and we've located him within a broader context of "beachcomber bhikkhus". More on this in a forthcoming special issue of Contemporary Buddhism, but the basic thing is that imperial Asia was full of sailors and other working-class whites who had dropped out, including our man.  It turns out that he was by no means the only one to become a bhikkhu...

In other words the image, propagated by 1970s and 1980s Buddhist Studies academics in the face of their post-Beat, post-hippy students of the foundational period of western Buddhism as one of conservative gentleman scholars is rather self-serving ... and the first western Buddhists were often rather more like Snyder and Kerouac (down to the battle with the demon drink) than has previously been suggested.

Certainly a smooth way to wrap up this far-ranging entry. But Snyder as with many survivors of the counterculture in the wake of beachcomber bhikkus and dharma bums may have matured, at least five or six decades on! To think that the same time passed between Snyder and Dhammaloka as between the Beats and now. There may not be enough old codgers or young dudes to sway even Californians to legalize hemp or grow weed, but perhaps Buddhist anarchism moves in spirals defying Western linearity.

The Dalai Lama may insist that he's onto a path where Tibet may vanish. Impermanence comes to pass. Will its peaceful, non-violent, enduring wisdom come to us, as prophesied by Padma Sambha in the 8th c. CE? "When the iron bird flies, and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the world, and the Dharma will come to the land of the red faced people.”

These days, as part of this prediction's fulfillment, Westerners take teachings that U Dhammaloka and Gary Snyder went east to find. Anarchism may drift to Tibet, but perhaps they had a name for it in the times of "termons," hidden "treasure-texts" to be unearthed centuries after the warlords had passed over their lairs.

I grew up wishing for an Aquarian age of personal liberation, ecological healing, and an end to the wars and protests that filled the evening news. I now talk to students who come in on artificial limbs and crutches after tours of duty. They embody what Great Leaders wish for us as our only fate, as consumers and debtors and conscripts. Once two or four years, these politicians appeal to us. Then they vanish. My great-grandfather was found murdered agitating for a cause he believed in, Irish land reform, the simple right of a farmer to claim his plot for his family. In a city today, I cling to a bit of land; I hope that the banks let us hold on to it. Restless in this decade, as tumultuous as any I suppose, I reflect and seek guidance from a patient tradition.

Wes Nisker quotes Snyder in the 1998 collection of essays "Buddhism in America" : "Wisdom is the intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one's ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into that mind to see it for yourself over and over again until it becomes the mind you live in."

For more about Buddhist Anarchism, see Wikipedia. I took a FB quiz when I did such things and found out Bukunin was "my 19th century anarchist" match, or was it Kropotkin, but they're both intrigued and irritated by much of "organized religion" as opposed to an arguably non-Tibetan, non-deistic, non-hierarchical version of "hardcore Zen" a century previous. There's a small "Religion, Ritual & Spirituality" site with articles on Islamic and Christian anarchism as well. From there, for a nuanced French view, a learned, witty essay that those schooled in Zen and its wry wordplay will particularly enjoy:  Max Cafard's "Zen Anarchy."

(I'll expand this topic into its anarchist contexts after I study Peter Marshall's history of the movement, "Demanding the Impossible." I hope to make that/this into a "RePrint" article for Today's post, re: cavorting gurus amidst (nearly) naked dakinis, may show a tangential connection for the open-minded with my entry two years ago-- maybe in need of revision-- Buddhist Erotic Art: in Search of?)

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