The 2023 Referendum on The Voice

The purpose of the call for a constitutionally enshrined Voice in the forthcoming Referendum is to create a structure that will enable the diverse local Indigenous language and cultural groups across Australia to advise the Australian Parliament on how best to devise laws and policies that affect their lives and structural disadvantage.

Two-Way Learning

What is often not discussed, is that this is not only based on colonial dispossession of their lands, and on racial exclusion. It is also based on the profound differences between the knowledge system that informs First Nations people’s cultural values and behaviour, and that which has informed modern Australian culture, derived from our British inheritance.  This difference underlies many of the reasons for why past policies to address Indigenous disadvantage have largely failed.  It is why the great Yolnu leader, the late Yunupingu insisted on the importance of ‘two-way learning’.

While Indigenous people have been learning Western ‘whitefella’ ways since colonisation, non-Indigenous Australians have not been learning from Indigenous knowledge systems.  This is our challenge.

Non-dual Worldviews

As a student-practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, I understand the challenge of learning a different knowledge system, one which differs radically from the strongly dualistic nature of our Western knowledge system and its spiritual foundations in Christianity. Instead of the veneration of a transcendent all-knowing God, we are drawn to recognise our inner ‘Buddha Nature’ of timeless awareness.

Instead of celebrating intelligence as merely conceptual cleverness, we follow a path to experientially recognise non-dual wisdom and compassion, free of ‘grasping’ as a dimension of mind beyond the conceptualising and emoting mind. Instead of a strong focus on our self-identity (individualism) we discover the non-self; that there is no-fixed entity ‘the self’ but an impermanent flow of interdependence with all that is, yet replete with our own spiritual agency.

David Loy (A Buddhist History of the West, 2002), suggests that the core insight of the Buddha was how humans suffer from a pervasive sense of frustration/suffering (dukkha) caused by the problem of a sense-of-self inside, separate from the world outside, a fundamental duality, when in reality there is no such entity as a ‘self’. Rather this is a process—a continual expression of habitual thoughts, emotions and actions of ‘selfing’. This contradiction at the heart of our human experience leads to a sense of ‘lack’ – that something is always missing.

Because the sense-of-self can never be fixed, it creates a sense of existential anxiety and insecurity, that the sense-of-self is missing something or lacking in something.  So we attempt to project this self onto ‘god’ or worldly objectifications.  The problem with all objectifications is that no object can ever satisfy as it is not really an object that we want, but our desire to become ‘real’, ie a fixed entity. This is essentially a spiritual yearning, so all our attempts at objectification become compulsive and frustrating.  The neurotic’s anguish and despair are not the result of symptoms but their source. Therefore our fear of death (not-existing) and our desire for immortality (continuing to exist) are symptomatic of our vague intuition that the ego-self is not a hard core consciousness but a mental construction, the axis of a web spun to hide what we fear is the void. Instead what the Buddha showed is that this ‘void’ is not a ‘nothingness’ but is replete with non-dual pervasive awareness and filled with limitless compassion for the world of which we are intrinsically a part.

Most religions resolve the contradiction by claiming that the soul is immortal.  Buddhism does the opposite, not by simply accepting our mortality in the usual sense, but by offering a path that emphasises realising something hitherto unnoticed about the nature of that impermanence.  Buddhism posits that greater awareness of our mental processes, via meditative insight (samadhi and prajna) can free us.  Buddhism posits the idea of ‘no-self’ (anatta) and the role of dukkha (frustration/unhappiness/suffering) from failing to recognise this. Therefore, the main goal is to end dukkha and be at ease with our groundlessness (shunyata).

An Eco-Spiritual Worldview

The Indigenous knowledge systems of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island cultures, the oldest continuous living culture in the world, is an oral tradition that is anchored in an eco-spiritual worldview that also emphasises non-duality and the recognition of the profoundly interdependent nature of the phenomenal world.  The whole of the natural world is animated, replete with spiritual agency, whereby all aspects have their own ‘voice’ and are thought of as ‘family’, an intricate web of relationships. This worldview has been kept alive through the songlines, transmitted through ceremony involving story-telling, singing, dance, sculptural works and ceremony, with outer, inner and secret meanings. Keeping this knowledge alive with integrity is the responsibility of the Elders as cultural custodians, as senior law men and women (Marcia Langston and Aaron Corn, Law, The Way of the Ancestors, National Museum Australia, 2023).

Indigenous knowledge systems do not separate the secular and the sacred dimension of life. Learning a songline involves learning how to read the landscape as a text for survival—the behaviour of plants, animals, birds and reptiles across the seasons. At the same time this is anchored in reverence for the Ancestral Creation Beings who are called into ‘presence’ through ceremony, which has outer, inner and secret dimensions of knowledge. All these ideas are included in the idea of ‘Caring for Country’. The Gay’Wu Group of Women’s Songspirals, 2019, gives us many insights into the way their culture expresses these various dimensions of knowing and experiencing their profound interdependence with life on all these spiritual levels.

Increasingly non-Indigenous artists are exploring how to experience this eco-spiritual worldview. I recently tuned into a discussion with Queensland artists, Jude Roberts and Helen Hardess, hosted by Michelle Maloney of the Australian Earth Laws Alliance, about their work on unlearning colonial visions of our history in the Maranoa region. Jude talked about working with local Indigenous people, using flottage—taking Japanese paper to rub it directly with different features of landscape so that the paper substrate responds to the Earth itself. Helen talked about the power of mimesis – being animate with the more than human world by exploring cross species collaborations through sound, to ‘bypass the household of the mind’ and experience what is not easily visible or audible but can be intuited in the silence of just being present in nature. How all this is a SLOW process of engaging with different knowledges – not accessible to the demands of urgency of modern life.

Living within Bioregional Limits

Our Western knowledge systems recognises the way this enabled Indigenous Australians to have a systems ecological understanding of how to live sustainably across millennia, without having to expand and colonise other people’s country through war and conquest. We now understand how they farmed the landscape with fire, using techniques of cool burning and other methods of working country (Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe, Future Fire, Future Farming, National Museum Australia, 2021).

Dr Mary Graham has called the Indigenous worldview a relationist logic. The whole way of thinking is shaped by the recognition that we live in a web of relationships, not just ecologically, but socially, economically and spiritually.

Instead, we modern people have a worldview based on extractivist logic: we always need to find a new frontier to exploit. This means either waging war on another group of people to take their land, expanding our wealth by exploiting others, or expanding our capacity to exploit through technology, and in the process becoming more and more alienated and alone, filled with existential anxiety. All these factors have underpinned the rise and rise of so-called human civilisations.

Voting Yes

A ‘Yes’ vote for the Referendum on Recognition through the Voice in the Australian Constitution provides a way for the many different Indigenous language groups across Australia to ensure their own knowledge systems can shape the policies to address the issues that affect their lives—in health, education, the criminal law, economic livelihood and community life. This is two-way learning in practice through doing.

Why Two-Way Learning is Necessary

David Loy maintains that, insofar as modern science has become our collective effort to ground ourselves intellectually, by coming to an understanding of what the universe is and what our role in it is, it can never resolve our lack. Its experimental approach dualises the one-who-wants-to-know from the objectified world that is known, because its functionalist perspectives derives from, and is at the service of, our drive for ever greater control over the natural world.

Scientifically, we respond to that inadequacy by funding further research, that is, by deferring to the future. In the meantime we preoccupy ourselves with the power that our increasing knowledge defers on us.  What should this power be used for? Our inability to answer this question makes the means, in effect, our ends. All this is now playing out in the emerging world of Generative AI and how we are struggling to deal with it.

Our present economic system should also be understood as our religion because it fulfils a religious function for us. The discipline of economics is less a science than the theology of this new religion and its god, the Market, which has become a vicious circle of ever-increasing production and consumption by pretending to offer a secular salvation, called ‘success’, ‘happiness’ or ‘Progress’ to some mythical future of a worldly ‘heaven’ of pleasure and leisure. Instead we find ourselves like mice on a treadmill of our own stupidity.

It is no coincidence that our time of economic globalisation and ecological catastrophe also happens to be a time of extraordinary challenge to more traditional religions. On the few occasions when organised religions are not in bed with the economic and political powers that be, they tend to be so preoccupied with past problems and outmoded perspectives or so trivialised, such as the transgender/LGBTQI+ debate, which are irrelevant to what is really happening.

The ecological catastrophe is awakening us, not only to our need for a deeper source of values and meaning than market capitalism can provide, but also to the realisation that contemporary religious institutions are not meeting this need either.

Why do we acquiesce in social injustice? What rationalisation allows us to sleep peacefully at night while all around us others suffer in plain sight, including the homelessness crisis in affluent Australia, and the environment continues to degrade, threatening the actual viability of life for our children and their children?

David Loy maintains that the explanation lies largely in our embrace of a peculiar European or Western (now global) religion, an individualistic religion of economics and markets. Nature is merely a pool of resources for use in production. Intervention in the ongoing economic system is seen as a threat to the natural order of things, and hence to future human welfare.  The hegemony of the Market is achieved by this particular intellectual construct, which has become a dogma of almost universal application, the dominant religion of our time across almost all cultures.  The main resistance is coming from First Nations cultures, whose depth of knowing that this is cannot work is anchored in deep time, across millennia.

As Loy laments, the religion of market capitalism constitutes the greatest effort in mental manipulation that humanity has ever experienced – all of it to no other end than creating consumerist needs for the sake of corporate profit, to ‘keep the whole show on the road’.  Thus shopping has become the great national pastime.

Furthermore, our commodifications have enabled us to achieve something that usually was believed impossible, time-travel: we now have a way to colonise and exploit the future, via the accumulation of debt (itself a form of profit-making by financial institutions) to be paid by future generations.