Stuck in the Now

At the buddha is my dj blog, Scott has an interesting post entitled The Problem With Now.  I was struck by his statement regarding current American politics:

…how the spin doctors and talking heads in the media are so wrapped up in the Now that they have no sense of history or causality. Americans in general are so consumed with the present that they blithely ignore how it is that we got into this mess in the first place…

This prompted a long comment from me which is posted here.

…One of the features of postmodern identity is contemporaneity which means “the collapse of the past and future into the present,”  

(http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/ ).

The issue of causality at present is mooted and any attempt to plot future is seen as a useless exercise. I call this Stuck in the Now.

It is not surprising then in many Buddhist, particularly Zen circles, that the emphasis is increasingly on mindfulness of the moment and other concepts that range beyond that such as karma are becoming increasingly rejected. (A sort of %&^* all that Asian historical stuff-how often does that come up?!)

It’s a total morass to any kind of real spiritual development or realization. There is nothing beyond here and now in the American mentality (economic crisis anyone?). No wisdom, which accompanies an ability to view a broader picture and certainly little potential for sustained compassion.

So in Buddhist circles folks are spiraling down into increasingly chasing their own tails rather than “opening the space” that would allow for room for growth. I’ve almost given up on engaging with that kind of debate any more. The pointlessness of it has been adequately demonstrated.

And the only ones who will be able to leverage the situation will be those who can get their heads out of that muck and survey the larger landscape. While those on the right do forget the past and make hay with the present they are also looking at a longer range future which progressives can’t seem to get their heads around. I do hope for all our sakes those progressives with tendrils into the power centers stop this lame wallowing in disillusionment and get the hell back to work.

Here’s another little quip that relates. Those on the right seem to understand this better than many of the “lefty” philosopher-spouting pundits.

“Vivian Sobchack points out:
The postmodern and electronic “instant” … constitutes a form of absolute presence (one abstracted from the continuity that gives meaning to the system past/present/future) and changes the nature of the space it occupies. Without the temporal emphases of historical consciousness and personal history, space becomes abstract, ungrounded, flat—a site for play and display rather than an invested situation in which action “counts” rather than computes. Such a superficial space can no longer hold the spectator/ user’s interest, but has to stimulate it constantly in the same way a video game does. ( http://genesis.ee.auth.gr/dimakis/Gramma/7/02-kokonis.htm )

There is more to be said on this and related topics in the future.

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8 comments on “Stuck in the Now

  1. I’m right with you on this. In fact, I wrote a short bit about it last night before the election results in Mass. came in. The thing is, though, that I often feel like a lone wolf howling in the forest. Friends agree with my point that grassroots work, and lots of it, is the only way to make postive change. And then, every election cycle they hop on the hope bandwagon again, willfully forgetting that Democrat X and Y failed them miserably the last time. But more than that, these same people waste months and months of their time and energy shilling for candidates and in the meantime the coalitions and organizations they had been a part of fall apart and the momentum goes away.

    And I think when it comes to Buddhist communities, it’s so much easier to focus on the present moment, to keep everything on the level of individuals or on those in the immediate “sangha,” than to take a broader approach, including really digging into the mess of karmic tangles that flow through each of us, and our societies.

  2. I think it is also noteworthy that so many western Buddhists, especially Zen Buddhists, do not believe in karma or rebirth, seeing these as symbolic terms that refer only to one’s present life. Yet, as Thinley Norbu Rinpoche points out in his book White Sail, unless we have a firm belief in the continuity of mind beyond present circumstances, that is, past and future lives, we cannot have genuine love or compassion for others because we are lost in the ever changing present display of appearances. When circumstances change, so do our feelings, and we just wander along following our own self interest.

    • I think some of you Tibetan folks are misunderstanding one moderately significant point of Zen thought. It’s not that we reject rebirth after death, and we certainly don’t reject karma. Nor do we consider karma “metaphorical” in any sense of the word, quite the contrary.

      Thing is, we tend to consider the matter of rebirth after death irrelevant. For us, it honestly doesn’t matter whether you believe that something of your personal “you” survives death or not. There’s nothing in Zen practice that requires belief or disbelief in that. It’s as irrelevant to our practice as, say, whether the LHC discovers the Higgs boson or not.

      This appears to be significantly different from Tibetan Buddhism, where, or so I understand, much of the practice doesn’t make much sense without a literal belief in rebirth after death of the body.

      Second, the way we understand rebirth appears to be at least somewhat different than in Tibetan Buddhism. The way we see it, we’re reborn continuously, every instant. The “me” that was at the zendo an hour and a half ago is dead and gone now. The “me” that is typing this message will be dead and gone as soon as I hit the “Submit” button. This process may or may not continue beyond the death of the physical body. Not being dead, we can’t know for certain whether this happens or not, and therefore it’s pointless to waste time speculating about it. Some of us believe that it does. Others don’t. Teachers may state their personal opinion on the matter, but few — contemporary or past — state as fact or dogma that it does, or doesn’t happen. (For the record, one of the teachers in my sangha does believe that it happens; as far as I know, the other one hasn’t stated her views on the topic. Both are very clear about what’s their opinion, and what’s dharma, and their views on rebirth after physical death are the former.)

      More to the point, this is *not* a new, Western conceit. You’ll find examples of Zen masters from way back in T’ang China professing ignorance of what happens after you die. Dogen went as far as to state pretty categorically that the belief that anything of “you” survives physical death is downright un-Buddhist (he’s supposedly quoting Echu, the famous T’ang dynasty National Teacher):

      ‘The Master said, “If this is so, then there is no difference between their teaching and the non-Buddhist view of the Shrenikans. The latter view states that there is a sort of ‘Divine Nature’ in this body of ours, which has the capacity to know pain and itch, and that, when the body disintegrates, this divine aspect departs from it, like a householder fleeing when his house is on fire—the dwelling is impermanent whilst its householder is forever. Were the matter like this, there would be no way, upon examination, to distinguish right from wrong, so how can we accept it as correct?’

      (Shobogenzo, On ‘Your Very Mind Is Buddha’)

      And finally, I’m getting a wee bitty bit irritated at seeing so much knocking of Zen by non-Zennies, especially when it’s so clearly based on a misunderstanding of what it is and isn’t about. I don’t practice Tibetan Buddhism, and from where I’m at a lot of it looks just frankly stupid — but I figure there’s a good chance that that’s just because I’m not familiar enough with it. Therefore, I don’t tend to talk about it much. There’s a reason why it’s considered bad form to criticize a dharma you haven’t practiced yourself. I would humbly suggest that some of you folks consider why that is the case.

      • It seems to me (a Zennie actually) that one of the reasons Zen seems to get a lot of flack is because it is the foremost school among convert populations. Even the word Zen has been taken over by pop culture and people use it without actually understanding what it is. When people use a word it is because they “think” they know what it means and are therefore authorities on it’s use. Familiarity breeds a sense of expertise, as well as contempt.

        Tibetan Buddhism uses a completely different methodology. As does something like Pure Land Buddhism. I was rather hesitant at one time to explore either of these but as I was involved in academic study of Buddhism it was unavoidable. And through that I found much to recommend both of them. I still practice mainly along the Zen line though.

        It would be interesting to do a comparison between various schools and sects as far as methodology, texts, positions of doctrinal matters in a non-complex way.

        I may do something like that just for the sake of understanding. It is often that comments and opinions get inflated due to lack of availability of a comparative reference. And by the time one can search through texts or query someone more knowledgeable to find a point or two discussion has degenerated. Of course that may generate more discussion than it resolves. So perhaps it would be a group project.

        As a Zennie I do believe both in Karma and Rebirth as they are defined in the Buddhist texts, not in pop culture. Had better include a pop culture category in any reference document I come up with it seems too.

        The “Now” in my personal view contains both past and future in a ideational form. It is not linear in that sense. It is more like a vertical time paradigm which is malleable in that one can freely move about to any memory or future projection yet one remains relatively in the present. (ie. yesterday I did x activity, tomorrow I will do y activity respectively) I say relatively because most of the time, unless one is really accomplished, there is a certain amount of time wobbling as thoughts rise and fall.

        Debates of points of dharma and criticism of individuals are different things but often they become conflated. It is like the difference between thinking and feeling. Which comes first? If one is not disposed to like someone else then that bias will effect any exposure to their opinions even if those opinions are in agreement. And if one is enjoying the opinions of another, meaning that they are saying something that feels right then there is an increased likelihood that one will have a higher opinion of that person regardless of what else they might do or say. It’s a really complicated situation to try to untangle.

        I found an interesting article about these kinds of biases and how we tend to seek out opinions that confirm our own. It is one of the bases of polarization, sectarianism and divisiveness it seems to me.

        http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2010/01/information_channell.html

        • Is it? I seem to run across Nichiren and Tibetan Buddhists at least as often as Zennies, if not more so, and then there are slightly weird groups like the FWBO. Many Tibetan organizations seem certainly far more visible; Kelsang Gyatso’s gang actively seek converts, for example.

          Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Zen has a place in pop culture that other varieties of Buddhism don’t. That means that there are a lot of preconceived notions about it.

          As to karma and rebirth, I don’t ‘believe’ in either, any more than I ‘believe’ in the second law of thermodynamics. My approach to all of these is to try to *understand* what’s meant by them, and in the former case, what they mean to *me,* personally. Naturally, this understanding changes constantly, as I learn more and experience new things.

          I’m fairly certain that ‘belief’ is fundamentally the wrong approach to the whole thing: you’re not supposed to ‘believe in’ the Dharma; you’re supposed to *understand* and *practice* it. In fact, I have a feeling that this whole concept of ‘belief’ in this or that metaphysical belief is Western cultural contamination — because ‘belief’ is so very, very central in Christianity (“Believe in Me or else”), and ‘religion’ is almost universally conflated with ‘belief,’ lots of people naively bring it over to Buddhism. Surely you’re not one of them?

  3. “Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true”

    It is my understanding that the principles of Karma and Rebirth are in essence correct. That means that the theories as stated in the Dharma have been demonstrated to my satisfaction by way of my experience. Rebirth slightly less so than Karma. It is on a scale of plausibility rather than a yes/no response. Additional experience and learning can alter positions on that scale.

    I think you are confusing the concept of blind faith with belief. Blind faith is an authoritarian patriarchal hang-over from many religions, mainly the deistic ones and some philosophies like Stalinist or Maoist forms of Marxism. It is not even close to my position.

    As to the proliferation of Buddhist schools at present, that is a recent development. When I encountered some Zen people in the early 1980’s it was basically the only form of Buddhism that had a certain amount of publicity, via the counter-culture of the 50’s (Beats) and 60’s (Hippies). At that time the FWBO was around but with little to no exposure to broader culture. And teachers like Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, if anyone ever heard of him, seemed somewhat unapproachable due to their small operations. I remember hearing of Trungpa Rinpoche back then but I couldn’t find much information about what he was teaching until some time later.

    To my mind, faith, belief and blind faith are different. Faith is related to trust or more precisely trust is an element of faith. Faith is the step before one can adopt belief via testing the validity of the given hypothesis. Blind faith skips any kind of reality testing and just goes directly to giving complete trust to something unproven. These may seem like subtle distinctions but they make huge differences in how one approaches anything.

    Here’s a general example in the social realm. When I meet someone I have a vague sort of faith that they are decent people. I accord them some amount of trust. What is that based on? Faith in humanity in this instance. After some time knowing them I would come to believe that more fully. Things like their word or reliability can be trusted.

    In the case of blind faith one assumes every stranger is their best friend and invites them into their house and their life without scrutiny. That doesn’t make any sense to me.

    I understand the Kalsang group is much more active in Europe than in North America. They were virtually unheard of in the West before the 1990’s. They came to prominence as the Dalai Lama, whose authority they question, gained popularity, attention and followers in the West. As far as I can tell, and have been told by Tibetan friends where I live, it is about power, jealousy and factional rivalry.

    I don’t think faith and belief, as I have explained them, are naive. They are based on reality testing from an initial hypothesis. Blind faith is plainly stupid.

  4. From where I’m at, “belief” doesn’t enter into it even in this sense (which, incidentally, is very close to the way I see things as well, and you expressed it very eloquently).

    “Karma” is a name for a facet of what we are as human beings. This facet is incredibly complex and very hard to reduce to its component parts or even describe well. This is reflected by the wide variety of opinions people have as to its meaning. From where I’m at, the core of the concept is simply that your intentions and actions have consequences, specifically regarding the kinds of suffering they create for yourself, and sometimes these consequences take a long time to manifest (mature). Whether this process carries on beyond your physical death or not is irrelevant; what matters is that it definitely goes on now, and we can affect it by exercising a degree of choice over our intentions and actions.

    I don’t think you’d find anyone — other than a complete psychopath, perhaps — who says that your actions and intentions have no consequences for yourself. So “belief” doesn’t really enter into it. In and of itself, this isn’t even particularly interesting.

    Put another way, I “believe in” karma like I “believe in” the color green — both are labels attached to an experiential reality, and opinions differ about what each of them means (although less in the latter case than the former).

    Where it does get interesting is what the rest of Buddhist teaching and practice has to say about it: exactly *how* your karma relates to your suffering, and, most centrally, *what you can do about it.* Lots of Buddhist teaching only makes sense when looked at through the prism of karma, right down from the first few verses of the Dhammapada, with the wheel, the ox, and the shadow. And *that’s* not trivial.

    I also think the Zen idea of continuous rebirth is a pretty good description of another aspect of the human condition, and one that I find highly useful for my practice. As to rebirth after physical death, as I said, I consider the question unimportant for my practice, as do (from my limited experience) most Zennies. (I have an opinion, of course, but since it’s irrelevant I’m not going to discuss it here.)

    What sticks in my craw is the idea David expresses here — that you’re incapable of ‘true compassion’ if you don’t believe in rebirth after physical death. One of the sources of compassion is panicca-samuppada (yet another extremely powerful and useful concept), and *that* doesn’t require such beliefs.

    Thing is, I seem to be running across that kind of sentiment increasingly often: it’s as if there’s a wannabie Dharma Police out there who seems terribly keen to declare people as ‘true’ and ‘false’ Buddhists based on some metaphysical beliefs such as this one. IMO that reflects a complete misunderstanding of what Buddhism is about.

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