Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Dhamma Brothers

There was a review by Louis Proyect in his The Unrepentant Marxist blog about the documentary “The Dhamma Brothers” which depicts the experience of some prisoners with Buddhist meditation techniques in a high security prison. I decided to copy my comments in Louis's blog and the exchange of my thoughts with Peter Byrne and Greg McDonald. I will keep on duplicating here if the discussion proceeds:

Mehmet Çagatay:

Hello Louis,

Your post is thought provoking as usual. At first I thought that a high security prison that restricts all forms of physical freedom is an ideal place for Buddhism to sprout since it only tolerates the freedom of mind. Then I realized that there is a flaw in this logic given that Buddhism is not a path to liberation at all. Like other forms of religion, Buddhism is a form of “desire” for freedom, which operates for not materializing its goal, but to reproduce and regulate its form as a desire. Therefore, a prison is a perfect place for Buddhism not by reason of that it promises the liberation of mind where the freedom of body is completely prevented, rather, a prison renders the desire for spiritual development possible. If we consider the reason of Jack Kerouac’s fiasco to traverse his ego with meditation, we can straightforwardly conclude that because of his American practicality he didn’t comprehend the exact mechanism of meditation: It has nothing to do with weakening the ego. Rather, it validates the excess of ego by regarding it as an inner process of the isolated mind and the measurement of truth as if the true nature of life is only accessible by overcoming the ego. As a result, rather than undermining it, mediation ossifies the ego by obsessively circling around it.

The same thing goes for the soothing effect of religion (a protest against real suffering) too. God is the object cause of the desire for a soul in a soulless world. God is the object that regulates the human desire for attaining harmony with external reality. As I said above, the function of religious desire is not to materialize its goal but to circle around it. I think this is where the answer of the question of does religion and Marxism compatible could be properly answered: Marxism strives to change the external reality, not to circle around it.

Peter Byrne:

“Rather than undermining it, meditation ossifies the ego by obsessively circling around it.” Exactly. But to remain in the vein of “American practicality”, why did meditation serve the Dhamma Brothers any better than the Black Muslim program, bible thumping or even the discipline of push-ups and weight lifting? Their problem was to keep their personality together in inhuman conditions. I.R.A. prisoners in Longkesh pored over Marxist classics.When they finally got out, their comrades told them they were old hat. But that’s another story."

Greg McDonald:

I’m glad to see Mehmet weighing in on the subject of meditation. I understand the critique on the basis of unfulfilled desire, (is that Lacanian)? but I submit that argumentation without a real basis for understanding the subject at hand lends just as much to obfuscation as did Kerouac’s original misunderstanding of the same topic. Your argument is apriori and based on western critique of “religion”. You have no experience of meditation, so that makes it difficult for you to actually understand what is involved here. If you really want an informed opinion from a psychoanalytic perspective, I suggest checking out some psychoanalysts who are indeed experienced meditators within this tradition, such as the work of Paul Fleischman M.D. To quote:
“Meditators must “have the seed”. Like the life of any seed, the seed of meditation eludes the microscope of words: is it basic good faith; or a sense of determination; or enough miseries and losses to have to keep going; or an unfathomable curiosity about their own true nature; or an intuition of values that transcend immediate life; or a yearning for peace; or a recognition of the limitations of mundane routines? It was said by the Buddha that at the heart of the path lies ahimsa, non-harmfulness. Is it an inkling of the infinite curative value that this most treasured and elusive cumulative virtue provides, that constitutes the seed? In any case, a life of meditation ia a path for those who hear the call, seek it out, and sit down to observe. Some may not seek it, some may not value it, some may not tolerate it, some may have other valuable paths to take.

The French psychoanalyst, Jaques Lacan, wrote, “Psychoanalysis may accompany the patient to the ecstatic limit of the ‘thou art that,’ in which is revealed to him the cipher of his moral destiny, but it is not in our mere power as practitioners to bring him to that point where the real journey begins.” Vipassana meditation is based on one thing; “This is suffering; this is the way out of suffering.” It is the path where the real journey begins. It is a healing by observation of and participation in the laws of nature. Even the stars are born and die, but beyond the transiency of the world there is an eternal that each of us can travel towards.

The potential therapeutic actions of Vipassana include increased self-knowledge, deepened human trust and participation, integration with and acceptance of one’s past, deepened activation of one’s will, an increased sense of responsibility for one’s own fate; greater concentration, deepened ethical commitments, firm yet flexible life structures and disciplines, fluid access to deeper streams of feeling and imagery, expanded historical and contemporary community; prepared confrontation with core realities such as time, change, death, loss, pain leading to an eventual dimunition of dread, anxiety, and delusion; fuller body-mind integration, decreased narcissism, and a fuller panorama of character strengths such as generosity, compassion, and human love. Each student starts at a different place and progresses individually; there is no magic and no guarantee.”

excerpt from “Karma and Chaos”

Mehmet Çagatay:

Hello Peter,

Since I don’t have adequate information about the Black Muslim Brotherhood, I can’t explain its particular failure in the prison system of the US. But as I grew up in a society that the influence of Islamic beliefs is palpable in every pore of daily life, I can clarify why Islam is incompatible with the environment of prison. To begin with, we should modify Marx’s famous statement regarding religion for Islam: Islam is the BDSM fantasy of the oppressed creature. The daily activity of a believer is entirely dictated by celestial law while this artificial world is a preparation ground for the real afterlife. The Islamic disavowal of the existence of any external reality as such could be traced in Qur’an which is infested with the statements about dualist opposition linking the imaginary and the real world. Such as, “the life of this world is nothing but an enjoyment of self-delusion. (3:185)” or “and nothing is the life of this world but a play and a passing delight (6:32)”, etc. As a result, Islam functions like the Ego of the believer that suppresses one’s needs, wishes and desires as long as they are conflicting with delusive external reality. Here, one might probably ask: Then, how could you give explanation about the aggressive posture of Islamic fundamentalism towards western imperialism? If we completely abstract the fact that it has been molded by the immediate interests of its opponents to some extent, there is a significant paradox here: Muslim subject does not conflict with his own imaginary external world or with a world imagined by the Muslim subject. To be more precise, the controversy is between Muslim subject and the world imagined by the other and therefore which is exempt of Islamic suppression. I think for that reason Islam and environment of a prison is a downright mishmash because both of their purpose of existence is to control the freedom of human body.

Mehmet Çagatay:

Hello Greg,

As I told you before in a private correspondence, my recent interest on psychoanalysis was incited when a neurologist diagnosed that I was displaying some symptoms of General Anxiety Disorder. After that, I have decided to figure out the source of my anxiety rather than taking the pills that he prescribed since it is a minor disease. Lust like reading Marx has led me to question my illusions of social relations, mechanism of market and capital, their interaction with working class, false idealist conception of history, etc. psychoanalysis has gave me a ground to deal with my the illusions about myself and my subjectivity. Actually it is exactly what Jack Kerouac’s character in “On the Road” naively expects from Buddhist practices. On the contrary, the genuine path to deal with ego is to get the picture of how it is structured as an illusion about our subjectivity. There are two subtle encounters of Alice respectively with the Caterpillar and the Pigeon:

`What do you mean by that?' said the Caterpillar sternly. `Explain yourself!'

`I can't explain MYSELF, I'm afraid, sir' said Alice, `because I'm not myself, you see.'


Well! WHAT are you?' said the Pigeon. `I can see you're trying to invent something!'

`I--I'm a little girl,' said Alice, rather doubtfully, as she remembered the number of changes she had gone through that day.

In fact, the Pigeon is right. My subjectivity is something that I invented along my adventure in the symbolic order. And my ego is a product of my fantasy about this order, which directly resists the restrictions of the internal reality of socio-symbolic order.

Here I fancied whether the famous quote from Sun Tzu, "Know thy self, know thy enemy" might be applicable to the game of poker. In my opinion, this would be a perfect advice for how to lose everything immediately in poker and in the battleground as well. We must undertake a necessary adjustment: Know thy table-image, know the table-image thy enemy. We should assign this statement to meditation too: Do not strive to know yourself in vein; there is no such a thing other than in the field of imagination.

There is a particular chapter in The German Ideology in which Marx accuses Young Hegelians for assigning self-determining existence to consciousness and thus ascribing the social relations and limitations of humankind as products of consciousness. However, the accurate pathway to understand the function of human consciousness is to decipher its relation with material reality of humankind.

As an obligatory confession, I have difficulties to understand Lacan. First of all, unlike Freud’s relatively direct and vivid narrative style, Lacan leaves readers in a jam of unintelligible expressions time and again. Secondly, I am deprived of the full access to his works as they are not available online thanks to copyright laws. I have no idea if they were translated in Turkish since making an effort to read Lacan in Turkish would be a waste of time anyway. I don’t even understand the Turkish translations of Marx, I have deserted this absurdity when I found myself in situations that I was continuously checking the English version to make sense of what our Turkish translator intended to say.

In spite of my semi-ignorance, there is an entertaining dimension in grappling with the ideas of Lacan. For instance, couple of days ago, in the farewell letter to a former intimate friend of mine (now she declines to respond my usual sterile and sensible letters), in a little bit sarcastic fashion, I declared that masturbation is the only authentic sexual activity since it is the only unmediated contact with our fantasies that renders the physical sexual intercourse possible. Then I concluded that, the genuine manifestation of sexual desire is not to make love with the person that we desire. Contrary, it is the act of masturbation while fantasizing the person with whom we made love just now.

Peter Byrne:

Mehmet, I appreciate your philosophical precision. My point was more prosaic. People in the unnatural situation of prison have to fight against being crushed as acting subjects. Any discipline they commit to personally can help them. I admire the Black Muslims for their effort to bring a community in disarray out of self-destructiveness. But they are as far from Islamic social, religious and psychological realities as other Americans. Your explanation of the Islamic doctrinal denial of a real world is telling and lucid. To the less theologically inclined, however, it has a downside. It makes the Muslim world seem arid. In fact it can be a very pleasant place and demonstrate more humanity than ours.


Mehmet Çagatay:

Peter, I am sure that if I were a dweller in that prison I would be the first person who registers the meditation course. Specifically I am not disagreeing with there is a tranquilizing effect of spiritual readjustments that provides a flexibility to endure the antagonism of reality, like I never question whether god exists or not. The proper materialist question here is why does god exist or why religion renders the social scandal of the external reality bearable. You are right that in some ways a Muslim community occasionally displays superior qualities of humanity. In consequence of my last poetry attempts published in an Islamist magazine whose editor was an honest admirer of my poetry thus ignored their content (Ironically, I was free to make downright insult to God), I spent some time with their poetry clan. I observed a continuous solidarity, a candid bosom of modesty, a never-ending salvo of goodwill that provokes me to act like Maldoror, etc. But like sci-fi movies, there was something strange, a movement of an eyebrow, a transition in the tone of voice, a sudden change of the color of skin that reveals there is something lame about this pretentious normality. One day a known Turkish-Islamist-Poet told me his darkest fantasy: “I always imagine myself observing the world behind a rifle scope”.


Renegade Eye said...

Mehmet has a profound understanding of Marxism. It's used to break down religion, and the manifestation of meditation. I like the circling the world metaphor.

This discussion should be widely distributed.

somethingcompletelydifferent said...

Theravada Buddhism is a lot like Roman stoicism in this regard. It's no surprise that it is the choice practice among inmates too. Stoicism was a philosophy for slaves.

This is as far as this kind of critique goes though. To take it any further is to willfully ignore 2500 years of development in Buddhist practice and teaching. It's the sort of willful ignorance that Zizek displays in his critiques of Western Buddhism, which I think in particular mask his fear of a threatening feminine jouissance.

If the earliest schools of Buddhism, and the contemporary main-line descendants, functioned as a kind of stoicism, the advent of the Mahayana was a response to it of just the sort you make. Mahayana means "greater vehicle" and distinguishes itself from these earlier schools, now primarily represented by Theravada, which it refers to pejoratively as Hinayana or "lesser vehicle." The Mahayana focus on lay practice and the importance of compassionate skillful-means in daily life moves away from the comparatively selfish renouncement of society and social concerns in the earlier movements.

In the end though, whether you're commenting on Hinayana, Mahayana or Vajrayana Buddhist practice, it is much more interesting to stick to the texts and actual practices, and not their Western spectre.