Welcome, welcome, one and all. We are now in the midst of summer here in Italy with record breaking heat, drought, melting glaciers and social discontent. For those born well before the turn of the century, life still boasted a connection to the fanciful idea that things were getting better, progress was more or less inevitable and suffering was on the decline, or at least had been replaced by the psychological or existential sort. Anyone paying attention was either dismayed by the foolish expression of western comfort or was not at all fooled by this momentary blimp in the trials and tribulations of our species. The world outside much of the developed western democracies has only partially benefiting from advances in technology and all too often they suffer the consequences of our own collective indulgences through pollution, exploitation and, increasingly, the impact of global warming. More than ever we are reaping the same rewards for human hubris here in developed western countries as everywhere heats up, more extreme storms hit all corners of the globe and the consequences of war and human stupidity and selfishness lead to problems with food chains and energy prices.
What a year!
Why start off with this rambling overview of our current moment? Partly because context is essential for orientating ourselves to what matters most, partly because the question of suffering seems to have taken a permanent backseat as modern, western Buddhists continue to obsess over something called the present moment. Suffering, though, is what matters most to all living creatures, and our current moment seems to be overflowing with it. When the physical suffering is real, it is the most sobering of beasts and at its rawest is the greatest of levelers.
Our capacity to perceive it, relate to it, and resolve to work with it is in many ways what distinguishes the ethical imperative of Buddhism from self-indulgent spirituality, self-serving religious appropriation, corporate servitude, capitalist mores, and the ever present transactional morality of modern-day spiritual practice. The American model of the consumer continues to characterize much of western Buddhism, though there are, of course, some bucking this trend, usually quietly and without much fanfare, though there numbers always seem insufficient to me and are indicative of just how we are all captured by wider society and its mores.
Physical suffering has always been ever-present. As a place-holder suffering is very large indeed.
Many westerners found the claim that ‘life is suffering’ to be a bit too much. “How pessimistic!” they may have thought. “What a miserable conclusion to draw”, they may have uttered. Others justified such a sweeping claim by adjusting the meaning to fit their preferred vision of life. “It’s only existential suffering the Buddha (Read as “my Buddha”) was pointing to”, they concluded. “It’s just the psychological stuff mate”, they insisted. This seems to me to be another piece of the disembodied religious, spiritual mix that haunts western Buddhism, with its roots in the Judeo-Christian desire for endings and finality, and, who knows, even a happy-ever-after. To experience, or rather, remember that the physical is where suffering lies first and foremost and it’s not just comfortable humans that matter. All life forms do, and if we’re to wake up in a way that might be worth something beyond little old me, and little old us, this life must include the trees, the coral, the bees, the soil and all the other forms of existence (life) that enable them and us and we to continue to exist and strive and sometimes have the luxury to say that almost all my suffering is existential. Life almost always starts and ends with the physical suffering we would all rather avoid.
Empathy, seeing, remembering are all important gestures towards our world.
The present moment fetish is a puerile, sterile take-away from an immense array and wealth of human struggle that took place under the banner of Buddhism. We should move on from romanticizing or essentializing the past, of course. But we should not escape the uncomfortable bits of Buddhism’s great wealth because they suit a frigid vision of the practising life. Physical suffering trumps almost all other forms in almost all circumstances for almost all humans. Yes, there are exceptions, but when a bomb drops and blows a piece of your body to pieces, or you are literally starving, or have not drunk water for days, it is the physical that commands your attention and not your question about self-realization or happiness.
Buddhism, on a good day, reminds us that this is the way of life for all living forms on this planet. To look at it takes courage, to turn away from it is to lose our humanity. Which practices do you currently engage in that serve seeing or turning away?
Preaching over. To the podcast!
I’m a little behind with this but perhaps that ok. Anyone notice just how often I’ve written perhaps of late? Attention is precious they tell me.
The second encounter with Peter Salmon has been up at the New Books Network for a week. It was a wide ranging discussion again with a large chunk of it centred on Nagarjuna this time round. Peter did some homework and this meant we could have a fine dip into the relationship between the so-called second Buddha and so-called destroyer of western civilization Mr Jacques Derrida.
We actually discuss the forever controversial Jordan Peterson and my unexpected encounter with him recently in Slovenia’s capital. Really. In case you sit strongly on either side of the love him or hate him divide, you should know that I do not occupy either position. I am amazed though by just how much his haters and fans on Twitter capture the ideological bubbles of our current moment. If you exist on one side of the divide, you really will have your views of him enforced by staying inside your twitter account to the point that you cannot see; voluntary blindness and all that. This, as is so often the case, is what I find most interesting about the dynamic and not the argument about the moral meaning of Peterson. Our shared stupidity, ideological commitments and the lines we draw between the good and the bad, what’s real and what’s not is the stuff that that excites me most, oddly. Especially when folks solidify their identities around such poles of shared meaning making. For me, Peterson is thoroughly human and thoroughly imperfect, as are all the other figures that have been on or been mentioned on the podcast.
We also discuss the Scottish philosopher John Gray (imperfect, thoroughly human, but also highly intelligent and well-read; a rare thing of beauty).
Here I confess to being a fan, but I won’t join his fan club either. Nope, not joining.
If you feel or think differently, or likewise, please do not join my club. I don’t want you.
Do enjoy the podcast though. It speaks for itself and if you really want to be, you might manage to squeeze a bit of outrage at this one.
Listen at New Books Network
Listen at Spotify
Listen by clicking on play to your right, or at the bottom of the screen if you’re on a cell phone.
Hi Matthew. Many thanks for this unstoppable continuum of enquiry!!!! Can you tell me the origin of that amazing image at the top. Seems to be edited from something larger?
Hi Patrick, It’s an edited version of an image I found online. Nothing more, nothing less. Matthew P.S. There’s no stopping the exploration of ideas!