Tuesday 2 April 2024

Ubuntu: entering the Cosmos

 (A retreat gathering at Dharmagiri, Kwa-Zula Natal, South Africa)

If there’s one word of Zulu that you know it’s probably ‘ubuntu’– ‘interconnectivity’. 'Ubuntu' is a grounding sense in Zulu communities, and in any tribal or familial collective the world over: it’s the ‘we’ sense. That is, my relative autonomy is balanced within a view that I am part of a greater whole which has brought me into life, offers me value, guidance and support – and to which I am therefore responsible.

The ‘we’ sense is fundamental to human intelligence: if our ancestors hadn’t cooperated on the plains of Africa to forage, defend, hunt and to share the spoils with the others, we would never have survived in the midst of creatures who were more powerful than ourselves. In later developments this sense was the foundation for tribal and clan loyalties. The leader of the tribe was the essential axis of the collective body, a person who mediated between the mundane and spiritual domains, as well as between disputing parties within the tribe. The chief was made so by the will and respect of the tribe and had to be a good listener. If he failed or was corrupt in such a role the tribe would likely walk away. Hence the Zulu saying: ‘No chief, no tribe; no tribe, no chief.’

Models of the rightly-centred cosmos with the principled leader at its axis existed elsewhere: the Emperor as the Son of Heaven in China and Japan, and the democratic leaders of the early Greek principalities. And there was the converse: in the Greek micro-states, the leader who was out of touch with spiritual principles was called ‘tyrannos’ – ‘tyrant’.

The significant role of the human leader within the cosmos has been succinctly illuminated in the Buddhist scriptures: '...when kings are principled, royal officials become principled. … brahmins and householders … people of town and country become principled. When the people of town and country are principled, the courses of the sun and moon become regular. … the stars and constellations … the days and nights … the months and fortnights … the seasons and years become regular. … the blowing of the winds becomes regular and orderly. … the deities are not angered … … the heavens provide plenty of rain. When the heavens provide plenty of rain, the crops ripen well. When people eat crops that have ripened well, they become long-lived, beautiful, strong, and healthy.'

And the converse: '...when kings are unprincipled.... the crops ripen erratically. When people eat crops that have ripened erratically, they become short-lived, ugly, weak, and sickly.' (A.4:70)

Social, natural, supernatural: it’s an interconnected cosmos. And the axis that keeps it balances and in harmony is ethics – as modelled and directed by principled leadership. Doesn’t this particular presentation say something important and obvious about climate breakdown. While not the sole factor in terms of the climate crisis, world leaders have not used their power in a way that would adequately address the most pressing problem that humans (and animal life in general) face. Instead, unprincipled tyrannical forces are apparent in the political world, and augmented by ‘demagogracy’: rule through spouting nationalist ideology. Demagogues play on the flaw of the tribe – that a tribe tends to exclude and find conflict with other tribes. The demagogue tyrant sets people against each other, even within the same nation. However, note the platform: claims of providing for the welfare of the nation are being made by someone motivated by inflated self-interest.

In pre-mechanistic societies the ‘tribal flaw’ was mediated by principles such as always marrying a member of another tribe, or participating in great tribal gatherings. The Iroquois Confederation of North America, while waging war on other tribes, would bring together the five nations of their confederacy with feasting, dancing, and appropriate dialogue. This is similar to the practice of the sundry samana fraternities of Buddhist India: periodically there would be a 'sangīti', a great sangha gathering marked with chanting teachings on Dhamma and Vinaya in unison. So, with an awareness of the need for, and the fragility of, collective harmony, there also arises an innate understanding that participation in embodied ritual is a means to evoke and return to the harmonious collective. I am moved to wonder whether if the presidents, ayatollahs and kings of today's world would gather and sing and dance together on a regular basis, it might achieve what speeches from a podium are failing to do. It could be an interesting experiment.

The sense of the collective carries such a powerful signal that people gravitate towards it in ways that are beyond rationality. It gives the individual something meaningful to belong to. Vigorous and uplifting collectives can gather around a football team, rock star, or designer label, as well as around ideologies – complete with the tribal flaw of setting themselves apart from and in conflict with the rest. On the other hand: no meaning, no tribe. Rebel collectives form, anarchic forces come to the fore when a nation or institution sense fails to provide belonging, and what that means, while expecting obedience. The cult of the individual takes over – with its highs and lows. The high is the movement towards a Nature that the society has ignored: the Romantic vision of living in accord with Nature and following your own intuition.. The low gets internalized as antisocial isolation, cynicism and depression. This internal malaise is supported by the broad disregard for truthful speech – how can there be any kind of fellowship if you can’t trust what the others are saying? When the leader’s capacity for truthful and harmonious dialogue is low, the social fabric is bound to get threadbare. Add to this the competitive and institutionalized society, loss of connectivity at home and at work, and the ‘we’ sense collapses. Or doesn’t get established in the first place. Loss of ethics > loss of relational health > mental illness, dystopia, lessening of life expectancy, and even suicide. Time magazine April 25,2018 cites a study that claims that social isolation is 'associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.'

The view of the all-inclusive cosmos with integrity as the axis makes sense as an idea, but the invocation of the cosmos requires collective embodied participation: ritual. This point hardly need be made in traditional Buddhist cultures, where gathering into a ritually defined collective is a major part of the practice. You go to the temple, you get together with as many others as possible, make offerings and request and recite the Refuges and Precepts, and, accompanied by the chanting of a group of samanas, you dedicate the puñña of your actions to your friends and relatives, near and far, alive or dead. Thus, you enter and are welcomed into an uplifting, ethical and loving collective. In such a sacred atmosphere, you make commitments, you acknowledge shortcomings, you offer and ask for forgiveness. I’ve known a group made up of Cambodian refugees, strongly polarized between the conflicting factions of the country, people whose relatives had killed each other, manage to form a harmonious whole in the monastery around chanting, and offering to the Triple Gem.  The hearts of many can be gathered and steadied within the spiritual cosmos that includes all that has been, is and will come to be.

In contemporary western Buddhist practice however, meditative occasions generally occur without such a setting. Ritual may bring uncomfortable resonances of enforced religiosity and subservience to the will of the Church, so it isn't used. Instead, we gather together in shared isolation on 'retreats'. We don’t speak to each other, eye-contact is discouraged, and we sit on our separate mats in allocated places in row. There is no face-to-face experience except perhaps momentarily over the daily chores.

Such a scenario is useful with regard to sense restraint and reducing impact for stressed or sensitive people. It supports privacy and contemplation. But I doubt whether it can suitably attend to the dysfunction that is rampant in the fragmented collective of our politicized era. Even in its less inflamed sense, the perspective of being an isolated individual configures people’s spiritual practice: if there is no fully lived sense of a transpersonal and supportive reality beyond our own efforts and constructions, all our efforts have to be made by a self that's already exhausted and inadequate. We may well aspire to the well-being of all, but individually, we're feeling unable to find value in ourselves and are aware of being led by our own flawed individuality. And, just as the leader who ruled without access to the sublime transpersonal becomes 'tyrant', the isolated ego takes on the form of the critical and mean-hearted 'inner tyrant', an energy and a voice that continually criticizes and demands effort from its host while offering no support, warmth or positive suggestions.

How is it possible to get beyond self, if self is the tyrant who rules with no awareness of a spiritual power beyond its domain? How does the rightly-centred collective get directly felt (rather than held as a theory)? Well, what can and does happen is that all we who are present gather our integrity, get over the sense of not having a 'good' voice (you don't have to do opera), sit up, relax the shoulders, open the chest and throat – and chant. And listen. It doesn't matter at first what you chant, just attend to the miracle whereby breath, as it moves through the chest and throat produces sound with just a tiny inflection of the vocal cords. Skin vibrates in the throat – so there is living, animate, sound. Skin vibrates in the ear – your living animate sound is heard. Bones in the head and chest subtly shiver, telling you that you're alive, here, part of a breathing and attentive cosmos. And as you allow your tentative murmur to come forth, your hearing picks up the murmurs, tones and breathed sounds of others. The sounds merge. Who they are and who you are doesn't matter at this time. There is no personal interaction; but as the sounds are heard as merging with each other, the attentive heart – which has been listening to the sound of its life – begins to sense harmony and feel glad to be part of an overarching and reliable whole. This widening of the heart is devotion. And when that arises, you can invite Buddhas, guardians, guides and parents into its space to offer specific meaning.

Devotion arises as a heart-energy that's distinct from the tyrant will; so it gives you a feel for what 'right' effort is – not a strain, but a joyful opening of citta as heart within a domain that is timeless and selfless. It takes some effort to attune to the right view of the interconnected cosmos, but once you do, living in accord with its golden rule – ‘to others as to myself’ - becomes a natural felt sense. It is respectful rather than conformist; and it opens in sympathy and goodwill to the living forms that arise in one's awareness (as self or other). Rather than rules and laws, this is the virtue (sila) that acts as the foundation for mindfulness and the enlightenment faculties:
When your virtue is well purified and your view straight, based upon virtue, established upon virtue, you should develop the four establishments of mindfulness ….’ (S.47:3)

So too, bhikkhus, based upon virtue, established upon virtue, a bhikkhu develops and cultivates the seven factors of enlightenment, and thereby he achieves greatness and expansiveness in wholesome states. (S.46.1)

This sense of virtue goes beyond the boundaries of the precepts. It is the practice of attuning to the field of cause and effect, of right view as whole view. It also is about determining to maintain, respect and honour the integrity that holds our cosmos in balance. In this balance of receptive and directive energies, mindfulness arises as an attention that is spacious and yet collected; a steady loop around what we experience; an attention that can receive the ripples of stress and dis-ease with a listening that heals and releases. Then reactivity, guilt and judgement subside. And one can rightly attune to the Buddha's directive: to follow ‘that which is for my welfare, for the welfare of others and leads to nibbāna.’(M.19)