Jun. 6, 2008

World-View and World-Saving

My last post on the inter-monastic environmental conference has already sparked some thoughtful comments. Thanks to those who have posted.

A theme in all the comments is that what I am suggesting is a tall order.

I also suggest that it may be too difficult to require thinking of the Earth as sacred. Not many people are capable of thinking in this way. Hence again I suggest to look for intermediate perspectives between "sacred" and "not sacred" that are more easily acceptable to the mass public. Words like "duty" and "responsibility" come to mind.
I personally don't think nature has to be sacred though as brahma-vihara should cover all beings and doing what's beneficial for ourselves and all beings. It doesn't seem to me like sacred ideas about nature or even a belief in tree devas are necessary since humans and animals will be harmed by environmental damage and everyone agrees that these beings exist.

I agree with Robert regarding the "sacredness" of the earth. In today's spiritual black hole, the idea of the earth being sacred would do little but invite ridicule and laughter from people who look at all of that sacred stuff as being outmoded and impractical with the materialist worldview.
(Paragraphs taken from three different posts)

I take your point, but my problem is that I don't see a real alternative to a major change of world-view. Read Lovelock and other cutting edge hard-science types and you'll see that the problem is way beyond the reach of any tinkering around the edges with new technologies. The whole search for a comfortable techno-fix that would leave our life-styles intact is a major part of the problem at this late date. Read the essay Eco-Junk by George Monbiot for a scathing analysis of green consumerism. I stand by the statement that sustainable development is an oxymoron, a phrase I adopted from Lovelock.

I think that the need to re-sacralize nature is critical. At first glance, this might seem a poor fit with Buddhism. Samsara is the broken place we are trying to escape from. But that way of seeing things is a mis-application of the Dhamma in this case. We Buddhists do see all living things as sentient beings, possessed of conscious awareness and equal to us in the sense that we are all travellers on the wheel of rebirth.

And yes, the recognition of non-human entities like tree-devas and nagas is important too. It can easily be forgotten how rare in the sweep of human history our own culture is in being blind to that level of being. Old Celtic Europe had it's fairy folk and dragons, Native Americans had (and still have!) their little people and thunder-birds. Medieval Europe had angels, and Islam had it's jinn. In rural Thailand, the existence of devas and ghosts is taken for granted. Even the hyper-rational Hellenes had their fauns and satyrs, and let's not forget Socrates' genii.

What happened to the culture of Europe (because that's what the modern world is heir to) that it took a different road? Some major psychic shift seemed to occur at the turn of the 15th-16th century; the Renaissance, the Reformation, later the Scientific Revolution and the so-called Enlightenment. We (and I say we because whatever our nationality we are all of us heirs to that) took a hard turn into investigation of the coarse material level. It gained us mastery, but it cost us our spirit.

There is a theory I encountered once in a Christian book about angels. It suggested that the invention of perspective in Renaissance painting was not the invention of a new technique, but a faithful record of a new way of seeing. By seeing this material plane more acutely, we lost the ability to see other planes at all. Be that as it may, it is only the modern world which seems to have depopulated the spirit realms.

This wouldn't matter, perhaps, if only a belief in fairies or devas was at stake. But the loss of this realm is a symptom of a much deeper malaise. Everything is reduced to a dead mechanism. In the economic application, it is world as commodity. In the spiritual world, it is man as meat-machine; the "selfish gene" and the "computional model of mind." This world-view is spiritual death, and it may bear fruit in physical death, if not of the entire bio-sphere, at least of our civilization.

Having said all this, I don't know how we can open people's eyes to the wonder and miracle of nature if they are blinded by materialism and greed. But I don't see anything else that could turn the current trend around.


Dhamma81 said...

Ajahn Punnadhammo-

I can sense your frustration, as I have it to some degree myself.I agree that there needs to be a spiritual component to things for a shift to take place in peoples understanding, but just how one goes about that when the general climate towards spirituality runs the gamut from laughter and ridicule to downright hostility is something that escapes my grasp.

The story about the shift in perspective that somehow stopped people from seeing these other beings was interesting. My mother has always maintained a belief in ghosts, angels, devas etc. so I have never personally had a problem with it. My worldview growing up always had room for those things. The Canon is full of little things here and there that relate stories of the Buddha and Devas etc. I think of the story of the "Metta Sutta" for example.

The problem is that for years and years the shift has been to a new way of seeing that excludes everything that can't be put under a microscope or fit into a mathematical equation and explained in a scientific journal.

If people start to believe wholeheartedly that there is nothing beyond this life then they will fall for one of the Buddha's forms of "Wrong View" and see no reason why the pursuit of gross sensuality and consuption are harmful because they don't believe that there are results to actions or another life after this. Spiritual death as you say.

It's interesting to note that in light of the conference being at Gethsemani Abbey Thomas Merton was quite ahead of his time in seeing the problems facing modern society. In many places throughout his journals he seems to be struggling with the same issues we are here discussing now. He died in 1968 and things haven't really been getting any better.

I really don't see there being a pat answer for the issues facing us. Perhaps the best thing is to keep encouraging people in appropriate ways according to our respective stations in life. Your monastic life is a simple one that runs in the opposite direction of a materialist one. Perhaps others will see that and be inspired to look for happiness in places other then the local shopping mall. As a layman I can actively look at living as simple a life as possible and trying to find an inner refuge that isn't swayed by the constant barrage of consumer propaganda and the cult of death and restlessness that seems to permeate modern society.

Perhaps you have read this before but I thought you might like to see it. http://www.bpf.org/tsangha/loy-market.html

At any rate, thanks for the interesting reflections. May you be well.

Ben 8) said...

"I really don't see there being a pat answer"

The answer is to euthanasia the population down to what, 10%.
That sound Bad. Maybe. Mom Nature will be the final arbitrator.

Eric said...

"What happened to the culture of Europe (because that's what the modern world is heir to) that it took a different road? Some major psychic shift seemed to occur at the turn of the 15th-16th century; the Renaissance, the Reformation, later the Scientific Revolution and the so-called Enlightenment. We (and I say we because whatever our nationality we are all of us heirs to that) took a hard turn into investigation of the coarse material level. It gained us mastery, but it cost us our spirit."

I think you're an idiot and one of worst spokesman for Buddhism. Would you really want to go back to a world without democratic freedom and with ridiculous beliefs like transubstantiation. The truth is that the Enlightenment represented a great cultural advance similar to the Axial Age in antiquity (Greek, Indian, Chinese). The problem is that "Enlightenment talk" has been hijacked by extreme positivistic reductionists who peddle the worst kind of scientism. The resources of the Enlightenment were much broader than that. Take a look at Kant...Schopenhauer(unwittingly) reveals the subtle similarities between his philosophy and Buddhism.

"I haven’t read Hind’s book as yet, but in Hitchens my objections to his call for a New Enlightenment lie in the way nineteenth century scientism, in the wake of the Enlightenment, ‘hijacks the Enlightenment’ theme. Darwinism is not part of the Enlightenment, for example. It comes later. As does the positivism we associate with the Enlightenment. The New Atheists are claiming the Enlightenment for atheists. But atheism can’t be taken as a defining ‘ism’ of the Enlightenment. Few of the philosophes were atheists. Atheism did emerge as a distinct dialectical chord in the liberation of thought we associate with the Enlightenment.

What was the Enlightenment? It is not going to work to reduce it to an ism.

I would strongly recommend studying the Enlightenment in the context of the eonic effect. Then we see the Enlightenment as one aspect of the modern transition, 1500-1800. This transition is comprehensive, dialectically diverse, and not easily pinned down. There is a French, German, Dutch, English, American,…. Enlightenment. The overall effect is highly balanced therefore and doesn’t ‘bet the ballpark’ on one ism. You can see the mistake this Enlightenment doesn’t make in Darwinism! One fragile thesis of natural selection becomes the all-defining standard of science, philosophy, religion, and culture. Bet the ballpark, and lose. These scientism fanatics are likely to destroy the Enlightenment. That was why I was critical of Hitchens, et al, in the presumption they respresent the Enlightenment, with their religious critics eager to let them so claim.

The net effect of the real Enlightenment is very broad, and includes the seeds of its own critique.
There is a complex orchestra of couterpoints, German Classical Philosophy, the Romantics, etc,….
Everyone speaks of ‘reason’ but the Kantian critique of reason is nearly forgotten, and excised from the discussion.
Now we see the postmodern ‘critiques of reason’ set against the phenomenon of modernity. Disaster. The Islamic theologians (and New Age gurus) are licking their chops.
Note, from the eonic effect, that the modern transition, with its Great Divide, is about resuming forward motion with respect to the world system as it was visible in the period before 1500. By the nineteenth century that effect is achieved, as the transition completes. It isn’t just an ‘ism’. Secularization is, of course, very real, and we can see that the Protestant Reformation (the onset of the modern transition) leads naturally to the Enlightenment, but the world of Protestantism is the gestation of the Enlightenment. These issues were very clear to many, e.g. Kant and Hegel, the latter explicitly attempting to ‘complete the Reformation’. It is worth noting this immense effort now forgotten as loudmouthed atheism attempts to erase the Enlightenment and replace it with Darwinian scientism and anti-religion. This is a watered down non-starter, destined to be the best thing that happened to the enemies of modernity.

In general there is so much to say here that it is difficult to conclude anything without a long preamble, and a careful groundwork. But in general Darwin, Nietzsche, and many others, are not part of the Enlighenment. Nietzsche, especially, has created an immense confusion, and is the icon of much postmodern critique. But what actually is the substance of his thought? It is lacking in coherence, so it is difficult to say.

In general to speak of the Enlightenment requires a long-winded and detailed description, reminding oneself of the complex chord of synchronous events that brought on the modern period. It is something more than science and capitalism.
That requires seeing the modern transition in relation to antiquity, not in relation to its subsequent history. To speak of the Enlightenment means to stand in a new temporal era of post-antiquity, one with a vast chorus of effects.
A lot more to say here. But I would be wary of Darwinian atheists like Dawkins or Hitchens who claim to represent the Enlightenment.
I think the New Atheists represent the frustration of many that regression is underway. I am not invoking some mishmash compromise with religious antiquity in the postmodern reaction to modernity. But you have to get it straight, and making a crusade out of atheism isn’t going to do it.

It is a sad question. Disaster is near. Look at the conclusion to the Axial Age in antiquity. You can start downhill and within centuries lose a whole advance.

But the situation is not helped by loudmouthing atheism, or turning Darwinism into a new religion. We need a new integrated defintion of modernity, and this can’t be accomplished by a narrow scientism. Going beyond religion, the agenda of many modernists, is completely Ok, but how will you manage it armed with nothing more than an incorrect evolutionism and a scientism so denatured it can’t use the idea of freedom?
So, it would help to study the Enlightenment! Many of seeds of an answer are latent there. A broader sense of the modern would help in the waste of words over these issues.
Let me say that I do support the Enlightenment, and support current efforts to move beyond religious traditionalism. But the current strategies are going to backfire, and it might help to recover the genius of the Enlightenment here.
The first stage of disaster is the inability of its supporters to even define the Enlighenment."


"Here Kant, inspired by Rousseau, and the legacy of Newton, sees the light at the end of the tunnel, and produces a matrix of liberal post-Protestantism at once informed by science and the legacy of religion. Here in one phrase the keynote is sounded in the adjunction to causality based scientism of the idea of freedom.
From this we can foresee, not the hybridization of false compromises under the threat of religious reaction, but the creation of a secularism that is a far superior foundation for religion than the archaic remnants of the Axial Age, among them the classic monotheisms, whose fate is sealed by the dynamics of a New Age of history. And yet these religious formations linger with a warning that the technocratic cults of pseudo-science and Social Darwinist economism and biologism have failed the promise of a true secularism. And they issue a warning that modernity will be swept away if nothing more is imagined than the absurd posture of the iron cage administered by the mind control fascists who have hijacked the name of the Enlightenment."


Robert said...

I don't think it's impossible for beings other than the ones recognized by modern science to exist, but generally speaking I think we have to act based on what we can understand.

For example, how many ppm of some pollutant can a naga handle before it effects the naga's health? We have no way of knowing this because we can't even observe their existence.

If we have a drug factory producing a life-saving drug that emits 1ppm of something bad, do we shut down the factory to save the nagas? I think you would have a hard time making this case.

The main problem I see with "sacredness of nature" ideas is that it can lead to violent extremism. After all, if nature is the embodiment of God (or nagas, or devas), maybe it's not so unreasonable to kill humans to save a single tree? This is the kind of stuff that leads to tree-spiking and eco-terrorism.

To me it seems critical that we look at things in cause-and-effect terms for the benefit of beings rather than any sort of abstract concept like divine agents or God embodied in nature.

And regarding people losing touch with faeries and such, I don't think we have. Now that forests and rivers and stuff aren't so mysterious anymore, the faeries have just moved into outer space. Basically, mysterious creatures always move from a mysterious place once it's no longer mysterious to another new place that's mysterious. Outer space is mysterious because we haven't been there, can't study it, but the potential for other life out there seems very real.

So in modern times instead of ghosts and faeries we have more people who believe in aliens and get visited by aliens.