Doubt Part 3: Great Feast Practice

Doubt Part 1

Doubt Part 2

There are so many spiritual practices out there and I think this is generally good. The seemingly endless process of practice formation is a reminder of human creativity and our desire to act on ourselves and our world. For many of us, all of these practices are fully rooted in origins of earth bound human-animals struggling with the human condition, and claims of other-worldly origins are seen as the stuff of imperfect humans and made of this Earth too. In seeing practices this way, they become far more interesting and curious. From traditions full of infinite tantric practices, to an infinite array of meditation techniques, new and old, it can be fascinating to explore human ingenuity but also difficult to know which practices to eventually commit to. Especially when many practices in Buddhism and other traditions exist in hierarchies of highest this, advanced that, and rarest of the rarest techniques; in this regard, the language is not so far from my son’s discourse on Pokemon cards, and can elicit similar patterns of covetousness in practitioners that young players exhibit when trading and swapping cards. I have met many a practitioner who naively believed that the best practices, and therefore the ones most suitable for him or her, were clearly the most advanced ones. I guess this was an early sign of the narcissism that became more visible amongst spiritual folk later on. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I fell for the same story for a while myself and would eventually find that the best antidote to such confused judgement is to lead all these practices to the Great Feast.

To democratise all practices and bring them to the Feast is to test their ability to withstand scrutiny and exist in an extended family of meaning. It involves reviewing the bases upon which they stand and the axioms that inform them as themes within the wider cultural challenges of our species. It ultimately demands they speak for themselves with justification and otherworldly claims from tradition being insufficient. When it comes to the practitioner, the loss of self-existing justification means these practices find their worth, and true value, by being placed in relationship with the pressing issues of a human life, and its place and time. And of course, many of these practices, if not most, will have little practical utility when this is done for much of their meaning is found in the culture of a tradition. This is a strong argument for tradition, which on a good day provides context, history and a view of a path with clear signposts on the way. I certainly don’t mean for practice to be subservient to the individual as a consumerist, or need to fit their particular pattern of desire in a given moment, or even be anti-traditionalist. Though perhaps consumerist at first glance, this style of looking and questioning is really dialogical. You are not shopping for a product, but asking practices what they do to the life you are currently living. You are establishing a dialogue with the ongoing process of human-practice interaction. For those committed to a given tradition, this process might be useful anyway, though it can also risk being destabilising.

Certainly nothing is stable and unchanged: a practice has to breathe as you work with it, and this means it expands and contracts, and warps into new shapes over time. The changes can be subtle but no less important than more dramatic change, violent or soft and delicate. A dialogical approach involves you separating out the ideal image of a practice and the discourse that surrounds it from the practice in action in your life. Traditions, at times, assign unreasonable burden on their practices and over time those burdens can solidify into prescriptive orthodoxy with little room to move and to breathe. Our job is not necessarily to reject tradition, but rather choose not to be subservient to its narratives, and for the intelligent practitioner, it is hard to see how this will not be a natural result of serious engagement with theory and practice. It is an integral part of the process of leading any practice to the Great Feast. It is part of the democratisation of human culture of which any practice and teaching that surrounds it are part of: context is local and global, spatial and temporal. Some won’t like this idea at all. They might even consider it cultural appropriation, or some other chic term from Sociology. That is a story that can be told and it may bear fruit and be appropriate to argue for such a thing. Ideas of the integrity and sacredness of tradition can be found at the Great Feast too, along with other stories that refute them. Whatever you find interesting in such discussions, they often become more interesting when opened up to large scale contemplation of questions of ownership and change, and sometimes it is a matter of how large or small you wish your lens to be. Somebody could certainly view the democratisation of all human culture along the line of power dynamics, for example, but to remain fixated in that gaze would be to rest in a poverty of imagination and thought. A Great Feast motto might be not “Yes, but…” but rather something along the lines of “Yes, and…, and…, and…” In other words, keep looking, keeping expanding, make your perspective and thought truly inclusive. Inclusiveness can be more than let everyone in and make-believe that everything is of equal value. This would be a childish expression of the concept. Within the practising life, inclusion is a relational practice that challenges boundaries and seeks insight, wisdom, knowledge and experience of value, whilst resisting the temptation to solidify and reify and get too comfortable in the make believe of having the answers and having it done.

Look, I recognise this kind of engagement is not for everyone. This may seem like a paradox considering what’s been written so far. But democracies exist in many shapes and sizes and not everyone participates to the same degree and intensity in them. It would be silly and utopian to imagine every practitioner out there is just waiting to hear about the Great Feast and draw on Derridian analysis, or engage with Socrates, or undertake a deep and wide reading of history and bring that to their meditation practice or concepts such as emptiness, karma or dharma. I am not calling for everyone to get on board with this. I am in a sense speaking to myself and those like me but I do believe the general principles being touched on in these posts are of immense value and that circumstances often force us all to up our game and look more deeply or critically than we may want to and that the ideas and tools herein help. My work is a product of this time and my place in a globalised world, in a European setting and in an age of great disruption and the twilight phase of neo-liberalism. It is not timeless but rather a traveller’s tale.

One key facet of all this is the ongoing confrontation with the legacy of Christianity and the secular/religious divide. Secularising Buddhism, as a large-scale process affecting most of what constitutes western Buddhism, is one attempt at seeing what can be done with practice when culture is reduced, sometimes significantly, though doing so produces new forms of culture and typically mirrors wider cultural concerns in the host society. Though some believe that culture can be taken out entirely, or that earlier Buddhism has inherent, universal value that transcends its history, critics are quick to point out how problematic both positions are. Culture is pretty much always a feature of any human practice. Though perhaps not so different in practical terms, reducing the role of culture without naively believing it can be eliminated, whilst recognising that you bring your own culture to the practice, is an essential step for a mature practitioner today. In pedagogical terms, it demands we switch from being passive learners to active engagers and take culture as a form of human practice in itself and an integral component of any path, tradition, technique or idea. To some this may seem obvious, yet our capacity to carry this cultural analysis out is limited by our own personal and cultural history. The Great Feast may not eliminate culture, and would it even want to, but it does provide us with an abundance of it, and placing this material into such a rich environment is a better means of disrupting the insider/outsider divide and dichotomous thinking that is such a drag on human creativity.

Despite the current penchant for group identities, the individual is welcome to construct ways forward through their odd mix of life experience, desire, and curiosity. These are essential features of the culture in which this author is embedded. To whatever degree liberal democracies live up to their values, they provide a space for multiculturalism to occur and for traditions and practices to interact and be changed and for new cultural products and practices to emerge. The individual and collective are cultural projects as much as they are referents to bodies and minds and persons. Each is a leaky category but part of what we are always doing, much to the chagrin of the anti-individualist crowd, is trying to make sense of how we as individuals will live our short human lives and that question has to return to each individual whatever group they may be part of. Otherwise, we might ask, what is a person? A mere product of someone else’s imagination, perhaps. The practices that will speak to the individual may also speak to a group of two or more. But until a practice genuinely does, it is unlikely that a sincere commitment to a discipline of transformation can take place and that it will ever weave its way into the undercurrents and dark allies of a person.

What you will find in the following posts are suggestions for the interested or frustrated practitioner unable to find a way forward amongst the mainstream approaches found amongst big name teachers and recognised Buddhist traditions. Or ideas and suggestions that may serve as a useful appendix to a tradition you find yourself in that is in need of some fresh air. I am obviously sharing what has worked for me, and many of the clients I work with, but even there, simple formulas rarely do the trick. Practice lives on in your life, not in the ideals of a teacher, pathway, set of instructions or the imagination and struggles of an apparent wise one or this bloke writing these words. Developing a dialogue that is personal with each of the suggestions below will likely be more useful than the practices in themselves could ever be.  

One last point here, we are condemned to partial knowing, remember? And the podcast and site continue to be labelled ‘Imperfect’. It is the same for those teachers, and your key intellectual heroes, and they are often wrong too. At best their answers are partial and may not be suited to your own set of odd circumstances and struggles. What occurs at this site is imperfect from top to bottom. Heroes are too often an obstacle to us making our own dysfunctional way through the world. The whole idea of a post-traditional approach is a response to this recognition and a pro-active recommendation that you own the confidence to assume authority for practices you engage in, make them your own through trial and error, and accept responsibility for what happens, or does not happen, through that exploration. It also means asking for help when you need it, and avoiding falling into the trap of asking to be saved. What I am writing is therefore a proposition and not a transmission. I am not the one-who-knows providing the best answers, but rather one who has experimented and continues to experiment and cares not whether anyone approves.

C0EWXM A Japanese middle-class family’s mealtime in the 19th century.

4 thoughts on “Doubt Part 3: Great Feast Practice

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