Ministry for the Future

Dear subscribers, i sent this invitation to our local (Manitoulin Island) email group this morning, and decided to include you as well.

I’d like to invite you to a new book club for readers of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future. It’s set in the immediate future on planet Earth, and the fictional situation is very much like what’s going on around us now.

It’s a gripping story with ecological, psychological, technological, political, ethical and spiritual dimensions. The chapters are mostly short, each with its own point of view, reflecting the diversity of human (and other) viewpoints. The book is widely available in print, Kindle and audiobook formats if you can’t find a copy to borrow.

There are various format options for the book club meetings too. I’m thinking of an in-person gathering at my place (the Honora Bay Free Theatre), perhaps every second Saturday morning, but this can be combined with a Zoom meeting at the same time for those far from Honora Bay (or even from Manitoulin Island). This can continue regardless of changes in public health guidelines.

That regular time and venue won’t be a good fit for everyone, so we could also have pop-up sessions at other times and places (and/or via Zoom) as requested by club members. If needed, I can set up an email list so members can inform each other about upcoming sessions. There is of course no charge and no obligation for club members, except to respect each other’s viewpoints during the conversations. I imagine it might take a few months to talk our way through the book, starting about two weeks from now.

If you are interested, let me know by replying privately to this and i’ll get back to you.

Forthcoming works

My ongoing revision of Turning Signs now includes the first 12 chapters. Along the way, it’s persuaded me that the book contains some important ideas relevant to the personal and systemic transformations we are all living through these days. Later on, I’m hoping to make some of those ideas more accessible through this blog. (More visually oriented, for one thing.)

In the meantime I’m looking forward to a couple of forthcoming books that have been recently announced. One of them is by Jeremy Lent, who’s been quoted here before: it’s called The Web of Meaning and will probably explore some of the same territory as Turning Signs. I expect his approach to it will be different from mine, which focusses on core ideas drawn from Charles Peirce’s philosophy of signs. So it will be interesting to see how much the two approaches agree on scientific, cultural and ethical issues.

Another forthcoming book of great interest is Richard Heinberg’s Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. If you follow that link and pre-order it, as i did, you get online access to a pre-release version. Based on my reading of it so far, it’s another wide-ranging interdisciplinary book about the biological and cultural evolution of power among humans. By studying the uses and abuses of power, it will draw some conclusions about how we might deal with the economic/ecological mess we humans have gotten ourselves into.

I’m happy to see that both Lent and Heinberg seem to honor the roles of both scientific and religious (or “spiritual”) experience in shaping human habits. There have always been people who were more science-minded than religious, and religious people who tended to distrust scientific thinking, and dogmatically driven people on both sides, but i’ve always found this mutual animosity lacking in common sense. Turning Signs delves fairly deeply into both scientific and religious experience, and the differences between them (see Chapter 8). My own research leaves me with no doubt that both are vital to human guidance systems, as i call them. That’s one example of an affinity i see between Jeremy Lent’s work and Richard Heinberg’s, and my own. But i trust that i’ll learn something new from them too.

more community resources

Thanks to my friend Hugh Smiley for posting an informative comment on my “Social Transformation” post. I’ve added a couple of links to it, including one to the Bahá’í International Community, an NGO representing the international level of the Bahá’í emphasis on community building. There’s also a Canadian Bahá’í website on building community.

In connection with the point about “tackling the root causes of acceleration and growth — the feedback loops that cause most of today’s ecological and social crises”, i can also recommend the current series of Crazy Town podcasts, which focus on the “hidden drivers” of the rush to consume the planet which is threatening all of us Earthlings.

In the between

My slow revision of Turning Signs has now reached the beginning of Chapter 6. Chapter 5 took longer than expected, but the good news is that it’s not only better but a bit shorter than it was before. The downloadable version of the complete book has been updated as of yesterday.

This revision has been sparked by the continuing dialogue between some ancient scriptures and recent reflections on the transition. I’ve been studying Robert Thurman’s book on the Bardo Thödol (known in the West as the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”) – and hearing Laurie Anderson’s beautiful rendition of Songs from the Bardo as well. Thurman explains that the root meaning of bardo in Tibetan is “the between,” and the vast bardo literature reflects a conceptual scheme which ‘is used to create in the practitioner a sense that all moments of existence are “between” moments, unstable, fluid, and transformable into liberated enlightenment experience’ (Thurman 1994, 34). So wherever we are in spacetime, we are in the between.

I’ve also been reading a collection of very recent essays called The New Possible, and to give a taste of it, here’s an excerpt from Jeremy Lent’s contribution:

As long as government policies emphasize GDP growth and transnational corporations relentlessly pursue shareholder returns, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe. These practices ransack the Earth without regard to long-term effects. If we are truly to “shift course away from our failing trajectory,” the new era must be defined, at its deepest level, not merely by the political or economic choices we make, but by a transformation in the very way we make sense of the world, and by a concomitant revolution in our predominant values.

The depiction of humans as selfish individuals, the view of nature as a resource to be exploited, and the idea that technology alone can fix our biggest problems are all profound misconceptions that have collectively led our civilization down this madcap path to disaster. We must recognize the destructive nature of the dominant mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming, embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services. We must emphasize core human values of fairness, justice, and compassion as paramount—extending them through local neighborhoods to state and national government, to the global community of humans, and ultimately to the community of all life.

In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth accumulation to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization. A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have only been two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.

The New Possible: Visions of Our World beyond Crisis (p. 5-6). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

It’s all one transformation.

Gratitude

In this Day the inner ear exclaimeth and saith: Indeed well is it with me, today is my day, inasmuch as the Voice of God is calling aloud.

The assembly of students in the hall should blend like milk and water to support the activity of the way. Although now for some period you are either guest or host, later you will be buddha ancestors equally throughout time. Therefore, you should not forget the feeling of gratitude. It is rare to meet one another and practice what is rare to practice. This is called the body and mind of buddha dharma; you will certainly become a buddha ancestor.

— Dogen, ‘Regulations for the Auxiliary Cloud Hall at the Kannondori Kosho Gokoku Monastery’ (Tanahashi 2010, 39-40)

Bodysigns

All thought is in signs.
— Peirce (EP1:24)
All things have no signs:
This is the real body of Buddha.
Avatamsaka Sutra (Cleary 1984, 380)
The usage of the sign ‘sign’ in this sutra seems to differ from the Peircean or semiotic usage deployed in Turning Signs. Thich Nhat Hanh (2017) associates it with distinction-making, and ‘signlessness’ with interbeing and impermanence:
A sign is what characterizes the appearance of something, its form. If we recognize things based on their sign, we may think that this cloud is different from that cloud, the oak tree is not the acorn, the child is not the parent. At the level of relative truth, these distinctions are helpful. But they may distract us from seeing the true nature of life, which transcends these signs. The Buddha said, “Where there is a sign, there is always deception.” With the insight of interbeing we can see there is a profound connection between this cloud and that cloud, between the acorn and the oak, between parent and child.
— Hanh, The Art of Living (p. 45)
All things have no signs is a sign, namely a proposition. Is it true?

If that cloud up there has a sign, its form has a name, a label. Semiotically, the subject of the proposition has a predicate attached to it. But this attachment is deceptive. Even if we don’t call it (recognize it as) a “cloud,” we might see it as a particular thing having a visual form, but that momentary form is in no way essential to it, doesn’t really belong to it. It is only a “cloud” – or whatever we call it in whatever language we are speaking – in relation to us, to our bodyminds. It has no name or form that is essential to it, just as you have no essential self.

On the other side, that cloud is ‘a phenomenal manifestation of ourselves,’ just like any and everything which is present to us. It doesn’t have a real name or sign, but it may be a sign, of rain for instance, or of the direction of the wind up there. Likewise we might say that it is a form of water, and see the ‘profound connection’ between it and other bodies of water, including the contents of our own skin-bags. This is how we read the signatures of all things: we read them as signs, not as having signs or fixed identities. In genuine mindfulness we see through signs just as we see through deceptions.

How do we do that? Here is Dogen’s Zen advice:

For practicing Zen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Put aside all involvements and suspend all affairs. Do not think good or bad. Do not judge true or false. Give up the operations of mind, intellect, and consciousness; stop measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views. Have no designs on becoming a buddha. How could that be limited to sitting or lying down?
— ‘Fukanzazengi’ (Leighton and Okumura 2004, 533)
Is there any connection between this practice and phaneroscopy? Peirce used the word phaneron ‘to denote the total content of any one consciousness (for any one is substantially any other), the sum of all we have in mind in any way whatever, regardless of its cognitive value’ (EP2:362). Could it be that ‘the phaneron’ is another name for ‘the real body of Buddha,’ or for what Dogen called ‘One Bright Pearl’?

Can this question be investigated?

The investigator would have to practice both phaneroscopy and zazen, and be fluent in both Peircean and Buddhist terminologies.

Is it possible to investigate such a question while practicing zazen or phaneroscopy?

Fayan, Great Zen Master of Qingliang Monastery, said, “If you see that all forms are beyond forms, you don’t see the Tathagata.”
These words by Fayan are words of seeing the Buddha. When we examine these words, they stand out and extend their hands. Listen to his words with your ears. Listen to his words of seeing the Buddha with your eyes. …
See thoroughly that all forms are Tathagata forms and not beyond forms. See the Buddha in this way, make up your mind, realize trust, and maintain these words. Chant these words and become familiar with them.
Thus, keep seeing and hearing these words with your ears and eyes. Have the words drop away in your body, mind, bones, and marrow. Have the words seen through your mountains, rivers, and entire world. This is the practice of studying with buddha ancestors.
Do not think that your own words and actions cannot awaken your own eye. Turned by your own turning words, you see and drop away your own turning of buddha ancestors. This is the everyday activity of buddha ancestors.
— Dogen, SBGZ ‘Kembutsu’ (Tanahashi 2010, 597-8)

Emerging world

Living through this pandemic has given many of us a chance to slow down and reconsider what “normal” life is, or could be, for us. We’re facing systemic changes that affect us all as we try to sustain our physical, mental and spiritual resilience. We’re living a transition that could be a turning point for life on Earth, at every level from global to household. I think it helps to talk this over in small groups from time to time, even while we practice physical distancing. So i’m hosting a transition conversation, via Zoom, at 7 pm Eastern this Tuesday evening, April 28.

If anyone reading this wants to join in from your computer, tablet or phone, send me an email, and i’ll send you back a link which, when you click on it at meeting time, will take you into the conversation. You’re receiving this email because you’ve subscribed to my Turning Signs blog or the Resilient Manitoulin group. (Please don’t forward to others.)

One question i’ve been wondering about lately is what we on Manitoulin can (and can’t) do to “localize” by shortening our supply chains – for instance, to make our food supply more local and less dependent on factory farms and agribusiness giants. I hope that others will bring their own questions to the conversation – bearing in mind that none of us has all the answers.

If this kind of “live” conversation is not your cup of herbal tea, but you want to use other online resources to explore the larger systemic contexts of your choices, Pam and I at gnusystems recommend the Think Resilience course (https://education.resilience.org/product/self-directed-course/ ) which is still offered for free by the Post Carbon Insitute. Also their Crazy Town podcasts (https://www.postcarbon.org/crazytown/ ), which always get us laughing even as our minds boggle at what’s going on in the world.

Mission Possible?

Sometimes you have to rest in silence for awhile before you can start again with something to say.

When I describe Turning Signs as a ‘philosophical essay,’ this is what I have in mind:

Philosophy is systematic reflection on our existence, seeking to answer questions like “What is our place in the cosmos?” or “How should we best live our lives?” For many philosophers – very much including the Greeks who stood at the beginnings of western philosophy – the asking and answering of such questions was part of a philosophical way of life: that is, philosophy is not confined to abstract, intellectual pursuits but is implemented in one’s daily life.

— Stephen C. Angle and Justin Tiwald, Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction (2017, Kindle location 407)

This is also what I had in mind when I started Chapter 1 of Turning Signs:

Suppose you’ve been selected for a secret mission.

Supposing means imagining a certain situation in order to see what follows from it. It doesn’t commit us to believing that you really are in that situation. You are free to imagine other possible situations. Maybe you have no ‘mission’ in life, no specific “role” to play in the world drama, no “destiny” or destination pulling you in any particular direction. Maybe ‘missions’ are nothing but figments of the human imagination. Or maybe you do have a ‘mission’ but it’s no secret: you know exactly what it is and you could spell it out in 25 words or less. Maybe you were born to do exactly what you are doing to “make a living,” as we say. But I didn’t invite the reader to suppose either of those situations, because they don’t seem to generate the kind of philosophical questions that Angle and Tiwald refer to above, the questions that seem most real to me (and, I suppose, to any reader likely to get very far in Turning Signs).

When I ask you to suppose you’ve been selected for a secret mission, I am not asking you to believe that any person or agency (divine or human or corporate) selected you for your ‘mission’ or your ‘mission’ for you. You might have selected it yourself, consciously or not, or your situation might result from a process of natural selection. Of course, being a user of language (and probably other symbolic media), your mission is also rooted in cultural selection. But a culture is itself an outgrowth of nature. Cultural systems evolve just as biological and ecological systems do, following the same natural principles – with the addition of an emergent level of consciousness that enables deliberate choices to be made. A crucial part of that cultural selection process is supposing that imagined possibilities can be “realized” and anticipating the consequences that would follow.

Another crucial part of the cultural selection process, especially for those of us living the time of the 21st Century, is reflection on how our cultures have developed the forms and core concepts which are now dominant on this planet, and how those core concepts might need to change in order to avoid the collapse of the natural systems that sustain us all. This kind of reflection is implicit in Turning Signs, but I’ve just been reading another book which addresses the question more explicitly: The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, by Jeremy Lent. It’s inspired me to reflect on some of the core concepts of Turning Signs in future blog posts. Maybe it won’t make a difference to the future of humanity, but maybe that’s not my mission anyway.