Meanwhile, back at the charnel ground…

Half a year ago, I put this site on the back burner. I’ll explain why, and what I may do here next, at the end of this page.

First, I’d like to advertise writing I’m doing on two other sites. If you are following only this one, you might find those interesting as well.

Buddhism for Vampires

“Meanwhile, back at the charnel ground” refers to Buddhism for Vampires. One of my most popular posts here was “Charnel ground,” about the Buddhist practice of viewing all reality as a horror movie. Buddhism for Vampires is a humorous (and sometimes horrifying) take on charnel ground practice.

I’ve recently published there:

Meaningness

Meaningness is a book about different ways we can approach core questions of meaning, such as purpose, meaninglessness, self, value, and ethics. I’m writing it bit by bit on the web, making the book an interactive, community experience.

Currently I’m writing about monism, the idea that All is One—which often is supposed to imply also that you are God. Monism is common in modern Buddhism. I think it’s mostly factually wrong, and also harmful, both to individuals and social groups. It is not entirely wrong, though, and its opposite (dualism) is equally wrong. Still, I am deeply concerned about its influence on Buddhism, which was mostly anti-monist for most of its history.

I recently published “Unity and diversity,” an introduction to monism, dualism, and the third alternative I advocate (“participation”). There is a schematic overview that outlines the whole discussion. And then I’ve published “Boundaries, objects, and connections,” which begins to explain the fundamental, mistaken intuitions that underlie monism and dualism.

This site

On this site, I was working on “Reinventing Buddhist Tantra.” After a year’s work, I had not quite yet finished the introductory overview to the series. At that rate, according to my outline, the project would take five years.

“Reinventing Buddhist Tantra” was a part of the “Consensus Buddhism” topic—about which I have much more to say.

And that was meant to be a preliminary to explaining ideas about where Buddhism may need to head in the future. That is what I care about most. Everything I have written on this site was preliminaries intended to help diagnose American Buddhism’s current difficulties, and as background for new possibilities. I find all those preliminaries interesting for their own sakes as well, and it’s painful to abandon them. Life is short, however, and I fear I will never have time to write them up.

So, tentatively, I expect to scrap everything I had planed to write here—the elaborate outline and drafts of many posts in various stages of completion—in order to cut to the chase and talk about the future.

To force myself to be concise, I recently summarized parts of that as a series of tweets. Here they are:

The distinctive spiritual feature of our era is the atomization of culture, society, and our selves into tiny fragments of meaning.

Twitter is the perfect example and metaphor for contemporary meaningness. So what is living inside twitter like? Where are our problems?

Central problem of our time: overwhelmingly too much meaning, delivered in tasty 140-character bites. How do we make sense of all that?

Those stuck in the 20th century might say that twitter is devoid of meaning, because it has no ULTIMATE meaning; but that is nonsense.

The key spiritual problem of the 20th century was fear of nihilism: that maybe life has no meaning AT ALL. That now seems silly.

Still, the -isms, great glass cathedrals of meanings, DID implode, shattering in the black flood of nihilism, materialism, and skepticism.

We risk drowning in a sea of meaning, or at minimum drifting without direction. We must assemble meaningness-crafts to navigate this ocean.

Our lives are so full of so many tiny tasty things that they may fail to add up to much. New -isms are hopeless, yet we need organization.

GTD attempts to organize the fragments of our selves and world, but it is more part of the problem than a solution.

GTD’s axes of organization mainly fail to capture what we find most important, and so enables efficient pursuit of lesser-value goals.

Twitter, like GTD, fails to provides tools for fitting meaning-morsels together into creative assemblages of higher value.

Atomization of meaning does not imply that every tweet is of equal worth, nor that larger meaning-structures are obsolete.

Finding or creating a consistent, coherent, universal culture, society, or self is NOT our task; that is the doomed dream of modernism.

Our new spiritual task is to devise diverse watercraft for sailing the turbulent seas of meaning. Not great -isms, but elegant windjammers.

Ships that sail the seas of meaning must be: collaborative; creative; improvised; intimate; disposable; beautiful; and spiritual.

Less poetically, meaningness-crafts are fluid, shared structures that organize meanings in ways that foreground whatever matters most.

The keel of a meaning-sailing ship might be a web tool; the planks, a social group; the sails, collaborative artistic creations.

We are already doing this! A deliberately silly example: I Can Haz Cheezburger has all the required features (listed in n–3 tweet).

Many quite different types of meaning-ocean-going vessels are imaginable; experimentation will find the most capable forms.

http://ow.ly/i21mt summarizes my understanding of the changes in the way we’ve related to meaningness over the past few decades.

http://ow.ly/i21mt is the outline for an upcoming series of a dozen blog posts detailing these changes in culture, society, and the self.

http://ow.ly/i21mt includes: how Buddhism has evolved in reaction to changes in meaningness, and brief speculation about its future.

This barrage of tweets has been an experiment in abusing the twitter form. Comments on style as well as substance are welcome!

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

17 thoughts on “Meanwhile, back at the charnel ground…”

  1. GTD is Getting Things Done, a popular method for time management. I’ve added a link.

    @ngakpa — This is a question worth asking, but it’s one I will explicitly refuse to address, for several linked reasons.

    It’s part of the class of “isn’t this watering Buddhism down, and isn’t that a Bad Thing?” questions. Those are asked constantly within Western Buddhism, and everyone has an opinion. I have nothing to add to that discussion.

    Buddhism is being watered down. That’s a fact; it is history; it has been history for decades (if not millennia). Some people can, and probably should, fight against that.

    My approach is to say: given that Buddhism has been watered down, and will undoubtedly continue to be watered down if it survives at all, how can I contribute to making atomized Buddhism derivatives most useful?

    This does not mean I advocate watering down, or atomization. I’m just recognizing that it’s a fait accompli, and asking how to go forward from that.

    In terms of the chart at http://ow.ly/i21mt, we practice “subcultural Buddhism,” and your question seems to come from that perspective. (Sorry if this mis-characterizes your view; please object!) I’m mostly happy with subcultural Buddhism for myself, which is unsurprising since I more-or-less belong to Generation X, for whom subculturalism is the natural mode. But it is not a natural mode for even Generation Y, as far as I can tell, never mind whatever eldritch abominations future generations.

  2. @ David – Isn’t there a view missing from the chart? Or rather a view that prints a hard copy of the chart and uses it as tinder? I mean the view from the perspective of practice experience, rather than practice-stylistic.

    The chart looks like a continuum running from form into emptiness, and from a vajrayana perspective if you go for the one, you tend to get the other. The pros and cons of any one stylistic are particular to each of us as individuals. The cultural backdrop that provides the stage set to our lives might incline us to accept one or another stylistic more readily, but that’s just acceptance of today’s fashion for stagecraft. I acknowledge that the chart suggests a trajectory towards emptiness at this point in time, but that is just a trajectory, and just this point in time, and just a method. . . and methods are empty.

    I recognize the value in talking to someone in their own language, in a style they understand, but that just means the style is useful in some circumstances – like any other tool.

    I rail against the fatalistic incrementalism I see in the approach that ‘this [atomization/ fluidity/ whatever] is what people are doing, so I’m going to make the best of it’. It’s not that I find that to be an unworthy intent, I admire the pragmatism behind that approach, Rather I choose to fight the air of *inevitability* I see in this approach. If that makes me a subcultural Buddhist, then maybe that’s what I am (I work in heavy industry, and have been to interfaith meetings, and thus have been called far worse).

    I do not feel that ‘the centre cannot hold’; I don’t think there is anything to defend or that armageddon (or the second coming) is nigh. I believe that atomization does not equate wholly to innovation, and to think it does is an error of judgement that omits myriad possibilities for innovative modes of communication – like riding, and shooting, and dancing, and word play. I would encourage innovation, but one can innovate back up that stylistic continuum, climb back down the Faraway Tree, leave the Land of Do-As-You-Please (the main flaw and habitat of atomization in my view) and live cheerfully in the land as do-as-is-dignified.

    I’m not claiming that I always manage it myself, and that’s where is all falls down, of course. But that’s where practice begins.

    Best regards, and keep up the good work.

    Slartibartfast

  3. Hi, thanks for this!

    I hadn’t thought about the chart as moving from form to emptiness—but that is exactly right!

    Until the last row, that is. “Fluidity”—in the language of our lineage—moves from emptiness to empty form. “Collaborative, creative, improvised, intimate, disposable, beautiful, and spiritual”—these adjectives might remind you of a certain book? (Though its author would say “impermanent” rather than “disposable,” probably.)

    The cultural backdrop that provides the stage set to our lives might incline us to accept one or another stylistic more readily, but that’s just acceptance of today’s fashion for stagecraft.

    Sure. But we have to start where we are. Many people, according to my analysis, are in “atomized” mode—particularly in Generation Y. That’s where they need to start. (Maybe “we”—it’s part of my experience too.) If Buddhism has nothing to say to those in that mode, Buddhism may go extinct—depending on how long the culture emphasizes that mode. I suggest that Buddhism—particularly Vajrayana—may have resources for moving from “atomized” to “fluid.” This could be attractive to those who recognize the (new) spiritual problems atomization presents.

    I don’t think … [Buddhist] armageddon … is nigh.

    I hope not. I don’t know how to calculate the risk. If there’s any significant danger, it seems like it’s worth some people figuring out what to do about it. It seems more likely than that a giant asteroid is going to clobber the earth, and we’ve got people working on that…

    I believe that atomization does not equate wholly to innovation

    Oh, not in the least! I must have been unclear somewhere to have given that misimpression.

    Cheers,

    David

  4. “GTD attempts to organize the fragments of our selves and world, but it is more part of the problem than a solution.”

    How come?

  5. Hmm, good question! I haven’t thought about that seriously; it’s mostly just my experience.

    What I would say is that GTD gives you wrong priorities. Most obviously, it doesn’t distinguish between “urgent” and “important.” Some other time management systems do, and this has been pointed to as a defect in GTD.

    More subtly, it implicitly prioritizes goals that are easy to break into subgoals over goals that are not. And, for the same reasons, goals that are easy to formulate over goals that are nebulous and difficult to be explicit about—but which might be much more important.

    This is closely related to what I’ve written about problem formulation vs. problem solving. GTD is pretty good for problem solving once you have a clear idea what the problem is—and pretty useless until you do.

    Put another way, GTD is good only for routine tasks and well-defined projects. Using it guides your life into a grind of routine tasks and well-defined projects (“work”) that in the end don’t amount to much. Also, because of its break-into-subgoals orientation, it is inherently atomizing.

    The sorts of issues one might describe as “spiritual,” “religious,” or “problems of meaningness,” generally don’t break down into subgoals well (or at all). Neither, mostly, do relationships with lovers, friends, and family. Using GTD is likely to starve those aspects of life.

    Anyone else have thoughts about this, or experiences to share?

  6. Thanks for the answer.

    Seems hard to argue with, especially the problem formulation part. The urgent/not urgent criticism, is not that hard to correct : one can just add this extra distinction before the projects, I did this 2 weeks ago, after the yearly review.

    It is true, though, that GTD does, now that you point at it, seem too mechanical to solve ill-defined problems. Which makes sense since it is originally a productivity system for “work” – which usually means well-defined problems, with explicit goal states and so on.

    I only implemented GTD 6 months ago, but it has served me well so far, even on these ill-defined problems, which matter more (to me) than any others. I heavily modified the system, but kept the capture file and the weekly review, and the levels (from life vision to current projects).

    The more well-defined a problem is the more I break it down (for example, finishing a particular course at college). If it is ill-defined (“Get into a self-development community”), I’m more opportunistic about it, and use the project name in my system as a way to keep it in mind as I go through my day – it tends to help seeing opportunities to move it forward by exploring it – which I guess is the first step to eventually be able to break it down into parts.

  7. V., all that makes sense. One follow-up point: I think we need better methods for dealing with ill-defined goals, and I think those are possible. And, I think technology might help—but that comes after understanding the processes better. These are things I’d like to pursue (but they’re rather ill-defined! so my GTD program isn’t helping!).

  8. I entirely agree. I look forward very much to see what you come up with on this front. I confess it seems your discontent with this problem has already crystalized and mine is only on its way.

    WRT “Twitter, like GTD, fails to provides tools for fitting meaning-morsels together into creative assemblages of higher value.” this might be helpful -> http://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/design-constraints-for-things-you-care-about/

    Been meaning to get you guys in touch for a bit now.

  9. I think Shinzen Young is a good example of someone who has done a sufficiently good job at making meditation, and the spiritual system in which meditation is embedded, something that is compatible with GTD, but doesn’t fall into its triviality. Or at least, I think his system is a good precursor to making a shitload of quality windjammers, which I intend to make one myself, for my love of meditation and disgust at most spiritual culture. I’ll need to think hard on why I think this in detail later.

    I never have read the book Getting Things Done, but I am surprised at how similar I think and take action to that philosophy, that it is likely the consequence of being a member of Generation Y (I’m 25) that I have naturally picked those habits/attitudes up? Also, because GTD works for most things like my exercise routine, study habits, overcoming social anxiety, I’d say it works. Then for the messy, ill-defined, wicked problems that really matter what I do is use some improvised mixture of extensive reasoning, intuition, and emotions, I try to make them sufficiently congruent and guess. I’ll need to flesh out my meta-cognition more, I’m still young and stupid you see. I basically use Richard Feynman’s heuristic of ‘Think Hard’. But from my experience the only time GTD really breaks down is in meditation and socializing. Btw, I don’t identify as Buddhist, don’t want to, and doubt I ever will, I figure partly because of my personality disposition and that I am of Generation Y.

    I had a bunch more written but I cut it all out particularly to hone in the fact I don’t like the label Buddhist, and not as a subtle move because ‘abandoning the raft’ is the most Buddhist thing I could do. The way the word rolls off the tongue is disgusting to my visceral sensibilities (sorry if I have offended anyone), empyrean sounds cool for example. The word has this connotation of this ritualistic strange religion (that’s the connotation I had maybe 4 years ago before I knew anything of Buddhism, so probably that’s similar to what other Generation Y kids feel vaguely). Not cool ritualistic, but boring, like a really boring grandparent who smells funny and doesn’t ever have anything interesting to say except elevator small talk. Now I think of Joseph Goldstein when I think of Buddhism.

    If anything, my spiritual grand goal (not my most grand goal, so it’s a subset to broader well rounded living) is to become a improvisational virtuoso of meditation. That’s the keel of the windjammer I am (hopefully?) building. And not make awakening the central goal, but as a by product to constantly honing contemplative skills like picking the most optimal technique in each moment (when to do noting, Dzogchen, visualization, etc.), exploiting increasingly better ways of informal practice, and being careful with respect to practice, these three will probably be the 3 masts, with Shinzen’s system being the largest contributor to the blueprints, but certainly far from the only contributor. What I have in mind very vaguely is something probably secular but similar to lamas that live householder lives that you mention? God I hate that fucking term by the way. Like, just the notion householder is an offensive word, I’d bet most Generation Y members think when they hear something like that. I do at least. They don’t think it clearly, but that word is dreadfully boring. Probably to make monasticism to seem more appealing? I prefer street fighting meditators to householders. Meditation in society is messy, brutal, like a street fight I imagine. That actually sounds cooler and more appropriate. Householders sounds too similar to a 1950s housewife, and householder is thrown around all the time from the spiritual books and scenes I have gone to. How fucking boring.

  10. Hi Ryan, thanks for an entertaining comment!

    I like Shinzen Young’s work too.

    I don’t identify as Buddhist, don’t want to, and doubt I ever will, I figure partly because of my personality disposition and that I am of Generation Y.

    Yes… I think the generational point is an important one, and hope to write about it Real Soon Now.

    I don’t like the label Buddhist… The way the word rolls off the tongue is disgusting to my visceral sensibilities

    Yeah, mine too. I feel somewhat stuck with it, but I’d love to get rid of it.

    Unfortunately, things need labels. I’d much rather say “here’s some cool stuff, check it out” but unless people have a way of naming the stuff, they can’t talk about it with anyone else.

    Maybe we’ll eventually find better labels for some Buddhist-derived things. “Meditation” is an example, although I don’t like that word either, at all. But it’s managed to go mainstream OK.

    [sounds like a] ritualistic strange religion

    That sounds good to me. You know—demons, nudity, tentacles, that sort of thing.

    Not cool ritualistic, but boring, like a really boring grandparent who smells funny and doesn’t ever have anything interesting to say except elevator small talk. Now I think of Joseph Goldstein when I think of Buddhism.

    Oh, yeah, that. Well, we need better rituals. With tentacles.

    Householders sounds too similar to a 1950s housewife

    You know, I’ve always hated that word, and now that you mention it, I think the association with “housewife” might be the reason!

    A “householder” is someone who is owned by a house, mostly, I think. Fuck that.

  11. Commonly-Accepted-As-Noble pursuits such as Big Important -Isms utilise Windjammers, waving their flag and sporting Official -Ism brand Floorboards, Sails, etc. There seems to be very aggressive naval warfare between competing -Ism navies.

    Gen Y has a fast turnover rate of -Isms explored, entertained, potentially adopted, and then discarded when their usefulness stops. While Nihilism isn’t a problem for 12 year olds nowadays, a lack-of-satisfactory-Ism is a far more obtuse problem to sail through.

    Nowadays, it is difficult for -Isms to convince you They Are The One, thanks to the help of a legion of passionate nerds who poke every hole into every argument they can find, and google giving you ease of access to passionate nerds.

    The most impressively constructed windjammers seem to be in the Commonly-Accepted-As-Ignoble pursuits. Commercial pop culture, niche nerd interests, or just flat out jokes have impressive construction. They do the job they want to do well, and are good at capturing attention. Interest results in strong construction, whereas “Noble” pursuits are only important, not necessarily interesting.

    Gen Y distrusts windjammers that sling -Ism flags. However, we can’t help but approach windjammers with people like us, whose advertising seems honest or accurate, or they are constructed well enough or novel enough to warrant visiting. Most often though, we just board vessels that are a hilarious party to be on, and move onto the next ones. Clickbait ahoy!

    I find that the point of needing to construct a new, better, contemporary -Ism sounds useful to those who like to utilise -Isms, but Gen Y is increasingly distrusting the value of -Isms. They very much enjoy what makes up an -Ism, though, and like visiting windjammers that provide a good time that are primarily -Ism flavoured when those do a good job of being interesting, instead of just being -Ism.

    Buddhism for Vampires looked a lot like those Tempyle Ove The Psykkhicque Vampyrrhe type websites. Those were a fun time to read through, so the name Buddhism for Vampires stuck out, since what DO Vampires have to do with Buddhism? Is this a garbled mish-mash of Psy-Vamp and Consensus Buddhism? Sounds fun!

    However, Buddhism for Vampires turned out to be haunting, profound, irreverent, casual, cheeky, and informative. Its tendency to leave spooky, incomplete implications at the end of articles sparked a curiosity to check out your other blogs. Those too were cheeky, informative and interesting, with other adjectives appropriate to the blog.

    The primary strength of Buddhism for Vampires, Meaningness etc from a Gen Y point of view, is that it accurately, helpfully describes and explores useful little atoms of knowledge and meaning in a very interesting way.

    The potential of Buddhism dying to homeopathic dilution into irrelevancy could happen. Buddhism is very interesting and has a lot of very useful ideas. Creating a newer, edgier, sleeker Buddhizm X-Treme(that can relate better to kids these days) is a very Gen X solution.

    Buddhism can survive, -Isms in general will also survive, but they are aging, lumbering landed nations in a world increasingly filling with water. -Isms are migrating to windjammers to adapt, and see life on windjammers as the next correct solution to the problems their -Isms face. If they cannot preserve their -Ism through windjammers, then all hope in their important -Ism is lost.

    However, Gen Y came to adolescence in the midst of the mass migration onto windjammers. -Isms were important, it’s where we came from, but the Old Countries are running out of natural resources to exploit, and whatever nations rise and fall in the Old Countries is irrelevant when you’re out on open sea.

    These ships are also important – However, since the Old Countries are still in fresh memory and those were temporary, Gen Y knows that these ships too are temporary and will each individually pass on when their relevance and usefulness has been exhausted. However, due to a the variety in construction and necessity of existence, windjammers prove ceaselessly interesting.

    Therefore, it is most relevant to Gen Y to understand what a ship actually does, how to make a ship, and finding excellently crafted ship parts to learn from example, so that good ships can be identified now, better ships can be made in the future, and accumulate the knowledge of excellent shipbuilding.

    A ship waving a Buddhism flag will be distrusted by Gen Y. If Buddhism want to survive on the open seas, the ship needs to attract visitors, be interesting/useful to visitors, and have excellent enough constructed parts that visitors will want to adopt and iterate that design on other ships. Buddhism dying is not a problem to Gen Y, if the parts that make Buddhism useful, unique, and interesting live on in other ships.

    Gen Y wants your meditation, Gen Y want your unique ideas on meaningness and existing, Gen Y want all of these cool, useful, interesting things that you’ve been writing about on these sites. If we get on your ship, and you’re trying very hard to pretend it’s the Old Country, we’re just going to think you’re old fashioned and weird. Making an artificial island in the middle of the ocean is cool, but it is also really weird.

    TL;DR

    -Isms are distrusted and increasingly useless to Gen Y. They are important, but Gen Y wants interesting.

    Gen Y wants excellently crafted atoms of meaning/culture etc, variety of excellently crafted atoms, atoms that can be coherently used in conjunction with others, atoms which can be swapped out as the need arises(to fulfill each of their unique purposes excellently), and the knowledge to excellently create new atoms. These new atoms will construct newer ships, and perhaps new kinds of yet un-devised vehicles.

    Windjammers that try to look like -Isms seem old fashioned, weird, and will usually be ignored.

  12. I seem to have written a far too much amount of things that you have already said, but I have not read, on your Approaching Aro page.

    For lack of a ship-based metaphor, this gaffe has made the problems of atomisation more obvious!

  13. Kris: I enjoyed your long comment; sorry to be slow to respond! I’m glad you’ve found atoms of interest in what I’ve written. Also pleased that you confirm that Gen Y is skeptical of -isms, and that a non-ism approach is called for. That’s the direction I’m heading in.

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