‘After Dark’-style conversations *** COMING SOON ***
A relaxed open-ended conversation
In March 2020, on the day after the British prime minister Boris Johnson announced the UK Government’s ‘no-gatherings’ policy, I felt compelled to help the public cope by launching daily meditation teaching sessions on Facebook Live. Over time these turned into a series of themed talks that I uploaded to my YouTube channel ‘Compassionate Response to Covid-19 with Mahabodhi.’ In the third series, called ‘Meet the Order,’ I interviewed one, sometimes two, members of the Triratna Buddhist Order, whose experience consisted in one case of 46 years of ordination. The tone of these interviews – particularly when I interviewed two order members together, was like a relaxed and easy chat amongst friends, that ranged around various topics and attained a certain level of subtlety and depth.
These ‘chats’ reminded me of the revolutionary Saturday night discussion programme on Channel 4 television ‘After Dark‘ which aired between 1987 and 2003. With a format commencing at midnight and running open-endedly through the night, discussions often lasted for three hours, lending themselves to quite nuanced argument. According to Wikipedia:
After Dark earned a remarkable spread of critical enthusiasm, from the Socialist Worker (“my favourite chat show”) and The Guardian (“one of the most inspired and effective uses of airtime yet devised”), and The Daily Telegraph (“A shining example of late-night television”), to more media focussed journals such as the BFI’s Sight & Sound (“often made The Late Show look like the Daily Mirror“) and even the US showbiz bible Variety in its review of the year (“compulsive for late-night viewers”). The Listener magazine called it “The programme in which you can see the people think”.
Open Media – the production company who made After Dark, has very recently released short excerpts from their iconic programmes onto their YouTube channel.
With this in mind I had the idea to organise similar discussions – though maybe less political, between experienced Triratna Buddhists and significant non-Buddhist figures in the wider world, in the hope that deeper nuances of Buddhist thought and experience might come into contact with both societal institutions and mass culture, to the mutual benefit of all. I propose a couple of models – one from Buddhism and one from Positive Psychology – could provide a suitable template for organizing these discussions.
Reginald Ray’s Threefold Model of Buddhism
The Buddhist teacher Reginald Ray explains how the Buddhist tradition has functioned over the centuries by referring not to the traditional twofold division of Buddhist; into monk and lay practitioner, but instead to a threefold model of Buddhism, consisting of:
The Forest Renunciant
By forest renunciant Ray meant the solitary Buddhist practitioner living in the forest – or halfway up a mountain, connecting deeply with the Buddha’s teachings through meditation and devotional practices, wholly devoted to deep practice of the Dharma. In more modern terms this might translate in a Buddhist practitioner being – depending on their temperament and inclination, the artist, the scholar or the deep meditator, each of whom spends long hours gaining skills, understanding and experience in their chosen discipline. Whenever they emerge from their world of solitude – to the extent that it is developed, they will inspire others; with the profundity of their expression, the clarity of their understanding, the depth of their practice. Ray called this person the Forest Renunciant.
The Settled Monastic
The second kind of Buddhist Ray called the Settled Monastic. This is the person who lives and works in the Buddhist institution. Perhaps today they might work within a team running a Triratna Buddhist Centre, or be a monk in Sri Lanka. They represent the ‘face of Buddhism’ to the general public. Ideally they would offer a coherent Buddhist message appropriate – and palatable, to a persons’ level of experience. Or in another religious context, they would be the official representative of that organized religion.
The Lay Practitioner
The third kind of Buddhist is the person who predominantly lives and works in the world, with the stresses and strains entailed. The will in all likelihood hold down a job, maybe have a family, and will give much of their attention to those things. They may hold significant responsibilities and commitments in the world. They might come to classes at the Buddhist Centre, and try to fit in some sort of meditation practice with their daily schedule, and to practice ethical precepts as and when they can. In the East it is the role of the laiety to support the monks, and in the West this may manifest in terms of financial support for their local Buddhist Centre. This is the Lay Practitioner.
A more detailed exposition of Ray’s Threefold Model by myself in a talk called ‘Work as Spiritual Practice’ can be found here and, similarly, a talk by Vajragupta (who renames the three categories: the solitary retreatant, the sangha builder and the lay practitioner or social activist) called ‘Being Radical – 40 Years of the New Society’ can be found here
A ‘Creative System’
To summarize, Ray is outlining Buddhism as a ‘creative system,’ within which three aspects of Buddhism are in creative and dynamic relationship with each other.
- The aspect of depth, innovation and inspiration
- The aspect of tradition and formality
- The aspect of material relationship to the world
And while an individual Buddhist through their life-style or vocation may ‘major’ in one of these categories, in reality they are all necessary elements that will need our attention, if we are to have a successful life;
- we all need at some point in life to reflect more deeply on what’s important
- we all need to relate to others through social institutions
- we all need a practical foot in the world
The ‘Systems Model’ of Creativity
Similarly, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – distinguished psychologist and foremost authority on Positive Psychology and ‘Flow,’ talks about a very similar threefold model for creativity. He views true creativity as the interaction between the creative individual, the field they are active in and the wider cultural domain. It is only when an artists’ work has been 1) created, 2) has passed critical evaluation by the ‘gatekeepers’ in their field (gallery owners, critics, etc.) and 3) has been assimilated into the broader culture and has become part of the mainstream, that the process of creativity can be said to be complete. Or in the case of an invention, it has entered into mass production.
The Systems Model of Creativity: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999, p. 315) Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International
In organizing these conversations, I hope to bring together representatives of three strands:
Buddhists / People who explore depth
Leaders / People holding institutional responsibilities
Celebrities / People who are visible or successful in mainstream culture
Watch this space!
Reginald A. Ray, (1994) Buddhist Saints in India: a study in Buddhist values and orientations. Oxford University Press.
Cover image courtesy of Open Media Ltd. – Open Media Ltd., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75645840