A refuge unto ourselves: An anarchist reading of The Dhammapada Pt. 1

From Everything is Dangerous

What I perhaps foreground least in my approach to the world is the influence I've drawn (for over half my life) from the Dhamma -- the teachings of the historical Buddha -- or what early western orientalists popularized as Buddhism. It circulates in what seem obvious ways for me, but due to its rather shallow (and increasingly commodified) depiction in mainstream, western environments (due in no small part to the role of rather visible western practitioners), I suppose its impact on me is not always altogether apparent. I'm not a Care Bear, I'm notoriously argumentative and critically-inclined, and demanding when it comes to principle -- all in ways that likely clash with the typical associations people have with the tradition. And to be totally honest, often enough, they clash with what I know well to be a more skillful life, myself. Hence, perhaps, the impulse to undertake this process in a rather visible medium, as a reminder to myself.

The Dhammapada is probably the most central and common collections of the Buddha's teachings. The name translates as a compound of Dhamma and Pada, the former referring (depending on who you ask) to everything from "experience", to "the world as it is", to "the teaching", to "the law", and the latter referring to a footpath. I personally like the idea of it referring to the path of what one learns from experience -- kind of a School of Hard Knocks handbook.

Why an anarchist reading of it? I don't terribly mind that my day to day practice is not altogether evident or visible, and I'm not undertaking this so as to assert my own identification with the tradition or stake my claim to what I think is its authentic "core". Rather, I was sort of piqued by the Dharmacore blog's series on the Dhammapada, re-reading it and elaborating on its contemporary relevance. Especially since, upon routine return to the text, I find it exceedingly pragmatic, and likely under-appreciated in its resonance with the liberatory praxis of my non-Dhamma peers.

>Inversely, it seems a ripe opportunity to take some of the hot air out of the crude, establishment-liberal appropriation of what was always (to me) an evidently and thoroughly radical instruction. Moreover, I feel increasingly that the anarchist milieu has fully lost its grip on reality in pretty striking and fundamental ways. So, you know... Making paths by walking, and all that good stuff. Also, during my portion of the Anarchist Economics panel at the NAASN a few months back, I alluded to certain relevant insights drawn from the Dhamma, in response to someone's mention of Giovanni Baldelli's use of an economic vocabulary of merit, in his book Social Anarchism. It's occurred to me that the correlation (among others) is not so incidental, and perhaps warrants a more explicit exploration.

All of this said, I come at this with zero credentials or authority. I'm just some dickhead who rides a bike, reads books, walks dogs, and thinks those who opt to exercise power over rather than exercising power with can take a flying fuck. Thus, I suspect this'll draw fire from anarchists and buddhists, alike. Both camps would benefit considerably from rigorous reconsideration of their respective ethical/intellectual/spiritual frameworks. So, have at it, hoss.

A few things to keep in mind, for folks who aren't terribly familiar with the tradition:

1] The teachings the historical Buddha gave in his life were collected in what is called the Pali Canon (of which the Dhammapada is part). Pali refers to the language in which they were codified, which is likely similar to, but not actually the language the historical Buddha is likely to have spoken. Pali was/is a phonetic language, which is to say that it had/has no written form (when written, it's transliterated via the language of the writer). Most people of the Buddha's time were illiterate, nothing novel here. What is novel for the purposes of this exploration, and is in fact noted by Gayatri Spivak in the Who Sings the Nation-State? work with Judith Butler, is that Pali was a creole of Sanskrit, which was the language of the Brahmins (the ruling caste of the time). In other words, the teachings were put to record in and more than likely given in a vernacular -- not altogether different from what one encounters in culturally distinct urban/rural environments the world over. Which is to say: These were teachings from below, given as a challenge to the prevailing cosmology, theology, class system, etc. Whatever dialect the historical Buddha spoke, the fact that his teachings were committed to memory in Pali is significant.

2] The teachings that comprise the Pali Canon were not written down until some 250 years after the Buddha died, prior to which they were compiled by his cousin/attendant and committed to memory by students (hence the repetition and frequent numerical organization). It is thus commonly suggested that any reader take as granted that roughly 10% of what appears in the Pali Canon was not actually taught by the Buddha, and more likely reflects ideas inserted, manipulated, or warped over time. This is often glossed over in the passive, as a sort of inevitability of transmission and human participation, and I've seen negligibly little attention given to what pieces of the teaching stand out as most curious or potentially inconsistent. My experience has been, though, that a reasonable understanding of the core of the teachings (the Four Noble Truths, etc) draws into rather obvious relief a good deal of what's been tacked on since the Buddha's death. Moreover, a realistic consideration of political and economic realities over the early history of the tradition offers considerable illumination, as well. For instance, when a given king was more favorable to Hindu teachings, the Buddha's descendants would often incorporate Hindu teachings so as to retain financial and material patronage from the monarchy, etc. Both Walpola Rahula and Trevor Ling have written rather interestingly on this topic (as well as others).

3] The Buddha was quite clear about the primacy of direct experience, what those of us of an antiauthoritarian orientation call self-determination. I'll likely go deeper with this, later. But for now I think it's quite crucial to understand that he was effectively re-setting the discursive boundaries of the time, and rejecting outright the power wielded by clerics, etc. by way of opaque beliefs in things one could not independently confirm. In fact, he actively encouraged people to abandon even his own teachings, if they did not prove liberatory. A good primary source on this is the Kalama Sutta. It's conspicuous that his final teachings (literally, from his deathbed) included an insistence on consensus democracy within the monastic order, and the instruction: "Be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge." (from the Paranibbana Sutta) No gods, no masters. FTW.

So, with that, I'll take the text a few verses at a time, and attempt to comment thoughtfully. I'll try to do this weekly, but we'll see. I should also be clear that I'm working from Gil Fronsdal's translation, primarily because he's regarded as something of a scholar in the Pali language, but also because he's gone to the trouble of contesting the gender biases that the text has been saddled with for much of its history. Here goes nothin'.

Ch. 1: The Dichotomies (verses 1-2)

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows.
Like a never-departing shadow.

A central function/objective of Vipassana meditation (one of the two primary forms within Theravada Buddhism) is sifting out sensation from the emotive process of the mind. The point is not to rank them, but to begin recognizing both their distinct characteristics, and the ways they inform each other. For instance, a distinction is made (even in the first of the Buddha's teachings) between pain and suffering. Pain is an utterly inevitable sensation. The Pali word used here is Dukkha - which denotes everything from dissatisfaction to anxiety to regret to longing to actual physical pain. Suffering on the other hand corresponds with our response to Dukkha, an unskillful response generates additional Dukkha. Hence the above reference (and myriad other references, really) to the turning of a wheel.

But this really only accounts for how suffering (as a function of the mind) follows experience. The operative teaching here is that the mind precedes experience, as well. Any way you slice it, our experience of the world is mediated by language. It's effectively the operating system on which the mind works. The problem is that the world and the language we use to refer to it are two entirely different things. Were they not, we could translate word for word from one language to the next, with words pegged directly to the objects they signify. In fact, language is an approximation of the world, and between the two there is always dissonance; always contingency -- always imperfection. To the extent that we brush up against the limits that make language intelligible (a central theme to the Chomsky-Foucault Debates on Human Nature), it speaks through us as much as we speak through it. And in the gap between our direct experience of the world and our representation of it (even just to ourselves), value emerges; narratives emerge; judgments emerge. English (for instance) is a language that privileges stabliity, permanence, etc. In many ways, it's uniquely conducive to identifying with our experience as though it is a part of our selves. "I am hungry", we say. Our hunger is, in that moment, part of who we are. In both Spanish and Italian (the only other languages with which I have any proficiency), not only are there different verbs for being, disinguishing temporary and longer-term (Sp. estar/ser, It. stare/essere), but hunger is something one has, not something one is. Its impermance as a sensation or experience, and its exteriority to our being, are explicit and built-in. And so is our understanding of it as such. In this case, how our experience of something as basic as hunger unfolds springs directly from the language our mind relies on to process it. All experience is preceded by mind.

Here, queer theory offers a useful framework as well as an uncanny resemblance. In Riki Anne Wilchins book Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender, there's a rather brilliant chapter entitled A Fascism of Meaning, in which he cites Monique Wittig saying "... The first, the permanent, and the final social contract is language", and situates our bodies as signs in that language. Like every other sign in a linguistic structure, our bodies allow certain meanings/utterances, and disallow others (not by nature, but by convention) -- a fact particularly pressing for transgender folks, but equally real for anyone who defies the boundaries of gender conformity. It's not as esoteric and heady as it sounds. In fact, entire mainstream cultural narratives spring from this tension (Bend it Like Beckham, anyone?). Queer theory utilizes this to illustrate what Foucault argued were the productive effects of power - the idea that the exercise of power not only restricts, but also creates. Conventionally, the exercise of power is thought of in juridical terms, as force that imposes a limit or represses. But what we often overlook is the way in which those limits produce effects, outcomes, etc. In this case, power (in the form of everything from socialization to outright violence) enforces limits on what meanings the body can/will allow. And over time, we adopt and police those boundaries ourselves -- usually without giving it a moment's consideration. All experience is preceded by mind. Not just at the level of the individual, but at the level of the social.

The fact that the Dhammapada opens with this observation is significant. However elaborate our representations of our experience may be, they are incomplete, impefect, and instable. And more importantly, they are loaded. Loaded with our socialization, loaded with the privileges (or trauma) embedded in identity and power relations, loaded with constraints of our own capacities (whcih we're often disinclined to acknowledge). The extent to which we "speak" (including speaking to ourselves) without awareness of this is precisely the extent to which suffering will follow. Our own, and that of others.

While conventional (especially the establishment-liberal) reading is quite literal about the possibility of happiness in contrast to the possibility of suffering, we needn't confine ourselves to that. When we "speak" (to oursevles, to each other) with an awareness that the instability of representation per se negates the perceived permanence and inevitability of whatever representations are dominant, we actively live the insistence that other worlds are possible.

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