The Great Feast provides us with an infinite number of takes on practice. Great and lesser minds since time recorded have shared opinions, ideas, beliefs, assumptions and assertions on what practice is, and should be. Sometimes what those minds produced (or received), developed into a tradition, a pathway, an institution, a religion; or disappeared entirely, folded back into the sands of time, as our ancestors pushed onwards, most merely surviving, others attempting to construct a better world. The hardier remnants of this great wealth linger on today, and with them an ever increasing wealth of books, workshops, retreats, podcasts, apps and online groups proposing new configurations, recycled products, and a variety of attempts by living human minds to imagine and leap towards that which might come.
Because of all this, whether we wish to be or not, we are all consumers. We can view ourselves economically as such; many propose we do so. We could also view ourselves as beasts, as animals, as mammals feasting on the world. Our existence requires we devour parts of the world for our mere survival after all. So, why would it be different with knowledge, practices, or the fulfilment of the religious impulse? Sorry, was I meant to say spiritual, but not-religious? To feast, devour, consume; these are metaphors civilised folks sit uncomfortably with. Our animal nature has a long history of being dismissed, ignored or suppressed in the name of progress, civilisation, and the pursuit of a world apart from the horrors of our carnal nature. This creates a bind in us, of course. As we attempt to transcend our animal nature, we also transcend our intimacy with the organic world we are forever intimate with. We downplay our interconnection with the limitations of the animal-human body, the animal-human heart. Oddly, in our attempt to mark Homo sapiens out as distinct from the other animals, we dehumanise ourselves; all too often in projects of escape. To be human is to be of this Earth. To be interdependent is to be in exchange with all the things of this Earth; not operating as an aloof being apart, casting its thoughts and mental projections outwards or downwards.
Such a dualistic vision is a practice, and one I would argue is fundamentally dysfunctional. For some Buddhists, such a view will irritate: Watching the mind, seeing your thoughts, all of this language betrays a dualistic tendency. There are other practices too. Ones involving immersion, this is also a stream within Buddhism and its long-history of variant practices and modes of practice. It presents its own problems too.
Psychologically speaking, we are conflicted beings. We are caught in conflicting desires; to be together and to be apart being one split we all must contend with. In fact, our modern understanding of psychology challenges many assumptions held within practices and traditions jostling for attention at the Great Feast. There is an immense amount of work still to be done in addressing the conflict between the claims of traditions and our understanding of the human mind, psycho-social needs, social participation, ideological formation, and the role of child and adult development. Who knows if we will ever find the time to address them?
I am getting ahead of myself though. That’s all context, and perhaps a little melodramatic for some of you. There is a simple question in there somewhere. Perhaps it is this: How do we choose a practice? Where should we invest our faith; and, perhaps more importantly, our efforts?
This series on practice will not necessarily provide you with answers to these questions, but it will seek to bring out the humanity that underlies human elaboration, imagination, desire and creation and the less linear nature of a human life lived within and through practices.
May I invite you to make listening a practice? Don’t be passive receivers or men and women in waiting, listening out to have existing intuitions or beliefs confirmed. Listen deeply, listen critically, and listen carefully to what you hear. Practice generosity with your attention, and pay attention to your gut instincts.
You will hear the Buddha mentioned often, ancient teachings, the path, too. Listen for how these terms are wielded by those who use them. Don’t take the terms as given. How are such signifiers used; off the cusp, with deep reverence, with a call to their role as authority? What does their use tell you about the speaker’s personal relationship with such guarantees as ancient or teacher-x, or the certainty of an originator, a progenitor of practice, the stable foundation of tradition?
The Great Feast reminds us that things are more complicated than simplistic, relied upon readings may afford us, and simpler than the apparent complexities expressed by those in the know, performing ideology and expertise. Within all the bluster, claims, personal narratives, a human life exists; nothing more, nothing less. To accept that is to accept the knowledge that we are in samsara, that escape is relative, that the desire to escape is, more often than not, a tell-tale sign of the dehumanising instinct many of us inevitably foster when we approach the promises of practice.
Western Buddhism is a work in progress. It is many things. It is both what people claim it to be, and many, many other things too. In these conversations, you will hear about many Buddhisms, but they are secondary to the human practitioners that share their stories and answers to the practice questions I present them with, secondary to their struggles, their desires, and their seasons of practice. These are conversations about humans first, Buddhisms second.
All knowledge and knowing is partial, relational, and a work in progress; this includes the Buddha’s teachings, the Guru’s wisdom, the path’s guarantees. We are works in progress too and recognising this can help us avoid the pitfalls of dehumanising practice and the mere performance of Platonic ideals; Buddhism, enlightenment or otherwise.
I shall do my best in each of these conversations to be a generous listener, a careful questioner, and to engage with the humanity of the practitioners, teachers, writers and instructors I engage with, and to keep in mind who might be listening in.
We will all have opportunities in abundance to learn from each other in the process. This first batch includes three practice episodes and two longer conversations with practice questions woven in.
I hope you find them worthy of your time.