Will wrote:Namdrol, what a dopey notion that renunciation is impossible because of modern afflictions. I must be missing something.
What exactly do you mean by renunciation?
actually, it's a very serious idea and not dopey at all
. the notion in classical Buddhist teachings is that renunciation becomes harder and harder over time in cycles - as early as Buddhaghosa, Buddhist commentators are cataloging the stages of the decline of Buddhism (and the concomitant dilution of the power of renunciation).
if you find that classical approach hard to swallow, then a different way of looking at it - one that convinced me to take it more seriously - is by population growth, urbanization and increasing depth of distractions. basically, 2500 years ago the human population of the world was roughly half a billion. at the same time, urbanization was weaker than it is now and the type
of urbanization was significantly different.
with less of the world terminally committed to urban systems, the scope for living outside of the urban structures is greater. in other words, there are more non-urban, peri-urban and part-urban lifestyles thrown into every community mix, and so the scope for being simply non-urban
is much, much greater. the reason this is important is because urbanization is quite bad for us - it goes hand in hand with (a) a much, much greater mercantile focus, and (b) a much greater utilization of an individual's time in highly structured routines. both of these qualities directly counter effective renunciation in obvious ways - the former focuses the individual on attachment, and the second utilizes his or her time intensely and habitually without time for a balance to be rediscovered. worse, it's not merely that the time is used, but that the unallocated time is spent recovering from the allocated time.
in fact, urbanization is so bad for humans in so many ways that when the biologist and ecologist Jared Diamond was asked what was the worst mistake humans beings have made he replied "the agricultural revolution" merely on the grounds that it made urbanization possible.
the modern world has taken this to an extreme and tied all of us into working as wage-slaves in a highly urbanized, highly systematized commercial economy, merely for food. the scope for wandering, free from the fetters of the past, free from the fetters of the future (as the first Buddhist sangha did) is nil. in our reality, the only people who come close to this freedom in terms of pure logistics are the homeless and beggars. this is important because the complete freedom from planning, from thoughts of the past and future, the dedicated time for immersive meditation, the relinquishment of any clinging to both desires and the actual objects of desire in practice (not merely in aspiration) is repeatedly mentioned by the Buddha in the sutras: it is these freedoms that make the practice come to life, he says. so the web of urbanization works against effective renunciation in a very serious way.
then, there is population growth itself - in tandem with increasing urbanization has come increasing population growth. the effect of that has been to (a) make it harder to find real solitude and (b) clutter the airwaves. the first is easy to describe, being simply the fact that as there are more and more people, you tend to bump into them more and more. another way of looking at this is as the problem of "away". if you really think about it, the history of human beings has been the history of "away". whenever people didn't like where they were, they went away, and since they were often like-minded, the places they settled tended to be formed around ideas that were different to the place they left. so, historically, "away" meant that there would always be lots of diversity in human communities and (as any ecologist will tell you) diversity in a system is a sign of strength. in modern times, we've used up all the "aways", and we are headed towards a mono-culture of commerce and urban acquisition. with all the "aways" being used up, real solitude is harder to find and to become established in. the second part is harder to swallow, but i have - if we accept that this realm is is the composite creation of the beings that experience it, then the more beings experiencing it the harder it is for one of them to shake it off. there is a type of focusing of the attention that comes with large groups of animals and we're not that immune.
lastly, the specific type of urbanization we're undergoing is frighteningly new in the world. there has never before been a global practice of attempting to inculcate shades of desire and gluttony (marketing and advertising), never before been such extraordinary (and evil?) sophistication in the quality of analysis applied to keeping us infantile, chewing, sucking, reaching, holding and crying. never before has there been such an orchestrated sensory overload of films,television, live spectacles and so on, consisting of sharp visuals, movement, color, pervasive sexual imagery, constant violence, loud shocking sounds, all adrenaline inducing and all supported by specific analysis of our neurology. even more amazing, the objects that we have as part of our lives (even the good ones and the useful ones) are specifically tailored to bypass our discriminatory consciousness and push all our buttons. a kettle has long since stopped being a utilitarian thing (a pot for tea) and every kettle is now entombed in a marketing campaign that promises you eternal youth for using it.
so even if you are modern renunciate, in a monastery, some part of your day is spent planning for the future, some part analyzing the past, because the monastery has to exist in this kind of world. so some part of your day is spent accounting, some budgeting, some fund-raising. some part of your day is aware of cell-phones that are designed to be suited to your needs, some to workstations or laptops, some to flight schedules, online booking services, some to office work, and so on. each of these objects and activities comes with a string of needs and mundane context, planting a fifth column of ordinary attachment in your mind stream, and working against the power of your renunciation.
if you read the Pali Canon, people are getting enlightened all the time. they hear something, enter the Path of Seeing or its equivalent immediately, and are pretty much on track with not a lot left to do. it makes sense to me that the reasons that there are such afterwords and footnotes and codicils to the sutras, are because people had both the mental space (the freedom from a highly sophisticated intrusion of urbanization and commerce into their personalities and from a sensory assault like none that ever been seen before) as well as the physical space to set off into and bring their experience into completeness. so they did.
that we are not seeing that anymore, is an effect of the changing state of the world. this is not much different from the classical notion of Buddhist decline. just a decline clothed in our everyday experience.
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