Let’s face it–living in a real community is a very difficult thing to do. Building a community is even more difficult! Yet this is what some have proposed as the only solution to our dire times. Most recently Chris Hedges, in a short essay detailing how bad things look to him, proposed that our only hope lies in a kind of resistance movement emanating from what he calls small “monastic communities.”
According to him there is no political solution to our dilemmas and our deeply incoherent ideologies and our pervasive corruption. Resistance and a new vision has to come from elsewhere, and he locates it in small monastic communities. It is interesting that he appends that qualifier “monastic.” Not sure exactly what he means, but I think I get his sense.
To be sure, this is nothing new. Just in the U.S. alone there have been all kinds of communal experiments over the years, stretchting back to the beginnings of this country. And if you look at Christian monasticism as a whole, St. Benedict’s founding of his community, for example, was in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire. Now getting back to our own time, there were certainly many community experiments in the 1960s and most of them died almost overnight. Some lasted longer than others, and there is no reason to say that any given community can only be considered a “success” if it lasts “forever” or a very long time—like a Benedictine monastery. But the phenomenon is still marked by so much deterioration, failure of leadership, loss of focus, slipping into a cultish mode, becoming authoritarian, etc. etc. that it’s hard to call it a successful phenomenon. In a sense if you look just at this period from 1960 on, the impact on the larger society has been almost zero. That doesn’t mean the experiments were not worth trying, or that certain individuals from these communities did not benefit in some way by being members, but for the overall thing there is not much to show. So what is the problem. Actually the problems are numerous, and there are very, very few communities even of the small number that survive more than a generation that deal with these problems in a way that enables them to grow or just to keep going.
This brings us to the point that Hedges is making I believe. By “monastic” he doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should become monks–hardly–but that the community should have some kind of religious/transcendent focal point, viewpoint, axis, whatever you want to call it. “Monastic” cannot simply mean any kind of gathering of people around some idea or issue or value. A community that is simply being established or built as an “anti-” something will certainly not have a chance of even accomplishing that before it evaporates. Even being against all things one should be against—-like pollution, war, consumerism, exploitation, etc, etc.— is not an adequate glue for a community. But taking it one further step: it is also not sufficient to build a community around any ideology, even a good one, or around any cause no matter how noble: peace, sharing, environmentalism, hospitality, etc. These are all excellent values and may be a very significant part of any community, but, hard to believe, they are not “the” solid foundation that a community needs. What is really needed is a real religious tradition that guides the development of the community, provides it a focus, and gives it a foundation and resources to deal with the inevitable problems that all human ventures have. And what Hedges points to, at least implicitly, is that only from these kind of solid communities can we expect to create a resistance movement against all that degrades human life in our society. Now it should quickly be added that there have been plenty of “monastic” communities, both Catholic, Buddhist, and others, that have also deteriorated into some grotesque caricature of what their religious tradition is all about. When you look at those examples, you will see that the “monastic” part is more like “window-dressing,” a kind of costume, rather than the substance of a real religious tradition. Or perhaps in many cases of such failure it was a matter of badly interpreting the tradition or misunderstanding it.
A model for what Hedges is calling for would be a Gandhian ashram of sorts. Gandhi, of course, is “the” icon of resistance.” However, not everyone is fully aware of Gandhi’s deep religious roots, and what role they played in enabling him in his resistance–the movie on his life shows almost nothing of that. He is known for espousing nonviolent resistance to injustice, but for people who took up nonviolence especially here in the U.S. very often it was simply a social tactic of confrontation to coerce some change that was called for. For Gandhi, nonviolence was not a tactic but flowed out of a deeper sense of self, indeed, a different sense of self, of who one is. Once nonviolence was used simply as a tactic it deteriorated into something else, became grossly misunderstood and misapplied–and then devalued by the society at large By analogy, this often happened in the case of community building.
Now let us consider Person X coming to a community of sorts. X is bringing a lot of stuff to this endeavor—and I don’t mean material things. More like life experiences, tendencies, habits, values, talents, quirks, fears, neurotic behaviors, and most of all and most importantly a false sense of self and a serious inability to see THAT fact or begin to understand it. (This “falseness” may in fact be covered over with all kinds of religious language, or what’s even more problematic, it may be so deeply associated with one’s sense of identity that only some dramatic moment can begin to dislodge it.) All the major religious traditions recognize that fact as a given (in their own terms) and have the resources for dealing with that, helping the person move toward a deeper, truer sense of self. When a person comes to one of these communities, they are, whether they realize it or not at the point of entry, seeking to be a “different person” than what their society has told them they are. Needless to say they will articulate many things, some incoherent, some obscure, some very lofty and idealistic and profound, but most of it will be a cover for a deep dissatisfaction with the sense of identity that one gets from the larger society. That’s why these “monastic” communities all have some kind of initiation and testing process—to see if the person is willing and able to move beyond their own words and views, whether they are willing and able to engage in the process that will take them somewhere much deeper than they can see at that moment. And by doing this they will then effect a positive change in the world in whatever way that suits their capacities and talents, etc. Incidentally, recall Thomas Merton’s famous last talk in Asia just before his death, when he at first is talking about Marxism and the attractions that held for a number of very idealistic young people in Europe in the 1960s. Then Merton mentions just in passing that Marxism really only probably works in a monastery. The gist of this is that one needs a profound inner transformation in order to really live by the values that authentic Marxism seems to be calling for and that these cannot be forced on a person or people from the outside by law or by force. And the proper “laboratory” for this transformation is the monastic community.
Consider now a recent piece by Chris Hedges. In his usual manner he paints a broad picture of our social ills and our predicament:
But what’s important for our purposes is that he gives a glimpse of what lies underneath these problems: a cult of the self, an idolization of self-interest, a culture of narcissism, a thoroughgoing self-absorption. This is so strong, so pervasive, the “poison” seems so normal and is so intoxicating (recall in Greek myth how Narcissus falls in love with his own image which he sees on the water’s surface and drowns) that one wonders if there is any hope, any possibility of “liberation” and “resistance.” Ultimately this is what a “monastic” community should provide and what all the major religious traditions point to, regardless of how well or how poorly any given community applies these resources. Of course, in the theistic traditions, the person entering will be “seeking God,” but all this is only a jumble of words until the nitty-gritty of life and self are addressed. That’s why you will often find simple practices like name-changing and common, boring work for a long time as an initiatory period, as a way of beginning that “liberation” from a false sense of self leading to a real “seeking of God.” In any case, let us look at Gandhi’s favorite scripture quote, from the Bhagavad Gita, which was often read in prayer at his ashram:
“He lives in wisdom
Who sees himself in all and all in him,
Whose love for the Lord of Love has consumed
Every selfish desire and sense-craving
Tormenting the heart. Not agitated
By grief, nor hankering after pleasure,
He lives free from lust and fear and anger.
Fettered no more by selfish attachments,
He is not elated by good fortune
Nor depressed by bad. Such is the seer….
When you keep thinking about sense-objects
Attachment comes. Attachment breeds desire,
The lust of possession which, when thwarted,
Burns to anger. Anger clouds judgment
And robs you of the power to learn from past
Mistakes. Lost is the discriminative
Faculty, and your life is utter waste.
But when you move amidst the world of sense
From both attachment and aversion freed,
There comes the peace in which all sorrows end,
And you live in the wisdom of the Self.
The disunited mind is far from wise;
How can it meditate? How be at peace?
When you know no peace, how can you know joy?
When you let your mind follow the siren
Call of the senses, they carry away
Your better judgment as a cyclone drives
A boat off the charted course to its doom….
He is forever free who has broken
Out of the ego-cage of I and mine
To be united with the Lord of Love.
This is the supreme state. Attain thou this
And pass from death to immortality.”
These words were the true source of Gandhi’s social revolution, and these words, or its counterparts in the other great traditions, are the true foundation of any real community. Otherwise you have merely a club, and there is a great difference between the two.