On Cultural Conditions

Thursday March 30, 2006

Princeton

I’m back from America, and have more or less recovered from my jet-lag. The conference was fabulous – a rich and fascinating few days. Whilst over there, I attended a whole host of papers and presentations on everything from the Ramayana and Mahabharata to Chinese stories of foxes and ghosts, to panels on literature and human rights. It was the kind of event that takes some recovering from, and I’m going to need to spend a fair amount of time absorbing all of this material.

One of the interesting things about being abroad – and given that I have been writing about conditions a fair amount here at thinkBuddha – is that you become aware of your own cultural conditioning. The UK is a very different place from the USA. The curious habits of the English, which seem hardly noticeable at home when everybody more or less is doing the same thing, become strongly apparent when everybody else is doing something slightly different.

My awareness of the facts of my own cultural conditioning was partly heightened by reading Watching the English by Kate Fox. I picked up the book at Heathrow before catching the flight. Fox is an anthropologist who, having little desire to plunge into the jungle and face all kinds of large and possibly nasty insects, has conducted fieldwork at home in the UK. Her book on the hidden rules of Englishness is both funny and, at times, painful.

Here’s an example. For the purposes of research, Fox spent time in various public spaces deliberately bumping into people. She would pretend to be rummaging in her bag in the shopping centre, for example, and then she would barge into some poor fellow shopper. What she discovered was that 80% of all these unfortunate bargees (is that a word?) apologised to her. This apologising for somebody else’s mistake is a very English habit. I’ve even found myself saying “sorry” when somebody across the other side of the street has tripped up…

Whilst reading the book, the awareness stole up on me that many of those things that I consider to be “me”, many of the things that I mentally claim for my own, are almost entirely culturally conditioned. We like to think of ourselves as somehow self-subsistent, as if we have fashioned and made ourselves. Sometimes, dishonestly, we claim those things about ourselves that we like as entirely to our own credit, whilst protesting that those things we don’t like can be attributed to external conditions.

The more I reflect upon cultural conditions – and those other sets of conditions, such as biological, genetic, circumstantial – the more this thing I see as a substantial “self” seems to dissolve before me. It is not that I find myself somehow disappearing into nothingness; it is rather that I find myself ever more closely a conditioned and contingent part of a conditioned and contingent world. My thoughts are not my own, but are made possible by a vast set of causes and conditions. My practice of Buddhism is not my own, but again is contingent and dependent upon causes and conditions. My body is not my own, but its operation, its health or absence of health, are themselves a part of this subtle, ever-changing web of conditions. There is nothing that stands outside of this sea of conditions, this endless flux.

The fiction of a separate (or self-subsistent) self is one that effectively removes us from the world. Much of the Western philosophical tradition is founded upon this prior removal of the self from the world, and then occupies itself with the difficult process of attempting to reconnect this separated self to the world from which it has been divided. We feel alienated, not at home in the world, and we struggle to find a way back home. Given the apparent difficulty of the task, we find ourselves inventing homelands – whether political or spiritual – to which we aspire, homelands somewhere over there, always just around the next corner, beyond the present world. We dream of utopias. We turn nirvana into a place to which we might eventually journey. We dream of escape.

What we fail to realise, I suspect, is that we are already here, that there is nowhere else that could be a home for us than this fragile body, these contingent and fluctuating thoughts, this world into which it somtimes seems that we have been thrown, without our choosing. The reason we find ourselves strangely not at home in the world is not because we haven’t yet found the long and winding road homewards, but because we have made the mistake of separating ourselves out from the world in the first place.

As for the goal of Buddhist practice, sometimes talked about as freedom from conditions, perhaps this is not some kind of existence where we find ourselves standing somehow apart from the shifting seas of conditionality – which, it seems to me, would be another kind of alienation – but is instead something more subtle than this. In the Forest Sangha Newsletter, Ajahn Suchitto writes, that “freedom from conditions is based upon being able to understand and witness conditions as impermanent, and to experience dispassion and the cessation of identification with them.”

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#1 · Mathias

30 March 2006

This is really good. Even though I have studied my own and my cultural conditioning for almost all my life, I haven’t thought about it in exactly this way…
thank you

#2 · jayarava

1 April 2006

Nice one Will. I’ve been in England four years now, and still have almost daily reminders that “I’m not from around here”. Living in a different culture has been very good for getting a perspective on just how much of what I consider to be ‘me’ is just views that ‘I’ picked up along the way. I speak the language, I look more or less the same, but I am definitely not English, despite the fact that just a couple of generations ago all of my ancestors were!

#3 · J W LEE

17 April 2006

I made a dicovery while on holiday in
Bulgaria .While noticing the different
type of lettering on such objects as
road sign posts and shop names,I became
aware of how attached I am to my own
country language but more importantly
how we have basically ordered shapes
and symbols into words and numbers believing them into a meaningful system.This means from this point of view,that forms of measurement including time seem not so real and
less formidable.It throws out famous scientific equasions also(if one just looks at the numbers as a bunch of shapes,how can one shape have more value than the next?)From this level
of seeing,don’t they become meaningless?

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