In Lacanian theory, the Real is “that which is before and beyond language”. That which suddenly appears and shatters the Imaginary trance of the status quo, i.e. the Shock of the Real. That which is not caught up in the Symbolic Order of the Father, of which the Symbolic Order par excellence is Religion. The Buddhist Symbolic Order of the Guru-Father is the regime of traditional Buddhist philosophy. Such as Emptiness and Mind-Only (Cittamatra). Such as “nothing that appears real is real in essence.” Such as “the phenomenal world has no self-nature.” Such as “reality is like a dream.”
Try teaching the “liberation of Emptiness” to over a million people in Nepal who are facing rolling earthquakes, mass death, crushing disabling injuries, starvation, disease and homelessness. I wonder how their shamatha meditation is going these days?
The Shock of the Real is the Zen keisaku, the stick used by the jikijitsu, the meditation instructor, to whack the meditator in the back to straighten the spine, to shock them out of spiritual sleepiness into the acrid stench of reality. To wake the fuck up.
We are watching the Ancien Régime of Buddhism being bulldozed and crushed into dust by a rolling series of earthquakes ranging from 6.6 to 7.9 on the Richter scale, followed by “a seemingly endless series of aftershocks” at earthquake levels of destructive power. And it’s not over yet. The Toronto Star reports that “the worst may not be over”:
Immense seismic pressure is still building up along the Nepal-India border, and, “The stress which was developing west of this earthquake has not been released,” says Kumar, Southeast Asia regional co-ordinator for the non-profit group that assesses quake risks worldwide. (Toronto Star, April 27, 2014 http://t.thestar.com/…)
The ancient Buddhist temples, sculptures and temple arts, ancient monasteries and holy places are being crushed into the dust of history. This is a profound loss for Buddhists and for the world. We need to honour and grieve what we are losing in Nepal.
But the infinitely-more painful reality to grieve is that the poorest people of Nepal are also being crushed into the dust. Who could not wince and clutch their chest at news photos of a child whose legs are permanently broken, a woman whose spine was damaged who will never walk again. Who could not feel anguish at the immediate threat of running out of food and drinkable water. Who would not be speechless at the sight of exhausted doctors and nurses working around the clock in surgical theatres to save the wounded, under tents made of bed sheets, set up in the streets to avoid the debris of falling buildings. Who would not cry inside at the sight of people pawing through rubble to find their loved ones, of dead bodies lined up in the streets, of mass cremations to prevent disease. Who would not despair at the sight of whole villages buried in landslides, the tens of thousands of poor Nepalis who have lost their homes with no means to replace them. Who could not feel the anguish of thousands living in crowded tent villages in public squares, in the pouring rain, too afraid to return to the shelter of buildings that are still standing and “unaffected” for fear of another collapse. No one and nothing has been “unaffected” by this rolling earthquake.
My suspicion, or vain hope, is that as a result of this earthquake, modern Buddhism will never be the same. Nepal is the birthplace of Buddhism, as the Buddha himself was said to have been born there. As the tectonic plates of the Indian subcontinent push under the plates of the Himalayas, the Buddhist ground will be permanently shifted and advanced in a new direction. As the Ancien Régime is swept away, space is opened up for a new Buddhist consciousness to take its place.
Accordingly, just as the earthquake in Nepal erupts as the Return of the Real, it is also fused at the atomic level with the true meaning of compassion. Compassion, it’s true meaning and practice, is uncovered and revealed as bricks and cement slabs are pulled away from piles of rubble to reach the sound of a human cry beneath. Compassion is not “teaching people the correct view of Emptiness.” It is quenching the thirst of the dispossessed with drinkable water. It is being carried on a stretcher to a doctor who might save your leg from being sawed off. It is huddling with your children under a wet plastic tent over bowls of steaming rice. It is not sitting in meditative isolation “working with your mind”. It is, as the Dalai Lama keeps saying, “human warmth and kindness.” It is connecting with people, connecting with the intense suffering of the people all around you. It is embracing suffering, because if you don’t embrace the full reality of this suffering, you may not survive it.