This Issue
Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

Buddhism and Meditation: Some Preliminary Thoughts

Brian Green

THE POPULARITY of Buddhism among the middle class is understandable. It is not an organised religion, at least not in the forms in which it has been adopted in Western society. It is also an empowering religion in that it says the individual, and not a deity, is responsible for the misery of the world. Hence it takes religious control away from the professional priest and puts it back in the hands, or should we say the mind, of the believer.

Like all religions, Buddhism is a code of conduct as well as a means of spiritual enlightenment. Its connection is not through public worship but through private meditation. Once again, this will appeal to the isolated middle class individual disillusioned with mass demonstrations of organised worship.

As a code of conduct Buddhism must have represented a civilising influence at the time of its origin. This most probably corresponded to a transitional period in which a particular population settled down to an agrarian existence on the basis of peasant production. Certainly Buddhism’s emphasis on the individual reflects the emergence of small plot agriculture, possibly with communal irrigation.

Its code of conduct shares a lot of principles with other religions. In particular, it is riddled with male chauvinism which expresses not true enlightenment but the fact that this society, now based on private property, is male dominated. It is a patriarchal society and this is reflected in religion.

What is unique is Buddhism’s dialectical thought. It draws out interconnections between levels of thought and emotions, and most importantly it speaks of ever-changing reality. Nothing remains the same, everything is in motion. This distinguishes Buddhism from professional religion with its fixed and finite rules which seeks to organise its congregation on rigid lines.

It is not important to deal with all the levels of Buddhism leading to meditation. It suffices only to deal with its interface with reality. Superficially we will look at its concepts of ignorance and knowledge.

Ignorance is seen as the normal human condition. Its cause is the world of sense and emotion. It is an "inferior consciousness" dominated by personal feelings, motives and ambitions. Lust, greed, hate etc are its typical forms.

Knowledge is "superior consciousness". It is the methodological purging of the sense of self and emotion leading to purification of thought so that the world can be viewed impersonally. No longer is "self" opposed to "others". There is oneness.

In this way Buddhism wrestles with the alienation brought into being by private property. Private property atomises society. As a result, oneness is now achievable only in its idealistic form, as a unifying spirit.

But to achieve this oneness it is necessary to overcome the personality that derives from private production. Society which hitherto had been collectively based on non-property forms of ownership now has to contend with two alienating forms. First, the separation of mankind from nature through private property forms. Second, the competition and accumulation built into private property. From these new material conditions flow new forms of personality, covetousness, greed, lust (women as chattels), dissatisfaction, anger etc.

Buddhism seeks to raise society above these new conditions, not by seeking to change the conditions that give rise to it, but by consciously ignoring them. It is purely contemplative. In that sense it is a victim of its age, not a solution. If the whole of society became ardent followers of Buddha, that society would experience less strife but also no progress. It would remain an agrarian, poverty-stricken society. All would accept their lot in life and there would be no development of culture and civilisation made possible by the development of the productive forces.

What Buddhism sees idealistically as ignorance is in fact the world of emotion, the way we experience the real world. Emotion is not a thought, it is a social relation. Lust, or more accurately male lust, represents a world where women have been stripped of their independence and reduced to an object of desire. Greed represents a world where production relations are based on competition. Anger represents an unequal world, or one in which the individual lacks empowerment. And so on and so forth.

Ideas do not creep into the heads of individuals. The unconditional love of the infant gradually gives way to differing emotions, reflecting the world and its social relations into which he or she grows up. If this world is kind and liberating, the emotional development of the child will differ from that of a child growing up in a hostile environment.

More importantly, to void one’s emotions in an exploitative society is to play into the hands of the exploiter and oppressor. Take the anger that flows from injustice. Why should it not be acted upon? If one frees oneself from anger, becomes forgiving, does it prevent the injustice from occurring or result in it being ended? Of course it does not, for injustice is a two-way relation. There is the victor and the victim, and the victor is most unlikely to pay attention to the forgiving nature of the victim.

Of course, we are talking of a balance. Just as it is wrong to void emotion, so it is equally wrong to be overwhelmed by it. To be able to see the relation which gives rise to emotion from both sides, that is objectively, is vital to resolving conflict at a higher level. Being overwhelmed by emotion does lead to blind actions, to lashing out and, worse, often to taking out the problem on oneself.

Finally, on to meditation. The way the brain works makes it possible to use meditation to conjure up religious fantasies. The brain is connected to the outside world through the senses. The senses continuously stimulate the brain and force it to respond. Through the nervous system it is linked to bodily functions. We can call the senses the external communication and the nervous system the internal.

While the brain tends to be conscious of the external world, it tends to be unconscious of its normal, repetitive bodily functions like breathing, digestion or heart function. Only when these functions become erratic is the brain warned of changes. For the brain to be preoccupied by these functions would hamper its ability to be aware of itself in nature.

Meditation seeks to reverse this process. It seeks to make the brain unconscious of the external world and conscious of the internal world. In this way it seeks to assert mind control over the body, turning it into a temple of the spirit.

We are a product of nature and part of nature. This extreme form of mid control breaks that link and is harmful. This is best demonstrated by the lessons of solitary confinement. Solitary confinement goes beyond meditation. Through solitary confinement sensory connection with nature is severed and all stimulation muted. The solitary confinement cell, scientifically set up, obliterates all visual, audio, nasal and tactile stimulation, causing the brain to wither due to lack of stimulation. This withering of the brain is irreversible. The damage to the nervous system also affects vital organs, leading to specific physical conditions like elevated blood pressure and in extreme cases heart failure.

To those who talk of spirit, solitary confinement reveals that we are sensuous being who need external stimuli to keep the brain alive and the body healthy. It proves that the brain, as living matter, is part of nature and cannot be removed from it.

If spirit existed, full solitary confinement would fail due to the internal stimulation of the body by spirit. Unfortunately, all that those who meditate can achieve is to delay the onset of morbidity in solitary confinement. Despite claims to the contrary, even in the deepest meditative state, which can only be held for a short period of time, the body continues to be stimulated in subtle ways.

Certain meditative methods, stripped of their mysticism, can be used in the form of relaxation techniques. These can help to put us in touch with our bodies. Capitalism prepares the brain for exploitation and the body for work. It therefore does mean we are out of touch with our bodies. Furthermore, the stress of modern day living leads to further detachment.

In order to concentrate on the external world, particularly where this world is overwhelming, the brain does lose control of the body. Concentrating on physical functions like breathing does reconnect the brain to the body. It can calm the nervous system, reducing stress. It is no substitute for the complex forms of sleep, which is the way the body emotionally renews itself, but it can be an adjunct.

If relaxation techniques allow us to sharpen the way we deal with the world, all is well. If they are used to allow us to escape from the world, that is bad. They can be used in both an active or a passive form. We are for the active form, the form that propels us back into society and not away from it.

To act and reflect on the consequence of that action is the path to the accumulation of experience. Without calm reflection (the active form of meditation) action becomes repetitive. Without action meditation becomes irrelevant.

We are and always will be social beings. Our ability to talk and involve ourselves in complex relations marks us out from the animal world. Action-reflection must therefore be a social act. It improves our ability to communicate, to assimilate lessons, disperse experiences and share in that wide body of accumulated human knowledge and art, which Buddhism has the arrogance to call inferior knowledge.

Being determines consciousness; that is the materialist conception of human history. If we are to change ourselves we need to change the world that makes us.

Class society was born out of scarcity. Thousands of years ago, when the first surpluses came into being, a section of society could contemplate their liberation from production by making others work for them. Capitalism, the highest and final form of class society, has revolutionised production. Now for the first time there is enough to bring a civilised standard to all. We must now contemplate abolishing the need to work for others. By abolishing capitalism we also abolish private property. We make possible a transformation of the mode of production, from one that divides society to one that unites it.

A united society ends the need for religion and idealism. No longer will we need to see a unifying spirit, for we will be united in reality. No longer will we feel the loneliness, the isolation and the alienation that give rise to the need for religious thought. We will enter a golden age. In such a world, our emotions will be set free. We can only imagine the beauty that awaits us. Our task is to build that world by overcoming the small class of exploiters that stand in our way. Despite Buddha’s claim to have seen the beginning and end of time, he was never able to see this true path of human emancipation.

From What Next? No.15 1999