issue 21 autumn 03
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Breaking Ranks

Danavira argues that uniformity undermines true unity, and only the community of the imagination can support diversity and individual freedom.

Like Buddhism, imagination enjoys a good press. It is difficult to say a word against it and its qualities. As my dictionary tells me, we can take the imagination as the action, the faculty or the power that our mind has in forming mental concepts and considerations of what is not actually present to the senses or not yet in existence.

I like a number of things about this viewpoint. Firstly, nothing is said about divine intervention. This faculty, power or action of imagination is ascribed completely to the human. Secondly, though often associated with 'the sublime', imagination in this perspective is equally at home with the commonplace. The imagination is not a refined experience but an intrinsic one in the activity of being human. Imaginative action, this ordinary necessity, is pivotal to a humane daily life. And it has a place in human choice and conscious responsibility.

Out of our becoming we create each moment of experience by imaginative means. Our method shifts between what we know and what we don't know, past and future. Its power is to encompass both. By it we taste the great Otherness, which we experience in our own terms. All that is beyond our self presses in through this faculty of our imagination - which functions for us, as the sun does for the world, bringing the daylight of our mind. Unlike the sun, the imagination is endless for as long as we live, and when we die it sinks questioningly.

Our imagination is the wonder of our lives, the poised, incessant rip tide of our actions. It exists, common and profound, in all the things that we do, from changing channels on TV to searching for insight into the nature of reality. It is the open aspect of our consciousness; inner and outer, mixing them both, offering sight into the depths of our mind, sight beyond ourselves into the universe.

Two images of the imagination come to my mind. One is of a red hand, impressed in the Stone Age, on a wall deep in a cave. The mark of the human pressed onto the rock. Held between them both, time and imprinted recognition. A mind has leapt across the years into our sight. It is a blazing hand, hot like the sun, smoking with a life, bursting with presentness. It shows the moment of our becoming, in the image of fire, with the imprint of a heart.

The second image is more modern. It is a photograph showing a Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg. As an image it is specific to a time and place, yet it communicates an essential truth of this moment about the imagination. Initially it seems an image of unyielding force. It shows the ranks of stormtroopers from behind. Steel helmets above black uniforms is all we can see. They stretch away, and their faceless ranks are subsumed into each other. They are seemingly impervious to the world, armoured against the moment. All turns on a distant figure who looks forward towards us, the only face we see - blurred and white, flanked by banners. The iron columns are rigid, and their silence is a witness to the roar of his vision, in the triumph of a will.

His view is of faces, though, row upon row, wreathed in shadow. He is the fulcrum of their choice. He represents the stuff of their imagination. They consume him with the strength of their decision. The balance will shift in time and he will be outweighed. Then will his being hang above the void, prey to shared imaginings. Every crack he has will appear, drawn by his own invocation, pinning him to a cross, made by his own hand.

From the perspective of the imagination, the cornerstone of the problem depicted in the photograph is the uniformity. Though there is common identity in this black salvation, there is no community. The situation is inherently weak. The sameness of the forms, the stark meeting of character and kind, joined in conformity to a fevered standard of false similarity, shows a valueless meeting. The imaginative action of these minds can only lead to numbness, confusion and incoherence of being.

We view this scene, through the eyes of the photographer, and what we see is a wall: these backs are turned against the world. It is an image of separation, isolation and the erasing of difference. This is a living wall; theory made of flesh and blood. If differences between people cannot be erased then the bearers of those differences must themselves disappear. It is a mono-vision of reality that only recognises others in terms of itself. By these means it seeks to fix everything within and beyond into a hard sameness. It represents a closing down of the human mind, impoverishment of the heart, and the death of wisdom and sense. In this state of false, fierce, learned blindness, nothing is perceived in its beauty: the harsh eye sees only superficially, and it falls into habits. It leads to a nightmare of profoundly unimaginative means - such as judgement, threat, power and a taste for weaponry.

It would be convenient for the modern world to agree with all this but to leave it like a bloodstained cross at the door of the Nazis, as if it was all their own work and the world had moved on. Yet, in the West at least, the Third Reich maintains its fascination. Perhaps our modern minds, beset by change in our globalising phase, are enticed by the thought that the Nazis somehow represent a simpler time when there was less choice but more satisfaction; when we knew our place, and felt the possibility of simpler yet more complete solutions; when our existential confusions were knocked into a shape and our steel certainties proved more than a match for our anxiety.

It seems to speak of safe streets, clean pavements, a sanity of sameness, while disorder was elsewhere, beyond sight and out of mind, resolved, and turned into the ashes of all our problems. This is surely a perennial dream of human beings. Life lived as in a garden, naked of conflict, childlike, without choice but under protection. Poised where time and space are blind, in a clear yet meaningless light. It is the world as a womb, animation suspended, and an imaginative collapse. Death is its inspirer - all the limbs of Death's shadow are its sightless depths.

The Nuremberg picture expresses a conundrum for the place of the imagination in the modern world. The imagination only works as a functioning part of an individual's mind. It is emblematic of that mind's uniqueness. Each of these men made their choice for what they took to be good reasons, and this led their lives in a particular direction. Each of us does the same, and in this regard these men are like us. So we can even say that this image reveals the methods of our own minds and our imaginations. We might not choose the politics of Nazism, but still choose to turn our face against the validity of difference and its potential to expose a deeper truth.

Yet the deeper the truth, the deeper its imaginative power. The greater our empathy for others, the more we know ourselves. To turn away from difference limits us. If we make walls of our beliefs, we become their prisoners, serving a sentence of isolation, and dreading the next moment under the stress of becoming. The imagination allows our heart to make its mark upon the universe and for the universe to make its mark on the depths of our mind. It is reciprocal, relational, changing always, a composite, unfixed. The picture shows the cracks in the monolithic lines, heads driven by eyes and minds, seeking a better look, following on small shifts of desire.

The Buddhist perspective is that uniformity does not bring community. It may seem paradoxical but uniformity does not foster a real sense of unity. Uniformity encourages a mentality built around group values, and these tend towards being exclusive. Their inherent tendency is to be self-limiting, and this restricts our potential to express the fullness of our humanity. Yet we need groups, they help us to bear our crude identities. They, too, are part of the fabric of being human. But that fabric contains yearnings that go beyond the capacity of any group.

What can Buddhists say about unity and community? There is no true unity without true diversity, and no true diversity is possible without true unity. Everyone yearns for a profound experience of this relationship. We seek deeply to be ourselves and yet we seek also to be deeply unified with others. Most of the time, however, we suffer disappointment and frustration at our failure to reach this profound experience.

Our societies are full of structures that are meant to bring about some sense of unity: political, social, economic. But these offer a partial and incomplete answer to our basic need to combine unity and diversity. A partial unity is often bought at the price of a divided sense of self, for a partial unity offers no other possibility for those concerned. This part of us can be known. That part of us cannot be known. Some elements of our life can be cherished but others must be thrown away. Caught in a partial unity, we can end up chasing conformity when really we seek our heart's release. Once more we stand in a line of uniformity and loss.

Buddhist unity cannot be bought at the price of a divided self. Unity for Buddhists is not a thing. Instead, it arises out of the freely-given effort of those who are creating that unity. Buddhist unity requires a vision that is generally understood in terms of Awakening. It is the practice of an individual, which matures the potential of his or her own mind. It is not a group, such as a nation or a race, that gains Awakening. It is each individual's ability to choose wisely that forms not only their own move towards Enlightenment, but also the impact of their life on the world.

The life of the individual comes first, but that doesn't mean the life of their community is insignificant. It's just that the expression of diversity comes before the experience of unity. What is valuable in human life is founded, for Buddhists, in the mind and life of each unique, conscious individual. Intrinsic to the functioning of such a mind is its faculty of imagination.

Uniformity limits the mind and impoverishes the imagination. It gives rise to defensive social structures that are suspicious of the unknown and abhor difference. If there is a community here, it is a community of fear. Here, lives are shattered, not cohesive. The imaginative power curtails itself, tempered by anxiety, in this rule of night and fog. It is a time of barriers and walls, without, within, containing or rejecting. This is extreme, yet in a subtler sense each of us has this choice, in every moment.

The community of the imagination functions differently. Each of the members consent to share their life with others in the context of shared values. In consenting, they release their imaginative faculty to taste the freedom of being themselves. Fear must be unlearned, and trust in the Universe must be developed. Imagination represents a shift, in time, to openness. It also expresses a shift in consciousness. The community of the imagination supports that shift - from a closed mind and a limited world, to self-understanding and empathy for all.