Mindfulness and religion

Except from my forthcoming book: Mindfulness: The Full Works


Mindfulness and religion


At the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey a black monolith appears in a prehistoric landscape. An ape picks up a bone of a dead animal (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypEaGQb6dJk at 6.30) and strikes at the apes of a rival tribe; his companions follow suit, and a new era is born. What was formerly just a bones is now a tool, in this case a weapon. Technology is born, and with it all of its benefits and drawbacks.


To make this move, that ape had to do something specific with his mind. He had to have an idea. He had to make the first ever abstraction. He had to draw out from his multifarious experience the idea ‘tool.’ Once he had the idea, he could look for a tool in the world of concrete experience; he could pick up the bone. But first he had to make that leap: the first abstraction. It was no doubt a similar process when man invented fire. Someone would have had to abstract the idea ‘heat’ from their surroundings. Feeling the warmth of the sun; seeing lightning burn the brushwood on the hillside; the warmth of the body. Between all those things was a common factor: ‘heat.’ This capacity to make abstractions from his experience eventually gave mankind mastery over his environment and technological prowess.


But the evolution of technology does not explain the origin of religion, or how mankind evolved ritual. For some the reason was social. After studying Australian aborigine culture Emile Durkheim deduced that because religion existed everywhere it must have been social useful: in producing collective well-being, cohesion and integration. Roy Rappaport proposes that ritual is the original and primary means of creating systems of meaning that ground and give life to society. (Ritual: A Very Short Introduction) He even thinks it predates language and conceptual ideas. Without what we understand in a common sense way as religion humanity could not have emerged from its proto-human condition. And while it is impossible to prove, he thinks that religions’ origins are closely connected with the origins of humanity. Personally I agree. I think that religion and ritual evolved to make sense of what man could not conceptualize, technologize or master: what was deep in the bowels of the earth or high in the sky beyond his reach. Even with our technology today and the technology we imagine in the future there will always be something it cannot master. The question of how to live.


Emile Durkheim proposed that religion is basically a “social fact.” (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life – 1912) It existed everywhere and therefore must have been social useful in producing collective flourishing, social cohesion and integration. For Roy Rappaport ritual is not merely one among many meaningful human activities, but is rather is the original and primary means of creating systems of meaning that ground and give life to society, predating language and ideas. He argues that without what we understand in a common sense way as religion humanity could not have emerged from its proto-human condition, and while he admits it is impossible to prove this, religions’ origins are closely connected with the origins of humanity.


Edward Conze, the Buddhist scholar, talks about worldly interest is often in particularities whereas spiritual interests is often in generalities. The news gives us the details of particular crimes with the implicit idea that knowing them will help find the perpetrator or stop similar crimes from being committed in the future. But life doesn’t really work like that. In the play The Merchant of Venice Shylock is a moneylender and he agrees to lend money for a shipping venture, and either be repaid or take the pound of flesh from Antonio, who has tormented him in the past. When the venture fails Shylock demands his pound of flesh and a court case  ensues. Portia, disguised as a law clerk, pleads that:


The quality of mercy is not strain’d
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven


She is making the point that we can focus on the technicalities of our dealings with other people but the greatest challenge is to see beyond those and be kind. In the end Shylock pushes for his pound of flesh but then suffers when Portia corners him on a technicality and he has to forfeit a fine. Likewise the Buddha said that when someone had a poison arrow stuck in them they shouldn’t worry who shot the arrow, or why, but should take the arrow out as quickly as possible. We won’t get far if we try to understand reality by tracing the individual strands that make it up and become beguiled by the detail. It is better to look for the general pattern or structure within that detail, and act on the basis of that.


These ‘patterns:’ of kindness and suffering, are recognised as patterns in the universe by a different sense than the one that makes tools. That sense is an intuition not of a set of particulars but of a general pattern in the universe. How does one live with ineffable, ungraspable questions such as: what will happen after I die?; how can I make progress as a person beyond who I am now?; what is the best way to live?; how do I bring happiness to myself and to others?


Such patterns are ungraspable, yet we do need to take hold of them in some way, because they are important. Man in the dawn of time built a stone circle and lined it up with the stars, as if to say there is an order to things, even if I do not understand it. And I need to acknowledge that! Whatever rituals he did in that circle systematically brought that order to mind. He practised them again and again and again, so that he did not forget. And this is what ritual is about. We have a tentative knowledge about how the universe is, which we represent by a symbol such as the stone circle, and then we come into meaningful relationship with that reality  through ritual enactment in relation to the symbol.


Man abstracted the idea of ‘heat’ from his experience and then was able to make fire. He also saw a pattern like ‘truth’ or ‘justice’ in the universe but he couldn’t make anything concrete from it: he couldn’t make ‘a justice,’ but what he did was represent it by a symbol: with justice a set of scales, to remind himself that he needed to bear that pattern in mind. To be mindful of what was important even if it was beyond his technology and practical understanding.


The symbolon


The origin of the word symbol is the Greek word ‘symbolon.’ A symbolon is one half of a clay tablet on which is inscribed a message, the implication being that the message can be read only when both halves of the tablet are put together. The symbolon therefore suggests that a symbol is connected with a certain truth (the message,) our knowledge of which is incomplete (we only have half of it.) An example is the image of the Buddha seated in meditation posture with elongated earlobes and a bump on the crown of his head. This image, called a rupa, represents the state of Enlightenment and its attributes the various qualities of that experience, but the symbol only takes us halfway there and we have to go beyond the symbol and imagine what the experience of the Buddha must have been like.


In this way we might think of a symbol as a ‘pretend’ version of reality. Reality is almost impossible to approach directly and so if we wish to approach it we need an intermediary. The symbol is that intermediary. Through interacting with it we learn how to come closer to the reality. Symbolism is not unlike play. When a child plays ‘Doctors and Nurses’ there is pretence. They are not dealing with real blood, but ketchup. But they are being slowly introduced to the idea that physical suffering is a part of life and it needs to be tended to. The Buddha could to look directly at reality: he could see the whole tablet, but for the rest of us reality is in-ef-fable, that is, it is beyond description. We cannot tell a story about it. We cannot read the full message. So we need play, and when we are adults, symbols. Symbols basically represent views. Children approach the view when they play ‘Doctors and Nurses’ that they should look after others. The car enthusiast when they admire a Ferrari approaches the view that satisfaction lies in material things. And when the Buddhist practices a devotional practice called a puja they approach the view that it is possible to become a Buddha by practising the Buddhist path.


Buddhist sympathisers often triumph Buddhism as a rational religion over its idol worshipping counterparts. For example Colonel Olcott, the founder of Theosophy, proposed that Buddhism aught really to be distanced from the superstitious practices performed by ordinary people in Sri Lanka. But while superstitious practices perhaps should not be encouraged, not all ritual should be dismissed in this way. Imagination is its own domain, distinct from the rational and conceptual, but equally valid. It specifically helps engage the emotions with a vision or aim, because human emotion is generally more interested in images or sensory forms than it is in concepts. In fact ritual can be an aspect of mindfulness. The word puja means worship in its original meaning of ascribing worth. Along with  the meditation practices that engage the imagination with the path to Nirvana, such mindfulness of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (buddhanusmrti, dharmanusmrti and sanghanusmrti,) it helps engage the emotions in seeing the value of the Buddhist path.


Ritual and imagination satisfies our emotional life in a way that concepts cannot. According to Lama Govinda words have a limiting narrowing tendency. They harden into dogmas. Whereas a symbolic vision is more alive. It grows and ripen within us. It points and grows beyond itself. Because it cannot be circumscribed there is less danger of our imagining that we know it. And images, stories and myths gain in meaningful association over time, until they are central to a persons’ life.


The way that we build up an emotional connection with the symbol is we beautify it, make offerings to it – what we value we adorn! Apple and the iPhone is a prime example. Design in the late twentieth century is an exercise in adornment of technology. It not only serves to improve function, but reinforces the view that man is master of his environment. And the more we adorn our symbols the more we become emotionally invested in the views they represent. If you want to really upset an American you attack the World Trade Centre, or a Sikh the Golden temple at Amritsar. This makes ritual not only powerful but explosive when religions or cultures clash. Some atheists propose that we ban ritual and myth altogether, even childrens’ stories like Santa Claus, but the solution is not to dismiss it but to better understand it, and then harness its power in the right way. For how to do that see my article on poetic logic.

Author: Mahabodhi

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