Saturday, July 30, 2005

Nationalist Awareness of Suffering


By David Edwards
Samples From An Ocean Of Suffering

In 1992 a group of neuroscientists travelled to India to research the effects of meditation. In the mountains above Dharamsala, the scientists spent time with a young monk who had been meditating intensively for six years. Richard Davidson, a psychobiologist from the University of Wisconsin, had done pioneering work correlating minute shifts in facial expression with emotions. He explained to the monk that he would be shown a video of Tibetan demonstrators being beaten by Chinese security forces. His face would simultaneously be videoed to record any reactions. Writer Alan Wallace described the result:

"As the monk watched the video, we didn't detect any change of expression in his face at all, no grimace, no shudder, no expression of sadness." (Wallace, Buddhism With An Attitude, Snow Lion Publications, 2001, p.176)

The monk was asked to describe his experience while watching the video. He replied:

"I didn't see anything that I didn't already know goes on all the time, not only in Tibet but throughout the world. I am aware of this constantly."

It was not that the monk failed to experience compassion while watching these brutal scenes, Wallace explains: "He was aware that he was simply being shown a video - patterns of light - representing events that took place long ago. But this suffering was simply one episode in the overall suffering of samsara [existence], of which he was constantly aware. Hence, while looking out over the ocean of suffering, he didn't feel anything extraordinary when he was shown a picture of a glass of water". (Email to author, July 15, 2005)

This account came to mind when I saw the response to the July 7 terrorist atrocities in London. In the video experiment, the monk's mind was so steeped in compassion that his expression did not change at all even when he saw images of his own people being brutalised. So what does it tell us that so many British people were so deeply shaken by the suffering of their fellow citizens?
After all, have we not been reading and watching endless accounts and footage of near-identical horrors in Iraq and Palestine on mainstream and internet-based media over the last few years? The suffering of the Iraqi people, for example, is almost beyond belief. When the West again blitzed Baghdad in March 2003, this followed years of war and sanctions that had shattered the country's infrastructure. The population again being bombed had already had to endure the deaths of literally hundreds of thousands of children from malnutrition, water-borne diseases and other horrors caused by US-UK sanctions. This truly was suffering heaped on suffering.

Howard Zinn made the point after the September 11 attacks:

"One of the things that occurred to me, after I had gotten over my initial reaction of shock and horror at what had been done, was that other scenes of horror have taken place in other parts of the world and they just never meant very much to us." (Zinn, Terror And War, Open Media Book, 2002, p.90)

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...article continues over at MediaLens, link above ...


At 3:09 PM, Blogger Publius Americanus said...

I think you'll find a lot of ex-military folks who are less spiritual than the Tibetan but similarly devoid of shock. They say things like, "Yeah, that Iraqi kid got his hands blown off, I know that sucks. I know he's never going to be normal," in exactly the same tone as, "Yeah, I know Bill from my old platoon just kicked the bucket from Gulf War Syndrome."

Death is a fact. Pain is a fact. Old Age is a fact. That doesn't mean morality is attained by emotionally reacting, or by seeking external actions influenced by emotion.

In my not-very-humble opinion, a major weakness of most progressive movements is that they have a naive humanism, disconnected from more rigorous spiritual traditions.

To take an example I hope will not be too provocative, some sects of Buddhism teach that we should NOT whip ourselves up into emotional histrionics when we see our fellow humans suffering. Possibly we should take calm, effective actions to improve social conditions (see the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh) but we are not going to help anybody by being shocked and outraged.

As the proverb has it, "Pain is mandatory, suffering is not."

At 9:44 PM, Blogger E. Heroux said...

Good pointing. The distinction between the monk's awareness and the British nationalist's awareness is based on the Buddhist "compassion for all sentient creatures" due to the universality of suffering coupled with the universality of (non)being. This is also far from nihilistic burnout, though I suppose in everyday language it can sound the same.

The best part of your pointing is toward Thich Nhat Hanh, who has pushed forward a socially "Engaged Buddhism" responding to injustice and violence and ecological destruction. As you noted, the response is not histrionic, but calm. This is far from the nonresponse of nationalists.

In terms of the negative "Zen" logic of Nagarjuna:

Shock is true
Shock is not true
Shock is both true and not true
Shock is neither true nor not true

. . . depending on specifically what level we're talking about in what situation.


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