The Flower Lineage
Zen Buddhism traces its origins to the so-called Flower Sermon, when the Buddha Shakyamuni silently held up a single flower among a gathering of his students. Most of the students were confused, but one named Mahakasyapa smiled, which was acknowledged as the moment of his enlightenment. This is thought of as a direct transmission of enlightened mind – a performative act, not a description or instruction.
From Mahakasyapa a lineage is traced via the influential philosopher Nagarjuna, 3rd century founder of the Mahayana (“Middle Way”) school of Buddhism, and later carried by the 5th century monk Bodhidharma into China and Japan. This legend illustrates the focus of Zen Buddhism on a wordless direct experience over verbal doctrine, analysis or philosophies. A Zen proverb professes: one showing is worth a hundred sayings.
The tradition of “show don’t tell” is also strong in the Tibetan Mahamudra (Great Sign) tradition, where the essential teaching is the “pointing out” instruction, which occurs in direct transmission from teacher to student. This tradition – that core teachings should not be written down but can only occur experientially between teacher to student – seems esoteric and secretive, concentrating power in the hands of spiritual leaders. But perhaps on another level, this tradition serves to protect the essential quality of insight, which is that it is dynamic and emergent – and therefore necessarily temporal and relational. It is not static information one can fix or possess.
In the Zen tradition, this “direct pointing” is perhaps most immediately conveyed in the arts. Every Zen art is a do, a “way.” Chado (Tea Ceremony) – the way of tea; Shodo (Calligraphy) – the way of writing, etc. The Zen arts are not the creation of representational objects, but they are the trace of a sudden act of awareness, both through the artist’s immediate process of creation and the transmission of that act available through its record. Yet these moments are not rarified or secret, but are expressed in the interaction with everyday objects and activities: household ceramics, a vase of flowers, a shared cup of tea. Direct insight is also ordinary experience.
There is deep inspiration here for what I am exploring in this blog
When it comes to the exploration of experience, I am interested in the idea that the generation and communication of meaning is done peformatively, in temporary, propositional, relational tensions and figures. I want to look at the modes and practices for bringing awareness to this, building a process intelligence, doing it more constructively, creatively and daringly. I think this involves inhabiting a position that is shifted from an objective descriptive posture to a stance that is thoroughly and vulnerably implicated, that focuses on performance and effect rather than stability and product.
Bakemono-do: the art of creating monsters.
The Performative Turn
Attention to the performative appears in contemporary thought as well. Most associated with Judith Butler’s examination of identities – particularly categories of self, or subjectivity – as something that one “does” rather than something that one “is.” In this way, performance creates identities, rather than identities creating performance. E.g. my identity as a “woman” is not a site that I speak from, but a lived reality emerging in my constant relational performance of it within my social context. This can apply to any identity – be it “leftist” or “chair”. The performative is experience at its most ordinary.
An impact of this perspective is that forces we might take as natural, permanent or continuous elements of the human environment (from gender to race to language to architecture) are seen as interactive agents rather than passive objects. This awareness empowers one’s performative agency in constructing reality.
This is a strong thread in contemporary culture, an aspect of postmodernism sometimes called “the performative turn,” a paradigmatic shift in the humanities and social sciences that stresses the active, relational, social construction of realities. In the spirit of the flower lineage, performative contemporary thinkers/practitioners like Derrida, Lacan, Barthes and others, shift from a discourse based in the language and assumptions of fixity, to the plastic, relational and propositional play of figures, tensions, and effects. Along the way, building a process intelligence, daring to inhabit the uncertainty of emergent, dynamic meaning.
Vulnerability and Hyperreality
Yet the appearance of this performative turn in culture is limited. The suspicion of meta-narratives has sunk deep into the cultural consciousness, but manifests mostly in the deconstruction of outward identities (institutions, nationalism, cultural norms and practices) and is less directed inward towards a de-essentialization of the self. This pop-deconstruction mistakes the de-stabilization of truth as a rejection of truth, and so avoids the demands of active engagement with a shimmering, moving target.
Here is the critical, ironic stance, an armouring and defense mode that demolishes culture and protect the self from implication. What remains is the spectacle, the simulacrum, where we all know it is a performance without substance, and yet it appears with high significance, hyperreal. I broadcast a ballooning performance of self hour by hour on social media, reality TV, this blog…
So we know how to be critical of socially constructed meaning, and we know how to edify a socially constructed Self, but what about the deep and radical spirit of performativity based in the relational implication of oneself? Performance has the power to engage directly, with dynamic, emergent, process truth. At best, it can engage and enrich understanding, without taming reality, allowing the monsters to be wild. Can the performance be vulnerable, and creative? Can it liberate the ordinary from the hyperreal? The cultural resonance of Marina Abramovic’s performance art would suggest the hunger and power for such practice. For me, such a performance is what I do, or strive to do as a counsellor.
The question of performance is important insofar as mental health is synonymous with the agency to engage with narrative, to be flexible with categories, to act despite uncertainty, willing to be vulnerable and connected as the source of life’s immanence. These are forms of process intelligence which are not possessed but continually performed in a temporary, propositional, relational space.
There is so much attention to the performance of self in contemporary culture, so much acknowledgement of the emptiness/social construction of phenomena, unlike any other time in Western history. There is tremendous intelligence in this, a vast play space. Resistance to this destabilization appears as detached skepticism, disconnection, unwillingness to be vulnerable, bored or ordinary. We are so close. Let’s be ordinary in the face of it, perform a flower sermon, play with the monsters.