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Stephen's Notes

Chapter 12. The Anarchy of the Gaps

Would Buddhism have survived if throughout its history it had actively encouraged creativity and imagination? If each practitioner had imaginatively configured his or her own practice and understanding of the dharma (as in the raft and eggs analogies), then what would have held the tradition together as a body of ideas that could survive for centuries largely unchanged?

We know that there were dissenting voices in the fifth century BCE, such as that of the monk Purana, who refused to accept the canon laid down at the first council after Gotama’s death, but chose only to follow “those teachings I heard from Gotama’s own mouth.” Such voices, as far as we can tell, failed to survive precisely because they were not preserved in any authorized and carefully memorized canon.

While individual acts of imagination may have been discouraged and suppressed, when Buddhism entered new historical periods or crossed into different cultures, such as China, it survived the transition because of its ability to creatively imagine another version of itself in response to the unprecedented needs of these times and places. Such imagination was a largely unconscious process of gradual adaptation, but often came to be crystallized in the voice of a single person. Think of the founding figures of the schools of Buddhism in China, Tibet and Japan: Huineng, Tsongkhapa, Nichiren… etc.

The first person after Gotama to articulate the dharma in his own voice was the second century CE philosopher Nagarjuna, who rebelled against the rigidity and essentialist metaphysics of the Abhidharma and sought to recover the original spirit of Gotama’s teaching.

Were mind and matter me
I would come and go like them.
If I were something else,
They would say nothing about me.

You are not the same as or different from
Conditions on which you depend;
You are neither severed from
Nor forever fused with them —
This is the deathless teaching
Of buddhas who care for the world.

When Buddhas don’t appear
And their followers are gone,
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself

[Nagarjuna [MMK. 18]; Verses from the Center, pp. 114-116]

Although Nagarjuna is regarded today as one of the founding figures of Mahayana Buddhism (and is ignored by the Abhidharma-based Theravadins) nowhere in his seminal text does he mention the bodhisattva path. He has been absorbed by the Buddhist historical imagination, who turned him into a Mahayanist, but a careful reading of his key text suggests a more radical imagination at work, which has been domesticated and forgotten.

For in acknowledging the disappearance of the Buddha and his followers, Nagarjuna does not envision another Buddhist school or orthodoxy with its own doctrines and power structures, but a community of individuals who understand and then configure the dharma for themselves. These are called: “solitary sages” — paccekabuddha (Skt: pratyekabuddha)

Traditionally, “solitary sages” only appear when Buddhism does not exist on earth. These are people who gain insight into the dharma and live their lives from the perspective of nirvana without depending on Buddhist teaching at all.

They do this by gaining insight into conditionality, whether that be through their own imagination or by paying close attention to the phenomenal world of their experience. The word pacceka is etymologically linked to paccaya, which means “condition.”

In the previous talks, I have given examples of non-Buddhists who seem to have arrived at insights into the dharma entirely independently of Buddhism: Sophocles, Aeschylus, Zhuangzi, John Keats, Lucretius…

All this points to the dharma (conditionality and the non-reactivity of nirvana) being clearly visible, immediate, inviting, effective and universal, i.e. “experienced by the wise.”

My fascination with Socrates is likewise based on the hunch that he not only arrived at insights close to those of his contemporary Gotama but set in motion through Plato and subsequent Greek philosophers a tradition that follows a similar trajectory to the Buddhist schools that arose in the wake of Gotama.

A contemporary culture of awakening is challenged to address the needs not of feudal China or Tibet or Japan but of an increasingly global society consisting of educated and individuated persons.

In receiving an education to prepare ourselves for a role in society, we are encouraged to differentiate ourselves in such a way to discover our particular strengths, passions and inclinations in order to be able to flourish as a human being both individually and socially.

Such people may have little interest in becoming members of a traditional form of religious Buddhism. Whatever benefits Buddhist practice might offer, the obligation to subscribe to an orthodox system of beliefs that cannot be questioned and submit to the authority of monks or priests who cannot be questioned can feel like a backward step in which something of value — namely, our personal autonomy — is sacrificed.

One characteristic of modernity is that we find ourselves inhabiting not a monoculture with relatively little choices but a plurality of cultures and communities that overlap and intersect.

Our plural relationship to different schools and practices of Buddhism as well as various Non-Buddhist religious and secular traditions often means that we find ourselves feeling most alive and engaged with those gaps between traditions rather remaining confined between any particular one. Let me conclude with the final paragraphs of my book Living with the Devil (2004).

“In an open society saturated with information, the gaps between traditions serve as a refreshing but unsettling wilderness. By dwelling in their emptiness, we are able to return to those questions for which each tradition claims to have the answers. The anarchy of the gaps makes it impossible for any particular ideology or religion to take hold. For the very act of laying claim to that in-between space would enclose it in boundaries and compromise its openness, thereby turning it into a closed space separated from other closed spaces, thus creating more gaps that are beyond one’s reach.

“To wander along the gaps allows the freedom to ask anew the questions posed by being born and having to die. Humans like ourselves may never have evolved before and may never evolve again in this or any other universe. As far as anyone knows, we are alone in an inconceivably vast cosmos that has no interest at all in our fate. Even if other worlds like this exist elsewhere in the cosmos, they would not be mere repetitions of the awesomely complex configuration of biological, and psychological conditions that are generating this world now. The path that has led you here and beckons you into an unknown future has likewise never appeared in exactly this way before and will not do so again. You are free to go straight ahead, turn right, or turn left. Nothing is stopping you. Having gained knowledge of good and evil through eating forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve were exposed to the anguish and exhilaration of making such choices. “The world was all before them,” says Milton in describing their departure from paradise, while

They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden too their solitary way.”