The Future is Unknown

Here we are at the beginning of a new year. Perhaps more so than in other recent years, a sense of uncertainty hangs in the air. The fact that the most powerful country in the world is to have a new government and nobody has much idea what it will actually do, creates a sense of suspense. The incoming regime appears to be less predictable than any in living memory. Will it just turn out to be more of the same, or is something really new going to happen? Will it be a five day wonder, or is some sustained change in the offing? Nobody knows.

In fact, this circumstance merely highlights the situation that we are always in. The future is unknown. It is, however, not enough to just stop at this truism: it is a matter to wonder upon. It is a paradox, since what happens in the future is bound to be very substantially conditioned by what has happened in the past and the past is already fixed and, in a sense, known. Yet our ability to derive from it reliable prediction of what is to come is astonishingly slight.

Shortly after the American election result had been announced, I read a small item by an American intellectual considered to be an authority on political affairs in which he talked about having had tea at an early stage in the electoral campaign with a distinctly non-intellectual, elderly relative in which this aunt had expressed complete confidence in a Donald trump victory. He, the expert, had tried to tell her that she really did not understand politics or the various factors involved that made it highly unlikely that Trump would win, but all to no effect. She remained of the same apparent certainty. In the article he was, of course, reflecting upon the fact that sometimes the apparently 'ignorant' person knows best.

Surfing the Waves of History

Retrospectively one can make sense of history and see processes unfolding that one cannot see at the time. We are all conditioned not only by our individual histories, but by the unfolding history of our people and of the whole world. Individual initiative makes a small difference here and there, but rarely, if ever, changes the larger scale movement. Great individuals are those who ride a wave. They may have an individual skill in doing so, but they did not make the wave. We all surfboard upon the ocean of history, some more and some less competently, but we are ignorant of the source or destination of the waves. We cannot be masters of the wind above, nor the currents below.

In our Western culture, one powerful wind has been the ever increasing exaltation of the self. The person who rode this wave more conspicuously was, perhaps, the philosopher Descartes, and his establishment of the self as the foundation of philosophy, together with his indication of that self's experience of clarity and certainty as the foundation of knowledge, has progressively penetrated popular consciousness to the point where we are saturated with a seeming certainty that it is oneself that is the criterion of everything to the point where, to many, this is self-evident truth. Only one's own here and now moment exists, apparently. It is hard to imagine a more misleading fiction, yet this has become a cornerstone of the house of modern life. It is the tsunami wave upon which contemporary culture rushes forward, to what tragic end we can only guess.

Awakened to Ignorance

The greatest wisdom is the discovery of the full implication of ignorance. This knowledge of ignorance is the eternally open secret. Only those who enter into it gain the know-how that liberates. In our ignorance we construct fictions (samskara pratyaya avidya). These fictions can be immensely useful or at least usable for good or ill. They are the narratives that frame our lives, fabric spun from former yarns. Hearing this, the ordinary person seeks for a way to be free of such hypnotism, but the wise person draws a more profound moral. This deeper moral is to the effect that there is no method of escape, yet the intuition of the liberated state is still unavoidable. Thus there is a necessary dualism between how we know ourselves to be and our intuition of a divine transcendence that we can know of yet never attain. The dynamic of a 'spiritual' life is powered by the tension between these poles. Not only can we know of it, we can know that it must be the case that, even as we are, we must be, in a way ungraspable to ourselves, already inhabiting it.

Thus “sin is behovable yet all shall be well” - a knowledge that is profoundly consoling, permitting one to live in faith, completely accepted by the universe even all the while unaccepting of oneself. Herein lie a heap of well-known paradoxes. The great saint is more conscious of his sin than the rank sinner. The true savant is more aware of the limit of his knowledge and of the enormity of what lies beyond than is the untutored reader of the tabloid press. The noble person is the one who embraces the incommodiousness of life as the mud out of which the lotus grows.

We cannot see the year ahead, but it will hold the same opportunities for living a noble life or its opposite, for finding joy and liberation or for defeat. We are conditioned through and through and yet in the one important matter we are free.

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Replies to This Discussion

Happy Birthay David !!! Feliz cumpleaños y feliz 2017 !!

Thankyou David. Re-reading 'Buddhism is a Religion' as we enter the new year, and more thankful than for the ever for the practicality and accessibility of the understanding of spirituality that it - and this - presents. It also struck me, reading this, that it's not only 'great individuals' who ride the waves of history...or that really, there's no better way to understand the unlikely sweep to power of a certain solipsistic American tycoon than that he has caught a wave whose size and force almost all of the pundits (but clearly not all of the grandmothers) missed... as might be said of a certain English friend of his. But isn't there a sort of reciprocity at work in this? In riding the wave, we contribute to its energy, for good or ill, and in the case of a 'great individual', if we use that word very neutrally as meaning only someone of widespread and lasting influence,  they may quite strongly influence the direction and character of the wave that carries them?

Perhaps not. The surfer diminishes the wave by a minute degree, but is essentially flotsam. "If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same..."

No doubt Trump thinks that it is his own prescience or even genius that has landed him where he is, but what will he think when the same wave dumps him? I suspect that by acting out the energy of the spirit of our times we diminish it and hasten the tipping point at which the tide changes, though the amount by which we do so is not great. If anything, Trump will hasten processes that are already at work. At the macro-social level I tend to see these as being the exhaustion of American power and the corresponding reconfiguration of the Middle East and East Asia, all coupled with a worsening ecological situation. Prediction, however, is a hazardous business. 

Is it not endogenous to our culture to over-estimate the individual? History rolls on. Yet, from the spiritual point of view, the individual perspective is important, but not in the same way. The sage might be riding a historic wave - an 'Axial Age' - but more likely not. Generally they 'sell water by the river' with very few buyers, even though those who might partake are all dying in the desert for want of direction. The practitioner may need spirit in order to teach the masses, but more commonly needs patience, content to live an unknown life, enlightened amidst his cabbage patch, sharing his gold with an occasional visitor but not much more. Ekagata - singular, unmoved by the changing winds, yet moved by a higher power.

The 'great individuals' are generally not so individual. They speak for the times and are a voice for the mass. Their intelligence serves to crystalise rather than create.

Looking back I see in this comment of mine an appalling mix of metaphors, but I think you get my meaning.

I've been coming to this reply for a couple of days now. Thank you. In relation to current developments, it feels oddly reassuring. Cheering, even. Or at least, an invitation to cool off the heat generated by the media's endlessly individual-fixated endless personality politics.

Yes, none of these people have themselves created the circumstances that provide the occasion for their 15 minutes of fame. And the curious thing about even the most alarming large-scale changes, or speculative predictions of change ('abrupt climate change' perhaps the most thought-stopping, for me) is what they don't, in fact, change.

'Not everything is impermanent.'

I went to a most wonderful performance by the storyteller Martin Shaw, last autumn. He took the 150 odd people assembled people in a barn on Dartmoor through a two-hour tale of hope, loss of hope, dismemberment and death - then resurrection, renewal - maturity, maybe. At the end he spoke a kind of spell, that seemed to recapitulate the whole tale (The Crow King and the Red Bead Woman, a Siberian tale I think):

'Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.'

Not sure I've ever so many people weep at once. In our bones we know what matters to us, even when we seem to have forgotten.

Many thanks, and a birthday cheer,

Namo Amida Bu

Thanks, Mat.

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