I’ve been trying to think of some practical examples of Zen’s wabi sabi philosophy, which I now think might also be compared to Taoist yin yang philosophy.
The fundamental idea in all Buddhist and Taoist thinking is that life is impermanent and imperfect, insofar as it doesn’t accord with human absolutist ideas of perfection, whereby there are rigid ideas about how things ought to be.
We might think that things should remain the same, if we like the way they are - but that’s not going to happen. We might think that things ought to change in accordance with our wishes, if we don’t like the way they are, but that may not happen either.
According to Zen, however, every day is indeed perfect, since it’s life’s frustrations and sadnesses which challenge us and force us to do work on our spirit and our soul (the yin/yang of our psyche?) in order to develop less egotism and more of an attitude of non-attachment, which in turn reduces our angst and suffering.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard to make the world a better place for ourselves and others - it’s not about resignation and defeatism. It merely says that we should do the work cheerfully and in the knowledge that our efforts may not be properly or fully rewarded in the way that we’d like.
Shit happens. But good things happen too, often without effort or struggle. We can only play our part, and the most important thing we can do is to work on ourselves so that we seek enlightenment, try to make ourselves the best we can be, and help others.
Going back to practical wabi sabi, I think of homes where everything is ‘perfect’: every room looks like the prevailing culture says it should look; everything is beautiful, tidy, uncluttered and clean. Many Japanese homes, for example, are stunningly minimalist and lovely. What could be wrong with that?
From an aesthetic point of view, maybe nothing. But maybe the price of that sort of perfection is that there are no books or magazines or newspapers to hand that catch one’s attention, that perhaps stimulate and inspire new thoughts. Maybe there are no notebooks or sketchpads at hand to capture fleeting ideas and creative thoughts. Maybe there are no musical instruments or art materials casually to hand to encourage creative self-expression.
Yin yang, and maybe wabi sabi, is also about balance, and about the opposing forces of order and creative disorder, light and dark, coexisting peacefully and productively. It’s the odd ‘blue’ note cropping up in an otherwise perfect pentatonic scale that adds contrast and colour to the music which gives jazz and the blues their unique pleasures and satisfactions.
Referring back to my thoughts on The Class - the film’s website carries this sentence: “The greatest lessons are learned when life enters the classroom.”
One might also say the same for letting real life enter academia’s ivory towers, for letting life enter the fortresses we call our homes, etc.
How many of us are happy to let life enter our lives, instead of trying hard always to keep the real world and its unruly forces at bay?
In Our Time - The Boxer Uprising.
And talking of unruly forces, Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time programme on Radio 4 today focused on the ‘Boxer’ rebellion in late 19th Century China.
Spiritual values underpin Japanese and Chinese culture, and indeed all cultures that are influenced by Buddhist philosophy. In China the prevailing culture and spiritual ethos was, and arguably still is, a mixture of of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, each of which reinforces the other, and produces a whole which is greater than the sum of the individual parts.
Tolerance, patience, kindness, generosity and compassion were shown to the outside forces, the foreign ideas and indeed the strange religions that entered China in the 19th Century. But when those forces of imperialist expansion and exploitation, aided and abetted by missionary, evangelic Christianity, pushed their luck too far, then in order to preserve their own spiritual values, relationships and customs the ‘common’ people of China rose up in rebellion against them.
The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, a resistance movement prepared to use Buddhist martial arts in what they saw as the self-defense of the people and the culture of China, appeared out of nowhere in Shandong province.
There were no specific political leaders. But everyone understood and believed in their cause. Imperialist forces and values were stopped in their tracks, and China remained, and remains, uncolonised.
In our time the forces of unfettered capitalist and imperialist greed, aided and abetted by right-wing fundamentalist Christianity in the USA, have pushed their luck too far.
The people are angry and there’s a whiff of rebellion in the air. There are no obvious leaders for such a rebellion, and no-one really wants to acknowledge the current sense of foreboding and disquiet too much, for fear of being accused of being a rabble-rouser. No matter. Things are as they are. Even the likes of Max Hastings, who is a decent man it seems, recognizes that people have a right to their anger, and that socialists (having been ridiculed as losers and dinosaurs for so long) have been shown to be right in their predictions of planetary destruction and economic meltdown if capitalist excess was allowed to continue. Well it did, and we are where we are.
As Max says, we’re into a period of phony war, when battle lines have been declared, sides taken, and nothing much else seems to be happening. But everybody’s waiting with some anxiety to see what happens in what may prove to be a long, hot summer.
Whatever happens, it ought to be non-violent. There is absolutely no mileage for anyone in violence. We should take our cue from the Buddhist monks of Burma and Tibet, from the example of their spiritual and political protests last year, and be prepared to dress distinctively (as the ‘Boxer’ rebels did too) out on the streets, in demonstrations of our numerical strength, as we make our demands heard.
We demand a return to the ideals of government for the people, by the people. The specifics of our demands still need to be thrashed out in proper democratic debate, and that doesn’t mean in Parliament, either.
Working For The Man
Chris Mullins MP’s recent diaries of his time as a junior minister in the Blair government are being serialized in Radio 4’s Book of the Week this week.
Today’s extracts were fairly hard-hitting, especially the references to Blair and to his immediate boss, Jack Straw.
Blair, “The Man”, is exposed for his inability and his unwillingness to listen to what others have to say to him. Mullins remarks that this is what happens to people who have been in power for some time. However, I’d argue that this is part and parcel of being a power-crazed egomaniac manipulative psychopath politician all your life.
According to Henry Maudsley, psychopaths are moral imbeciles. Check.
Cleckley pointed out that psychopaths can maintain a mask of normality. Check.
Kernberg said that the pathological narcissism of psychopaths prevents them from learning from past mistakes, and helps create individuals who are completely devoid of conscience. Check.
Dr Robert Hare’s checklist for pathological aggressive narcissism consists of 8 factors:
1. Glibness/superficial charm
2. Grandiose sense of self-worth
3. Pathological lying
5. Lack of remorse or guilt
7. Callous/lack of empathy
8. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
“I did what I thought was right,” said Mr Tony. Lest we forget. I I I I I I I I I I
Maybe we should run this diagnosis on the rest of our elected representatives. Urgently.
Mullins also highlights Blair’s inability to concentrate and to focus on important issues, especially those which don’t really interest him, like Africa. He clearly didn’t read the briefs that were sent to him, and was given to saying to colleagues like Mullins on the day of meetings and conferences, “Tell me what to say - in a word!”
When Blair met with the Dalai Lama in his capacity as a Buddhist leader he didn’t even have enough respect for his visitor to prepare properly for the meeting so that a productive dialogue could take place, and confined himself, therefore, to anodyne chat and questions. When the issue of the right-wing BJP came up - the so-called ‘Indian People’s Party’ - Blair apparently said he thought their political ideology was similar to New Labour. Check.
Mullins concluded that “we are turning a blind eye to some very bad things”, and “it’s impossible to get the paperwork under control” in spite of working all the available hours. This is indeed Britain under New Labour. And will no doubt continue to be if we end up living under a New Tory government.
The estimable Jon Cruddas MP had a good column in the Guardian yesterday.
Labour has misunderstood Britain. Time to start afresh.
We need to rebuild a community-focused party, embrace electoral reform and pursue - dare I say - a New Socialism.
On top of the recession, 2009's big story looks like being a crisis of political representation.
And palpable fear about what lies ahead.
New Labour has had increasingly little to say about [people’s] struggles. Indeed, by 2001 its policies were based essentially on a mythical middle England, drawn up by pollsters and located somewhere in the south-east, with affluence taken for granted. In this model, politics always had to be individualised. A leading cabinet member claimed that Labour's essential message was to help voters "earn and own". People were seen as being fixated only on themselves, with no wish to think in terms of collective experience. Aspiration was about buying more things rather than wanting to build the "good society".
Julian Baggini, in his book A Journey into the English Mind, identified a postcode in Rotherham as the typical centre of the country in terms of how we live and think. His exploration of the philosophy of England beautifully defines the conservative, community-orientated outlook of the mainstream, Protestant centre of the country with its rich sense of tolerance and fairness.
Labour misread this communitarian disposition - grounded in a deep and still dominant working-class culture - for a shrill politics of individual consumerism. We assumed people would only respond to a sour, illiberal politics about consuming more, rather than a deeper ethic of fraternity and what we aspire to be as a nation.
Labour lost the language of generosity, kindness and community as it lost the tempo of the country. England's abiding culture was never socialist, but as we misunderstood its essential ethic of solidarity we lost our ability to build a politics beyond the market - to mould a radical hope for the country.
Working-class culture tolerated Labour as long as it promised economic uplift. Sixty quarters of growth helped disguise our cultural distance from the country. The material class politics that we never confronted - around housing, employment insecurity and pensions - was submerged by the housing bubble.
The Labour party is therefore at a critical moment. Already in government hardline market fundamentalists are regrouping, arguing for further dismantling of the state, more privatisation and suspending any equality agenda to placate business. On the left, a movement to leave Labour and form a new workers' party is stirring. What both sides share is a desire to polarise debate.
But now is the time to build a different Labour party, to develop a new kind of economy and determine the just distribution of power and resources, in which government and the people work together toward a vision of the Good Society.
A grown-up Labour party needs to embrace proportional representation - not as a preserve of the liberal metropolitan intelligentsia, but as a core mechanism with which to combat a sense of working-class alienation.
Now, before it's too late, we need to rediscover [traditional] Labour politics. And, not that I want to scare the horses, we might even call it a New Socialism.
Well, Jon, you can call it what you like, but what you’re really talking about is embracing spiritually intelligent values. And none of the political parties has any monopoly on them. They’re all free to embrace them. The original Labour party grew out of them. Jesus Christ, the Buddha and Mohammed certainly advocated them.
Reading Cruddas’ article, you surely have to see parallels with the Boxer rebellion. The majority of the people, who live decent lives and abide by spiritually intelligent values have become disgusted with the values inflicted on this society by the advocates of greed and the American Dream - selfishness, individual enrichment at the expense of the communal good, and so forth. They’ve had enough and they’re not going to take any more.
These people have no particular political programme, belong to no political party or faction, have no particular leaders, and they wish only to see our national affairs return to a greater state of enlightenment - to see social justice, the eradication of violence, exploitation and poverty - and they desire much greater equality and a better life for all, not just the few.
Unless the current political parties start to show some concern with their desires and interests then they won’t vote for any of them. Maybe a new party will form to represent them, but in the meantime the masses will just have to stage demonstrations and protests, to show their anger in their willingness to stand up on their feet and get out in peaceful gatherings on the streets.
I suggest they wear the same colours as the monks of Burma and Tibet, if only to show solidarity and a belief in non-violence.
Simon Jenkins wrote his usual excellent column yesterday.
Some excellent postings after the article too, such as the one by Trevisco:
THIS IS OUR FUCKING MONEY. WE DESERVE A FULL EXPLANATION AND ACCOUNTING. NOW. Frankly, it makes me feel like paying those bankers a visit in the dead of night with a baseball bat and persuading them to come clean about that £100 billion.
Jonathan Freedland said some perceptive things in his column about Noam Chomsky’s observation that the USA has not so much supported Israel as supported the right wing in Israel and in fact supported each and every right wing party and right wing government everywhere on the planet.