Politics and practice

“The boundless emptiness of the sky embraces the ‘ten thousand things’ of every shape and form — the sun, moon and stars; mountains and rivers; bushes and trees; bad people and good; good teachings and bad; heavens and hells. All these are included in emptiness.”
 — Huineng, the sixth patriarch of Chinese Zen.

Lately I’ve been infuriated, annoyed and contemplative by the debates about Refugees, Muslims, Arabs and North Africans. Following the violent sexist attacks in Cologne I have experienced debates on Facebook which have ranged from “this is why we need to be careful who we import into our culture”, and “it’s not their religion to blame it’s the country they come from”, etc. Often these views come from educated affluent white European men. The story that underpins this perspective is the belief that “we” are superior, more advanced, more educated.

Unfortunately we live in the persistent Western European historical narrative of progress. “Progress” is the view that we are the end result of a linear evolution of history, that we have advanced. When we look to “other cultures” it replicates this view, from the status of women in predominantly Muslim countries, to the nature of the Chinese economy, to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

I have been interested lately in the experience that people re-interpret reality in a way that validates their belief system. We rarely witness reality for what it truly is, instead we constantly look at the world through the lens of our own thoughts, feelings, stories about ourselves, and what we think is going on.

The irony is that people with a Western European background or identification are increasingly taking on practices from other present and past cultures. Examples of this include shamanic practices from native American nations, yoga from India, meditation techniques across Asia, cultural dances from Africa, or even Sufi practices from Islam. I have witnessed countless people on Facebook and other forums talking about how the use of these practices have made them a better person, that it is helping them realise how special and unique they are, or evolving into a more authentic version of themselves.

Now don’t get me wrong, evolution is possible, and it is a noble cause to improve ourselves. But the danger exists when we use these practices to fuel this Western narrative of linear progression and “evolution”. If Westerners are harnessing these practices to make themselves superior, then it has the potential to be another act of cultural imperialism.

The acknowledgement and gratitude for these practices is important, but so too is the cultures that gave rise to them and the realisation they must have been pretty evolved and advanced to have developed them in the first place.

The problem with the attitude that we are superior is that it’s completely made up.

The American spiritual teacher Adyashanti gives a good analogy about the social contract that we stop at red lights, being completely “mind made”. At some point it was made up that red would mean stop and green would mean go, so we go along with that because that’s what we should do. So we recreate the world in a way that validates our beliefs.

And the truth is that it’s all made up, the way we interact and relate to the world in our daily life is mind made. The existence of nation states and borders, the view that Muslims are anti-women, that terrorists are threatening our way of life, that Australia is the lucky country, etc, etc. The way the world has been carved up and redefined again and again has been based on decisions of world leaders and recreated again and again by international government decisions. And when a group of vigilantes flew into the World Trade Towers, Western governments made a decision that Muslim and Arab nations would be painted as enemy number one and would be portrayed as backward, uncivilised, and barbaric.

On January 24 The Guardian reported on a significant increase in the number of women calling Queensland’s domestic violence hotline, DV Connect. DV Connect “had a more than doubling of calls from October 2013 to December last year” and “received 2,000 calls in the four days following New Year’s Day”. This is on top of the 79 women killed in domestic violence cases in 2015. Yet the vitriol displayed at the terrible crimes in Cologne, completely ignores the rising problem of domestic violence in Australia, where the perpetrator’s race doesn’t even rate a mention. This is because we have decided that Muslim’s are anti-women and therefore when an act of violence occurs it is relevant that they are Muslim. But when white Australian men do the same thing every day their race is no longer relevant. And so we create a story and find evidence to furnish the story with.

And remember that time when a mob of violent aggressive white men attacked a group of innocent men and women in Australia? Yeah it was called the Cronulla Riots. Here we had literally hundreds of white men (and some women) attacking people based on their colour and clothing. Women had hijabs ripped off their head, elderly men were beaten, but oh no we should be outraged by the Taharrush‬ that happened in Germany.

And what about the hundreds of Reclaim Australia protesters who violently protested the construction of a Mosque in Bendigo? Or the fact that today, January 26, marks the celebration of Australia, on a day which commemorates the mass dispossession and genocide of the country’s original people’s? Or the American project to free the women of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban with bombs, guns, and occupation? Does this demonstrate the hallmarks of a civilised, advanced culture? I think not.

So it is frankly about time we got off our high horse and stopped believing that we are more evolved than those who’ve come before us, and begin to acknowledge the other advanced nations and cultures that exists alongside us.

In coming to a new perspective on the nature of the concepts and ideas we frame our world view with, we can see that as these views are essentially made up, we can change them and adopt new perspectives and new ways of looking at the Earth. The invitation is to find a way to look beyond the opinions and rules we hold about ourselves and others, and to see reality as it truly is. And to take a cue from Huineng - to see that reality, as it truly is, is essentially empty. But that’s not to say it is not there and this is all a fantasy in our minds, but rather the meaning we attribute to all aspects of reality - mountains, rivers, air, technology, man-made, nature made, etc - are all essentially empty.

And fundamentally the invitation to you is to see that there are no others because we are all essentially the same. To see that the emptiness of reality does not mean that there is no suffering either. But to recognise that when we defend ourselves against others and define us in distinction to others, we not only imprison ourselves but we hold others hostage to the prisons in our mind also.

In finishing I really wanted to tackle this notion of evolution being about progress. And the best person to do this is my favourite evolutionary thinker Stephen J. Gould.

“Sigmund Freud often remarked that great revolutions in the history of science have but one common, and ironic, feature: they knock human arrogance off one pedestal after another of our previous conviction about our own self-importance. In Freud’s three examples, Copernicus moved our home from center to periphery, Darwin then relegated us to ‘descent from an animal world’; and, finally (in one of the least modest statements of intellectual history), Freud himself discovered the unconscious and exploded the myth of a fully rational mind. In this wise and crucial sense, the Darwinian revolution remains woefully incomplete because, even though thinking humanity accepts the fact of evolution, most of us are still unwilling to abandon the comforting view that evolution means (or at least embodies a central principle of) progress defined to render the appearance of something like human consciousness either virtually inevitable or at least predictable. The pedestal is not smashed until we abandon progress or complexification as a central principle and come to entertain the strong possibility that H. sapiens is but a tiny, late-arising twig on life’s enormously arborescent bush — a small bud that would almost surely not appear a second time if we could replant the bush from seed and let it grow again.”
— Stephen, J Gould, “The Evolution of Life On Earth,” Scientific American, 1994, 271 (4): 91.

Perhaps in applying the Buddhist practices of inquiry, mindfulness, union, we will finally find out that we Westerners weren’t that special after all. Let’s hope by that stage we haven’t destroyed all other cultures and most of life on this planet.