Monday, June 10, 2013

“Tarry a While” The Imagination of a Lasting Culture

We have found that culture is dynamic, that it requires endless pilgrimage, and that it is often reached through intense suffering. How, then, can we imagine that it could become in any sense permanent or even long-lived? How could even the cyborgs and ubermenschen of scifi sustain a culture that lasts more than a moment? More important, why do we imagine this possibility?

To begin to explore this question perhaps first we should ask what an enduring culture could be like.  Hindu and Buddhist theories of heaven might be a place to start, for they tell us of realms of fulfillment that are long-lasting but temporary. One may earn eons, for instance, in the god Indra’s heaven, enjoying the company of celestial nymphs (apsarases) or demigods (gandharvas) while experiencing the delights of ambrosia, heavenly music and dance, living a completely pain-free existence. After one’s merit (karma) is used up, however, one returns to the world of rebirth at some point on the chain of becoming. But what is heaven like while it lasts? Is it what Eliot means when he says in the Four Quartets “you are the music while the music lasts?” Eliot appears to be referring to the transcendence one experiences by entering World Two when culture (World Three) fulfills its function.  All humans, even before or without true culture, go back and forth between Worlds One and Two, suffering and bliss, but with culture for the first time we become able to do so consciously, voluntarily, intentionally. Culture (World Three) does not just transport us beyond suffering and frustration, it shows us how we are being transported and to some extent at least allows us to walk the path to World Two under our own power. Of course the degree to which culture is a conscious process varies. A professional musician may follow a Bach chaconne more consciously than a 9th grader hearing it for the first time (indeed, for the latter it may not succeed at all in evoking World Two).  Is heaven a fully conscious state? Is its nature as World Two being reaccessed at every moment in full awareness? Not according to the usual understanding of these places (lokas) found in Hinduism and Buddhism. It is a tenet of Buddhism that seems to have been adopted by the Hindu schools afterwards that only human beings can reach (as opposed to be in) a World Two state. At least the highest moments of consciousness (technically, purely sattvic buddhi in Samkhya/Yoga, and similarly in Buddhism) are only possible for humans, so logically the gods are not walking the walk on their own but rather passively enjoying (I am tempted to say wallowing in) the effects of their past good deeds. This in turn suggests that they have fallen into a World One attitude of possessiveness and complacency towards their World Two experience, the phenomenon named by Chogyam Trungpa “spiritual materialism.”

Clearly heaven in Buddhism and post-vedic Hinduism is an ambiguous state, pointing to the possibility of an enduring culture with one hand while taking it away with the other. Let us move on to what may be better visions of lasting cultures, the Buddhist sangha (community of monks) in its essential function of teaching the laity about karma and nirvana, the world of Vrindavan where Lord Krishna plays with his family and beloved disciples the gopis, and the Kashmiri world of Abhinavagupta so attractively imagined in the famous painting of him in a garden surrounded by disciples. The first thing we notice in all three examples is that these realms are of this world while also of the other, they are not located, like heaven, in a World Two that is cut off from World One (however temporarily). The difference between heaven and Vrindavan is essentially the same as what the analyst D.W. Winnicott called “daydream” versus “dream.” A discussion of what Winnicott intended by this distinction will help us understand what a prolonged culture might be like.

For Winnicott, “dreams” are images where our “soul” is actively involved, while “daydreams” are lazy moments of self indulgence, essentially false interludes of World Two that do not really satisfy but succeed in anestheticizing us to the World One suffering we continue to live in unwittingly. We swim today in an ocean of images: no other moment in the history of civilization has approached our facility in inventing, crafting, refining, and polishing pictures of things and presenting them to us readymade, as what postmodernism calls “simulacra.” Think, for example, of what films have become in the past century, with the primitive “special effects” of the early days of motion pictures giving way to 3-D, animation, and especially to computerized digital manipulation of the images of virtually any and all creatures, times, places, worlds; even dreams, memories, and visions; and beyond the duplication of all these actualities extrapolation to what has not been and perhaps never will be. Yet, in spite of the enormous outpouring in the present day of images of our worlds and how they might develop, there seems to be less and less place for what Jung called “symbols” and “archetypes,” and Winnicott “dreams” and “imagination”; those emotionally-charged images and stories that intimate and sometimes make real a world beyond our own but also most deeply our own, a sacred realm where life can be lived creatively. Instead most of our images imagine something like a Hindu or Buddhist heaven (with the implicit condition, slipped in almost unnoticed, that we have the money to afford it). Why is this?

             Daydreaming fantasy, as Winnicott shows, is a dissociative and defensive activity that aims at hiding reality; it adds nothing to life, drains our energy rather than renewing it. Not that this is not recognized from time to time in our art, especially films—which after 100 years remain the premiere canvas on which psyche projects her insights. As an example, I would like to reflect on the recent film “Inception,” whose premise is that a near future technology would allow its possessor to enter and control the dreams of others. Of course these are no longer dreams, in Winnicott’s sense, but rather daydreams or fantasies without soul or depth, instruments of power and control motivated by the spirit of capitalism and self aggrandizement. “Inception” images for us the possibility of levels of dreams, dreams within dreams, and of a distortion of time such that a minute at one level equals hours in a deeper dream. All this recalls the time expansion of Hindu heavens where one might dwell in pleasure for millions of years before being dumped unceremoniously into one’s next life. The outward “spectacle” of dreams (to use Aristotle’s term) is brilliantly portrayed, but there is no sense of the mystery and depth of natural dreams. Instead, we are plunged into the tedium of being trapped in a (day)dream world where nothing new can ever happen, much like Hindu and Buddhist (and vulgar Christian) visions of heaven. The protagonist of Inception, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is tempted to give in, as his wife had done, to the blandishments of the spectacular—but finally banal—daydreams they had constructed in what felt to them like 50 years trapped in a third level dream. On returning to the real world she jumped to her death, thinking reality a dream. He rejected the daydream simulacrum of his wife pleading for him, too, to jump, and chose ordinary reality; paradoxically, because it was more real, deeper, than daydream. As he said to his wife’s image, recognizing that he had (re)created it, “You’re not good enough.” Real memories and authentic mourning are superior to mechanized fantasy. “Inception” is a bracing and valuable film because it reveals the nihility at the root of fantasies like those of heaven and what is (on a more everyday level) the same thing, media-driven daydreaming.

Buddhist social organization might be thought to be an antisocial activity, and the opposition of “renouncer” and “man in the world” was thought by Louis Dumont to be at the root of Indian social tension. To understand that the organization of monks is not antisocial we need to review the nature of World Two transcendence in Buddhism. Essentially, the answer is easy: World Two is nirvana, the “going out of the fire” of karma. Almost exactly the same thing is said in the first words of the Yoga Sutra (which was deeply influenced by Buddhism) “Yoga is the extinguishing of the fluctuations of the mind.” While Yoga is more obviously concerned with the mind and Buddhism is equally interested in the whole human organism, Gombrich (2008) has clearly shown that Buddha understood the fire (process) of life to be based on intention (samskara in Sanskrit, samkhara in Pali), which is a mental event. Nirvana, or release, is the cessation of that process of digging ourselves deeper and deeper into the suffering of what I call World One and the Buddha termed dukkha (Sanskrit duhkha). Almost exactly as in Yoga, the way out of this pain is through good conduct (sila), peacefulness of mind (samadhi) and insight or gnosis (prajna, vijnana in Sanskrit, panna in Pali). These activities, supplemented by some others to be discussed in a moment, lead to the ecstatic vision of nirvana, a World Two state of bliss beyond though totally aware of suffering.  The social function of the sangha, the community of monks and nuns established by the Buddha, is to help others to achieve nirvana, now or in the future, through practice of the World Three techniques of conduct (sila), peace (samadhi), and insight (prajna). By wandering from village to village begging food and disseminating the Buddha’s dharma (teachings) the orange-clad monks keep the possibility of World Two (nirvana) alive in the social world. Upholding the virtues of loving kindness, equanimity, and empathy the monks provide an example, frequently repeated, of another possibility for humans beyond the all-too-well known suffering of World One.  Culture in Buddhist society revolves around the teachings and tales of monks; in everything they do their vey presence in the midst of the world is the essential cultural fact, though in the modern age they are called to be present in new ways, a few in their writings or on television, and others in compassionate self sacrifice to resist oppression and uphold the dharma (the self immolations in the Viet Nam war are examples).

The realm of Sri Krishna in the mythical (but also actual) village of Vrindavan is a much more everyday (orthodox Hindu) version of a genuine World Three “dream.” Here, Krishna lives as infant and youth among his foster family, demonstrating his power over the snake king Kaliya, the Vedic god Indra, and his evil uncle King Kamsa. He dances and makes love with the gopis, low-caste cowgirls who are completely devoted to him and (at an earlier age) steals butter from foster mother Yashoda. While the time period is short (perhaps fifteen or sixteen years), and despite the number of trials that must be surmounted in that time (the poisoned breasts of Putana besides those alluded to above, and many others) there is a sense in the story of Krishna’s life in Vrindavan of a World Three that does not go outside the realm familiar to householders. Monks are not needed to remind villagers of the World Two that lies beyond the village bounds because within the village itself God lives, constantly intervening to stop the downward spiral of karma and return time, as it were, to the golden age (krta yuga). Vrindavan is an ideal culture for village Hindus (and urban dwellers also). Its events are built into the sacred space and time of village life, and when threats come from outside  (as when Krishna must lift Mount Meru to protect the village from Indra’s thunderbolts and rain, or wrestle the serpent King Kaliya back into the oceanic abyss) this is done to return matters to their rightful, and “ordinary” state. Vrindavan is World One as it should be but can never be in actuality without the constant intervention of World Two’s god breaking apart the afflictions that the ordinary world inevitably attracts.
Tantra is undoubtedly Hinduism’s most powerful and sustained effort to imagine a culture that endures over time. As my teacher used to say about his own teachings, tantra “turns obstacles into means” of transcendence. All the afflictions of life, the impurities and sins (papman-s) are turned to the use of the tantric gnosis and become ways to transcend themselves. Abhinavagupta, generally acknowledged to have been India’s greatest tantric thinker, makes this clear.

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