Repentance: the mistakes we made

The aftermath 

From the moment we opened our eyes on the dawn of 24 June, our minds were thrown. It has taken from then till now to reach a place of equanimity. A reckoning is in order – what happened, and was our reaction wise or just?

What happened in the outside world we have sketched already and we see no reason nor has anything materialised to change our minds about our analysis of it. In short, an irresponsible, unserious, unscrupulous and stupid section of the ruling elite has taken power, or is in the process of taking power, based on a campaign of lies designed to whip up the fears and emotions of the poor and bewildered. The result has been just as predicted by those denigrated during the campaign as “experts” – so not Project Fear at all, but Project Reality. The brains were for Remain. But the brains lost. Project Hate is taking the reins of government and the lid that had been kept on racism and social divisions in recent decades has been lifted off, with explosive and ugly consequences. Can there possibly be a bright side to any of this?

The best that we can be
There might well be, but to get there we need to look a bit more closely at our reaction to the news – to what happened internally. As we said, our minds were thrown. We were angry, and depressed, and sought people to blame. Having picked a scapegoat, the one we believed to be most immediately and obviously responsible, we picked up hot coals of anger and thew them – burning our own hands in the process. That this is understandable and (we hope) forgiveable should be derivable from our honest and we believe factual assessment of what had happened. But never mind the justifications – was it right? Was it just? Was it wise?

At times like this, full of anger, of sorrow, of confusion about the best way forward, we turn for guidance to those who are more highly evolved than we are. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen master. That means he is a master of his mind and his emotions and is therefore more capable than we are of making wise decisions in the heat of the moment. When he first came to America from Vietnam during the war there, his country too was in crisis. And, it should be needless to say, a much more severe crisis than we are facing. Thich’s country was being destroyed, his friends, family, loved ones and fellow countrymen slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands. When the gentle monk stood up in a meeting to speak for peace, an audience member interrupted and asked what a kook like him was doing over here in his country, giving lectures. If things were so bad, why didn’t he go back home where he belonged and put his attention there? Thich remained completely calm and gently explained that his country was on fire. Given that the cause of the fire was over here in America, he’d come over to see if he couldn’t help put it out. Later, after the talk, Thich was found by his friends standing outside, trembling and shaking all over and breathing deeply. He explained to those who asked him what was wrong that anger had arisen in him as that man had spoke. Then why not express that anger, he was asked. Surely the fool who had asked the question deserved it – surely Thich was justified in expressing it. Maybe so, said Thich, but I am not here for myself. I am here to represent my fellow countrymen who are suffering so badly. I must show people here in America the best that we can be.

I can never relate that story without choking up. And the lesson from it is clear. We failed to be the best that we can be. Following the path of peace and wisdom is a hard one that takes many years of training to yield success. We do not beat ourselves up for our failure, but we do bow in gratitude for the lesson – it is humbling to the ego to know how far one yet has to go. It inspires us to begin anew and try again.

Eknath Easwaran, a spiritual teacher from a different tradition and inspired by Gandhi, says that anger is not a problem as long as you have trained your mind to be slow. If your mind is slow, you can see and watch gently as anger arises, take steps to calm yourself, not feed your anger with thoughts, and drive the energy of anger instead into wise and compassionate action and kind speech. If your mind is fast, there is no hope for any of that. You will have no chance of taking hold of and transforming your anger – your anger will tear off and drag you in its wake. You won’t use it, it will use you.

That is what happened to us when we learnt of the EU referendum result. Our minds raced off and anger and fear fed greedily on the thoughts. Social media made it worse – as social minds they are faster even than newspapers and TV and are therefore, unwisely used, poisons. Drunk on thought and poison and anger, we started wars with all around us. Thank God, the war of words has not yet escalated into a real war – though how easily that happens should now be obvious to all who are paying attention to the predictable and predicted rise in racist and xenophobic violence. We happily (or rathe unhappily) started wars of words with friends and family. In the country, others are starting literal wars of hatred with their neighbours. How desperately and urgently we need to slow and calm down and begin to make peace!

Drive all blames into one: the only revolution that will work
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a system of slogans to help you with daily living known as lojong. One of the slogans forms the subhead to this section: drive all blames into one. What this means is that when things go wrong or aren’t to your liking, when disaster or dissatisfaction in whatever form strikes, whether in big ways as in wars or in small ways as in irritation with your neighbour, what you can do is to take all the blame for the situation onto yourself. This is not the normal way of proceeding, of course. Normally we start looking for someone to blame. To reverse that normal way of behaving is to begin the only revolution that will ever work. It doesn’t mean to turn yourself into a doormat for other people or to ignore or tolerate bad behaviour in others. It simply means to take full responsibility for every situation you find yourself in. If you look deeply, you will see that you personally always bear, or at the least share, responsibility for creating the situation you are in.

In the wake of the EU referendum result, we started to blame those most responsible. The Leave campaign. The people who voted for it against all the advice of the experts. The social situation that led the working class to so distrust the political class – the fact that they had been shat on from a great height and ignored or taken for granted by both sides of the political divide. And so on and so on. But we are to blame too. We failed to mount a successful enough campaign – in the first place against holding such a stupid and undemocratic referendum, in the second for the right result. We failed to get out there and connect with and educate the ignorant. We have failed to inspire confidence in the left project. We didn’t work hard enough to support those being shat on by the elites – the fact that they no longer trust them is our fault too. Our behaviour and conduct and thinking as socialists has inspired precisely how many people to follow our good example? Would zero be too cruel an answer?

This is our task now as our country slips into crisis. To drive all blames into one and act.

Maybe…”
There is another Zen story that is relevant here. It goes something like this. A man comes into a great inheritance and is given a ton of money. You are so lucky! say his friends and family. Maybe, he says. With his windfall he goes out to buy himself a new car and drives it into a tree on the way home. At his hospital bed, his friends commiserate with him. You were so unlucky, they say. Maybe, he replies. While he is in hospital, a mudslide destroys his house. How unlucky, say some of his friends. How lucky you were not in the house at the time! say others. Maybe, he replies…

The point of course is that we cannot see all ends and must work well within the situation as it is, whatever it is. The vote for Brexit struck us as a complete disaster – and, of course, in so many ways it is. But might there be a bright side? Maybe.

For a start, Brexit may not even happen. The odds that it will and the political feeling that it must are against such a conclusion, but the possibility of EU fudge, a new deal, a general election, a feeling of Bregret when Brexiteers realise they’ve been sold a pup and cannot have the best of all worlds and that the costs of Brexit will be severe, means that a Breversal, as The Economist puts it, cannot be ruled out.

But more optimistically still, we have the situation in the Labour Party. The Blairites may have miscalculated here. They took Jeremy’s lukewarm endorsement of Remain and his supposed footdragging in the campaign as the excuse they’ve been desperate for ever since Jeremy was elected leader to launch a coup – flavoured, as might be expected, with shameful, even evil attempts to break Jeremy on a human level, a brew seasoned with lies and Machiavellian plotting and backstabbing. They have done everything in their power to unseat him – except, of course, to trigger a leadership challenge that they must surely lose. (The membership remains firmly behind Jeremy.)

Could, then, this crisis lead to a final reckoning in the Labour Party? Picture the scene – Jeremy wins a renewed mandate for his leadership. The movement that supported him gradually steps up to the challenge; MPs deselected, the PLP and shadow cabinet filled with Corbynistas. Come election time, a highly energised Corbynista Labour Party is able to connect to the least bigoted of the Leavers, thanks in part to Jeremy’s well known euroscepticism, winning back Labour’s core vote. The very fact of Jeremy’s survival and likely victory so discredit the mainstream narrative about his lame leadership that the aspirational middle class begin to see that there is little to fear in the Corbynomics plan to grow the economy. Following Corbyn’s victory, the very fact of Brexit gives the new Labour Party the freedom to pursue economic goals that would have been problematic under EU rules, and a moral power to renegotiate access to the single market with freedom of movement combined with protections for the sections of society that lose out most from such deals. In other words, from the jaws of Brexit defeat, we snatch a social democratic victory beyond present imagining.

That this scenario is almost ludicrously optimistic from the point of view of the intellect and of political and social realities we would be the last to dispute. There barely seems to be time for it to be realised, let alone the will. But there is a final spiritual lesson to learn from this ongoing disaster – and it is perhaps the most important of them all. It is that pessimism of the intellect and objective realities can hold no power over a fully developed, undiscourageable, ever-renewed optimism of the will. So if our scenario is in the slightest bit appealing to you, don’t just sit there – and certainly don’t just criticise or sneer. Join the Labour Party – join Momentum, the movement that supports Jeremy. Do it today.

Regardless of the prospects for our utopian scenario, at the present time Jeremy remains the great hope for a progressive outcome for this crisis. He is also something of a model when it comes to political conduct. He may not have mastered his mind as Thich Nhat Hanh has, but he is a pretty remarkable operator nonetheless – committed to a politics of kindness, honesty, seriousness and straight-talking that even the right finds refreshing to behold. Jeremy doesn’t do personal. But he does do tireless political work for peace and socialism and compassionate action. Let Jeremy be our role model. Let’s get behind him now.

Amy Winehouse and Dostoevsky

Our last post was a quote by Dostoevsky, and it bears repeating. “The man who bows down to nothing can never bear the burden of himself.” By a strange synchronicity, following straight on from the discovery of that quote came our discovery of the documentary on Amy Winehouse, a tragic real-life illustration of the truth of Dostoevsky’s insight.

The film is a brilliant and moving portrait of a sweet yet spirited and extraordinarily talented young woman – and what the fate of such creatures can be in an indifferent, cruel and corrupt society.

At a young age, Amy’s father walked out of her life, and she felt about it then as we should surely all feel at that age: “Thank Christ! Now I am free to do what I want!” And do what she wanted is precisely what she proceeded to do. She bunked off school to mess around with boyfriends in the house. Later, after a modest first success with her music, she moved in with a friend, and took advantage of that newfound freedom to smoke pot all day and have fun. As her career as a singer became more established, she turned to drink and drugs and dysfunctional love affairs as a solace for her ambivalent attitude to success and fame. An early problem with body image led to bulimia. The combination of all these things eventually killed her at the age of just 27.

Of course, what Winehouse was doing is just normal. It’s the job of the young to go a bit wild and the world would be a duller place if they weren’t given the freedom to. We would for a start have been denied Winehouse’s wonderful songs. Her problems with her body image are tragically common in women – and increasingly in men – in a society increasingly obsessed with image over substance. Taking to consumption to cover up our suffering is a common strategy of our monkey minds.

But what normally happens, even in a society that’s entirely lost touch with wisdom, is that the young grow up. Perhaps the responsibilities of jobs or children intervene. Perhaps they just get tired of seeking happiness in sensual pleasures – an ultimately futile road, as anyone who has travelled it can tell you. Perhaps the suffering gets so bad that it just cannot be born anymore and so we shrug off the burden of ourselves.

But Winehouse found herself in rather different conditions from the rest of us. Rather than responsibilities putting a rein on her living, she found herself living a life where such wild behaviour is expected, even considered heroic. No reins, but a spur. Her growing fame added to a sense of alienation – she says at one point she would trade it all just to be able to walk down the street unmolested by a media mob. The wonder is, not that Winehouse paid the ultimate price for living such a life, but that more don’t.

By Winehouse’s own admission, what she wanted more than anything was a father to tell her to stop: someone in her life who had authority based in love, and who, out of that love and a wiser understanding of what was best for her, give her the guidance and instruction she needed. If the hints in the documentary be true, I suspect that Russell Brand attempted to step in to provide something like this, though I don’t follow the gossip columns closely enough to know just what happened there.

It is a terrible story, but a brilliant film, and for me one not so much one limited to the tragic story of one brilliant singer, as an indictment of our whole society. To see this troubled woman struggle with the burden of herself, with little help but that provided by people with an interest in exploiting her, or who were as confused and burdened as she was, and to see her hounded by the pack of ravenous wolves that is the media, and be chortled over in lame gags by Frankie Boyle, Graham Norton and Jay Leno and the like, and reported on as if a newsworthy event by breakfast news shows, makes one sick to the stomach. Our society is cruel and insane and ill.

And you, gentle reader? You who read those gossip columns and buy those newspapers and chortled over those gags and watched this documentary? You are as responsible for Any Winehouse’s death as anyone. Let us ponder on how many Amys are living just down the road from us – how many of them we hurry past on our wearily familiar route into work. Let us ponder and hang our heads in shame.

The best way to be political is to be non-political

Regular readers will hopefully realise by now that they are witnessing two people experiencing a common journey. We met as socialists in the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), before leaving and shifting even further to the (ultra) left in our search for revolutionary purity. After this stage, and having found the limitations of this approach, we eventually moved into the world of the pragmatic: this time, our quest was how to combine our desire to change the world with practical political activity in the here and now. But here we discovered a new set of limitations, and currently find ourselves in ‘negative capability’; looking for a God we don’t actually believe exists, but determined to find him nonetheless.

Each stage has been part of our learning and we embrace all those who have fed and watered us along the path. This learning has shaped us, and all involved (for good and bad) have been integral to our education. We have never thrown out the baby with the bathwater (although it may have looked like that on occasion.) On the contrary, we always bottled the bath’s dirty water, open minded about what of value might remain, and often attempted CPR on our damaged infant if we considered it to be drowning in its own infantile contradictions.

In essence, we are attempting to find the source of everything: a starting point. Unless we strip everything down and shed our various skins and narratives, how are we to make progress? Well, the good news is that we have found something positive, a guiding principle which allows us to clarify our thoughts and insights. Four words best describe this: compassion, empathy, understanding and love (CEUL).

Practising CEUL is not easy. We still swear, rant, rave and throw our hands about (particularly when watching what passes for ‘politics’ in the media), but we don’t leave it there. We realise that the people we are vexing are vulnerable human beings (yes, even the capricious Iain Duncan Smith.) However, it is vital to create a space between us and the so called ‘political’ world, in order for us to understand it without losing our minds in undiluted rage. There is a practical dimension to this. We no longer have the capacity to carry this rage around on a daily basis as it was destroying our lives and relationships; corroding our very souls. But the ‘rage’ remains our friend because we continue to learn from it, and it has been the best facilitator in our attempts to find peace.

We decided to start by looking inwards, clearing out our own closets. Naturally, it is impossible to be completely clean: the more you scrub, the more dirt you actually find. However, this ‘dirt’ need not be your enemy as it unites everyone together. We are all dirty and clean in equal measure, what is important is the ‘cleansing’ process itself, and the realisation that it is an impossible task: the more you scrub, the more shit you find, and the more shit you find, the ‘cleaner’ you become.

To argue that we are all essentially equal (from the lowest ‘criminal’ to the most exalted ‘saint’) is both controversial and counter intuitive. It is certainly the main insight from Christianity, but one rarely finds a Christian who actually believes it. This may derive from a category error. The idea that some people are inherently ‘bad’ and others ‘good’ is predicated on a particular view of what it means to be an ‘individual’, which necessarily loses the most salient, yet paradoxical, feature of authentic individualism: we are all interconnected. If intellectual historian Larry Siedentop is correct, the ‘invention of the individual’ was Christianity’s greatest bequeathment. Could it be that our interconnectedness got lost in this, only to make the occasional abstract appearance; relegated to the status of a rhetorical device?

Writers such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy certainly appeared to be conscious of such a gap, and wrestled over its implications in both their novelistic and critical works. The one thing they appeared to agree upon was how we are all responsible for each other, and that compassion and understanding is key to the human condition. In Dostoevsky’s magnum opus The Brothers Karamazov, all the brothers share in the guilt for the murder of their father, although only one of them actually killed him. Arguably, the complex matrix of individual and collective responsibility achieves its highest artistic expression in this work.
People build a narrative, an identity, and present it to the world as their true selves. We believe that much of this is a post hoc rationalisation of what they want to be, certainly how they want to be perceived. We have all met the socialist who proclaims his ‘love’ for humanity through gritted teeth, whilst displaying the manners of a gutter snipe. He loves the people of the world in abstraction because rudeness and a general coldness are his actual character traits. He seems oblivious to this, and the chances are that such inauthentic behaviour is not consciously realised, and in his mind, at least, he truly does want a better world. Conversely, we have all met the self-proclaimed conservative who actually cares about the people around him and can be relied upon to help out when required. It’s true he may not be so keen on lots of refugees coming into his country because it violates his understanding of elementary resource allocation. “There’s not enough room for them”, he will opine, but unlike our open borders socialist friend, may genuinely help out when faced with an actual living refugee because it is in his nature to assist people.

There is a mediation between the person in the flesh and the ideas being espoused, which leads us to the view that every conceivable position may have something to offer the world. The trick is to attempt to understand the motivation behind the ideas and the internal psychology. Is it not possible that a racist may be motivated by love for a perception of a lost community? How long does it take to go from that position to a hatred of ‘strangers’? If the premise of love is correct then our racist brother is not a lost cause. And even if he is truly motivated by hate, he has lost himself completely and the only response that is both moral and effective is CEUL.

So the first thing to do is to check how one acts in the world on a day to day basis. Subscription to a set of tenets is not an adequate substitute. And it is precisely because people make this substitution, disaster can often hove into view. For example, many young Muslims have reacted angrily about the highly immoral actions taken by western governments in the Middle East. With no compelling domestic narrative as a counter balance, many have left behind family and friends to fight on the side of ISIS. They have made the decision that ISIS are defending a moral truth which may result in them performing hideous crimes because after taking such a drastic decision, a post-hoc rationalisation is never far away. If one believes one has been violated, one often loses one’s head, before others starts losing theirs.

We have all heard of disaffected British lads joining the army because it gives them an opportunity to act out a revenge upon people they have grown up despising. Why they despise is complex in itself, but it may come down to a perception that strangers have moved into their communities and taken vital resources which they believed belonged to them. Some of these lads may have done and seen terrible things in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but by which objective criteria are we to adjudicate the actions of these lads to those who joined the other side?

The simple fact of the matter is that the material results of these ‘just so’ stories are not just independent decisions made by people in perfect circumstances with perfect knowledge acting with freewill. All such decisions are mediated by the social matrix which we have all contributed to in one form of another. This doesn’t do away with individual responsibility or freewill, but it does provide a basis for understanding how judgements and moral choices are selected, their contingencies, and how the difference between one murder and a thousand can be a hair’s breadth. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a disaffected student, Raskolnikov, kills an old money lender for a complexity of reasons which cannot be discussed here. Suffice to say that the empathetic Examining Magistrate, Profiry (understanding that Raskolnikov is young, highly intelligent, but ensnared in a high brow theory), quips that it was a good job that his theory only lead him to kill an old woman. “Who knows what might have happened if had picked a different theory?”
Indeed, this is a salutary reminder for any of us who proclaim this idea or that, may actually end up doing something terrible in the name of this idea. Particularly if God or revolution is involved.

So this is what it means to be political without being political: examining the gap between one’s professed ideology, how one really feels, whilst extending this courtesy to others, acknowledging that we are all vulnerable, frightened, angry, strong, weak, hard and soft. Shedding skins, throwing off shibboleths, and practicing CEUL.

Paris – compassion and forgiveness is the only answer

The first response to the events in Paris must be to fully face the horror, the fear, the despair, the sadness. Our heartfelt sympathies are with those killed and injured, their families and friends and loved ones; with those who were not injured but are traumatised by the violence, and with those who helped put an end to it; and with the Muslims and refugees living in the West, many of whom must be especially nervous and fearful of reprisals and blame. But eventually, we will have to pull ourselves together and move on, not least because giving in to fear and terror is precisely the aim terrorists have in mind. And as our mainstream media and ruling political class so often insists, in this case rightly, we can’t allow the terrorists to win. When we can breathe easily again, our minds will turn to what can be done to prevent such atrocities happening again. In our political and social climate, the only decent answer will sound like wishy-washy, hippy bullshit, but it is really and truly the only pragmatic, hard-headed and efficacious one. It is compassion.

It goes without saying that what happened is morally unjustifiable, truly reprehensible and repugnant – but the simple-minded explanations and the violent and merciless solutions that we will hear proposed in the following weeks and months will not suffice, and are insulting to thinking people everywhere. Whether we like it or not, the people who carried out these atrocities are motivated into action by a moral code – they think they are trying to ameliorate a greater evil perpetrated by Western governments. By telling ourselves that these people are just ‘brainwashed’ or plain ‘evil’ is the stuff of self-deceit and it prevents us from asking the most obvious, but uncomfortable questions: ‘Was it anything I did?’

The fact that we wholly disagree with what they did and stand for only makes it all the more important that we ask this question seriously and think about the answer deeply. It’s a shame, but we do not expect any inner-contemplation, feeling or compassion from the “practical” people who comprise the political class. These people seem incapable of anything other than grandstanding and portraying themselves as innocent victims rather than as the Machiavellian war-mongers they actually are. This self-deception has to be challenged and we implore them to consider a moral and spiritual truth that they might perhaps be familiar with: ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us’. Or as the front cover of the first issue of Charlie Hebdo after the previous terrorist attack in Paris put it, “Tout est pardonné”.

Compassion and forgiveness: this is the only basis on which we can move forward as a human race.–Dave and Stuart

What is “spirituality”?

What is “spirituality”? It’s the only thing that works, that’s what it is! But to convince you of the truth of such a startling claim will take a bit of work. So as Miranda’s friend would say, “bear with”.

Our “About” page declares that this is, amongst other things, a blog dedicated to spiritual matters. I imagine this would instantly put a great number of people off investigating any further, and with good reason. It whiffs of religion and nonsense. And who could blame those who strongly reject both? Religion is an ideology of inclusiveness that divides, a doctrine of love whose followers seem mostly committed to hate, a declaration of peace made to justify wars, the superstitious worship of a deity who seems to exist solely to justify current social iniquities and power structures. As for nonsense, our age is so awash with it that anyone who contributes a teaspoon of poison into an ocean already choked with plastic bags should be forgiven, but surely does not deserve the ear of grown-up people seeking a better world. And that’s true even if the nonsense is a “spiritual” sobbing over those very plastic bags. Naivety and what is generally known as “hippy bullshit” can surely be of no use to us. Or can it?

If this is what “spirituality” evokes, then perhaps we’d be better off finding a new term to express our meaning from the off. But in our experience, the search for neologisms is generally a futile one and we in any case address ourselves to grown-ups, and grown-ups should not get hung up over mere words. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Let’s have a closer look at the rose.

Pilate’s question

Spirituality is fundamentally about truth. That is why it has the whiff of religion and nonsense: religion, because the old word for the ultimate truth was God; nonsense, because our modern age is sceptical and cynical about everything, even about truth, or even the possibility of it. “What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus, and answer came there none. Our own age, rather than keep a wise silence on the question, as Jesus did, rather giggles or gawps.

However, ours is an age of contradiction as well as nonsense, and so at the very same time as we scoff or yawn at the notion of truth we find ourselves with a highly developed body of thought and well-regarded mode of practise, called science, which pursues truth nonetheless, and with historically unprecedented and impressive efficacy. Magic has nothing on science. If spirituality starts with truth, then in the modern age, that surely means with science.

But what is science? Our contention is that it is first and foremost an attitude of mind. Mastery of science cannot solely be a matter of acquiring knowledge and intellectual understanding, not least because what is to be known and the present state of knowledge are constantly changing – and at an ever greater pace. It’s impossible for any one individual to keep up. This is one reason why religious critics of scientific truth – used to the certainty of religious dogmas– don’t even know where to begin. You ask me to believe in science, they say, exasperated, and yet what science says keep changing, keeps contradicting itself!

This is where we begin – science, and spirituality, is not a matter of belief in any doctrine or dogma or method or theory or claim about the nature of reality. It is an attitude of mind: if we are unattached to beliefs, not already certain about what we think we know, if we are aware and observant, if we are humble and sceptical and critical and open-minded, if we are calm and not angry, not irritably reaching after facts to support our ideology in the face of mysteries, if we are willing to learn something new, then we can do science. Then we may get a glimpse of truth.

Buddha-mind

That is the scientific attitude. It was also the attitude of the Buddha. We bring the Buddha in simply because he was – to our mind, at least, at the present state of its knowledge –simply the most pragmatic and straightforward and least religious and most effective of the advocates of the spiritual path. Other teachers are available in the spiritual supermarket. But let’s stick with the Buddha for the purposes of our argument here.

Who was the Buddha and what did he say? First it’s necessary to insist that he was an ordinary human being, just like you and me. He was not God, nor did he claim to be inspired by or be the messenger of God. He was just a man. But he was also an eccentric. He was eccentric because he claimed, not just to have seen truth, but to have “realised” it –that is, to have made it real, absorbed it into his bones in order to live in accord with it, to have reached “enlightenment”.

What can he have meant? Buddha’s words can be puzzling in a modern context. His own context was that of Indian society, some 2,500 years ago. So we shouldn’t be surprised that we have to work in order to understand him. Buddha’s context was, however, in other ways, much like ours – a time of confusion, of war, of trade and the pursuit of riches and power, of seeking. Buddha was eccentric, but he was hardly the only one. When he left his palace and spurned his destiny as a prince to instead seek the truth as a renunciate, he easily found company – it must have been something like the Sixties. Many religious seekers were doing the same, and Buddha sought their guidance – he emulated, diligently and to extremes, their methods, adopted their views. But after many years of failure, he realised he was in some sense alone after all – that religion didn’t work, that he had sought but not found. So he took refuge in himself, adopting the scientific attitude of mind, and began again.

What he learnt and what he found by pursuing science rather than religion has come down to us in the form of the lectures he gave to his contemporaries. He, naturally, had to make use of the ideas and concepts and words to hand to convey his message, just as we do today, as is inevitable. Karma and rebirth and other notions were not invented by the Buddha – they were just the currency of the age, the concepts the world traded in when talking about the nature of reality. Today, we trade in different concepts. But the Buddha’s rose still smells as sweet. Rather than engage in a detailed exposition of Buddhist terms, something we are ill-qualified for, let us instead try to capture the heart of the Buddha’s teaching about the nature of reality, as we understand it, in modern, scientific terms.

Some truths to begin with

First, at the level of the cosmos, there is almost certainly no God, no creator, no judge or ruler, no one to rely on or turn to for help, other than ourselves. We live in a vast and breathtaking universe, one that seems to have some kind of harmony and logic to it, and yet a cosmos that was, to the best of our knowledge, simply born when conditions and causes were right, will change when causes and conditions change, and will come to pass as all things do – it will come to its end.

Second, that we human beings are not different from or separate from that universe. Its nature is our nature. We are star-stuff – literally. So there is no God in us either, no ruling, unchanging self, no soul, no judge or ruler, nothing that will last forever. When conditions and causes were right, human beings, complex arrangements of star-stuff, evolved on this planet – mud sat up and looked about. We as individuals, when causes and conditions were right, were born – we came out of this planet. And, when causes and conditions change, we will change – and we will pass. We will become manure for the roses, we will return to the stars.

Third, that there is suffering on this planet, and that suffering too is of the same nature as the universe and ourselves. When certain conditions and causes are present, suffering arises. And when those causes and conditions change, suffering can be transformed – suffering too can pass away. By adopting the scientific attitude of mind, we can look deeply into the causes of our own suffering, and that of our fellow creatures, and can take wise action to take care of it.

One of the biggest causes of suffering – and this will come as a surprise to us if we aren’t already following the spiritual path – is our own thinking. This is good news because we are in control of our own thinking. (Are we? Investigate and see.) If our thinking is in contradiction with the nature of reality, denies what is, then suffering is a sure result. So, the inability to see or to accept the first two truths is one of the big causes of the third truth. We want the nature of the universe and of ourselves to be something other than what it is. Mud loves what it sees and wants to hang around! We are deluded, and we live in fear and anxiety that we will lose what we have. But we will lose what we have – that is a certainty. Rather, we don’t even have it – it’s an illusion. It is just the nature of things. We fret about the inevitable.

Of course, Buddhism has, at least in the West, long had a (completely false) reputation for being gloomy. But what is gloomy about happy and peaceful coexistence with things as they are? What is there to hope for in a life that denies reality and tries to escape it in various ways – through false beliefs, through sensuality, through consumption, through running away, through building a Tower of Babel? Our wrong perceptions about the nature of reality, and our futile attempt to live in accord with the reality we want rather than the reality we have, make us suffer. Of course it must. But this is, really, insanity – especially in an age of science. The world is as it is – and it’s beautiful. We should appreciate it while we are here. We are it.

The path

Finally, then, we must consider, adopting once again that scientific attitude of mind, what it means to live in accordance with truth. How does one do that? Accepting truths about the nature of reality as an intellectual proposition is worthless if we then continue to go about our lives as if things were otherwise. It’s no good accepting the truth of impermanence if we live as if there were permanence. But how do we proceed? What do we do? That will have to be the subject of a future post. is the subject of very many fantastic books – a list of some of my favourites appears below. These are very useful, perhaps indispensible, signposts. But as in all science, it’s ultimately down to you. The more sensitive you are, the more aware you are to what’s going on within and around you, the more likely you are to have success in your experiments with truth.–Stuart

Further reading:

What the Buddha Taught

Awakening of the Heart

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

Dharmapadda

Start Where You Are

The Power of Now

Freedom From The Known