A Buddhist Response to the Destruction of our Global Civilisation
This paper was given on 18 August 2013 at a conference at Taplow, UK. This was jointly organised by the Centre for Applied Buddhism, the UK Network of Engaged Buddhists, and the Network of Buddhist Organisations with the title of “Transforming Conflict”.
Dharma Sisters and Brothers,
Zen teacher Susan Murphy puts it eloquently in a striking new book :-
Unrestrained population growth and a predatory capitalism are on course to devour our limited one-off planetary endowment – an obscene fantasy that is devouring our entire human future and setting the scene for hell on earth – a wilful genocide (“Minding the Earth, Mending the World”, Picador, 2012).
Our situation recalls the previous great die-out at the end of the Cretaceous Era – the extinction of the dinosaurs – 67 million years ago. It was probably caused by a drastic and sudden climate change followed by a meteor impact.
Thomas Berry argues that we are now at the end of our Cenozoic Era which will precipitate the convulsive birth of an Ecozoic Era. This will be marked by a human society re-integrated with the biosphere, from which we have in the West been alienated and in conflict for over three centuries. Such a re-integration will be much more radical than that weasel word “sustainability”, which we at present envisage from our anthropocentric perspective. Berry may be optimistic. If we cannot free ourselves from our present delusive madness we could face an interminable period of unimaginable suffering, conflict and confusion.
Buddhism offers a unique and invaluable analysis and understanding of our existential human condition. It is this, in its raw and deluded state, its fear and sense of lack, which generates the fires of greed and anger which, over the centuries, have been socially institutionalised beyond the individual. These institutions now appear out of control, committing unimaginable crimes and follies. We now seem frozen in the headlights of the juggernaut of a globalised oil-based military-industrial-media economy, with its web of national and corporate power relations, and its survival depending on endless material growth on a finite planet.
Tragically, in this modernising world the Buddhist project has now been rendered incomplete in two major respects.
First, it has failed to develop an adequate and widely acceptable understanding of how its root theory of the individual has extended over the centuries to produce complex and dynamic societies which in turn shape individual behaviour and belief. A very few of us, like David Loy in his “Money, Sex, War, Karma” and in my own “New Social Face of Buddhism” have made a modest start. But our academics seem mainly concerned with rummaging about in the foundation texts, as if Buddhism were a religion of the book rather than a living and ongoing mode of enquiry. And as to us Buddhist radicals, it appears that we are still to some extent subject to the myths of the European enlightenment, notably the myth of progress and attendant millennial assumptions – the happy ending of social perfection which is now so gravely in doubt. I recall my own proclamation of an “Inconceivable Liberation”, and Joanna Macy’s “Great Turning”. I am prompted here by a slate-cleaning observation in John Gray’s latest book The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Myths:
Accepting that the world is without meaning we are liberated from the confinement of the meaning we have made. Knowing there is nothing of substance in our world may seem to rob that world of value. But this nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the inexhaustible world that exists beyond ourselves.
Secondly, for the most part Western Buddhism is still attached to an Asian, quasi-monastic style and culture in its teaching and practice which is less than fit-for-purpose in contemporary Western culture. Without sacrificing their Dharma integrity I believe our sanghas could profitably enquire into how our teaching methods and public presentation could better accord with how we live now.
Specifically, we need to develop more of an “everyday Buddhism” rooted in the ups-and-downs of our stressed, insecure and distracted society. More attention could be given to the burgeoning emotional awareness practice which has long flourished in America. And, drawing on the emotional fluency and interpersonal habits of Westerners, there needs to be more use of small group and other communication skills.
But have we enough Dharmic free thinkers of vision and energy? I fear that, in the UK sanghas, institutionally conservative and tradition bound as many are, an insufficient number are likely to be tempted out of their comfort zones. Arguably Western Buddhism for the most part – with Sokka Gakai International a noteworthy exception - functions in effect as an opiate for the educated white middle class with a taste for Asian cultures. This is the view of influential philosopher Slavoj Zizek, for whom Western Buddhism is becoming “the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism” in that its “meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity.” Western Buddhism “enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it, that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is, and what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always withdraw.” If we are deeply immersed in our own Buddhist story we may too easily dismiss this claim as bizarre. This may be unwise.
Similarly, for many more the “Buddhist lite” mindfulness movement offers a life -style practice which sits well with yoga, dieting and the like. On corporate boards and in a variety of other organisations (including the US Marine Corps and the boards of trans national corporations) it provides an agreeable morality-free way of increasing organisational effectiveness.
On the other hand, the mindfulness movement can provide a promising field for enlarging the compassionate appeal of the Dharma. There is much to learn from John Kabat-Zinn, pioneer of mindfulness-based therapy, who gained the confidence of the medical profession by avoiding any needless flaunting of his Buddhism.
Up to now engaged Buddhism has been almost entirely about Buddhists being engaged in peace, environmental and social justice campaigns and protests – “showing the flag”, as it were. Such a Buddhist presence is admirable and welcome, but I question whether it has made any significant impact. To develop a widely respected public presence we must surely be concerned with better communicating our potentially revolutionary Dharma, readily translating into a fundamental remedy for the social ills which threaten to overwhelm us. One, moreover, which is free of ideology.
I suggest that the best vehicle for such an ambitious project would be a Dharma think tank. It would have three main aims.
First, to develop a Dharma better suited to our present day milieu, but in no way necessarily secularising or diluting the essentials of Buddhism, and always striving for inclusivism.
Secondly, to build up a body of expertise and a network of contacts, well adapted to communicating with a wide spectrum of our fellow men and women, using all appropriate media. I drafted some basic guidelines for responding to the Iraq war which offer some suggestions.
Thirdly, to make common cause with like-minded individuals and organisations both in the inner-path spiritualities and non-religious bodies such as the New Economics Foundation, with its Centre for Well Being (with which I have had some promising correspondence).
Unrealistically ambitious? I recall somewhere the Buddha’s response to that kind of objection. If you want to dam up a great river. Start with a small rivulet, using whatever means come to hand. Surely there could hardly be a better start than this far-sighted conference.