Friday, December 30, 2011

intelligent, angry elephant

An extended version of my blog post on anger from last week has just appeared in elephant, an online journal devoted to yoga, sustainability, politics and spirituality. Take a look.

elephant journal: Yoga, Sustainability, Politics, Spirituality

New Year's Wishes

On Wednesday, I went for a walk to find a wishing well. I’d heard about this place, and seen signs pointing to it in the Morton National Park, near Bundanoon. It seemed like a good place to visit in the few days remaining before the new year, an auspicious spot to contemplate the year to come. Resolutions seem all too likely to result in bad conscience later on — I prefer the idea of new year’s wishes (keeping in mind the old fairy tale warning, be careful what you wish for…)

On the way, I came across an echidna, snuffling in the bush. She put her sturdy front claws up on an old log and blinked in my direction, sniffing the air, before waddling away on her ancient looking legs, black and yellow spines smooth against her body. I took this as a good sign.

The account I’d heard of the wishing well led me to imagine it nestled in a glen. I expected that at some point I would leave the fire trail style track I was following through eucalypt forest near the edge of a cliff, and descend via a narrower track into rainforest, before reaching a shadowy and mysterious place, suitable for magical transactions. 

There’s a spot that fits this description called the Fairy Bower falls, which I visited last time I was in this park. I remembered being enchanted by a glistening curtain of water adorning the rock face, and tantalised by the sound of a large bird beating its powerful wings ahead of me as I climbed back out of the valley. At one point on that earlier walk, I noticed tufts of very soft grey hair on the track, and turned a steep corner to discover fresh entrails laid out in the middle of the path. There was nothing more of the animal that had been taken, probably a possum or glider. I gazed up the enormous trunks of the nearby gums, but never did see the bird of prey.

When I came to a neat sign reading “Wishing Well,” I was still on high ground, however, and there was no sign of a track leading downwards or anywhere, for that matter. Next to the sign was a spot for a car, and beyond that a rocky area stretching away. Slightly confused, I walked up onto a kind of rock platform and was surprised to see what appeared to be a large metal cage perched at one end of it. On closer inspection, I realized that I had found the “well,” a natural formation in the rock. It was remarkably round and quite small – less than a metre wide and deep, filled with rainwater and lichen. In the mud at the bottom, visitors had tossed a few coins. What had appeared to be a cage was actually a large, clumsy but solid fence, constructed around this small depression in the rock. Presumably it was designed to guarantee the safety of young children, who might be left unattended at the “well” by extremely careless parents.

Needless to say, the fence dispelled any sense of mystery or wonder that might have been evoked by the curiously symmetric hole in the rock. Instead, the unattractive, oversized barrier emanated a vaguely menacing sense of the reach of institutionalized paternalism all the way into this relatively remote spot in the wild. At the same time, this effort to guarantee the safety of tiny tourists seemed touchingly naïve and inadequate. A few steps from the fence, a child bent on self-harm could easily throw himself off the rock ledge into a small valley where with a bit of luck he could be bitten by a snake, or perhaps be taken by a bird of prey, his entrails to be discovered later by startled bushwalkers…

I sat down on the sun-warmed rock a short distance from the “wishing well” and pondered the strangely myopic and earnest attitude of the National Park rangers who, I supposed, had erected this ungainly looking safety structure.

Then it dawned on me: of course, the primary purpose of the fence was not to protect unsupervised toddlers from drowning, but to protect the relevant authorities from the possibility of being sued. That’s why there are similar barriers at every official lookout in the park, partially obscuring the view, right next to vast, unfenced stretches of cliff where there is nothing to interrupt the line of sight or of accidental flight.

These barriers don’t relate in any very practical or commonsensical way to the visible, material world, the landscape or the people hiking across it, looking at views and making wishes. But this makes perfect sense once you realise that they are there chiefly to protect an abstract legal identity. The objectionably solid fence in front of me unveiled itself as an oddly metaphysical entity, a creation of law, whose true purpose and meaning could only become fully apparent in the actual or merely anxiously anticipated context of a courtroom.

This was at once depressing and intriguing. Ever since Australia was colonized by the British, the powerful and sometimes violently fictional constructs of Western law have been getting in the way of any more graceful, sensitive, or simply sensible way of relating to the natural environment and its inhabitants, here. But the presence of this fence also demonstrated the potential of wishes. If an idea, shared by enough people, can cause a bloody big metal fence to appear on a rock in the middle of the wilderness, where it clearly doesn’t belong, then what other, more beautiful and apt creations (or disappearances) might result from well-formed wishes, the kind that an echnidna might lend a little of her spiny magic to support?

May all your new year’s wishes for 2012 be true, and come true.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The intelligence of anger

Mid-way through a peaceful ramble through the bush at Wentworth Falls a few weeks ago, my friends Maddy, Tess and I came to a standstill when our conversation got on to the topic of how much anger is expressed, in sometimes astonishingly vitriolic forms, when unpopular views are voiced in the media. Writers of opinion pieces regularly devote columns to expressing their shock and dismay at receiving floods of abusive and threatening messages after touching, sometimes quite innocently, on a topic that unleashes unrestrained fury in a large number of their readers. It’s a disturbing phenomenon –we found we weren’t capable of walking and talking about it at the same time. Maddy’s little son Zeke looked on quizzically from his vantage point in a pack on Maddy’s back while we gesticulated. At one point, attempting to move along the track while still conversing, I fell off the wooden walkway into the reeds on one side. What’s going on, here?

An obvious point is that it is difficult to do tango philosophy, bushwalk backwards, and maintain your dignity and physical safety all at the same time. I don’t suggest you try it at home. Another obvious point, which is more to the point, is that the possibility of instantaneous, electronic communication with strangers (as well as friends) means that anger can be expressed with fewer inhibitions than ever before. You can let yourself go when writing an email or contributing to an online discussion, and send the message while passion is still running high, in a way that you wouldn’t normally do in face to face communication, or if you had to wait until the next day to post a letter, and certainly not if you had to get the message past an editor in order for it to reach its audience. The restraints that operate to keep anger in check in other communicative situations aren’t readily available online.

Another, slightly less obvious point is that many people seem to contain a reservoir of anger, that has been filled drip by drip, day by day, until it’s ready to overflow, so that the next irritant that triggers it, however minor or impersonal it may be, can break the restraining wall and unleash a wave that comes crashing towards the person who provoked that final drop.

Jungle Yoga
I observed this phenomenon in my own response to a teacher on a ten-day meditation retreat at the beginning of this year. The retreat was held in Thailand, in an extraordinarily beautiful location. We stayed in floating bungalows on a lake surrounded by ancient rainforest, said to have greater biodiversity than the Amazon. The water was a perfect temperature for lazy swimming; there were kayaks readily available; there was even a masseuse on hand in case you developed some tension in your muscles from the hard work of daily yoga classes and meditation. And the quality of meditation instruction was very high – there were two teachers, an American man and an Australian woman, who had both trained extensively in Burma. On top of their skillful and engaging group instruction, they made themselves available for daily personal interviews with each member of our small group.

You might think that it would be practically impossible to get angry, or to sustain any anger that might somehow arise, in such a blissful and well-supported situation. But of course, you would be wrong.

After my first personal interview with the male teacher, I found myself crying tears of fury and frustration into the delicious green pawpaw salad I was eating for lunch. The retreat was held in silence, so no one asked me what was wrong, but the woman who was sitting closest to me later said that when she saw me crying she thought to herself, “Wow, that woman is really in touch with her feelings.” My own view was that I was way too much in touch with them. Who wants to spend ten days in an earthly paradise getting up close and personal with anger?

But this was a situation in which there was no easy outlet for aggressive emotion. I couldn’t send an abusive email, or even have a bitch to a third party about the way the teacher had spoken to me. I had no choice but to get still more deeply “in touch” with my anger. It was an interesting investigation. One thing I realized pretty quickly was that my reaction was out of all proportion to the apparent cause. It didn’t seem plausible that I was really this angry, purely over the condescending, dismissive attitude a man whom I didn’t even know had taken toward me. Why should I even care about what he thought of me, especially on first, superficial impression?

I recently told this story at a dinner, and a woman at the table jumped in at this point to tell me I was right to be angry, that intelligent women are constantly treated this way by men in positions of authority, especially in spiritual circles, and that too often we accept this demeaning behavior, or blame ourselves, feeling that we have somehow failed in the exchange, rather than recognizing that anger is an appropriate response: women shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of thing, and they shouldn’t support it by accepting it. Too often, you see a man playing the dubious role of guru in front of twenty women in leotards who treat him like a minor, or even major deity. Obviously the women involved get something out of the exchange, too, but respect for women’s intelligence, and for intelligent women, is a likely, early casualty.

She had a good point; I recognized the scenario she was describing (which can manifest with or without leotards, or even any kind of spiritually signifying fashion statement). At the same time, I knew it wouldn’t have been helpful or just for me to unleash my anger over this kind of thing on the teacher I met in Thailand. He was only the last in a series. Alone he wouldn’t have provoked more than mild frustration and surprise.

It turned out that “getting in touch” with my anger meant realizing this – seeing the structural causes, and the long chain of events that had contributed to the store of anger that I carried with me to Thailand. At this level, anger becomes understanding, even wisdom, an energy that can drive action rather than reaction. It takes restraint to resist reacting to anger while it’s raw, but it seems to me that if you manage to do this and stay “in touch” with the feeling rather than suppressing it, you can get to a point of understanding where it’s possible to let the anger move you in invigorating, positive ways that don’t do violence to anyone.

A few days after the dinner, I did a yoga class taught by the woman who’d intervened so passionately when I was talking about my experience in Thailand. I watched and followed as she demonstrated breathing exercises and yoga postures surrounded by a group of about twenty women wearing leotards, plus a couple of men in similar outfits. She herself was dressed in loose white dance top and shorts, of very thin, soft material, worn over black tights and a tight black top, and although she was sitting on the floor like the rest of us, she seemed somehow elevated. She had the rapt attention of the whole group, whether she was simply drawing her hand slowly toward her chest, exhaling, or executing an impossibly perfect upward dog (that last bit is not a abrupt departure into automatic writing, it makes quite ordinary sense in the language of yoga). Perhaps it would be an exaggeration to say that we were gazing at her as if in the presence of a goddess, but there was certainly an air of devotion in the room…

In this season, traditionally known for festivity and family tension, I won’t go so far as to wish you a cranky Christmas, an angry Hannukah, or a simply furious solstice (summer or winter) but may you recognise the divine in yourself and others, and give your anger time to reveal its deep and supple intelligence.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


My weekly blog-post is a bit late this week, due to having too good a time at the annual conference of the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference on "The Times of Our Lives," held at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

One of many highlights was a key-note paper by Elizabeth Grosz, on "Deleuze, Ruyer and becoming-brain: the music of life's temporality." In question time, she expanded on the notion of consciousness as "self-enjoyment" by saying that when you have an idea, "and it doesn't happen very often," suddenly everything changes, you see and feel everything differently.

In this spirit, here's taste of the paper I presented. Prepare yourself for a brief tour of...

          Walter Benjamin's famous Construction Site of History!

At the entrance, you are invited to play chess with an automaton, a puppet in Turkish attire seated before a chess board placed on a large table. Ingeniously hidden inside the table is a hunchbacked dwarf, a master at chess, who manipulates the puppet so that it wins every game. This was a real device which amazed audiences in the Nineteenth century. In Benjamin's version, the puppet represents historical materialism, while the dwarf is theology, which today, as he says, “is small and ugly and has to keep out of sight.”

I Progress and catastrophe

During the game, you are permitted to observe the secret heliotropism of past events as they turn like flowers toward a sun rising in the sky of history. The almost inconspicuous change in their orientation is brought about by sheer bogan confidence, courage, humour, cunning and fortitude, energies that constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. We can turn the past in our favour, secretly, gently, almost imperceptibly, if we know how to play with the qualities that are the living spoils of the class struggle.

Paul Klee's Angelus Novus

This sunny vision gives way to a more troubling one, however. The sky clouds over and we see an angel “who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.” This is the angel of history. “His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.”

(As Gershom Scholem, a great scholar of Jewish mysticism, and one of Benjamin’s closest friends, puts it, “Jewish Messianism is in its origins and by its nature – this cannot be sufficiently emphasized – a theory of catastrophe.”)

I will leave you to imagine the images of wreckage and of the dead that the angel of history is staring at. Literally, of course, he is looking at us.

II Heroism and Utopia

You may wish to turn away from this vision of catastrophe. Let us leave the storm of progress behind, and focus on the heroic utopian possibilities offered by Now-time (Jetztzeit). 

In this very instant, you are encouraged to attempt a fashionable or even revolutionary tiger’s leap into the past.

(The utopian, redemptive element in the Messianic vision involves the “wild indulgence of fantasy” but also “fascinating vitality to which no historical reality can do justice” – Scholem.)

Robespierre demonstrates this move as he performed it during the French Revolution, “citing Rome exactly the way fashion cites a bygone mode of dress.” Recall that Robespierre was known as “the incorruptible” for his high and inflexible standards of personal morality. He famously defended revolutionary terror, and eventually fell victim to it.

Like all stylish and heroic activities, leaping into the past comes with a standard warning: beware of sirens, in particular a whore called “Once upon a time,” who pedals the eternal image of the past in historicism’s bordello. Here, Benjamin tells us, only the historical materialist remains in control of his powers – “man enough to blast open the continuum of history.”

III Contemplation

As tension mounts, the historical materialist (or is it the dwarf of theology who secretly animates him?) performs the astonishing feat of arresting thought, provoking the crystallization of a historical object in the form of a monad. This is a sign, ladies and gentlemen… “the sign of a messianic arrest of happening, or (to put it differently) a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.”

What does it mean to seize this chance? Witness the historical materialist blast an era from the homogenous time of history, a life from the era, a work from the lifework! “As a result of this method,” says Benjamin, “the lifework is both preserved and sublated in the work, the era in the lifework, and the entire course of history in the era. The nourishing fruit of what is historically understood contains time in its interior as a precious but tasteless seed.”

In Benjamin’s method of immanent critique, the time of the world is finally encapsulated and redeemed in each historical object and the work of critical understanding through which it becomes crystallized.

This completes the show. But to take home with you, the souvenir-pack with everything:

“Now-time, which, as a model of messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in a tremendous abbreviation, coincides exactly with the figure which the history of mankind describes in the universe.”

(Except where otherwise indicated, all quotes are from Walter Benjamin's essay "On the Concept of History," also known as his "Theses on the Philosophy of History.")

Monday, December 5, 2011

We are the 100%

He-man with flying troll
I recently got involved in a discussion on facebook about the percentage of income tax paid in the US by the richest 1%. This was the very first exchange I have participated in on the topic of the American tax system, and I have to admit that my contribution was somewhat childish, not to say troll-like (in my opening parry, I accused one of my friends of “capitalist he-man posturing”). Feeling remorseful about this, I have decided to attempt to redeem myself here, with some musings which may still appear naïve to some, but have at least benefited from a little more time to mature.

Apparently the wealthiest 1% in the US pay about 40% of all annual income tax collected in that country. This figure has increased since tax rates for the richest Americans were reduced under Bush; this means that although very rich Americans now pay a smaller proportion of their income as tax, their share of total income has increased so much that have ended up paying a larger proportion of the national tax bill – the reduction in their tax rates may have helped to achieve this result. So while the figure of 40% might initially seem to suggest that the richest Americans contribute an impressively large share of tax, on reflection, it is a stark indication of how extremely unequal the distribution of wealth in that country has become.

It could be seen as a very short explanation of the situation that has provoked, and sustained, the Occupy movement. But it can also be seen as a succinct summary of a mindset that the Occupy movement has created.

Without the existence and persistence of the Occupy movement figures like this would not currently be circulating on the internet. The rhetoric of Occupy has somewhat arbitrarily divided the US population into two camps: the wealthiest 1% and the other 99%. This is designed to give the movement credibility – it is not speaking on behalf of a small, marginalized group, but is voicing the concerns of an overwhelming majority, the 99%.

An unfortunate side-effect of this strategy is to make those cordoned off as the 1% seem embattled and accused, held exclusively responsible for problems created by the society as a whole. This has motivated some to come up with statistics or slogans to defend this group, aiming to point out that the super rich do contribute to society (in many cases this is precisely how they’ve gotten so rich), and don’t typically spend large swathes of their time sitting around scheming about how to rip its fabric apart.

As the brief discussion of US income tax shows, this tactic backfires when it involves a denial of the problem. The inequalities are extreme. So are some of the rips and tears in American society - and the anger and sense of insecurity they incite.

(A quick digression: last week Tom and I saw the Cohen Bros film, Burn before Reading. It’s a great example of intelligent American humour – humour underpinned and abruptly interrupted by rage. But Americans have no monopoly on inequality, insecurity, or ax-wielding maniacs. Consider what’s happening right now at the University of Sydney.)

OWS Ladies' Choir
But to get back to the main topic: a remarkable thing about the Occupy movement is that although it is a protest movement, it is not dominated by anger. Rather, it can be seen as an antidote to the anger that often seems to be tightly coiled just under the surface of contemporary social life. It is resolutely non-violent, and committed to inclusive, creative, frequently humorous and truly democratic forms of communication. Just one example: a musician friend of mine who lives in NY, Greta Gertler, has contributed by forming a choir that regularly sings four part harmonies in Zuccotti Park in Brooklyn. It's called the OWS (Occupy Wall Street) Ladies’ Choir. In spite of the name, I understand that female gender is not a prerequisite for membership. Protest may have been high-pitched before, but never has it been so mellifluous (here is one of the songs they sing).

So is there a way of challenging the divisive element in the 99% versus 1% slogan that doesn’t deny the problems, or lead to even more divisive discussions? Thanks to Bhante Sujato, I recently came across a counter-slogan, devised by Zen peacemaker Ari Setsudo Pliskin, that fits this bill perfectly. Instead of “We are the 99%” he advocates: “We are the 100%.”

Imagine if the rich and poor in America and elsewhere came together to defend democracy, and let lucid arguments rather than money determine the outcome of political struggles, for the benefit of society (and the planet) as a whole. You may say I'm a dreamer... But the concerns of the Occupy movement affect us all.

A gracious gadfly on the rump of the state

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Continental philosophers and other animals

Next month, I will be going to Melbourne to attend the annual conference of the Australasian Association for Continental Philosophers (I know, it sounds like something out of a David Lodge novel, but it’s real). Continental philosophers are not people who think deeply about the significance of living in a nation that’s also an entire continent. Nor, you may be relieved to learn, are they sponsored by Continental Airlines (although the concept of the “bar in the sky” developed by that company is somehow in keeping with the spirit of many continental philosophy discussions).

Rather, the term “continental philosophy” refers to philosophy from or inspired by thinkers from the continent of Europe, which mainly means France, Germany and Italy. Even more importantly, it designates philosophy that is NOT part of the (predominantly) Anglo-American tradition of analytic thought. Somewhat confusingly, analytic philosophy is said to originate with the work of a German philosopher, Gottlob Frege. It is scientific in spirit, whereas continental philosophy is anchored in the methods of textual interpretation and inquiry of the great religious, literary and historical traditions that inform European culture. The split between the two is a recent phenomenon, dating only from the Twentieth century, when the school of analytic philosophy emerged.

Although (or perhaps because) their school is a mere baby of the Western tradition, analytic philosophers tend to show a fundamentalist, reformatory zeal, asserting that their approach to philosophy is the one true way. As David Attenborough might have observed, had he ventured into the jungle of contemporary academia, analytic philosophers will fight fiercely to protect and expand their communal and material interests. Sociable, loyal, even charming among their own kind, they become territorial and dangerous in dealings with philosophers from other schools, insisting that continental philosophy (which, mind you, covers pretty much the whole tradition of Western philosophy before the arrival of analytic philosophy) is not worthy of the title “philosophy” and ought to be stamped out wherever possible. And indeed, it has proved close to possible in many philosophy departments in Australia, the United States of America, and the United Kingdom. Analytic philosophy is clearly in the ascendency in these countries.

It should be admitted that most of the philosophers grouped under the rubric of “continental philosophy” are secretly equally dismissive of the value of analytic philosophy, considering that should it magically disappear without trace, this would be no loss to the world. However, they are much less organized or unified in their opposition to their natural enemy, tending to be preoccupied with depressing problems of their own, such as how to continue a tradition of thought which is implicated in the terrible events of European history in the last century, particularly the Holocaust. Busy deconstructing, critiquing, and declaring “states of exception” involving the suspension of the authority of their own intellectual heritage, continental philosophers have been in a weak position to withstand the energetic and strategic advances of the analytic philosophers. While retaining a foothold in philosophy departments, they have tended to scatter into other disciplines, such as literature, fine arts, cultural studies, and the social sciences.

Hence the need for an Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy (ASCP), to bring the diaspora together. There is no equivalent society for analytic philosophy. The analytic philosophers simply dominate the Australasian Association of Philosophy.

This year, the ASCP conference has been given the theme, “The Times of our Lives.” I am preparing a paper on Walter Benjamin’s concept of Now-time. This is a suggestive understanding of historical time, not as an empty, homogenous expanse in which events occur sequentially, but rather as an intense experience of the present as a moment that is full to overflowing with the past, to the point of catastrophe or possibly redemptive revolution. To get a better sense of Benjamin’s work as a whole (his oeuvre, to be continental about it), I have been reading Howard Caygill, whose summary of Benjamin’s project goes some way to explaining why continental philosophy is not in a stronger position in contemporary academia:

Walter Benjamin
“To a large extent Benjamin’s thought may be understood as an attempt to extend the limits of experience treated within philosophy to the point where the identity of philosophy itself is jeopardized. In place of a philosophical mastery of experience, whether that of art, of religion, of language or of the city, Benjamin allows experience to test the limits of philosophy. The work of philosophical criticism according to the ‘method called nihilism’ allows experience to invade, evade and even ruin its philosophical host.”

This is the kind of thing that makes analytic philosophers see the work of continental thinkers as akin to a parasitic disease. But to “allow experience to test the limits of philosophy” need not amount to a suicidal flirtation with destructive forces. In less melancholic mode, it might involve allowing experience to invite, lead and even enliven its philosophical partner. But that would mean moving on from the oppositional category of continental thought, and adopting the ‘method called tango philosophy.’ 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Strange sympathies: Fritz Lang and reptilian aliens

This week my movie mate, Tom, came over with a dvd of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film “M.” This classic black and white crime thriller tells the story of a German community’s response to a series of child murders. The police and the criminal network of the city both mobilize to track down the culprit, using almost indistinguishable techniques: highly bureaucratic organization directed exclusively by men, their discussions wreathed in tendrils, building to clouds, of cigarette and cigar smoke.

Cutting through the haze, the head of the underworld comes up with the idea of delegating the task of surveillance to the “beggars’ union.” One step ahead of the police, the beggars find their man, and the criminal network swings into action. A chalky “M” slapped on the back of the suspect’s coat brands him, he is captured, and brought to a kangaroo court in an abandoned factory. And here the moral argument of the film becomes clear.

The murderer defends himself by claiming that his actions are involuntary – he is continually persecuted by demons and by the ghosts of the mothers of the children he has killed. He finds relief only when he “does it,” but remembers nothing of his actions, only learning of them through the newspapers later. As he speaks of his compulsion, several of the criminals in his audience are shown nodding, evidently identifying with the unconscious, unwilled nature of his experience.

The crime boss responds by declaring that the man has condemned himself by his own words: he is clearly a danger to society and must be done away with. But in keeping with the way the criminal network mirrors every other aspect of respectable society, the accused has been appointed a defence counsel who is permitted to plead on his behalf. The lawyer speaks courageously of the rights of the accused, demanding that he be handed over to the police and tried according to the rule of law; he is sick and ought to be sent to an asylum, not executed.

The mob are not convinced; a woman raises her voice on behalf of the mothers who have lost their children, arguing that they should be the ones to determine the murderer’s fate. This incites the crowd and they move to attack the man, but just at this moment, the police arrive. The members of the criminal mob all raise their hands – suddenly the tables have turned and they are the ones exposed to potential arrest for attempted murder. We see a hand laid very gently on the accused’s shoulder, about to lead him away to another scene of judgment.

The final speech of the film is given to a bereaved mother we met in the opening sequences of the film, who declares that we all share in responsibility for such murders – we must take better care of our children.

After we finished watching, Tom said he had felt himself identifying, for a moment, with the mob who wanted to lynch the murderer. He looked at me, “But you didn’t, did you? You were the lawyer.” He was half right. I did identify with the lawyer, not so much as a defender of due process, or the institution of the law, but as the protector of the accused against the passions of the mob. I have a strange sympathy for criminals – or more specifically for the isolated individual accused (even fairly) of crime.

My maternal instincts lead me not to share the mob’s anger, but to fear for the fate of their lonely target. At a gut level, I feel that every criminal is in danger of being scapegoated, punished personally for a crime with collective dimensions, caught in a social web spun of passion and sticky prejudice, which sweep the rights of the unpopular away, rather than the even strands of measured judgment which would keep them intact. Where mob passions take charge, the punishment of individuals risks becoming like the persecution of Christ, with the difference that punishing an ordinary human being for the sins of a whole society (its failures to “look after its children”) brings no redemption. To use a more ancient metaphor, the concern is that without the safeguards provided by law (and love), crime and punishment operate on the ouroboric model of the serpent which endlessly devours its own tail, a single force, constantly feeding upon and regenerating itself, with no opportunity for justice or mercy to break the cycle.

Given its historical context, an obvious reading of Lang’s magnificently ambiguous film would be to take the marked man accused of child murder who is ignorant of his crimes, only learning of them in the popular press, as a figure of the Jew, while the portrayal of a society in which the underworld and the institutions of law and order are disturbingly difficult to distinguish would be a prescient portrait of Nazi Germany. But there are contemporary parallels that also spring to mind.

Lately, I have repeatedly come across references to the strange conspiracy theory of David Icke, who teaches that the human race, and the US administration in particular, has been infiltrated by shape-shifting reptilian aliens. It is a more extravagant, imaginative version of the idea that any powerful (or simply unpopular) person who shows signs of the ruthlessness that is encouraged by the system is a psychopath, a being that is constitutionally, and irreparably, different to the rest of the human species. It is worth noting that these theories make the same rhetorical moves that the Nazis used to brand the Jews as inhuman, and deserving of elimination. But the interesting aspect of the alien reptile theory is that it also evokes the sense of an ouroboric element alive in society, writhing beneath the surface of liberal institutions like the rule of law. Lang’s film points to the idea that the real reptile, its jaws closing on its own thrashing tail, is a social (or these days, social media) body – a mob moved by paranoid fear and generalized anger, which generates and feeds upon the dangerous attitudes it claims to expose and eliminate.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Was Prince Siddhartha gay? A (very) free app of the Buddha’s life story

Last week I went to the Apple Store in George St with the friend I mentioned in my last post (the one who thinks that Buddhism makes you want to kill yourself). She gave me the low-down on the cheapest way to get yourself an iPhone, and showed me some of the cool features of the iPad. We discussed the ethics of remaining loyal to Apple, or going over to a competitor who has “reverse-engineered” (ie ripped-off) the iPhone, but made its operating system open-source, so there can be free exchange of new applications.

In amongst all this, I mentioned my last blog-post about suicide and rebirth. My friend immediately reiterated her view that the teachings of the Buddha encourage a wholesale rejection of the life of the world. I mentioned the story of Prince Siddhartha abandoning his life in the palace and she leapt on the example, insisting that as a young prince, Siddhartha had everything the world could offer, and he rejected it. I questioned whether a prince’s life is really so ideal; has Prince Charles’ life been that easy? What about all the expectations laid upon someone in this position? My friend dismissed these doubts: Prince Siddhartha wasn’t Prince Charles; he was a prince in ancient India, endowed with every luxury, every pleasure that life can offer a young man. But he saw all this as suffering, and the religion he started encourages us to see it the same way. No i-phone for a true disciple of the Buddha.

I had to admit that I had become suspicious of my own desire to believe that Siddhartha might have left the palace, not out of a sense that all worldly pleasure is suffering, but simply out of an expansive desire to live more fully. When he rode away on his white horse, his wife had just given birth to a son. Surely the decision to abandon them, without even letting himself see his new-born child, must have been made in a state of anguish. The idea that he was just calmly choosing an open-source life over a more protected one based on family loyalty doesn’t seem plausible. So why did he leave his wife and son? This is an aspect of the Buddha’s life that has troubled many people.

In the middle of the Apple Store, I put forward a half-serious hypothesis: maybe Prince Siddhartha was gay. He felt that his life was a sham, that he was playing a role he couldn’t sustain, and the birth of a son made this painfully apparent. How could he be a father, a model for his child, when he was living a lie? He couldn’t enjoy the luxuries laid daily at his feet, or the even greater pleasures of fatherhood, because he felt he didn’t deserve them. Tormented by his own lack of integrity, he turned away from the people he most loved and went into voluntary exile. This was only the first step in his punishing treatment of himself. He then took up the most extreme possible ascetic practices, expressing his self-hatred in visceral form.

He went on like this until he had almost killed himself. His life would have ended in suicide if not for a simple act of kindness from a woman called Sujata. Finding him on the verge of starvation, she offered him some milk-rice, and he ate it. This was the second major turning-point in Siddhartha’s life-story, one that is too often overlooked, especially in Theravadan Buddhist circles: the turn back toward life, and self-acceptance. At last he began to take care of himself, and appreciate the good things that were offered to him. He saw that life is not just suffering and causes of suffering: there is also the ending of suffering, and the way to the ending of suffering. The noble truth is not two-fold, but four-fold. This is the insight that prevented Siddhartha from killing himself, allowed him to find the middle way that leads to enlightenment, and enabled him to found a spiritual community that would come to include his wife and son.

Of course, it’s possible to tell the story this way without supposing that Prince Siddhartha was gay – there could have been some other trigger for the crisis that led him to abandon his young family and walk away from the life of plenty he was born to. But to my mind, there is a certain restrained gay sensibility in the teachings of the Buddha. Maybe it’s just that his perspective comes from outside mainstream, heterosexual society, and that a lot of the teachings are concerned with men who spend most of their lives in the company of other men, and develop their deepest friendships in this context. There’s also a certain archly humourous take on the foibles of human nature, and the occasional outburst when the Buddha excoriates some poor monk who’s asked the wrong question by telling him and everyone listening what an idiot he is. When reading the suttas, there are times when I feel I could almost be reading Patrick White - which is a compliment to the great Australian novelist as well as a testament to how entertaining, as well as enlightening, the suttas can be.

Patrick White - looking startled at being compared to the Buddha

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Suicide and Rebirth

Ven. Robina Courtin
I recently had a troubling conversation about rebirth and suicide. I mentioned to a friend of mine that I’d seen Australian Tibetan Buddhist nun Robina Courtin on Judith Lucy’s tv show Spiritual Journey. The comedian told the nun that she was attracted by Buddhism and convinced by a lot of what it has to say, but just couldn’t get her head around rebirth. Venerable Courtin took this in her stride. “Darling, that’s fine. Just take what works for you right now, practice with that, and then see where it leads you.” This seemed like pretty good advice to me.

Judith Lucy
My friend, on the other hand, thought it was problematic. She said that if you accept the Buddha’s teachings, but reject rebirth, then there’d be no reason not to commit suicide. Why? Because the Buddha teaches that all worldly experience is suffering. If you take this seriously, you’ll gradually recognize that all your experiences, even the ones you used to value as pleasurable and desirable, are unsatisfactory. Anyone can tell that being in intense pain from an incurable disease is suffering. It takes a Buddhist to recognize that having to decide which of two delectable dishes to eat while surrounded by charming company in a beautiful restaurant is also suffering. Suicide would seem like a good way to get out of this pervasive web of dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) if only it weren’t for the prospect of being reborn into an even worse situation.

This argument upset me. I was depressed by this vision of Buddhism as a religion that convinces people that life is suffering, to the point where even if their lives are full of abundance and opportunity, they’d prefer to be dead, if only they could be sure they wouldn’t get reborn. My own interpretation of Prince Siddharta’s rejection of life in the palace was that he left because he wanted more of life, not less. I like to think he wanted to experience the full gamut of what life had to offer, suffering and joy, and the deep peace and bliss that lies beyond these dichotomies. Far from wanting to kill himself over an exquisitely painful choice between two desserts, he was ready to give up such luxuries in order to live more fully.

But then I started to wonder, what does the Buddha have to say about suicide? I discovered a sutta in which a monk called Channa kills himself, and the Buddha endorses his action as blameless (MN 144).  Channa is gravely ill and is not getting well, even though he has suitable food and medicine and a proper attendant. His painful feelings resemble those described in other suttas as willfully cultivated by ascetics: “just as if a skilled butcher or his apprentice were to carve up an ox’s belly with a sharp butcher’s knife, so too, violent winds are carving up my belly…” He has lost his desire to live. Venerable monks (Sariputta and Maha Cunda) offer him assistance, tell him they want him to live and give him wise teachings, but none of the practical, emotional and spiritual support he receives relieves his pain, or changes his decision to “use the knife.” 

The commentary on this sutta focuses on the idea that Channa must be an arahant, a fully enlightened being, meaning that he will not be reborn – this is why suicide is blameless in his case: the doctrine of rebirth no longer applies to him. This argument follows the same logic employed by my friend: rebirth makes suicide stupid (and blameworthy), absence of rebirth makes it smart (and blameless). But in the sutta itself, Channa’s status as arahant is only indicated, somewhat obliquely, at the end of the text. First we hear about the dire state of his health and the fact that none of the many types of support he is given can relieve his pain. It is also shown that Channa is not clinging to his self-identity in any way: he sees clearly in regard to all sensations and thoughts, “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” Only after his death do we additionally learn that he was not one who “lays down this body and takes up a new body.”

There is no hint here that just any old (or new) kind of dukkha could have motivated Channa’s suicide, or that the extreme pain he experienced can be compared to the suffering occasioned by a frustrated desire to eat every dish on offer, or a nervous inability to appreciate the one you’ve chosen. The sutta makes it very clear that Channa’s pain was not self-inflicted, and nor could it be relieved despite the abundant attention and care of his fellow monks, and his own loving devotion to the Buddha and the way of practice. His decision to “use the knife” was not motivated by self-centred distress or despair; it was an act of kindness and last resort - less a rejection of life than a measured, peaceful acceptance of death as a counterpart to life. It seems to me that this was why his act was blameless, something that makes sense whether or not you believe in rebirth, or arahantship.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Crazy Stupid Love

In my relaxed, post-monastic-retreat state, I’ve been more open to random experience than usual. For example, I recently decided to go to the movies and see whatever was on when I arrived at the cinema. Although I was in Newtown (ie well within my usual comfort zone), it turned out not to be the arthouse film I might have chosen, but a Hollywood movie, Crazy Stupid Love.

The plot follows a couple whose marriage is breaking down: at the beginning, the wife tells her husband she wants a divorce and has slept with another man. He responds by letting himself fall out of their moving car, a gesture that symbolically foreshadows his next step which is to go out and fall into bed with lots of other women. In the end, he renews his commitment to his marriage, and the couple decide to try to restore their relationship. There are subplots about other people, including their children, going through similar struggles to find and sustain romantic love within a culture which is more supportive of sexual conquest.

Glancing at the reviews on the internet, most people seem to have responded to this film as a sweetly romantic romcom. The few critics who took a different view have complained about it being full of falsehood and fantasy (but what do you want from a romcom?), or more subtly have pointed out that the film’s messages about the importance of lasting love and family values are somewhat compromised by the fact that “three-quarters of the cast are acting like sex pests.” Anthony Morris, the critic who made this observation, nevertheless held to the majority view that the film is basically a piece of feel-good entertainment and objected to Julianne Moore’s performance in one of the lead roles as striking a false note by being “just a little too convincing as a woman who’s lost her way in life.”

My friend Tom saw the film in Bondi Junction. He told me that the audience there didn’t pay too much attention to Moore’s interpretation of her role. They cheered and clapped at the end, behaving as if they were part of the crowd of proud parents at the school speech day that comes at the end of the film and provides a pretext for speeches made by the father and son characters about their commitment to lurve.

The fact that Moore, playing the wife and mother of the family, looks stressed and slightly hysterical in the final “reunion” shot with her husband clearly didn’t register. Her thirteen year old son seems similarly stunned at the end of the film. The object of his repeatedly declared and rejected affections, a considerably older babysitter, has just given him some nude photos of herself, shots she had earlier intended to use in order to seduce his father. As she walks away, the boy’s father remarks, “He looks happy,” blithely ignoring the actual expression of bewilderment on his son’s face.

In Newtown on a weekday afternoon, there weren’t many other people in the cinema. Naturally, we maintained a cool silence when the credits began to roll. I don’t know what the others were thinking, but to me, the interest of this film was in what I took to be its deliberate contradictions. It appeared to defend the conservative dream of life-long love and family commitment, but it also played on an equally strong fantasy about the pursuit of sexual conquest without limits. And in its more realistic and disturbing details, it suggested that in a culture which promotes both these fantasies at once and refuses to see the incompatibility between them, the result is a distressing level of confusion and anxiety. Individuals who sense that neither of these ideals matches their experience, or even their desires, face a disconcerting lack of more nuanced models for intimate relationship. In the world of American romcom, it seems there’s no middle way.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Walkin' like a wombat

It’s now nearly two weeks since the ‘rains retreat’ finished and I left Santi Forest Monastery. As my little nephew Ollie would say, “I did it!” I have survived three months in a Buddhist monastery. More than survived. Although there were a few moments when I asked myself what the hell I was doing there, now that it’s over, I find myself answering people’s questions about how it went with heartfelt exclamations of “Great!”

There’s an amazing level of generosity that makes a place like Santi possible. It’s very touching to freely receive so much support for practice. I'll start with the basics. Santi is set on a beautiful, climactically dramatic piece of bushland adjoining the Morton National Park, which was donated by a woman called Elizabeth Gorsky, who has since become a nun at Dhammasara Nuns Monastery in Perth. Accommodation is mostly in individual huts or 'kutis' - in my case, an Aussie yurt-with-verandah, surrounded by wattle plants in full-bloom when I first arrived. And although you can't eat after midday, the food is bountiful, delicious and often prepared and donated by visiting Sri Lankan, Vietnamese or Thai supporters (I developed the ability to consume quite astonishing amounts of food during the morning hours :).

On top of this, during the 'rains', we were nurtured by a steady and stimulating stream of teachings from the Abbot, Bhante Sujato, including weekly dhamma talks, sutta classes and personal interviews. And most importantly, by the friendships that develop from living together and sharing the various struggles that communal practice throws up. “Do not say that admirable friendship is half of the holy life, Ananda; it is the whole of the holy life.”

There are benefits that flow from just being in an environment like this. I’ve come out feeling much clearer and more relaxed about a lot of things. Without even consciously addressing it, a lot of emotional baggage I’d been carrying seemed to grow wings and fly away. Sequestering myself away for this time has also sharpened my appreciation of the people and places I’ve come back to. And I’ve brought back with me a stronger sense of the value of retreating – and an understanding of how to do it even in the midst of social life.

Other retreats I’ve done have all been highly structured – the challenge of learning how to retreat never even came up. The rains retreat was different, although it began in a familiar manner. First there was a (mostly) silent ten-day meditation retreat led by the Abbot of the monastery. For me this was immediately followed by two weeks of personal retreat when I was left entirely to my own devices in the seclusion of my yurt. My meals brought to a pre-arranged drop-off point, so that I didn’t have any social contact with other people during this time.

These experiences were interesting and challenging in certain ways, but they didn’t raise any particular questions in my mind about what it is to retreat or how to go about it. The container of silence meant that being on retreat was a given – a gift that I accepted with gratitude, like a thick blanket that I could wrap around myself during the cold winter of Bundanoon. I settled down inside this protective covering, overcame the nervousness I’d arrived with, and had some good meditation sessions, particularly in a lovely little cave I discovered in the national park adjoining the monastery. I also went for long walks in the bush and had some entrancing encounters with echidnas and other wild creatures.

When my personal retreat came to an end, being the social animal I am, I felt quite eager to rejoin the little world of the monastery and engage more fully with the community. This brought me into a fairly unstructured social space – apart from the teachings and meals, there were no timetabled group activities, which meant a lot of people had a lot of time on their hands. After a few weeks of quite intense and continuous social interaction, I felt exhausted and overwhelmed: I needed a retreat from the retreat! So I went to Sydney for a few days (a bit weird to “retreat” to a major metropolis, but it worked).

When I came back, it was with a different attitude. I realized that without cutting off from the life of the community, I needed to pick up that blanket of silence again and wrap myself in it more regularly. I needed to learn how to make retreating into a gentle daily habit, rather than an abrupt, total, and occasional withdrawal from everyday life. This didn’t just mean maintaining a daily meditation practice. It also meant becoming more sensitive to when it felt right to retreat from the group and go my own way, “at ease like wombat in the bush,” to adapt a phrase of the Buddha’s.

I’d definitely recommend the practice of walkin’ like a wombat, both in the metaphorical and literal senses - there are lots of wonderful things to be discovered once you get off the main trails and follow some of those little tunnel-like paths that lead off in the bush… And I must admit that I did know something about this practice before doing the rains retreat – it’s what got me to Santi in the first place.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Confession No.2: I'm hard to pick as a control freak

When I told two of the people who know me best about my last blog post, they independently said exactly the same thing, “But you’re not a control freak.”

All right, I was exaggerating for comic effect. And admittedly, I was misrepresenting my own most characteristic tactics. When I feel the need for control, I’m more likely to withdraw than to try to make other people do what I want – not a move that normally invites the label “control freak” (though maybe it should).

I’m happy to take responsibility for myself, but wielding influence over other people is something that makes me nervous. In the past, I have tended to think of this in all or nothing terms – either I exert no significant influence on others, and attract no responsibility for their decisions, or I get involved and attract a scary level of responsibility if anything goes wrong. It’s taken me quite a while to see that responsibility can truly be shared and experienced as something that connects me to others in a positive or forgiving way, rather than as something which always tends to isolate the individual – either exalting the ego or crushing it.

While the story behind my relationship to responsibility no doubt has aspects peculiar to me, I think this way of interpreting responsibility is not uncommon. It relates to the dominance of the concept of “the person” in modern Western ways of understanding all kinds of responsibility. As I've pointed out before, even in situations that are clearly collective, like wars or climate change, in the West we think predominantly in terms of personal rather than collective responsibility.

The dominance of the concept of personal responsibility goes some way to explaining why otherwise sociable, reasonable people often react to calls for responsibility by behaving like “control freaks,” whether of the visible or invisible, withdrawing kind. And maybe the reverse is true, too: because we are living in a time during which the rate of change is unprecedented, and at the same time technological progress has increased our expectations of being able to control our environment, it’s easy to feel that things are getting out of control. One way of dealing with this is to impose the concept of personal responsibility to create a comforting illusion of control and moral order. But this sense of security comes at a high price, since in the process individuals are likely to be scapegoated or to flee responsibility for fear of being singled out and blamed when things go wrong. (John Locke was the first philosopher to define personal identity. He described “person” as a forensic term...)

It’s a vicious circle: overuse of the concept of personal responsibility feeds anxiety about individual control, and anxiety about individual control leads to overuse (or abuse) of the concept of personal responsibility.

How to think and feel differently?

Recently I came across a quote from Yeats' poem 'The Second Coming':

“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold…

The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity.”

These memorable lines suggest that in situations of crisis, when things are falling apart, and individuals feel they must do what they can to maintain some sense of control, the wise tend to abandon ship, while the foolish desperately attempt to take charge.

In more settled times, convictions can be held without fanaticism, and intensity of commitment or social involvement need not be driven by blind passion, but by enlightened vision. But even when society – or one’s own life - is in upheaval, surely there are alternatives to self-protective withdrawal, or violent attempts to take control. I’d like to think it is possible to weather the storms of change and live with insecurity by keeping our convictions flexible enough not to break, and cultivating a dispassionate intensity. By this, I mean an ability to stay awake to the intensity of the times, to the people around us and to our own experience, without letting it sweep us into the turmoil of destructive passions.

Open-minded conviction, dispassionate intensity. I’m hoping that these paradoxes will help me navigate the challenges of spending three months in a Buddhist monastery, an environment which will strip me of many of the props that usually give me a sense of mastery over my life. This is another correction to the flippancy of my last post. It’s not because I’m out of control that I’ve decided to go to the monastery, but rather because I feel ready to relinquish some personal control and see what happens.

One of the props to go will be this weekly blog, but I expect I’ll be back in mid to late October to let you know a little of what has happened to me by then.

In the meantime, my mother has a painting exhibition on in August, so if you’re in Sydney, please go along and feel free to post your responses to her art works as comments on this blog (go on, she’d love it).

Click on this image for a clearer view