Occupying Spirituality, Evolving Dharma
by John L. Murphy
Two books appearing this autumn connect “sacred activism” with principled, peaceful opposition to the dominant political and economic — as well as religious — system. Two years after Occupy Wall Street and hundreds of encampments and a few strikes, while the American prominence of the movement has faded, worldwide if scattered resistance continues. Focusing on domestic possibility, Matthew Fox and Adam Bucko in conversation relate their stories and create an agenda in Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation (Berkeley: North Atlantic, Sept. 3, 2013). Jay Michaelson shares their ideal, if from an arguably more specific perspective, as his title Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment (Berkeley: North Atlantic, Oct. 15, 2013) indicates. This review explores their intersections, and summarizes their visionary themes, beginning with the Occupy book.
Matthew Fox’s position may be better known. Now seventy-two, this post-Catholic, ex-Dominican priest left his Order after his nemesis Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) expelled him. Fox’s insubordination, and his defiant preaching of a gentle Creation Spirituality, counters the clerical patriarchy. This led to his current position as an elder statesman for a democratized, inclusive, tolerant community where lay men and women seek no permission to form an alternative to a moribund Church.
Adam Bucko, raised in Solidarity-era Poland, came of age with anarchists who represented another type of revolt against authority. Now thirty-seven, he immigrated to New York City in his late teens and busked in the subway. After a stint in an ashram abroad, he returned to minister to homeless youth as a co-founder of the Reciprocity Foundation. This offers a “post-religious” approach that encourages young people to recover from shattered lives. Then, however suits them, they incorporate solutions they choose to begin to heal themselves. Gradually, they learn to trust and help others to regain confidence.
Main Street, Fox sees, follows congruent circles, as folks look each other in the eye. Wall Street imposes a top-down model, full of ladders. Solidarity, opposed to hierarchy, thrives on a lateral network Bucko knows well from his childhood. Given Fox’s direction as a veteran architect of alternative arrangements and with Bucko’s energy as a motivated activist, the two chart a “spiritual democracy” that appeals to the burgeoning majority of “post-traditional” nonaffiliated youth who are “spiritual but not religious.” While “nones” may be open to contemplation, they may enter it far from a place of conventional worship. Originating from life rather than from concepts, this approach expects relevance. Rooted not only in the soul but in creativity, a via positiva and negativa of exploration, and insights through self-guided transformation, Fox and Bucko present their path of a “yoga” or “discipline” grounded in “art as meditation” and open to an eclectic entry into unexpected lifestyles offering portals to discovery.
Justice-based yet flexibly applied, celebratory while moral, this process evolves into a vocation, a calling. Although many counterparts to Bucko (and even if elder Fox does not admit it, many past Bucko’s cohort as well) lack permanent occupations or steady careers, the likelihood that hordes of free spirits will be able to uproot themselves to start over in their experimental urban communities may be quixotic. Much of this exudes a detached sensibility (Occupy is described often as if enduring and ongoing, which makes one curious about when this manuscript was drafted). Even with long-shot chances of success as real rules for radicals, it may serve as such texts have often done, as a manifesto.
“The earth is burning up, and Rome (and religion in general) is playing fiddle.” Fox confronts injustice and inequality in scattershot if memorable fashion, as a rebels do. He integrates his medieval (and Dominican) mentors Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart imaginatively in support of his impassioned renewal. He applies his fellow ex-Dominican, the poet William Everson, astutely to show the realization of a vocation, far beyond the definitions of the clergy or the celibate. Bucko blends the formation of homeless youth into his own personal quest. Both convincingly prod the reader to imagine a more fulfilled reinstatement of the insights gained from prayer and reflection before one must return to everyday duty. Both men strive to inspire others to not only meditate but to create, by relationships and at work, social equality and soulful equanimity. A cyclical rather than a linear direction points the way.
Another Fox, George, founded the Quakers. Matthew Fox agrees with George’s message: the mystical experience can be entered by all seekers. No ritual or gathering need exclude anyone. Intergenerational wisdom, mentoring, relationships, integrity all flourish from grace-filled inspirations, hearkening back in Fox’s lively credit given to a gay, bohemian, New York predecessor, Walt Whitman. Out of these ecumenical voices, joined by many shamans across and beyond denominations and lifestyles, a New Monasticism lived in rural or urban areas might be invented. Chastity could be replaced by a vow of sexual responsibility. Poverty turns to a just economy and restored ecology. Obedience shifts into a vow to advance democracy. Gordon Gekko (an analogy the authors missed) boasted a Wall Street reptilian brain, fixated on greed and need. The higher neural levels, evolved for mammals, encourage the kind of communal cooperation that “base communities” and urban renewal reveal as principled alternatives.
Occupy Spirituality ends as does Evolving Dharma. Both nod to Lama Surya Das. He adds an effusive afterword to the first book and his analogy sparks the reflections of the author of the second book under review. Lama Surya Das estimates that Western Buddhism now is but in its teens. This follows its Beat-hippie era infancy and its childish stages during the Me Decade and Generation X. It’s time to call for a responsible rite of passage into maturity among its still awkward North American practitioners.
Jay Michaelson credits this same Long Island-born guru for guidance into a less selfish, more ethical phase of Buddhism. Similar to the former Jeffrey Miller’s fusion of American sensibilities with Himalayan heritage, his near-neighbor (and contemporary of Bucko) Michaelson organizes his investigation of an engaged, politically savvy, and sensibly skeptical Buddhism by a traditional Tibetan pattern–surveying the ground, following a path, and coming to fruition. But Michaelson’s approach in Evolving Dharma departs from what typically will be found next to this briskly paced but well-documented study on a bookstore’s shelf. Rather than inspirational guff or dry scholarship, this blends personal with political outlooks. (As a boy he was nicknamed “Chatterduck”; his brainy but quirky narrative stays energetic.)
As a Ph.D. in Jewish thought, a law professor, a start-up entrepreneur, prolific author, and as a gay man who for years denied his sexuality, Michaelson applies his experiences through an insistent examination of the potential of meditation to change society. He attaches this to a platform for Buddhist alternatives designed for those dissatisfied with our corporate, consumerist, ecological, and economic injustices.
While he avoids reducing meditation to quietism, or spirituality to narcissism (he critiques if in a discreet endnote critics advocating this facile equation such as neo-Marxian materialist Slavoj Žižek), Michaelson displays a faith in meditation drawn from his own eager pursuit of Jewish Kabbalah and Buddhist “attainments.” Hindsight adds caution; his discussion of “mindhacking” as akin to muscle-building, and stimulating “regions of the brain associated with compassion and with self-regulatory activity” causing one to hold back before acting unwisely, may lead some to hesitate at Michaelson’s enthusiasm. Still, his abundant documentation cites neurological studies supporting his (admittedly contentious) claims.
He explores “feedback loops” compatible with Fox and Bucko’s approval of Occupy’s mass assemblies emerging into collective agreement. Michaelson links lateral organization and patient consensus to social as well as spiritual reform. He decries a “neo-macho hacker ethos” that drowns “soft” voices; he notes the restive, fractious nature of certain Buddhists online. This is the first book to my knowledge to acknowledge not only Buddhist Geeks and those who minister to the “dharma punx” or “hardcore Zen” versions of today’s sangha, but dissenters Glenn Wallis (Speculative Non-Buddhism) and Matthew O’Connell (Post-Traditional Buddhism). Michaelson does not push iconoclasm as far as the latter pair does, preferring to remain within semi-conventional if experimental or LGBT-compatible enclaves, but the range of those he includes provides a useful guide into diversity, beyond it as a cliché or buzzword.
Such “open source dharma” invites an escape from what Michaelson in meditation labels as “fetishizing the trigger.” Buddhists warn against confusing the finger pointing the way to the moon with the orb itself; as Michaelson reasons, “mistaking a state for It can have real political consequences.” His critical correction aligns with the refusal of Occupy Spirituality to cling to approved, hidebound solutions to new problems. Outmoded hierarchies, exotic rituals perpetuating another culture’s mentalities, dependence on pampered leaders, sexually predatory gurus, power structures that favor the privileged need not be reincarnated. Americans pursuing liberation can reject these attachments. Fundamentalism, as Fox learns the hard way in opposing the Vatican, thrives on separating one ritual, one religion, one experience as true and all others as false. Eventually an honest meditator (or an agitator) confronts his or her intransigence. Freed from conventional roles, actions to sustain deeper change may beckon.
This conservatism, a passive condition content with sit-ins if on a cushion more often than at barricades, has hobbled Buddhist transformation in the wake of a sometimes complacent counterculture. “’Be here now’ won; ‘strive diligently to gain your liberation,’ at least in a developmental sense, lost.” As a practical move forward from disengagement, able to balance solitude with activism, Michaelson champions Daniel Ingram’s pragmatic dharma, a “developmental model of awakening” even if as an eager Michaelson notes, he does not confuse the map for the territory, as he advances towards insight.
He tells of the “dark night” that opens up for those higher on the mystical climb he recounts. One wonders — as he hints in the use of “mindfulness” for executives that such exposure leads to dropouts from the Wall Street Fortune 500 rat race — what might be its bottom line impacts on the corporate drones as well as the worker bees. Mindfulness turns a commodity in healthcare, the military, careers, and education, and while Michaelson moves too rapidly across these applications, they merit reflection.
The ground for Michaelson stretches over American and Western adaptations of the dharma; the path aligns with his own ascent along the lonely trail of hard-won insights within silence and by self-discipline. The fruition results with reintegrating “contemplative wisdom” into the mundane world. He ambles around how much integration for an “always disappearing,” secularizing, evolving dharma the past 2500 years might be necessary in contemporary contexts. Enriched by his queer advocacy, Michaelson embraces the famously elusive concept of non-self. He concocts “spiritual viscosity” as his metaphor to generate less “friction” in his encounters with those who oppose his liberal thrust. He understands well from his legal expertise and academic training how fluid definitions sidle into changing identities of gender, sexuality, and fidelity. One aside lingers: given the persistence of sexual and financial abuses within the Buddhist community in the West as leaders entangle followers, Michaelson advises the BDSM community’s safe guidelines might serve as a template for those demanding induction into power-driven, guru-fixated relationships. He reminds readers that for mature adults in America, such roles seem outmoded, imported from a region or a mindset incompatible with democratic, egalitarian ideals.
“Non-hierarchical, participant-driven dharma” certainly intersects with Occupy, Fox’s Creation-centered spirituality, and Bucko’s street-wise enterprise. Michaelson concludes that his same-sex marriage equality activism exemplifies a method of face-to-face, if incremental, change. Fox and Bucko discussed the replacement of the reptilian Wall Street grasp with the Main Street mammalian embrace. Michaelson advises a lovingkindness meditation that reduces “reflexive anger” and “improves the capacity for compassion.” This modest, personal touch — dealing with stress by easing tension — strengthens the firm but pliable outreach which Occupy offers as our hope for unselfish ethical reform.
As with Occupy Spirituality, there persists in Evolving Dharma a sense of a hovering if rather shaded disconnect with daily life and job realities of most Americans. As Bucko and Fox must realize, in this job market, tens of millions will not quit the campus, the factory, corporation, local business, or big-box outlet to start over laboring for justice at a prototype of Fox’s New Monasticism such as Oakland’s Canticle Farm or within Bucko’s Reciprocity Foundation. Fox speaks as a wise “elder” to Bucko (and Michaelson’s) generation, but for those burdened by bills, bosses, and debt, what options remain for seekers who cannot follow Michaelson to retreat to a Nepalese monastery for months of silent sitting?
He aspires to install “better cognitive software in people of all political persuasions.” He ponders which of Aldous Huxley’s predictions will transpire. Island imagined “moksha” as a harmless chemical enlarging wisdom and compassion. Brave New World invented “soma” which “stupefies more than it enlightens.”
Michaelson strives to not only “bring the Dharma to the Occupy Movement as Adam Bucko described,” but to carry the “ethos” of anti-globalization movements, Burning Man, and other participant-created communities to the dharma. Whether this perpetuates or diminishes the marginalization of such grassroots, homespun, and small-scale efforts as Bucko’s foundation and Matthew Fox’s reaction against the coffers of Wall Street, the Brothers Koch, Silicon Valley, Citizens United, the Department of Defense, Obama’s $1.1 billion vs. Romney’s $1 billion campaigns, or the 72% cited by Fox as the amount spent in our economy on consumption remains to be seen by the discerning reader and reflective activist.
John L. Murphy, Ph.D. teaches college humanities in Long Beach, California. His research explores religious literary culture. He participated in Occupy LA.