Camus, Santideva, Marx: 'Engaged Buddhism' and Politics (March 31st, 2012)

[Article published in Indra’s Net , journal of the Network of Engaged Buddhists, issue 52, July 2012

In our discussion group at the Cambridge Triratna Buddhist Community, recently, we were discussing our experience of the five ‘hindrances’ that impede our spiritual and ethical progress. One person said, with more than a hint of sadness, that we never seem to be able to finally banish them; the next time we sit down to meditate there they are again: craving, ill-will, torpor, anxiety and doubt; and it seems as though we have to start all over again.

This made me think of the myth of Sysiphus, condemned by the gods to spend his life rolling a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again to the bottom just at the point when he seemed to have achieved his goal. Albert Camus saw this as a symbol of the ‘absurdity’ of the human condition in general: lacking any divine sanction, our efforts have no externally validated meaning: our only source of happiness, therefore is that we can understand ‘the whole extent of [our] wretched condition’. Camus’ account of the Sysiphus myth was written during what he calls ‘the European disaster’ of 1940, when civilization seemed about to be overwhelmed by an unstoppable regime of systematic brutality. But the enduring appeal of Camus’ vision also suggests a more general, longstanding and widespread culture of despair concerning the possibility of real progress in human affairs. Buddhism, in contrast, offers hope. A jug of water is filled by a sequence of single drops; even if our progress is slow we make genuine progress, albeit through a series of small steps; Sisyphus’s boulder does roll back, but not quite to its previous position.

But even in Buddhism, the question of progress is more complex than this. Yes, we need patience as we note how slowly we accumulate wisdom and skilfulness, but there is also a fundamental ambiguity in the spiritual process itself. On the one hand there is the challenge of trying to accept our repeated failures, as we note the disquieting gap between our spiritual and ethical ideal and our various ‘efforts’ – our thoughts, speech, actions, livelihood, mindfulness and concentration as we try to pursue the ‘Eightfold Path’. This is the challenge of maintaining metta – avoiding irritation, anger and disabling self-doubt. On the other hand there is the challenge of sustaining our confidence and trust (sradda) that this ‘acceptance’ is actually part of an increased understanding of our experience and indeed part of a forward momentum: the transformation of our responses that constitutes our spiritual and ethical development. And indeed, the paradox of this double emphasis seems not entirely remote from Camus’ suggestion that we attain happiness through insight into the reality of our suffering.

These complex strains implicit in the Buddhist experience are dramatically expressed in Santideva’s classic account of the ‘Bhodhisattva Way of Life’ (Bodhicaryavatara). Santideva begins by celebrating the ‘Spirit of Awakening’: ‘the striving for the complete happiness of all sentient beings… the seed of the world’s joy and…the remedy for the world’s sufferings’ (I, 26, 27). But then, despite being one of the very icons of such awakening, he confesses his own inadequacy: ‘Devoid of merit and destitute … an ignorant fool, terrified of suffering… due to delusion, attachment and hatred, I have sinned in many ways’ (II, 7; 63; 64; 38). This agonizing contrast between aspiration and achievement is continued in the next two chapters: On the one hand, he aspires to be ‘the medicine and the physician for the sick… a lamp for those who seek light, a bed for those who seek rest’ (III, 7; 18). On the other hand, he remains ‘enslaved’ by the ‘mental afflictions’ of ‘craving, and hatred’ (IV, 28; 32). Can he, coherently, ‘liberate’ all beings when he has not even liberated himself (IV, 41)?

But the problem lies even deeper: The theme of Chapter VIII is the need for self-sacrifice, compassion and generosity, the transcendence of the self arising from the recognition that one’s own being cannot be separated from that being of others. But the difficulty of this aspiration is compounded by the ‘unreality’ of all beings, all suffering, all phenomena, and all perceptions. Neither ‘atoms’ nor ‘feelings’ really exist, so ‘If no sentient being exists, for whom is there compassion’ (IX, 33; 86; 101; 75)?

Thus, the project of ‘engaged Buddhism’ seems to be threatened by a disabling instability, because our hopes for (and understanding of) spiritual and ethical progress are enmeshed in the conundrums of all perception and cognition: if all beings and all engagements are ‘unreal’, what can it mean to ‘engage’ our own being in seeking the well-being of other ‘beings’?

So I am led to suggest that the Buddhist understanding of spiritual effort might helpfully be supplemented by a Marxist analysis of the processes that create delusion, egotism, craving and hatred at the level of social, cultural and political interactions and institutions. If we could see the distinction between egotistical delusion and compassionate enlightenment as having parallels with the distinction between egotistical oppression and compassionate justice, we would have a social focus for our efforts as well as an internal and a ‘transcendental’ focus. In other words, if our model of the reality we share with others included more precisely the reality of culture and politics, we would have a more comprehensive (and less paradoxical) framework for our attempts to grapple with Santideva’s issues of spiritual and ethical ‘progress’.

This overlap between the spiritual and the political may be seen as exemplifying one meaning of Indra’s Net: each particular situation and experience evoking the totality of the Dharma. It might enable us to see more clearly how mindfulness and compassion can give us courage, patience and subtlety in combating the reality of egotism, delusion and oppression in the world as well as escapism and despair in ourselves. And this might give us greater confidence that the efforts of an engaged Buddhist inspired by the Bodhisattva ideal can achieve moments of unambiguous practical significance, even though any apparent successes will of course always be provisional, conditioned and impermanent.

Richard Winter
Cambridge Buddhist Centre