Thursday, 26 August 2010

Boundary Issues

This arrangement of stones sits on a lawn outside the Main House of Cittaviveka. What it represents is the boundary of a sīma (pronounced ‘seemah’), established by Ven. Anandamaitreyya Mahanayaka Thera in 1981. A sīma is nowadays understood to be a precinct within which formal acts of the Sangha (sanghakamma) such as ordinations and recitations of the Rule can be performed; a consecrated area if you like. There’s more to it than that, but I’ll go into that later. The current news is that this sīma, which was the first one to be formally placed in the West, is about to be deconsecrated so that we can replace it with one inside the Dhamma Hall. Howls of protest? This is understandable - Theravada, in line with the British psyche, greatly venerates the past: part of its meaning stems from the sense of tradition and continuity in time. So just as in this country we have settled on a monarchy that has no functioning power in the affairs of state, but remains as some token of the national identity (and a tourist attraction) we have after years of deliberation, decided to shift the ‘consecration’ to a place where we can perform our formal business in the dry and out of the cold, but keep the marker stones there as a memorial. A vote for functionality over venerability! Actually I think Ven Anandamaitreyya, a pragmatist keen on breaking out of ritualism, would be fine with that. The most important marker remains, one which is more than a matter of location: the slab set flat in the ground is labelled with his chosen words (translated as ) ‘Vinaya-discipline is the life-force of Buddhism.’ Fittingly placed outside the sīma, it describes the greater boundary that the Sangha should dwell within.

Still it may sound odd to make so much of the system of rules, protocols and procedures that constitute Vinaya - what about spirit? What about all-embracing kindness and compassion - with an intent that is measureless ‘to others as to myself?’ True enough...and the goal of the Unconditioned, the release from all definitions, is itself signless, without mark or boundary, and an escape from the constraints of any time or place. No stones and squares in Nibbāna. The short resolution to the apparent ‘boundary/boundless’ paradox is I think most succinctly expressed in Suzuki Roshi’s aphorism, ‘If you want to be a circle, you must first be a square.’ The release from greed, hatred, delusion, views and identity - all the forces that the mind gets stuck in and fired up by - comes around through restraining their influence and through working on them. For that you need exclusive boundaries; restraints around those physical and verbal actions that sweep you into consumer fever, into fixed views, or into ego-building. Also, for contemplative work, a sacred space, a ‘temple,’ is needed; in physical terms, that means a boundary marked out on the ground within which one stands observing these forces of nature. So this is an inclusive boundary, one whose function is to gather in. In this respect, the Buddha offered the four boundaries of mindfulness - mindfulness of body, feeling, mind-states and spiritual processes. Within these there can be a gathering of potency and one-pointedness which informs (literally gives form to) and decides how and whether to act. Furthermore you have to abide within the boundaries for as long as it takes for qualities of sensitivity, spaciousness and strength to arise. Otherwise you don’t stand still long enough to fully know anything, and the mind chases (or are chased by) thoughts, emotions, sensations and energies.

So the boundaries of Buddhism are Dhamma-Vinaya. Vinaya, which it is a samana’s duty to live out and bring alive, is a teaching on the boundaries around action; Dhamma is the centring principle and practice which nourishes contemplation. Together they guard against and dismantle the overflows of passion, opinions, self-conceit and ignorance that well up in the mind. Thus held, without judgement, the pulls and obsessive grasping of our minds are acknowledged; thus acknowledged they can be looked into; thus held in awareness they resolve - and that which is boundless can be realised.

However, to return to the sīma: originally a sīma was a defined territory (which could be the size of a city park or a woodland), the boundaries of which were designated by a group of bhikkhus or bhikkhunis who lived within that territory, with the consent of the local lay community or king. It was a mutual thing, not necessarily owned by the Sangha, but comprising their catchment area - the point being that if you lived within that sīma, you were a member of the governance body of that group. This governance might allocate robes to one member, vote on their various officers who would act on behalf of the group, deal with accusations made against a member, or settle disputes. This then is a local sangha, not a boundless community of all spiritually inclined beings, but a governance body that works in accordance with established standards. Some of the principles of that governance, or ‘sanghakamma’ are: that a vote has to receive unanimous consent before it is passed; that the group can’t make a decision about a person or another group without that party being present; and that in cases of accusation over behaviour, the standard (except in extreme cases), is that the accused party themselves has to confess to a misdemeanour. In such a case, after repeated questioning and evidence to the contrary, a miscreant doesn’t come clean, all that the group can do is declare that that party is no longer a member of the group. Which I guess is reasonable enough. You’re still a member of the wider Sangha, but if the rest of us have no confidence in what you’re doing, then you’re not really part of our local group. The recognition is that in conventional terms, the ways have parted.

One of the most important features of sanghakamma is that the ‘presence’ of all members including accused parties and opposing factions is defined as being ‘face to face’ (sammukhāvinaya) when a topic is being discussed. So as decision-making became more important, sīmas themselves shrank in size to the small precincts that we have today to ensure that everyone’s presence was immediately verifiable. This is wise because the human nervous system responds to messages holistically. That is, only between 7% and 10% of the meaning of any spoken words is communicated by the words themselves. The rest is by voice tone, body language, pauses, and having background understanding of the nature of the people involved. So if you aren’t there ‘face to face’ you don’t fully know and you can’t make a truly informed judgement. Moreover, any reporter on what has occurred will also add a similar percentage of their own meaning to the report via their voice tone and body language.

This is a wake-up reflection: when so much communication is via report and speculation, and is prone to exaggeration, what can we really know for ourselves? Few people are deliberately lying, but the less direct access you have to a topic, the more relevant is the Buddha’s encouragement to the Kālāmas: not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in your scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else's ability or with the thought ‘this person is our teacher.’...When you know in yourselves, ‘These things are unprofitable, censurable, condemned by the wise, being adopted and put into effect they lead to harm and suffering’ then you should abandon them... When you know in yourselves, ‘These things are profitable (etc)’ then you should practise them and abide in them.
Anguttara: 4. 65

How we ‘know in ourselves’ has to be through a fuller means than accepting the truth of a report. It seems to me that to ‘know in oneself’ implies establishing the inclusive boundaries of mindfulness. That is being aware of the embodied feeling and mind-states that arise in the context of the topic in hand. Then we really get what it means to us, and an appropriate response can occur. For example, when I read articles on the rights and wrongs of the world or of Buddhism, I consider ‘What’s the assumed basis, the body of this? What’s the context? Is a range of views expressed, or is this one-sided? What mind-state is this coming from? How is the article trying to include and affect me?’ and with no-one being present, when there are no common boundaries, all I get is a sense of the mind-state of the reporter and a ‘maybe so’ to what they’re saying. Nothing has really fully taken form apart from a set of reactions. Yet this kind of communication, an ‘uninvolved inclusion’ in which no-one is apparently excluded, but few reliable factors are included, is the means whereby most of us make up our world.

So I don't go in for internet discussion, because there are no clear boundaries. Operating within boundaries however means there is the factor of involvement. You can fully express, deeply listen and also get a good feel for what’s going on. Views can be expressed and hammered out or soothed in the spirit of confidentiality - particularly important when settling disputes and accusations. Having local boundaries also allows room for diversity. If you don’t like this groups’s observances or allocation of robes, you step outside that boundary. So whilst the major issues would be resolved by the Buddha (and after him by Sangha Councils) local decisions around in-house matters could occur without causing a schism.

One result of this was the creation of various schools and lineages that have never formally split, but whose boundaries arose through following decisions made dependent on climate, specific customs and other factors particular to the location. However, as the Sangha was primarily a group of wanderers, as the members moved the ‘territories’ became internalised and moved with them. This has led to oddities such as the veneration and continuation of customs that make sense in their native land, but don’t fit elsewhere. There’s a confusion between the territories as the mind-set of the group, and the territory of the local culture. Which is generally resolved by referring to the greater boundary of the Dhamma-Vinaya and flexing the local boundaries until a fit is mutually arrived at.

So local boundaries should not be brick walls; there has to be the ability to include. For a start, anyone who can live up to the requirements of the life can enter the Sangha, bring new attitudes to bear and vote. Furthermore, far from being deaf to the concerns of others, the Buddha made many of the rulings that govern the Sangha in response to lay people’s complaints. The lay community can further keep the local sangha in check by refusing to feed them (as in one noted occasion in the time of the Buddha). Where appeals to reason fails, appeal to the belly may yet succeed. So if Sangha works it’s through the grace and co-operation of a fourfold ‘assembly’ (pārisa) of lay people and of samanas living under the Vinaya. That’s the largest human boundary. The Buddha saw this four-fold assembly as a development that would allow him to pass away in the peaceful knowledge that the results of his work had a firm place on the earth.

However to qualify for inclusion there’s the need to deal with one’s own pain and not dump on the group. And part of that is about working on boundary issues. Through friends, territories, walls and inner spaces, we establish boundaries within which each of us feels comfortable and stable - so we can gather and rest in ourselves and also be present with another without feeling overwhelmed and invaded, and without invading and overwhelming others. People get bruised and abused when boundaries around time, place, and confidentiality aren’t there. And if this is chronic, there is a corresponding mistrust, fear or resentment of ‘them’ ( the power group, the rebels, the others).

Yet part of what life brings us is the experience of ‘them’- when another is not included. Moreover there’s ‘it’ - internal boundaries form around what aspects of our consciousness we can’t bring to light and accept. And until I can be present with my own ‘it’ of fear and anger, then I can’t be present with yours, or with what happens between us - and then my ‘it’ becomes ‘you/him/her/them’. Accordingly much of Dhamma-work is about clearing the difficult stuff - but that entails consciously establishing the boundaries of mindfulness, and even then knowing ‘this as much as I can handle of grief/rage/ lust before I get lost and start dumping it on others.’ Doing this personal work is what entitles us to be members of the group.

So something to reflect on is whether we're aware of each other’s boundaries, or check: ‘Is this a good time/place to talk about this?’; ‘Shouldn’t we include so-and-so in this topic?’ ; ‘Do you think that you could give the two of us a few minutes to talk about this in private.’ We can get bashful about placing reasonable boundary markers, such as ‘Sorry, I don’t have the energy to do this right now’; ‘ It’s late and my mind’s not clear - can we talk about this in the morning?’ ‘I need to consult so-and-so before I can give you an answer on that one.’ Frustrating? In my experience with Sangha, it can take months, even years, until everyone has settled and the potency gathered to arrive at a decision: but if a decision gets forced, it generally doesn’t last. Meanwhile an unbounded discussion becomes incoherent and shallow - no-one’s going to go into the deep stuff if what they say is going to be blabbed to the world. So pointing out and mutually determining boundaries is a vital part of the process of decision-making. It’s a good understanding to arrive at.

And also that in all of this the non-differentiating intent of good-will is essential; it allows for the boundaries, by encouraging kindness to all that which feels other, weird or unacceptable ‘as to myself.’ It doesn’t remove the boundaries, but it respects our limitations at this time. ‘May you be well and may I be well - and that works best if we take a break from being with each other at this time...’ Or, ‘You can lead in this area and I’ll take care of this.’ With such an acknowledgement - and the trust that we can still share what is beyond differentiation - anger, fear or the sadness of being excluded don’t have to occur.

On the other hand, blind inclusion - a ‘we’ that doesn’t respect the different ‘me’s in it - is conformism not harmony. I remember an account that Ram Dass gave on this theme. He was teaching a group of social activists on spiritual themes, and began with the view ‘we are all One.’ However, being activists, the group was quick to set him straight. First the black, Afro-Americans members got up and spoke with passion about their own particular history of slavery and discrimination: ‘We’re not all One, we're the oppressed.’ Then the women got up and talked at length on the problems that were peculiar to their group - misogyny, male domination, etc.: ‘It’s not all the same - we’re an oppressed group.’ Finally the white males got their chance - amid a rising tide of emotion they recounted their history: centuries of domination by Church and State, co-opted as slaves by the forces of capitalism and industrialisation, and now saddled with the projections of every other group. ‘We’re the oppressed.’ Finally the entire group could settle: ‘We’re all oppressed. We’re all One.’ In the clear expression of differences - within a safe boundary - qualities of the heart arise that recognise the unity.

We’re all One in suffering, and in the wish to get free of it. To realise that wish requires working within supportive boundaries - who, what and how to exclude, and who, what and how to fully include. We can move the boundaries, but boundaries are needed. It’s only then that we can find our place and settle down in it to do the real work of knocking down the walls of delusion. Then what remains has no boundaries, because there’s no me or you in it.