So what's been happening? Having been offered a three-month retreat, I emerged to find ... much the same; or a development along familiar lines. Estrangement - and connection: on one hand, the secular political field presents increasing polarisation and separation; and on the other the field of human goodness has extended via many neighbourhood concern groups, an increase in virtual gatherings and a softening of the boundaries of time and place and class. In my case, I've been adjusting to the pandemic situation with an increase in online activity. A supporter (upāsikā) in Singapore has invited and hosted global online sessions whereby I've had 300 people 'in' my kuti, from all over the world and in different time zones. It's part of an unplanned development whereby talks get edited by an upāsaka in Thailand, classified in California and uploaded onto the Internet. A small group of American upāsikās assembles a bi-monthly mail-out that lets people know where I'm at and offers a sample of Dhamma material. In the same vein we had an International (Sangha) Elders Gathering recently which drew monks and nuns from all over – ranging between one picking up a satellite signal from under a tarp on a hill in Thailand, to the urban settings of Britain, to monasteries in Europe, North America, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. Although such meetings lack the regenerative effect of shared somatic presence, just to see all those faces on a screen after a couple of months of solitary practice was a source of joy.
People sometimes ask me how to practise Dhamma in the real world; but Dhamma is the real world. It works; it holds together in a sustaining way through connecting to human goodness and truth; it’ s consistent; it supports life. By contrast, much of what poses as the ‘real’ world has been the opposite for quite a while, and now that's becoming more clear. Any system that extracts so much from human and natural well-being in order to keep running – to the point where homelessness, unemployment, inequality, and pollution increase; to the extent whereby mental health and harmony decreases and the natural regenerative Earth is pushed towards breakdown – can't sustain the wholeness that is the mark of the 'real'. Just take a look at the human landscape alone: fractured societies; governments in armed conflict with their citizens. From Portland to Minsk to Bangkok and Hong Kong, armed police in military-style uniforms face off against protesters in jeans and T shirts, waving placards; tear-gas, water cannons, shouted slogans ... The cries for justice and the loss of empathy speak a truth about the loss of the real.
The challenge of being a separate individual within a collective environment has always called for empathy –‘let's share’ - and justice – ‘we operate under the same rule and protocol.’ The normal range of empathy occurs within small groups, in face-to-face dialogue, in response to crisis, or in travelling and meeting those 'others' in their native lands. But for the huge daily-life span of the nation-state, empathy is difficult. So we refer to coolly 'objective' justice. (Which is a nice idea.) Without development however, both of these fall short. Empathy becomes sentimental and conflict averse – so we can't work through the gritty personal bits of why we disagree, confuse and disappoint each other. Justice falls prey to a legal system angled by professionals (who may have their vested interests, one of which is to make money out of adjudication) and vulnerable to political manipulation. But how else to manage a complex society?
The disarmingly simple approach of the Buddha is to encourage cultivation of the heart/spirit (citta). As a directed practice this begins with three wholesome and life-nourishing intentions laid down by the Buddha as sammā-sankappa: to not seek gratification through sense-contact, to not violate, and to not be callous. The standard understanding of these encourages the development of renunciation, kindness and compassion. But you could expand that a little to: centring on and clarifying the citta, checking the will to dominate, and cultivating empathy. The three fit together, with the slightly uncomfortable sounding ‘renunciation’ at the head of the list – because until one has shifted one's source of happiness, of identity and of orientation from the world that is defined by the shifting appearance of sense-data to the cultivated field of the citta, then instincts of aggression and the withdrawal of concern for others follow suit. Yes, if we really are limited to being stuck inside a bag of skin bombarded by sense-contact, then it would make some sense, at least in the short-term, to set up a massive consumer-accumulation program and defend one's own with all one's might. And some people do attempt that – hence the gross inequality and conflict prevalent in the world. Life gets to be all about ‘me’ and ‘mine’. But how real is that? The mind justifies the self-centred outflow as a path to rightly-earned happiness; its aggression becomes defence and standing up for what’s right; and when 'mine' becomes 'right', instead of mutually-attuned awareness, empathy shrinks and outflows increase. There's a lot of inequality, domination and exploitation caused by believing in this wrong 'right'.
The advice is to put a check on the ‘right’ that supports the outflow we call the 'real world'. And this is because as the Buddha put it, such a check is for one's welfare, for that of others and leads to liberation. And further: because 'I saw in unwholesome states danger, degradation, and defilement, and in wholesome states the blessing of renunciation, the aspect of cleansing.' (M.19) So... one works on letting go of a foundation of 'mine' not out of righteousness, or puritanical zealotry but because of experiencing harmonious, ‘whole view’ states as a consequent blessing. And as renunciation ripens into self-relinquishment, one finds happiness in giving, serving, extending goodwill, in skilful speech – and in solitary meditation.
The last source can be the trickiest – there's no-one to give to, to look after and support, no great cause to be set on fire with. So you don't get uplift from those sources. You're here with your body, mind and heart – or at least bits of them. And the bits that most commonly make themselves known are the unhappy, nagging or compulsively stupid bits; the stuff you wish would go away, the stuff you've tried to cure, the stuff you wish you weren’t. It's all as real as the 'real' world, because it's the hangover of that outflow; the performance attitudes, personal anxieties and unresolved energies are in the very air we breathe (or choke on); our personalities get built on them. So most of us begin to meditate with our heads in that air; it keeps one busy at getting somewhere.
Admittedly there's solace in that. My first three years of meditation, from day one on onwards, were spent in solitude in a small hut, living on one meal a day. Conversation wasn't allowed, there were no communal events to go to, nothing to do except watch the rising and falling of the abdomen and note sensations and thoughts arising at the point of mental or physical contact, and let them pass. Hardly gripping stuff – but it was the big project, and so I threw myself into it with the youthful fervour of one who reads of stages and breakthroughs. But when I paused for a break ... and the sounds of people outside the monastery socialising came drifting over the wall, the sense of isolation wafted in. And when my father died, the sense of loss. Duly noted – but the rising and falling of the abdomen began to seem to be a distraction from that sense of isolation, rather than the other way around. (After all, meeting that sense of separation from the loved is the Buddha's first noble truth.) And when I found myself getting pleased by the company of cockroaches, the bit that 'doing meditation' overlooked made itself clearly felt.
So how do you meet estrangement? It's of course a penetrating question to pose during lockdown, but it's more prevalent than either of these scenarios. When on retreat, I can easily be in my box all day with barely any contact – but that’s a chosen situation that I can move out of. More telling is the sense of estrangement in daily life – as when being with people without meeting them; or living under a system that doesn't make sense; or recognizing the difference in realities, the prevalence of propaganda and deceit and not knowing where there is solid common ground. It comes with the mis-orientation of the real world. My sense and practice then is to not fill up the gap or gloss over it, to not pass through it, but to rise to meet that groundless space. If the heart can open in equanimity towards that, there's also an opening to compassion, joy and a deep appreciation of the gift that each human being carries. We’re both alone and on the same blank page at the same time.
The foundation for that is to live in accord with a morality, and more than that, an awareness that is based on 'to others, as to myself'. As the Buddha did throughout his life, you work out the details of protocols based on that, from meeting situations from a place of balance rather than of personal definition or ideology. You don't need an identity to do that; in fact it gets in the way. But when you get the right 'right' then empathy meets justice – and the world comes alive.