Form is emptiness; emptiness is evolving. (Oelke 2019).
This quotation from Zen teacher David Loy has featured in discussions of “Metadharma”, a new approach to Buddhist practice being developed by the influential Buddhist Geeks sangha. Vincent Horn, its founder, defines Metadharma as “any approach to dharma practice that responds in some intentional way to the meta crisis that we face as a species” (Buddhist Geeks 2019a: 0’46”).
Metadharma holds that Buddhism needs a revamp because it cannot respond to present crises with the level of social engagement demanded. Buddhism’s original emphasis was upon realising emptiness as a means to escape suffering. “Now, indeed, you often abide in the abiding of a great man”, the Buddha congratulated Sariputta. “For this is the abiding of a great man, namely, voidness [emptiness]” (Bodhi 1995: 1143). Loy’s comment represents a different approach, alluding to the Heart Sutra as a reminder that emptiness and form are not separate, so if form is evolving then emptiness is evolving too. Therefore, to abide in emptiness is unfeasible as a response to the challenges posed by the world of form.
Yet this is not what we encounter in personal experience. After years spent investigating the ubiquity in everyday experience of the three characteristics (impermanence, suffering, and no-self), emptiness was realised when something else became apparent that never wanes, does not suck, is nothing at all, and yet is available to awareness. Part of the experience of emptiness is the direct intuition that it is indeed the same for all, and throughout all time.
Ken Wilber argues, however, that what we cannot see is precisely what points to the future direction of Buddhism (Buddhist Geeks 2019b, 2019c). Wilber draws a distinction between “waking up” and “growing up”. There is the realisation of emptiness, but there is also what we make of that realisation and how we integrate it into our lives and practice. Describing it as “the abiding of a great man” when actually it is the realisation of something that was always the case, and is available to every single person on earth, is a case in point. What we make of emptiness is determined by our stage of development with regard to many factors, such as education, culture, ethics, and our level of cognitive and emotional intelligence. All of these shape our experience, but none of them are visible from within it. Wilber makes the case for a new phase (a “fourth turning”) of Buddhism that incorporates practices for “growing up” and “cleaning up” alongside the traditional “waking up”.
Spiritual traditions grow and develop but they also fade and decay, so how do we tell if a new phase is truly a fresh development and not the corruption of something already on its way out? Evolution is a harrowing process. Living things evolve not because they are seeking to better themselves, but to survive. Every so-called “new phase” is also just a means to fend off death for a little while longer.
Emptiness is eternal, but living species die, and evolution is the process that kills as well as engenders them. To say “emptiness is evolving” suggests that emptiness is subject to evolution, but it is emptiness that allows evolution, because without emptiness there is no dependent origination, which means things could never manifest as things nor give rise to others if they were not in themselves inherently empty.
Perhaps Loy goes wrong with his unstated assumption that form is evolving. Certainly, living things evolve, but living things are not the totality of form. Neither subatomic particles, planets nor black holes seem to reproduce by natural selection. It is presently uncertain whether the universe will ultimately die a slow heat death or somehow recycle itself – the “Big Freeze” or the “Big Crunch” (NASA 2015). Living things must adapt to their material conditions to survive, but life and its environment are both aspects of form. Rather than evolving, form might instead be simply on a long hiding into nothingness, or locked in an eternally repeating cycle.
Presently, like many institutions, western Buddhism is under pressure and maybe clutching for a means to survive. Buddhist Geeks has espoused the postmodern view that all expressions of truth are partial, and the distrust of grand narratives that this entails. But when a tradition is under strain, it is difficult to imagine a response is not also an attempt to make one’s own narrative less partial. Metadharma, by including practices for personal development and social engagement, seems to be taking on functions more traditionally associated with the education system or a political movement. Although this may attract more outwardly diverse practitioners, it will likely generate greater homogenisation in terms of liberal values and politics. Might this not end up contributing to the current trend towards polarisation?
My route into spirituality and the occult was largely through the tradition of chaos magick. In case it seems I am smugly criticising western Buddhism, chaos magick (and perhaps the occult in general) is in an even worse mess. Because of its emphasis on technique and lack of a coherent worldview, chaos magick is not even a spiritual tradition as such. It just so happened I had the good fortune to be guided towards the discovery that its techniques can lead to genuine spiritual experiences, when coupled with an intention to produce these.
In more recent years the founder of chaos magick has adopted increasingly nationalist views (Carroll 2020); in Russia, Alexander Dugin has used the techniques and iconography of chaos magick in the service of far-right Eurasian nationalism; and similarly, in the USA, Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer have employed meme magick among the alt-right to help Donald Trump into power (Lachman 2018). Given all this turmoil and confusion, I was not surprised to hear the following in a recent episode of the Weird Studies podcast:
All those chaos magicians who think that […] magick should be available to anyone […] Magick spells are guns […] You’ve read “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”: chaos will ensue […] So I guess that’s what chaos magicians want. (Ford & Martel 2020: 1hr22’25”)
The dilemmas of western Buddhism are mild in comparison with the challenges facing chaos magick: appropriation by the far right, and a not unwarranted association with unethical behaviour. Yet there seems to have been no public debate within chaos magick regarding an appropriate response. So far, the problem has been ignored, which maybe chimes with the core values of the movement: magick as simply a set of techniques, available to anyone for any purpose they choose.
Chaos magick and western Buddhism have provided me with major points of reference regarding my spiritual practice and ethical values. But as the war of all against all hots up, both traditions are under pressure, perhaps about to fall apart at the seams. Chaos magick has been invaded by the right; western Buddhism seems set on transforming into a bastion of liberalism. But the changes to both seem to be detracting from the practices and values that attracted me in the first place.
Emptiness is not evolving; form is that which, because it is emptiness, can pass away and die. Chaos magick continues to provide wonderful techniques for creating form from intention, and Buddhism has always provided useful instruction on how (in many senses) to die well. What formerly was provided from the outside by these traditions, in the future we may need to embody for ourselves from within.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu, translator (1995). Pindapataparisuddhi sutta: the purification of almsfood [MN 151]. In: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Buddhist Geeks (2019a). Metadharma: introduction and framing. https://youtu.be/fYjKa-6nQ6o (youtube.com). Accessed October 2020.
Buddhist Geeks (2019b) Toward a fourth turning, part one, with Ken Wilber. https://tinyurl.com/y3vg4xc6 (art19.com). Accessed October 2020.
Buddhist Geeks (2019c) Toward a fourth turning, part two, with Ken Wilber. https://tinyurl.com/y6zzztey (art19.com). Accessed October 2020.
Carroll, Peter (2020). End June 2020. https://tinyurl.com/y46vb5no (specularium.org). Accessed October 2020.
Ford, Phil & J.F. Martel (2020) Weird studies episode 82 – on the I Ching. https://tinyurl.com/y5xe5655 (weirdstudies.com). Accessed October 2020.
Lachman, Gary (2018). Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. New York: TarcherPerigree.
NASA (2015). What is the ultimate fate of the universe? https://tinyurl.com/yxm2yyb3 (nasa.gov). Accessed October 2020.
Oelke, Ryan (2019). Empty and evolving. https://tinyurl.com/y24oyw27 (awakeninginlife.guide). Accessed October 2020.