Thursday, February 8, 2007

Buddhism Without Beliefs

Buddhism Without Beliefs
A Contemporary Guide to Awakening
by Stephen Batchelor
Bloomsbury, 1997, £9.99

Buddhism Without Beliefs is written for a popular audience, and succeeds in communicating Batchelor’s personal approach to western Buddhism. Rather than describing beliefs or practices, he evokes a modern, western ‘Buddhist’ mentality through creating a dramatised authorial self – which passes through the experience of awareness, emptiness, freedom and so on. Batchelor thereby projects himself as an agnostic, post-modern Everyman – and this perspective is evoked with such power, lucidity and feeling that the reader feels compelled to identify with it. Of course, this is rhetoric not argument, and those who feel Batchelor reduces Buddhism to humanism by excluding the possibility of experience that transcends reason, or faith that anticipates experience, will find his approach coercive and disingenuous. But Batchelor writes better prose than any other modern Buddhist and, within its limitations, his thinking has a cogency that will ensure its influence.

Minority Report

Minority Report, Dir. Steven Spielberg, US, Universal Studios, 2002

Reviewed by Vishvapani

The precogs lie in a pool of nutrients, secluded from intruders in a disinfected laboratory space known as ‘the Temple’. Genetic freaks, they have the unsexed, bleached features of angels and rest in a subliminal trance between waking and sleep, moaning with the pain of the psychic vibrations they pick up from the world. Innocent and passive themselves, they inhabit a nightmare of murder and violence, with a twist that distinguishes their reverie from madness. These are ‘true’ precognitions of future events, murders that really will occur unless they are pre-empted. The precogs’ thoughts are captured electronically, and viewed by the officers of Precrime, the police force that arrests murderers before they act. Chief Paul Anderton (Tom Cruise) is the maestro of disentangling the images, and Lamar Burgess (Max Von Sydow) is the programme’s Director.

The 2054 Washington DC the film depicts is filled with elaborations of the technology that even now both empowers and neuters us: cars that run on tracks in a huge grid; ubiquitous retinal scans for identification. But beneath this society’s bourgeoise, technologically brightened surface is an underbelly of drugs and violence that must be contained. The propaganda of Precrime, the ultimate antidote to urban anxiety, assures the public, ‘That which keeps us safe, keeps us free.’

The film’s central conceit marries our instinctive lurch for technological solutions to life’s threats with the traditional figure of the prophetic visionary. The precogs are shamanic messengers from the collective unconscious, reminiscent of oracles and the precognitive dreamers of the Bible, Shakespeare, and traditional cultures. Precrime’s alchemy is the harnessing of the perennial visionary capability to scientific control and reliability. But this is not the triumph of science over religion so much as their marriage. The three precogs form a triune ‘hive mind’ and a Precrime officer informs us that they ’are being deified’, adding, ‘We’re more like clergy than cops.’ The ability to predict, when it is apparently perfected, implies a knowledge that is superior to the individual’s ability to choose, and therefore the superiority of scientific determinism to free will.

‘The system is perfect,’ says FBI Agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), who is investigating Precrime. ‘But there’s a flaw. There always is. It’s human.’ In fact the film presents two flaws. One is that the precogs’ visions occasionally disagree and produce a ‘minority report’ that depicts an alternative future. These reports, we learn, have secretly been suppressed in order to preserve public confidence in the system’s infallibility. The second flaw is that the system can be circumvented by someone wanting to commit a murder. They need simply to stage a killing in a way that precisely mirrors one that has already been predicted, so that the precogs’ vision of this crime will be regarded as an echo of its predecessor. From this premise grows the plot that gradually takes the film over, and we discover at the denouement that Lamar Burgess killed Agatha’s mother, using this method to prevent her from withdrawing her daughter from the programme.

Following this line, ‘Minority Report’ gradually dwindles from an evocative philosophical film noir into a conventional thriller. Anderton is an unwitting participant in his superior’s power-games who is sacrificed to preserve the system’s secret, but turns the tables and ultimately exposes the corruption at its heart. Yet Anderton is infected, too, through his desire to eradicate the unruly forces that robbed him of his abducted son. Mourning the lost possibilities of the child’s life he has sought refuge in the foreclosed future of Precrime.

Despite its disappointing lapse into conventional narrative, ‘Minority Report’ is memorable and impressive in its engagement with the image-world inhabited by the precogs. This is also the domain of the irrational and unconscious that lies beneath the surface of Anderton’s life – in his grief and drug-addiction – just as it is beneath the surface of society. It is associated principally with violence, but the precogs – luminous messengers from the beyond – are also more than that

In this respect ‘Minority Report’ develops director Stephen Spielberg’s abiding subject – the domain of fantasy that has been lost to modern culture, and our attempts to reclaim, ward off, contain or subvert its resurgent power. His films attempt to articulate in popular genres the collective imaginings of modern culture through creating powerful and evocative images of its hidden fantasy life. It is no coincidence that Spielberg’s movie studio is called Dreamworks – 'dreamwork' being Freud's term for the process that transforms a thought, wish or memory into the dream image. Where, Spielberg’s films enquire, have we displaced our dreams?

In 'Jaws', Spielberg's first major movie, the shark, beast of the depths, dramatically materialises to terrorise those living on the surface. 'Close Encounters' turns on the image-fascination of ordinary people that is in fact a summons to a meeting with the gods (who descend in their space-ship). ‘ET’ inverts this relationship by bringing the uncanny into suburbia and the world of childhood. In the Indiana Jones films, mystery resides in the lost or hidden realms that are uncovered by the archaeologist-hero. And in the Jurassic Park movies the unconscious forces (embodied in dinosaurs) are tamed and domesticated, yet show themselves unconstrainable. ‘Schindler's List’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’ confront 'primal scenes' of modern consciousness – the Holocaust and WW2 – that offer its abiding images of human suffering.

None of Spielberg’s films perhaps sustains a serious and psychologically coherent engagement with the images he is so amazingly able to create, and he characteristically fails to resist milking an image for emotion. ‘Minority Report’ can be seen as a meditation on the power of the image, but it, too, suffers a Spielbergian lapses in its treatment of Anderton’s grief. More seriously, the thriller plot derails the deeper concerns upon which the film touches. Burgess, not Anderton, is the story’s key figure for it is he who first committed the Promethean sin of harnessing the precogs visions, only to find that he must sin again to protect it. Rather than making him a standard establishment villain, a more interesting film might have explored the mixed motives that incited Burgess to suppress violently the threats to Precrime. In potential he is a tragic figure honourably caught between the desire to protect and the dangers of control, but dishonourably corrupted by the prestige brought by his programme’s success.

In the latter perspective Burgess is trapped in the doubleness of sight that is also blindness because it is shrouded by desire. But when is human knowledge ever free of desire? The thriller plot and the discovery of Burgess’ chicanery overwhelms a deeper flaw in Precrime that is hinted at in the notion of the minority report – the disagreement between the previsions that casts doubt on their predictive authority. But a greater instability, towards which the film gestures but which it never grasps, is the inherent ambiguity of the information the precogs provide.

Precrime rests on the premise that the meaning of the precognitions is clear, but the film never confronts the certainty that images from the dream-world must be interpreted before they can become meanings in waking life. This simplification prevents ‘Minority Report’, for all its virtues, from penetrating deeply into the image-realm of dream, myth and the unconscious, which it invokes. Failing this, the film can scarcely offer an image for the waking awareness that floats above the darkness and grapples with the uncertain knowledge it throws up. As Nietszche says: ‘all our so-called consciousness is a more or less fantastic commentary on an unknown text, one which is unknowable but yet felt’.

‘Minority Report’ aspires not to prediction but to prophecy: to show how our rational, sanitised, technology-saturated society deals so poorly with its irrational, threatening shadow. The film’s closing images show the precogs awakened from their dream and living ordinary lives, and Anderton restored to his once-estranged, newly pregnant wife. But these intimations of natural life’s openness and unpredictability are not fully realised in the neat resolution of the film’s story-lines. ‘Minority Report’ shows Spielberg – the master image-maker of modern American cinema – growing closer to making intelligible his abiding obsessions rather than simply finding images for them. But his populist forms, and perhaps an ingrained imaginative caution, constrain him. As yet, the prophecy is muted.

© Vishvapani, 2006

The Faces of Buddhism in America

The Faces of Buddhism in America
Ed. Charles Prebish & Kenneth Tanaka
University of California Press 1998, £14.95 p/b

A decade ago accounts of Buddhism in the West dealt mainly with history, allowing just a few pages for the present state of affairs. But, as Buddhism in America has grown into a complex part of the religious landscape, a new field of study has emerged; and The Faces of Buddhism in America is an important contribution.

The first part examines the Asian traditions as they exist in America, among both Asian immigrant communities and Euro-Americans. The second engages with issues that have emerged in Buddhist America: the relation of Buddhism and psychotherapy, socially-engaged Buddhism, questions of adaptation and so on.

The articles are thorough and informative, and most contributors write with sympathy as well as understanding, but two stand out. The first is Sogen Hori’s account of how the meaning of Rinzai Zen practice changes in the American context – even while practitioners think they are staying true to the Japanese model. The second is the feminist Rita Gross’s eminently sensible engagement with the charged issues of sexual relations between teachers and students, and the notion of hierarchy. Both these essays deserve to be well known and widely studied.

review by Vishvapani, first published in Dharma Life 11, Autumn 1999

Land of No Buddha

Land of No Buddha
Reflections of a Sceptical Buddhist
Richard P Hayes

Log on to a Buddhist Internet discussion group – almost any one – and there is Richard Hayes: magisterial, knowledgeable, urbane, debating with all comers, ruminating on western Buddhism, reflecting on his life. The learned Professor of Buddhist Studies at McGill University must spend hours of his day so engaged, a virtual Bodhisattva for the cyber-Sangha. Land of No Buddha is vintage Hayes, comprising essays written in pre-Net days. He chews over his often painful experience of practising Buddhism in the us, and brings to his meditations his substantial knowledge of Buddhism and western culture.
Hayes’s core belief is a radical scepticism, on a bedrock of pared down, no-nonsense Buddhism. And he is an entertaining guide on a sometimes-agonising journey of discovery through the profundities and absurdities of American Zen, the New Age supermarket, encounters with lamas and all the rest. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes infuriating, Hayes is always worth reading.

Reviewed by Vishvapani, Dharma Life 10, Spring 1999

What is the Dharma?

What is the Dharma?
Windhorse,1998, £9.99/$19.99 p/b

The editors of Windhorse Publications’ Spoken Word project are slowly turning Sangharakshita’s huge output of lectures and seminars into a seemingly endless stream of ‘new’ books. What Is The Dharma? is a beautifully edited addition to the series and an excellent introduction to basic Buddhist teachings. It contains many teachings of the sort that everyone wanting to understand Buddhism should learn by heart, but most probably don’t know properly. Sangharakshita’s distinctive achievement here is to communicate profound teachings in a highly accessible way – helped by his mastery of the evocative metaphor and the stimulating allusion. In particular the first part, ‘The Truth’, offers an account of Buddhist ‘metaphysics’, which manages to be exceptionally clear and yet remains true to the elusiveness of its subject. What Is The Dharma? offers riches far beyond many of the books expounding Buddhist teachings that are currently being published. It deserves to avoid being submerged in the deluge.

reviewed by Vishvapani, Dharma Life 9, Winter 1998

Oriental Enlightenment

Oriental Enlightenment
The Encounter Between Asian And Western Thought.
JJ Clarke
Routledge, 1997, £13.99 p/b

The intellectual encounter of East and West has continued for two centuries and, as JJ Clarke’s excellent account demonstrates, it has been a major theme in western culture over this period. Clarke’s most accessible chapters are those describing this encounter in the fields of philosophy, religious dialogue, psychology, science and ecology. These marshal truly prodigious reading, and offer a valuable guide to anyone interested in these areas.

There is also a useful interpretive history of the successive western passions for China, India and Buddhism, which attempts to account for why the West has been drawn to aspects of Asian thought at particular times. This leads Clarke to consider the lenses through which Asia has been viewed and misunderstood by westerners, and thence into the tangled academic debates of ‘orientalism’.

Views of the East have often been constructed as projections of western fantasies and fears, or in response to imperial agendas. So, academics ask, can there be a western understanding of the East free of such cultural biases? Clarke suggests that, as cultures fragment in the ‘post-modern’ age, and merge with one another under the forces of globalisation, new understandings are indeed possible. The scope of his insight into these possibilities seems rather circumscribed by the limits of the academic debates that are his starting point, and also because his subject is ‘Asian and western thought’. Ultimately the encounter is between people, and the only necessary limits are those of the individuals themselves.

Reviewed by Vishvapani, Dharma Life 9, Winter 1998

The Resonance Of Emptiness

The Resonance Of Emptiness
A Buddhist Inspiration For A Contemporary Psychotherapy
Gay Watson; Curzon, 1998, £40 h/b

Many therapists are attracted to, and even influenced by, Buddhism but, as Watson’s thorough study shows, the one cannot simply be grafted on to the other. Both therapy and Buddhism involve a process of mental change, yet how this change occurs depends on the understanding of the mind. Watson aims to contexualise this encounter within Buddhist views of selfhood, consciousness and identity, as well as the changing understandings of these phenomena in contemporary western philosophy and psychology.

Such a weighty agenda makes this a book only for the philosophically minded, and it bears many hall-marks of its origin as a PhD thesis. Watson concludes that Buddhism accords with and extends post-modern understandings of the self, particularly in its notions of interconnectedness and insubstantiality, and outlines her ideas of a Buddhist-inspired psychotherapy. Yet, although Watson finds many sources and analogues for her ideas, The Resonance Of Emptiness is finally an assertion of a personal approach to Buddhism and therapy rather than an argument for it.

Vishvapani, Dharma Life 9, Winter 1998