CD#08 Giving new shape to the dharma
There’s info on our first Creative Dharma Zoom meeting – and you’re all invited. Suzanne Trevains writes on ‘the unsayable’, Ronn Smith speaks with Stephen Batchelor on Icelandic fiction, and Bill Gayner considers how we might use imagination to deepen daily experience. And there’s more. ⁂
TAKING PLACE THIS MONTH
Creative Dharma readers’ meeting
On 27th or 28th February 2021 – depending on your time zone – Creative Dharma will be hosting a one-hour Zoom meeting for subscribers, our friends, and anyone interested in meditation, creativity and secular dharma.
⬆︎ How meetings were pre-Covid (photo: ChangemakerXchange Tito Spinola)
An opportunity for you to meet us, and for us to learn about you: we’ll start with three five-minute talks, follow each with a brief discussion, and then the meeting will be open for your observations and questions.
Brad Parks will speak on the place of creativity in meditation practice;
Ramsey Margolis will suggest a voluntary paid subscription, with all the revenue received being given to creatives across a range of artistic mediums, as well as to support creative dharma communities and individuals who are getting a community off the ground;
Ronn Smith will focus on creativity and the dharma, where it comes from, and why a newsletter is a good forum for ongoing conversation.
You can use this opportunity to approach us with ideas for articles of your own, and to suggest article ideas, topics and themes you’d like the newsletter to cover.
This newsletter has a global readership, so we apologise in advance to subscribers in Europe, Africa and elsewhere as the meeting time makes it hard (but not impossible) for you to take part. Here’s when the meeting will start across a range of time zones:
❖ Saturday 27 February
Hawaii, USA – 4pm
California, USA & Vancouver, Canada – 6pm
Chicago, USA – 8pm
New York, USA & Toronto, Canada – 9pm
❖ Sunday 28 February
Central European Time – 3am
Jakarta – 9am
Perth, Western Australia – 10am
Brisbane QLD, Australia – 12pm
Adelaide, South Australia – 12:30pm
Sydney NSW, Australia – 1pm
Aotearoa New Zealand – 3pm
To register for the first Creative Dharma newsletter open meeting go to
A Zoom ID will be sent to you by email nearer to the date.
A RESPONSE TO THE INTERVIEW WITH MATTY WEINGAST
Matty Weingast’s The first free women: poems of the early Buddhist nuns has been the focus of an ongoing, lively, and sometimes contentious discussion since it was published by Shambhala Publications last year.
A full response by Suzanne Franzway of Adelaide, South Australia, to Ronn Smith’s interview with Weingast, which ran in the December issue of Creative Dharma, can be found here. Her critique addresses three main issues:
The definition of ‘translation’,
Weingast’s use of a ‘feminine voice’, and
The dilution of dharma understandings in the Therigatha.
Your thoughts on both the interview and Suzanne Franzway’s comment are very welcome. ⁂
EMBRACING LIFE IN ITS TRAGIC FULLNESS
On reading literary fiction
by Ronn Smith
‘Good fiction is a wonderful way to practice the first of the four tasks. In other words: to embrace life,’ says Stephen Batchelor. ‘Literary fiction does this in a way that is far more granular than anything Buddhist doctrine can come up with.’
The following is condensed from an interview conducted with Stephen on 26 November 2020, in which we discussed two novels by the Icelandic writer, Jón Kalman Stefánsson – Fish Have No Feet (shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017) and About the Size of the Universe.
These books offer an epic, nonlinear narrative covering several generations living in and around Keflavik during the 20th century. It is to this bleak southwest corner of Iceland, which once supported a thriving fishing industry and a NATO military base, that Ari, the principal character, returns at the request of his dying father.
⬆︎ Iceland – sea and ice (photo: Martine Batchelor)
Ronn Smith: How did these two novels come to your attention?
Stephen Batchelor [laughing]: I don’t know, beyond the fact that Martine bought the second one at some point either before or during our trip to Iceland. That’s all I can say, except that finding oneself in a new country for the first time, I prefer reading a novel, or even poetry, rather than a guide book. I think reading a novel is the best way to get into the mind of the culture.
RS: What is it about Stefánsson’s work that appealed to you as a dharma scholar and teacher? Is there a ‘Buddhist lens’ through which you read this work?
SB: I find that good fiction is a wonderful way to practice the first of the four tasks. In other words: to embrace life. It’s about engaging with human existence through the lives of the characters, through the depictions of a world, a place, a time that highlights or amplifies what it means to be a sentient creature. Literary fiction does this in a way that is far more granular than Buddhist doctrine.
Buddhist doctrine is very good at giving you the framework, or templates, within which you can orient yourself to a particular engagement of life. But works of art – in this case, literary fiction – enrich and specify what is otherwise just a broad idea, like dukkha or suffering.
Stefánsson’s novels are very, very good examples of an artist coming to terms with suffering – unlike Buddhism, which draws a line around what is painful. These novels embed a heightened sense of suffering within life, which is also full of joy, wonder, mystery, and love – rich, positive emotions that are not overtly painful. Except you as the reader know that they’re going to end, much like you know your own life is going to end.
RS: Suffering and death permeate every page of the two books.
SB: That’s right. And perhaps that is the reason these books appeal to me, because they do address death in a direct way. There are two tragic deaths: one is Ari’s mother, the other is Pórdur, the eldest son of Margrét and Oddur. Death is very much built in to the very fabric of the narrative.
But Stefánsson does this in a non-morbid and non-sentimental way. He brings life – death’s polar opposite – into much sharper relief. You cannot engage with life in an artistic way by somehow downplaying or marginalising the reality of death. This is why Buddhists emphasise impermanence so much. Impermanence is a coming to terms with the immediacy of your own moment-to-moment experience, but it’s also a witnessing of the impermanence of your own existence. Death is implicit in impermanence itself.
This ties in very neatly with the idea of the first task, which is about embracing dukkha in birth, sickness, ageing, and death – the fundamental questions of our existence. A religious narrative would resolve that dilemma by pointing to some salvation that the reader can somehow anticipate. But that of course is actually a denial of life. I think it’s a cop-out basically. It actually diminishes our capacity to engage with life fully, to fully embrace dukkha. Embracing life no longer becomes possible because there’s an opt-out clause whereby you’re not actually going to have to suffer. It’s a nice idea, but it’s totally alien to the kind of secular literature to which I am drawn.
RS: Are there no solutions being offered in these books?
SB: Well, there is and there isn’t. I think the actual act of writing the novel is the solution. In other words, it’s the narrator’s ability to transform the character’s painful and rather grim existence into something which is transcendent. There is a solution, but the solution is the actual work of art itself. It’s how the writer finds a perspective from which he is able to embrace life in a way that does not reduce it.
RS: Does that assume that these novels are autobiographical?
SB: One assumes these novels are autobiographical, based on Stefánsson’s rather minimalist writeup in Wikipedia, but I don’t think this really matters frankly.
Even if you write fiction that is not remotely autobiographical, you are nonetheless limited to what your experiences taught you. If you invent characters and landscapes, you are still limited by what it means to be human. You are always contained within your own finitude as a creative artist. It’s the fruit of having paid close attention to your life and the lives of others.
RS: This comes back to a word I hear you use a lot: imagination.
SB: Without imagination you cannot begin the project of writing a novel. Even if you want to write autobiography, unfortunately your memories contain way too much data to just be transcribed. No autobiography is just a spilling-out of everything you experienced and remembered. That would not make even good non-fiction, let alone fiction. You have to selectively choose what you report and what you don’t report. And that’s an imaginative act.
RS: Would you say that the characters in these books lack imagination? Is this why they don’t find resolution in their lives?
SB: It looks like that, doesn’t it? Except for the narrator. You never really figure out who he is. He’s so opaque, although there are just enough clues to realise that he must be the son of a sister or brother of Ari’s mother. But in a sense it doesn’t matter.
The characters are people who are simply trying to get through life, and of course as human beings they have imaginations and desires and longings. So yes, imagination is referred to in the novels, but the imaginative act is the novel itself.
RS: The story is not told in a linear fashion. It moves forward, then circles back, then goes forward again, and then circles back again.
SB: I was very struck by that. It’s a ‘looping’ prose. There are passages of great beauty that achieve their effect not through strict repetition, but by exploring similar ideas, similar stories, similar events. Stefánsson’s writing has this spiral, looping quality, which is very musical. We also have to acknowledge the skill of the translator, Philip Roughton. It’s quite a feat of written English to be able to capture that melodic, poetic style of prose writing.
RS: Certain themes and ideas are repeated, but there are singular moments that illustrate the humanity of the characters as well. Were there particular moments like that for you?
SB: The only one that comes to mind is the one with Margrét, Ari’s grandmother. There’s a moment when she and Oddur meet after she comes back from Canada, and they spend the night together on his boat. It’s barely referenced again, but for me that was the genesis of the whole book. If they hadn’t copulated, hadn’t raised a family, none of this would have been happening.
The way Stefánsson handles sexuality is extraordinarily good. He doesn’t indulge it. He doesn’t romanticise it. Yet he is able to convey the distinctness of the characters and their desires and fears in the sexual act in an extraordinarily moving way, which isn’t at all erotic, but deeply human.
Perhaps because I am not Icelandic, I find that the characters are revealed as much by their environment, their living space, their workplaces, as they are by their own inner thoughts, by what they’re saying, by what they’re doing. The two coalesce in an extraordinarily potent way. I think that’s very difficult to pull off as a writer, but Stefánsson does it very well. At the end of these novels I really felt I had a very rich insight into the life of these characters, and by implication in what it must be like to be an Icelandic person.
RS: There’s also a lot of regret in these two books. They talk about betrayals, cowardice, regrets, and the secrets that are being kept. Is it fair to lump all of that in with dukkha?
SB [laughing]: I prefer not using a non-English term that most people don’t understand. When I talk about dukkha, I’m really talking about life. Not life just as a biological process, but life in the sense of ‘well, that’s life’ – the tragedy of life, life’s tragic dimension.
Literary fiction works because these kinds of details – our tragedy of being born, of being alive – are amplified in such a way that even a specific detail can evoke what it means to be a human being, to hold a secret, to have a regret, to not feel able to really articulate our deepest feelings. You find that again and again through these two books. Philip Roth used this expression, ‘the novelist is one who is gifted in the amplification of detail’.
I’ve tried to write fiction, but it’s what I feel I am least able to do well. Let’s take Ari going through the customs office as an example. That goes on for many pages, but it’s never repetitive, never boring. It’s a fully fleshed-out story. It’s taking a very banal experience – landing at an airport, going through customs and the duty-free store – and using it to bring that character vividly to life. And it’s done through the amplification of detail. Each detail is in itself insignificant, but amplified by the novelist’s imagination.
RS: Is there an ethical dimension to Stefánsson’s work?
SB: I think all good works of art have an ethical dimension, but not in the sense that the characters follow Buddhist precepts. That would kill a novel dead, essentially. It’s ethical in the sense that these are people who are trying to flourish. They are trying to lead lives that will optimise their condition as human beings, that will be meaningful to others – their families, friends, colleagues.
The majority of characters in these novels are good people. Or, let us say, they are people who are trying to be good people. And yet they are struggling with their urges and needs. Ethics has to do with human flourishing. It has to do with becoming the kind of person we aspire to be. At crucial times in our lives it might require the transgression of moral systems – acts that might be immoral are not necessarily unethical.
RS: What is often missing in those discussions is the context.
SB: Exactly. Any legalistic system is going to have a priori concepts of what is acceptable behaviour and what is not acceptable behaviour. That’s why you need to leave that sort of thinking about morality behind as soon as you enter the path. If you are going to embark on a life that is ethical – in the sense that you seek to respond appropriately to the specific situations you find in life – then moral rules will be, at the very best, a kind of guiding template. But to teach morals and ethics by just listing precepts is inadequate.
RS: Let’s talk about the title of the first book, Fish Have No Feet. In the second book, About the Size of the Universe, someone says, ‘No one, you see, can walk on water, and that’s why fish have no feet.’ Does this imply that a fish needs to immerse itself in water, like we need to immerse ourselves in life, to really address or experience it directly?
SB: Intuitively that sounds right. And it’s true, walking on water is like not engaging with the medium in which you live.
⬆︎ Stephen Batchelor on the rocks, in Iceland (photo Martine Batchelor)
RS: Is there anything else you’d like to say about these novels, or your reading of them?
SB: Not really. But I would encourage people to read these novels. I was very, very impressed by them. ⁂
I want art like an inoculation, art that has seen it all and can still imagine a better, stranger, wilder future, in which the old guard is irrelevant and something new appears, a sail cutting across a rising, warming sea.
– Olivia Laing author most recently of Funny weather: art in an emergency
YOU MAY HAVE MISSED …
Creative Dharma is more than just a newsletter that arrives periodically. Take a look at these threads
– Susanne Franzway on The first free women here
– Three more of poems, translations by Matty Weingast’s from The first free women here
– Sharing our personal narratives here – be sure to share yours please
ON THE WAY TO GETTING OUT OF THE WAY
Writing the unsayable
By Suzanne Trevains
The image that came to me when I began to reflect on writing about dharma practice and poetry is a memory of a biology lesson at school, when we were confronted with the task of dissecting a frog. Looking back it is clear that whatever the educational intention of this exercise in revealing the anatomical structure of a frog, the ‘frogness’ of the frog remained a mystery – as did the wondrous and magical process of transformation from tadpole to frog.
Perhaps this was actually an early lesson on ‘emptiness’, but at the time its main effect was to weed out all of us who clearly didn’t have the stomach or the nerves for future careers as biology teachers – or anything else that involved sharp instruments and flesh.
So why the frog image? Well, apart from an enduring affection and wonder for the mystery of tadpoles and frogs, I sense that writing about the relationship between dharma practice and poetry could be like that biology lesson: that trying to ‘dissect’ this living dharma-poetry-frog with an analytical eye risks missing both the richness and complexity of meditation practice as well as the elusive impulse that sometimes succeeds in shaping an experience or an idea into a poem.
So maybe the question needs a different perspective – one which is less about trying to answer the question, or expose the inner workings of either practice, but is curious about how they interact, touch or colour each other. Here I’m reminded of the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch (founder of Tanztheater Wuppertal) and her statement about how she approached contemporary dance: ‘I’m not interested in how people move; I’m interested in what moves people.’
This suggests to me that she was not interested in the structural or mechanical analysis of movement and its technical ‘correctness’, but instead was deeply engaged with how movement can embody and express the human condition, and through this creative expression move the viewer emotionally.
Looked at from this perspective, I sense that what moved me towards dharma practice and what moves me to write poetry may have similar roots. Both are attempts to address some of the questions which have engaged me for as long as I can remember, and which refuse to go away: a deep interest in the mystery of what it means to be human, what it takes to live a meaningful life, and how to engage fully and creatively with the unavoidable existential givens as well as the ups and downs of daily life, work and relationships.
Dharma study and meditation practice have led gradually to a greater sense of stability and perhaps paradoxically, increased porousness to the flux of experience; writing poetry is for me an attempt to bring this grounded and receptive sensibility into relationship through language, by evoking something which is rooted in embodied experience but is not purely personal.
For meditation practice to develop, or for a poem to speak beyond personal experience, I need to be present and to get out of the way at the same time. Being present and getting out of the way both require some degree of skill, and this is where meditation and writing poetry may be complementary: meditation helps to develop embodied awareness and understanding of how experience (and particularly the sense of ‘self’) is constructed and shaped by conditions; writing poetry is for me an attempt to walk the edge between inner and outer worlds, to find a voice which reaches beyond the purely subjective towards something which may be a shared experience.
In both practices I am learning to see more clearly how the self ‘gets in the way’ through reactive habit patterns, or alternatively where it is possible to sense a softening of the tendency towards ‘selfing’ and enter a more creative and responsive mode of being ... to ‘get out of the way’ and grope towards what in some ways remains ‘unsayable’: the sheer mystery and wonder of being here at all, or what Stephen Batchelor calls ‘the everyday sublime’. ⁂
Suzanne Trevains is a psychotherapist, a long-term dharma student and a graduate of the Committed Dharma Practitioner Programme (2009–10) run by the founding teachers of Bodhi College. She is inspired by the idea (attributed to Freud, but source unknown) that ‘everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me’. She lives in Bath in southwest England with her husband.
‘Make of yourself a light’ said Siddhartha …
By Suzanne Trevains
… knowing the darkness we are capable of
weaving out of life’s threads
and how much we resist
the uncomfortable certainties:
that everything changes
and all that we love we must lose
here by the morning river
with the early sun
forging a ferry of light
across the dappled water
it’s hard to believe
we’re on our own in this
maybe we are meant
to throw ourselves in
and come up breathing light
from the darkness
from the depths of the riverbed
maybe we were born to be
some kind of conduit
for the light of the world
to blaze with our own
little candle’s worth of lumens –
not for our own sake
but for all the small and extravagant gifts
that keep pouring out before us –
Bravely, we’re dipping our toes into social media.
Take a look at our initial attempts in Instagram
Next … Facebook
ALLOWING THE FELT SENSE TO FIND ITS VOICE
Using imagination to deepen daily experience
By Bill Gayner • mindfulfeeling.ca/about-bill-gayner
Two or three years ago, I dreamed I was riding bareback on a beautiful, big black horse down from the hills into a lovely town on the Mediterranean. The townsfolk waved to us, warm, friendly and welcoming.
In the dream, I didn’t understand how the horse was finding our way and was surprised by the people’s friendliness. I knew I was in the presence of a mystery with a life of its own that I did not understand. Despite my various anxieties, with each step we took, the dream kept returning me to this mystery, rediscovering how deeply trustworthy the horse and the situation were.
It took a while in waking life to explore and deepen my experiencing of the felt sense of the imagery in the dream before I began to articulate and participate more fully in the processes it encouraged and embodied. I continue to learn from it how, as philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin put it, ‘the living body is an interactive process with its environment and situation’.
The horse represents for me how consciousness and experiencing arises woven from multiple processes within and around us and how this co-constructed resonance with everything implies the next small step. In the dream, ‘everything’ included the horse, myself, the hills behind us, the welcoming townsfolk and their town and its port below, the shining sea and the sky.
Each step the horse took was a fluid, creative, transformative response to what the situation was implying, into a fresh interdependent wholeness. As Rumi said, ‘We come from the garden, to the garden’.
I am still learning how our ordinary movements, words, each next small step, seem to be responses to an emerging fluid, co-constructed wholeness, and how by deepening our appreciation of the ordinary creativity from which our lives emerge, we can participate more deeply in these processes in a way that transforms our engagement with the world.
Recently, I came to understand this dream as an expression of how mindful experiencing can be imbued with metta, that grounded, earthy, spacious friendliness towards everybody and everything. Stephen Batchelor describes beautifully in After Buddhism how by cultivating coming alive to our existential ground we find ourselves already interdependently constructed and deeply situated. Practicing in this way reflects Buddha’s last words: ‘Things fall apart, tread the path with care.’
I find inspiration in Stephen Batchelor and Winton Higgins’ practice of interpretive secular Buddhism and creative dharma, including how they draw on twentieth century philosophers, especially Martin Heidegger. I am exploring how mindfulness practice can benefit from how Gendlin carried forward Heidegger’s work. Gendlin wrote in his posthumous book Saying what we mean:
This philosophy is original with me, but of course I could not have arrived at it if I didn’t know the history of philosophy … My new way was to put the ancient concepts, strategies, and issues into a direct relation with implicitly intricate experiencing. I found that each philosophical approach can open avenues in the implicit experiencing, instead of cancelling the others out.
Gendlin showed how, as permeated as our bodies are by culture and language, our implicitly intricate experiencing always spills past cultural and categorical constraints, even in ordinary daily life, and cannot help but find expression in fresh language with new meanings, especially as we deepen our experiencing of these processes.
Like Heidegger’s student Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gendlin emphasised the importance of the body in experiencing, something absent in Heidegger. Gendlin worked to free people from blind adherence to systems, categories and dogmas that interfere with aliveness to how our bodies resonate with and are expressions of our environments and situations. He wanted to help us transform our thoughts and words from stereotyped cliches into ways of conveying freshly lived experiencing and meaning.
For Gendlin, all creatures including plants and single celled bacteria unfold through transformative responses to their total situation. For us humans, integrating embodied feeling and thinking deepens and carries these creative, transformative processes forward.
In the mid-twentieth century, through Gendlin’s studies of clients who benefit from psychotherapy, he described the experiential process of focusing, one of the practical applications of his philosophy of the implicit. Gendlin discovered that people who benefit from psychotherapy were already able in the first session to recognise when they do not know what they are feeling, and respond to this by pausing and allowing a rich implicit feeling about the situation to emerge and to find its own voice.
After a rich felt sense has arisen, practitioners of focusing look for words, imagery or metaphors that resonate with the felt sense and then use them to become even more sensitively aware of what they are feeling and what the total situation is implying.
Gendlin described how we can allow a rich, intricate, implicit feeling about a situation to arise and find its own voice in words, metaphors, imagery, dance or any creative expression in a way that deepens our experiencing. In that process a creative felt shift may occur, a fresh, transformative reorganisation of our implicit felt understanding that could not have been predicted but which, with reflection, moves us to respond to the whole situation in highly nuanced, effective ways. Decades of psychotherapeutic research indicate this is the transformative heart of any effective therapy, regardless of the modality.
Cultivating this capacity involves drawing on and amplifying creative processes that make ordinary life and speech possible. We learn to develop our natural capacities for communication, expression and a profound connection to ourselves, others and the world around us in creative ways. ⁂
Bill Gayner has meditated for over thirty five years. He developed Emotion-Focused Mindfulness Therapy (EFMT) and presents his work internationally. A registered social worker and psychotherapist at the Centre for Psychology and Emotional Health in Toronto, he is also the Mindfulness and Wellness Clinical Educator in the Health Arts and Humanities Program, at the University of Toronto.
In a sense, human beings remain childlike [as we mature]. We’re open to new learning and even very deep learning which changes your personality, right through the life cycle. Human beings remain playful and play is a very important part of learning. And experimental…. So learning is us.
– Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, is author of With a daughter’s eye, Angels fear: toward an epistemology of the sacred and Composing a life.
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NEW BOOK FROM TUWHIRI
Love you: public policy for intergenerational wellbeing
by Girol Karacaoglu
For philosopher Walter Kaufman, ‘I love you’ means:
‘I want you to live the life that you want to live. I will be as happy as you if you do; and as unhappy as you if you don’t.’
How would we design, implement and evaluate public policy if it were based on our love for future generations?
Making no claim to Buddhist inspiration, Girol Karacaoglu’s book nevertheless serves the Buddhist ethic of care in advocating coherent socioeconomic policies that will benefit people alive today, and those who will succeed us.
The next issue of Creative Dharma, a newsletter will go out in April. ⁂