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21. Imagination as Practice
I have been making collages continuously since 1995. They are non-verbal counterparts to my writing.
The process I follow is one that “appears” to me in shapes and forms in my mind.
From 2011 to 2017 I produced a series of four dyads — one of which is hanging on the screen behind me:
Both parts of each dyad contain exactly the same number of pieces of found materials arranged in exactly the same way, one is abstract, consisting of the four primary colours; while its twin is made up of non-abstract texts and images.
This process inspired me to transfer this model of visual art to my written work. I conceived of writing two books — twins — that would operate on the same principles. As a way to “get myself out of the way” and let the book be guided by the same intuitive, imaginative unfolding that drives my collage work.
The first of these would be called The Art of Solitude, the second The Art of Care — the former mirroring the abstract four colours, the latter mirroring the non-abstract texts and images. Or in Buddhist parlance: wisdom (solitude) and compassion (care).
The Art of Solitude is based on the Four Eights, four poems with eight verses of four lines, making a total of thirty-two. There are thirty two chapters, divided into four themes, with a total word count of 32,000. This was published in February 2020, just before the Coronavirus pandemic struck.
It was while writing this book that I realised that the thirty-seven factors of awakening must originally have been thirty-two (when someone innocently asked why the five powers were repeated as the five strengths), an epiphany that connected this core Buddhist teaching with the thirty-two verses of the four poems.
When the lockdown started, I decided to start work on the second book of the pair: The Art of Care. Like The Art of Solitude, The Art of Care will also be made up of four sections (the four paths/tasks) and thirty-two chapters, one for each of the dimensions.
After a recent discussion with friends, it dawned on me that The Art of Care also had to be an act of care. Rather than just talking about what care means via its thirty-two dimensions, the book itself needs to be an embodiment of what it advocates.
I am now thinking of addressing the book to an imaginary implied reader who is someone who knows very little about Buddhism, has no interest in organised religion, but has completed an eight week mindfulness course, continues a daily practice of meditation, and is in search of a philosophical and ethical framework for their mindfulness practice.
As we have seen, the virtue of mindfulness is the only one of the thirty two dimensions that is present in each of the four paths/tasks. And as I have interpreted these dimensions, they now include imagination, creativity and work, thereby presenting the practice of the dharma in a way more adapted to the needs of people living and working in the world rather than those of monastics and contemplatives.
Question: “In my Theravadan/Insight formation, the Four Foundations and the Four Strategic Efforts were stressed (lots of renunciation, too), but not the Four Bases of Creativity. Could you please explicate these Bases again?”
The four bases of creativity are never, as far as I am aware, taught as a set of practices in any of the traditions of Buddhism present today. Despite being included among the thirty-two dimensions of awakening this cluster of four interrelated virtues is completely ignored. This has to do with “creativity” being literally understood as “magical power.” By turning creativity into magical power, something which is out of reach to ordinary people and hard to understand as having any relation to one’s actual life, serves, I feel, to conveniently remove a potentially subversive and disruptive element of dharma practice.
But these are elements of the path that need to be thought through afresh since the tradition provides us with little to work on. See, for example, the Iddhipadasamyutta (SN 51), where each of the four are understood as ways to achieve samadhi without providing any detail as to how in practice such concentration will lead to the attainment of magical powers. Yet at the same time the Iddhipadasamyutta opens by declaring that “Those who have neglected the four bases of magical power have neglected the noble path leading to the complete ending of suffering.”
I have tried to illustrate this process of desire, energy, heart and soul (intuition?) and experimentation in what I have just described about my art and writing practices. Next week I will expand further on this.
To begin with, I needed to write an introduction that would serve as a bridge, linking the two works together.
I soon realised, though, that this introduction was growing into a book in its own right. The bridge would now be another book. What I have been teaching on this course, particularly this second semester, is material taken from this work in progress, entitled provisionally An Ethics of Uncertainty: A Post-Buddhist Odyssey.
From the outset of this writing project, I had envisioned including a chapter on Socrates as an example of a non-Buddhist ethics of uncertainty.
But when I started researching Socrates, I discovered quite quickly a wealth of material that could not be limited to a single chapter. To do Socrates justice, I needed to devote far more space to his life and thought.
Since we began this course, this has led to a further revision of the entire project. I have abandoned my original chapter structure and am now conceiving the book as having two parts (another dyad), tentatively titled: Gotama, Socrates and Us. (cf. Simon Critchley’s The Greeks, Tragedy and Us)
The first part of the book, as we saw in the last session, culminates with the unearthing of the thirty-two dimensions of awakening as a primary matrix for the practice of dharma. This provides me with a ground-plan, template or road-map from which to start all over again in rethinking the dharma for a secular age — my current plan for The Art of Care being one iteration of this.
But as I started working on Socrates, I began to realise that this template also served as a grid (like that of my collages) through which to imagine Socrates from a Buddhist perspective.
I found myself writing about Socrates while imagining myself as a Buddhist monk of the same time who somehow had reached Athens, closely observed for himself the key figures and events of the time, then later reported them back to his fellow Buddhists. In this way, I would be able to provide a Buddhist-inflected portrait of Socrates and the world of 5th century bce Athens.
In addition, the Buddhist monk I imagine myself to be is one who follows the perspective of the four paths rather than the four truths. This led me quite naturally to try and understand how the Greeks embraced suffering, let go of reactivity and responded ethically to life. In reading Plato and Xenophon, I was struck by how the question of suffering did not seem to arise. It does not have the same prominence as it does in Buddhism. Yet Socrates was presented consistently as someone who is solely concerned with ethics, how to be a truly good person. But in response to what evil (suffering) did he seek to be good? Without knowing this, the picture we have of Socrates seems incomplete.
Over the winter, this led me to the playwrights, particularly Aristophanes and Euripides. Clouds is the earliest surviving text that talks of Socrates. As a comedy it shows us the absurdity of human existence (to which there is a tragic side). Crucially, though, it is the tragedies that address the question of suffering. A fragment of the lyric poet Teleclides describes the tragedian Euripides and Socrates as “bolted together” — as Socripides, perhaps — in an intimate philosophical, ethical and artistic complicity. In another, perhaps earlier, version of Clouds, Aristophanes says about Socrates:
It’s he who writes for Euripides
Those witty, wordy tragedies.
I have spent many years searching for texts in the Pali canon that reveal something of the Buddha’s humanity and details about the world and society in which he lived and taught. But so few and rare are such texts that this is like trying to press oil out of sand. By contrast, the Greek sources — Plato, Xenophon and others — provide a huge amount of detail in texts that can be confidently dated to the time of Socrates himself. I felt like a child in a sweet shop — a kid in a candy store.
By comparison the figures in the Pali canon appear only in blurred outline, out of focus, vague. Most of the characters are little more than ciphers, mouthpieces for the teachings or caricatures of those who get the dharma wrong. I would not go so far as some contemporary Buddhist scholars who maintain that these texts provide no historical information at all, but they certainly provide far, far less than can be found in the Greek texts about Socrates and his time.
While it is impossible to date with precision any event in Gotama’s life, with Socrates we can pin down certain events in his life not only to a particular year, but to specific days. That is why I chose to open with the City Dionysia festival of the Spring Equinox of 423 bce. In this way, we can imagine a Socrates who is deeply embedded in his social, political, religious, philosophical and artistic milieu.
Socrates provides an example of someone who did not have a “doctrine” himself but served as an inspiration for his students to evolve doctrines of their own. Plato did not hesitate to use him as a mouthpiece for his idealistic philosophy — and his contemporaries and students, such as Aristotle, fully understood that this was what he was doing. (Cf. Aristippus and the other students of Socrates who each go on to develop their own philosophical approaches.) The account of Socrates by Xenophon presents us with a figure who is clearly the same person spoken of by Plato but comes across in an entirely different way.
If we use Socrates as a model for imagining Gotama, then this would allow us to stop thinking of Gotama as someone who taught a doctrine that has been faithfully handed down to us by tradition, but as someone who “set the wheel of dharma turning” by providing a model for what a human being could be, which inspired others to formulate the teachings of the dharma in ways that responded to their circumstances, temperaments and needs.
The Four Paths and the Four Truths need not therefore compete with each other for primacy but are two different iterations of the dharma inspired by Gotama. The four path model developed for householder adherents, and the four truth model for renunciant monastics.
As a participant said in a recent email:
“Couldn't we simply look at, and honor, Gotama as the teacher who set the wheel in motion, so to speak -- who initiated a line of thought and practise that it is our opportunity now to take up and extend -- rather than as the authority who undergirds all "Buddhist" knowledge?
“A turn of phrase popped into my mind this morning: "get the ball rolling." Couldn't we simply regard Gotama as the teacher who got the ball rolling?
“And then it occurred to me that this would be a perfectly acceptable translation of cakka pavattana, so dhammacakkappavattanasutta”