Possibility, Potency, Power

“I would not have thought this through without a retreat like this.”

That comment by Tom Pepper about his recent gathering with Chaim Wigder literally makes my spine tingle. It intersects with an issue that seems to be defining our moment in history: how to effect change. Our recent texts on this blog concerning “practice,” as well as the small steps we’ve taken toward an online community, are also effects of this concern. With each passing day, I become more convinced that what Pepper describes in “Thoughts on Our First Buddhist/Marxist Retreat” is the kind of “practice” that we need. I don’t mean that we need “Buddhist/Marxist” practice. If you read Pepper’s post, you’ll see that the particular formation of their “retreat” ensured that the participants would not be ensnared by pre-packaged doctrines or forms. Readers of Laruelle might see that that retreatants were, rather, engaged in a practice of “superpositioning,” whereby something unpredictable emerged out of a complex “collision”between the texts, between their time and ours, between the discussants, between the texts and the discussants, and so on. The “something” that emerged was neither quite Buddhist nor quite Marxist. We could take this notion further and say that what Pepper describes is also not quite a “retreat” nor even quite “education.” It is this kind of homeless, nomadic practice-from-the-margins that I find so valuable at this moment in time.

The fact that none of it would have happened without the actual encounter might seem self-evident and unremarkable. This fact inspires me, though, because it reveals a feature that, if intensified, becomes an effective element in our quest for change. In Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility, Bifo Berardi offers an analysis of our current inability to break the deadlock of capitalism. His basic analytical concepts are the following: possibility, or the concatenation of eventualities, ideas, models, objects, influences, conditions, etc., etc., that are inscribed in the present, in motion immanently and virtually, yet unrealized; potency, or the personal and collective energy, desire, and drive required to imagine and actualize some unmanifest possibility; and power, or the status quo limiting forces that select, institutionalize, and enforce one set of possibilities and prevent others from emerging. (Laruelle calls the instigators of such power “Authorities,” and includes unitary, “harassing,” thought systems under that term.) You will see all three of these elements at work in Pepper’s description of the retreat. And with this background it should be clear why I believe that his comment, “I would not have thought this through without a retreat like this,” is packed with futural explosives.

For me, a huge, perhaps decisive, as yet unresolved issue is how to generate actual force in the world via the kind of practice that Pepper and Wigder engaged in. Would it merely require an intensification? If so, what kinds of models might we look to? I believe that “the first Buddhist/Marxist retreat” happened in the woods, in a camping setting. That’s one model. A forum like Incite Seminars might be another model. Maybe you can suggest others. In any case, whatever the model, I believe that intensification, the creation of a “critical mass,” will require the regularity, concentration, escalation, commitment, and ritualization that I, indeed, would like to call practice. I feel that this is necessary if we want to go beyond but a momentary stay of the conditions ailing the collective “us” today–confusion, depression, isolation, powerlessness, lostness–and create possibilities that abolish the very structures of which these conditions are but effects.

Thoughts on Our First Buddhist/Marxist Retreat

In our recent two-person Buddhist/marxist “retreat,” Chaim Wigder (aka The Failed Buddhist) and I spent some time discussing Shin Buddhism and Marxist ideology theory.  Our hope is that by writing a bit about the outcome of this retreat, we can encourage others to participate in possible future attempts.  Many people we discussed this with were wary of a gathering in which there is no focus on meditation, and in which there is no leader, with each participant being responsible for choosing the focus of part of the discussion.  My thoughts on the results of this meeting are that it was quite helpful in clarifying some important issues, and also providing motivation for continued work.

We each chose a text to discuss, with no prior consideration of their relationship to one another, so I was surprised to find that there is a startling similarity in both the problem that the texts addressed and the impasse that they reached.  

My choice was an essay by Kaneko Daiei, originally published in the 1920s and reissued in 1966, called “Prolegomena to Shin Buddhist Studies.”

Chaim chose to read Henri Lefebvre’s The Sociology of Marx, published in 1966, and also largely a defense of an academic discipline.  But Lefebvre’s goal is to find a way to use the discipline of sociology to advance the cause of communism and resist the post-war triumph of capitalism.  

At first glance, then, it may seem that these two texts are diametrically opposed. 

Continue reading and comment at The Faithful Buddhist

3 responses to “Possibility, Potency, Power”

  1. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    “I believe that “the first Buddhist/Marxist retreat” happened in the woods, in a camping setting. That’s one model. A forum like Incite Seminars might be another model. Maybe you can suggest others.”
    Yes, certainly. I think Insight Seminars are even more powerful than rural retreats or camps because they take place in the midst of the city. Seminars have been used by many famous philosophers and thinkers throughout history to open up public debate: Lacan, Sartre, David Bohm among countless others. I read a couple years ago that in ancient India the wealthy members of a city would set aside “groves” or wooded areas for Sramana and other philosophers and religious figures to hold seminars, public debates. The wandering ascetics and scholars were free to camp in these Groves, but in return, they had a job to do: they had to meet with other ascetics and engage in public debate for the upliftment of the local citizens. This was designed to encourage familiarity and civil debate with others whose opinions were different, which helped to reduce prejudice. It educated the public on current issues and ideas, aided conflict resolution and problem solving. So the Buddha’s seminars at Jetta Grove and other such groves was long part of the Sramana tradition. It was a tradition of dialogue and debate, not silence and isolation and ‘not thinking.’ Periods of meditation were set aside for the Sramana, but they were also expected to render a service to the public as ‘teacher’. I think what we’re doing with Trash Community is another good model of engaging in public discourse and debate. “Camps” have been used in recent climate justice movements to train people for actions against fossil fuel projects: pipelines and coal mines. Climate Camp took activists out to the woods, usually near the target facility, to train in ideology and tactics for the subsequent action. People learned their part in the action and the role of their action within the larger movement. (See Ende Gelande in Engage https://engagedharma.net/2019/06/22/ende-gelande-shuts-down-coal-mine-in-germany/). The use of ‘camps’ is a way to build a very powerful and cohesive movement that can actually have an impact on the world. So you have to ask: power to do what? What goal are you trying to achieve? The goal you set determines the kind of power you need. If you want to educate and enlighten people, you focus on ‘knowledge as power’ and debate. If you want to have an impact on public policy and infrastructure, you need a different kind of power–political power, the power of a social movement.

  2. Jundo Cohen Avatar

    A subject of personal interest is the following, a possible means to change the brains of human beings in ways that all the Buddhists and other preachers and pundits, revolutionaries and reformers, have failed in the past. Effective tools will soon be developed. Furthermore, it will be undertaken voluntarily, be free choice in the marketplace of goods, no compulsion … using the system of capitalism to heal the extremes (and somewhat overthrow) capitalism. No secret plots nor point of a gun will be required, as people will want to choose to do this … because it makes them feel good and be better.

    What is this means?

    Human beings have a tendency to choose substances, and take them into their bodies, which result in great pleasure. Unfortunately, these same substances often result in great harm to those same bodies: Alcohol, opiods and the like. These items, especially in excess, ruin health, ruin minds and ruin lives.

    But what if there were developed a group of substances that bring the imbiber pleasure, relaxation and a sense of well-being while actually IMPROVING bodily health and lives, while also working to remove from human behavior many of the excesses of desire, excesses of anger and violence and the like which result in great social problems?

    It is my contention (in my new book, I just finished the manuscript this week: ZEN of the FUTURE!) that human beings and human society is actually doing quite well, especially in comparison to past human history. However, we could do with a few tweeks: We need not, and should not, totally eliminate our tendency to become bothered and angry, but we should treat as a disease the tendency of some human beings to fall into extremes of anger, especially to a degree which causes them to do physical harm to other human beings out of anger. We may wish to maintain fear and sadness as a vital part of the human condition and vital to our survival, but we do not require such extremes of fear and sadness that result in debilitating anxiety and true depression, often to the point of suicidal desires. Human dreams and desires have built our civilization, gotten us to the moon, but perhaps we would do better if people were more easily satisfied, with healthier quantities of consumption, more moderate amounts of acquisition, something vital to this planets in which we are warming the climate and draining the seas of life. Future changes … using a range of soon to be available techniques of DNA modification via CRISPR, nano-robots, drug therapies and the like, make allow us to have a better handle in understanding, and being able to control, the extremes of anger, violence, fear, sadness, human gluttony and the like. For the first time in history, we may have the means in hand to change the brain!

    But how to get people to do this? They must want to change, voluntarily, of their own free will!

    These days, folks will march into a corner vitamin and supplements store, purchasing all kinds of untested, rather doubtful (and often ineffective in not downright harmful) concoctions to be healthier, calmer, sexier, longer lived, smarter and the like. People desire such results.

    Other people will head to the corner bar, or the corner drug pusher, for some glass or needle that brings them peace or pleasure for a time.

    Others will ingest junk food, endless bags of chips and snacks, because it feels good, tastes good.

    What we must do is combine all these tendencies: Shot glasses that are filled with substances that leave people feeling good, at home in life (not totally drained of the ability to be discontent however), sometime upset perhaps, but with a greatly reduced tendency to shoot people, Tasty snacks that actually leave one (not with an expanded waistline) but with a somewhat increased tendency not to waste resources. “Good drugs” that actually improve the spirits, and improve the heart … both the physical heart and the compassionate heart.

    People (not all, as there will be Luddites and Amish “naturalist” hold-outs) because it will make them feel like better people, more at home in life, happier, healthier, more loving, more content with actual improved bodily health and longer lives. However, at the same time, extremes of anxiety, depression, violent crime, war, excess consumption and the like will be greatly reduced or eliminated. (Oh, we do not want people to be totally blissed out, too content as if in an opium den, because we need people to be people … sometimes discontent in order to run from the hungry tigers in life, build great cities, climb tall mountains. It is only the EXTREMES of discontent, fear, selfishness and the like which needs to be addressed. We can leave police who have some ability to do violence in defense when needed, but they will be individuals who are balanced and not prone to violence in anger, only when needed.). Of course, we do want to ban the use of such substances to control the population, turning them into sheep (something that both dictators and some capitalists might wish to do). No, this must be limited to very mild “tweeks” to human behavior which actually make people freer of their inner demons, while better able to function as free individuals in society.

    Civil rights and the free market require that we force nobody to take these substances. People will march into supermarkets, health food stores and doctors offices demanding these substances because they will see that the results are good … and leave them feeling good, being good, living good in good health. People just want to feel good, and the results will be good.

    Where all the moral preaching, threats of fire and brimstone, thousands of hours of meditation, utopian plans of revolutionaries and dreamers … now we will succeed. The world will be better because its people will be better.

  3. Gereon Bartel Avatar
    Gereon Bartel

    I find a few specifics in this example of a new practice that fit very well with my image of a practice and which I believe are central.

    There were just two participants. A true, free and deep discourse will in my experience require the number of participants to be limited to 2, maybe 3.
    Everyone did their homework. They came with a clear and limited idea what to talk about, grounded in a very well thought out (though not fixed) view of the world. And they stuck to the topic! Retreating to the next easier topic whenever progress seems slow is paralyzing.
    At the end they wrote down their results (which need not be public or contain any consent) and made sure that what they worked on will be permanently integrated into their knowledge base. This way their future sessions will profit from it, no matter the constellation of persons and topics.

    Scaling is possible despite these limitations. Session length can be quite variable. A large network of such simple (permanent or temporary) connections can be created. Two-person sessions are easily scheduled and thus can be held quite often. Results don’t need to be published, just integrated into each personal view.

    Wisdom may travel slowly through such a network but if everyone makes sure to keep their own view of the the world alive and evolving, there is very much potential of unexpected growth. I see this as the future of practice, quite independently of the specific content. Can we facilitate the growth of such a network?

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