A vision of hope in troubled times

A guest article.

Extract: “It all starts with a social dialogue, openly considering the Bodhisattva (“friend of the world”) ideal and way of life in all areas of society, not just in Buddhist Centers.”

Do you think world peace is possible? We want your comments on this subject! And please share this article if you can.

It’s fair to say that we live in troubled times. Whether it is the growing divisions in society, the threat of global terrorism, global warming, or the potential for conflict (or indeed all-out war) in parts of the world such as the Middle East and North Korea, it’s clear we live in volatile times. While we may not be expressing it externally so much, it seems to me that many people are living with a sense of quiet hopelessness for the future of humanity and our planet.

planet earth 3Thankfully all is not lost. There is a way we can all emerge stronger and more resilient in spite of the times we live in. Many people have found that within the teachings and practices of Buddha – for example, in the practical, modern Buddhist approach of Kadampa Buddhism – we can find a universal vision of real hope for everyone, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. It also seems there has never been a time in the history of humanity when this vision of hope was more needed, at all levels of society.

Why? It starts with understanding the goal of Buddhism, which is the realization of world peace. Just as importantly, it offers methods to accomplish this vision. To explore how Buddhism offers very real and practical solutions for our troubled world, the key is to be clear about what is the biggest problem we have in the world today. It may surprise you to hear that it’s not the divisions in society, the growing threat of terrorism, or even global warming.

The biggest problem in the world today

The biggest problem in the world today is the current lack of wisdom and compassion in the hearts of living beings. I say the “current” lack of wisdom and compassion because all is by no means lost, and this present situation can truly change. As I will explain below, we can all evolve our current levels of wisdom and compassion, and in this way realize this inspiring vision of hope, a peaceful and harmonious world.

At present, the external problems in our world today – on which we are focusing most of our energies — arise from this inner problem that we largely ignore, our universal lack of wisdom and compassion.

Due to lacking compassion we face many problems on a micro and macro level in society and in our world. Lacking compassion, and due to grasping tightly at what “I want” to be more important than what “you want”, we experience so much conflict and breakdowns in our relationships. Terrorism is the result of a fundamental lack of compassion for others. In this case, what I want or my world view is more important than your life, even if your life happens to be the life of an innocent child.

radiate loveEvery major world religion without exception advocates love and compassion at the very heart of its teachings and way of life. Yet much of the terrorism we see in the world today is carried out in the name of religion. Lacking compassion, we cannot tolerate and embrace the differences in others, whether those differences are based on politics, race, religion, or sexual orientation. A brief glance at the daily news stands testament to the fact that we have never lived in such divided and intolerant times. For too many people today, it seems that if you are not like me, I don’t like you, or indeed I hate you. Also, lacking compassion, we close our hearts and borders to our fellow humans who seek only to live in peace, free from the traumas of war.

Due to lacking wisdom, our elected politicians believe the way to solve potential regional conflicts is to follow a path of diplomacy until that appears to have failed. Then, history shows that the final solution of our leaders seems to be imposing world peace through the force of guns and bombs.

Due to lacking the wisdom that understands the true causes of happiness, the prevailing world view is that we can buy our way to happiness. This leads to the problems of a consumer society working too hard, spending too much, eating too much, drinking too much, and ending up paying for it all in rising debt levels and decreasing physical and mental health and well-being.

When our accumulated stuff does not bring us the happiness and contentment we seek, we discard it. This then ends up on ever-growing land fill sites that contribute to a polluted world and potential global environmental catastrophe.

In reality, as the well-known modern Buddhist teacher and author, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, explains in many of his books:

Happiness is part of our mind that experiences peace of mind, it does not exist outside ourself.

Ironically, the cause of real peace and real happiness is, in essence, simply wisdom and compassion!

A note of caution: it is important that we direct our blame in the right direction, which is never toward other living beings. All too often people get angry at all the angry people they see in the world, which simply perpetuates the problem, never solving it.

Other people are never a valid object of judgment, yet always a valid object of compassion.

Everyone — whether they are painters or politicians — is simply working with their current levels of wisdom and compassion, which sadly at present can often be quite un-evolved. Unless people have consciously trained their minds to grow and strengthen their qualities of wisdom and compassion, it is unrealistic to expect anything better than what we see in our world today.

Everyone everywhere has the same potential

The solution is both simple and profound. As a starting point, as Geshe Kelsang puts it:

If everyone practiced cherishing others, many of the major problems of the world would be solved in a few years.

We have tried everything else — perhaps it is time we embrace a new way of solving the problems we experience in our own lives, society, and world. This is not a nice to have, rather an absolute necessity if we are to successfully navigate our way through these difficult times.

The changes in society and our world need to start with a change in our relationship with ourself. To begin with, we need to come to know through our own experience that we all have the potential for limitless love, compassion, and wisdom already in our hearts.

Anne FrankIn truth there is natural and limitless peace and goodness that lies at the heart of humanity and indeed all living beings. Whilst at present this natural peace and goodness is obscured by our negativity and delusions, Buddhist meditation gives us proven methods to connect to and fully liberate this peace and goodness. And we can start right here and now.

How? Any small experience of peace, joy, or good hearted qualities such as love, compassion, and kindness is revealing the essence of who we are, and the potential for who we can all become. In Buddhism, we call this inner potential our “Buddha nature”, and the good news is that everyone has the same potential.

Therefore, the solution to the biggest problem we have in the world today — the lack of wisdom and compassion in the hearts of living beings — is to simply recognize, through our own experience, this universal truth of our own Buddha nature and then learn how to access and fully actualize this potential.

When hope becomes reality

How do we accomplish this? Instead of living from greed, aggression, and intolerance, we need a new vision of how we relate to ourselves, others, and our world.

To put it simply, we need to become a friend of the world. This in the Buddhist tradition is known as the “Bodhisattva” ideal. A Bodhisattva is someone who identifies deeply with their Buddha nature, and motivated by a universal compassion for all and guided by wisdom, views themselves as a friend of the world. On this basis, they dedicate their life to the goal of accomplishing world peace. World peace is when everyone in the world is truly at peace, happy, and free from suffering. This is also enlightenment.

The way to accomplish this is simple yet profound. As Gandhi put it ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. Find real and lasting peace, freedom, and happiness within your own heart (enlightenment) and work to help everyone – without exception – to accomplish the same.world of friends1

In one of his earliest books, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso wrote:

Nowadays, with the world in turmoil, there is a particular need for Westerners to cultivate bodhichitta. If we are to make it through these perilous times, true Bodhisattvas must appear in the West as well as in the East. ~ Meaningful to Behold

Although written nearly 40 years ago, for me this a compassionate message of real hope for our modern times and troubled world. If we are to solve the problems of our world and make it through these perilous times, people everywhere need to embrace and live at least some aspect of the Bodhisattva ideal. If we can create a shift in the global paradigm, and a lot of people can embrace this ideal even a little, we can change our world beyond recognition.

We shouldn’t see this as an impossible goal, and in fact this kind of change is not entirely new or unnatural to us. It is often in the periods of great darkness in the history of humanity that our Buddha nature seems to manifest as a force of light to oppose this dark, and some aspect of the Bodhisattva mind manifests. For example, the civil rights movement arose as a powerful and compassionate response to the inhumane segregation and repression of the rights of African-Americans. I also vividly recall the outpouring of compassion that arose from the images we saw on our TV’s of the terrible suffering during the Ethiopian famine of the 1980’s. This was the catalyst for the Live Aid concerts and the millions of dollars that were raised at that time, and the humanitarian projects it funded.

However, these positive shifts in humanity’s consciousness and the social movements that arise from these shifts all too often either dissipate or even sometimes turn from compassion to frustration and anger. We still have major racial divisions in the US and around the world, and we all too often turn off our TV screens at the latest global catastrophe or famine due to ‘compassion fatigue’, the result of the present limitations of our compassion and wisdom.

Towards an enlightened society

In my own experience, this is where the modern Buddhist approach can truly help. With its focus on integrating the principles of wisdom and compassion into all aspects of our daily life, and its universal applicability, everyone can learn what it means to live and grow from a truly peaceful, wise, and compassionate heart. This is the Bodhisattva’s way of life. If everyone could do this, one day we will realize this vision of a peaceful and harmonious world. World peace is simply the day when the world is at peace — this is an enlightened society. wings of wisdom and compassion

The practical way to realize this vision is to create a more enlightened society right here and now. It all starts with a social dialogue, openly considering and practically exploring the Bodhisattva ideal and way of life in all areas of society, not just in Buddhist Centers.

In this way we start a conversation about a better way for humanity and ultimately all living beings. The wonderful thing about Buddhism is that it offers proven meditations and practices for daily life that empower everyone in our society – regardless of your race, religion, or background – to at least begin to live the Bodhisattva’s way of life, right now!

When people in all areas of society — whether you are a father or a mother, a painter or a politician — try their best to live and grow from a genuinely peaceful mind and good heart of wisdom and compassion, we will begin moving towards a truly peaceful world, an enlightened world, and this vision of hope can one day be fully realized.

This guest article was written in response to my request at the end of this last article, A Buddhist way to world peace.

I am sincerely hoping that it will encourage more conversation around this subject, and not just on this blog but by you talking about compassion and wisdom as a viable answer to the world’s problems with the people around you, wherever you are.

I have met a number of people already finding ways to share these ideas at work and so on, changing people’s lives, and maybe you are one of them? And I am hoping we can collectively find more and more ways to spread these universally applicable solutions far and wide.

 

Have no fear

People’s hearts are good, but ignorance is our greatest enemy and destroys our happiness every single day.

bench in botanical gardens
He’d just left when I took this photo.

Earlier today in the Denver Botanical Gardens I saw an old Air Force veteran sitting all on his own looking sad, and then I saw him later near my pond. He dug into his canvas bag I thought for a sandwich, and indeed it was, but instead of eating it himself he proceeded to break it up and feed it to the fish, peering at them through the water as he did so. I thought, “May he and all those fish never experience another moment’s hunger or loneliness between now and when they attain enlightenment.” For none of them deserves to suffer, ever. None of us do. It is only our ignorance that has got us into this existential predicament.

Carrying on from this article.

Four noble truths

We talk about the “four noble truths” in Buddhism. In the first noble truth, Buddha showed that there is suffering, an endless cycle of suffering, and everyone still in samsara experiences it. In the second noble truth he identified the causes of suffering as lying within our minds – external conditions are only conditions for suffering if we have the actual causes in our mind, delusions and karma.

These delusions tend to cluster around a strong sense of self-importance, me me me, I’m the center of the universe, my happiness and suffering matter more than yours. In this article I tried to explain how we identify with a limited, painful sense of self, one that doesn’t even exist except as the object held by a wrong idea (self-grasping ignorance). Then we cherish that I, do everything we can to serve and protect it (self-cherishing).

That I — the seemingly real or inherently existent I, the I that we normally perceive — is like a puff of air blown into a balloon. The balloon is locked in a box. The box is secured in a vault. The vault is put in the bank. The bank is protected by guards.  The guards are employed by the government. And there we have it – a vast impressive bureaucracy of ego to administer and defend a big empty nothing.balloon in box

And everyone is doing it! Therefore, we suffer. And the stronger our sense of self, the stronger our sense of other. As it says in this article on some benefits of compassion that I quoted previously:

There is no-one who has not, will not, or does not suffer. By trying to identify common traits which you share it starts breaking down this barrier of defining someone as an ‘other’.

So in general when we are very self-absorbed and so on we are neither peaceful nor fulfilled because we are not living in accordance with reality. Self-cherishing that positions ourselves as more important than others leads to anger when things don’t go our way, uncontrolled desire grasping at what we think will make me happy, jealousy, miserliness, fear, and so on. One way or another, our mind is agitated. Modern society — or as we might want to put it “degenerate times” — apparently does not help us much either:

Combined with the frenetic pace of modern life, it has led to a stressed out, individualized society with a reduced capacity for empathy. As we remain vigilant to perceived threats to our own small piece of turf, compassion is the casualty.

Geshe Kelsang did say this though, and I believe him:

Full enlightenment is not easy to achieve. In these spiritually degenerate times people’s delusions are so strong, and there are so many obstacles to making progress in spiritual practice. But if we sincerely practice Kadam Dharma [Kadampa Buddhism] with a pure motivation, pure view, and unchangeable faith, we can achieve the ultimate happiness of full enlightenment in three years without any difficulty. We can do this.

Empathy

In our little experiment in this article, did you find that there was a sense that, although you really felt for another’s suffering, your mind was peaceful? Or not? Was it a bit of both? In which case, which bit was which?
empathy

Real compassion is all about the other person, identifying with their feelings etc. We have exchanged places with them in a way. And to the extent that it is about them and not us, compassion is very pure and free from any kind of pain. Also during that time it is impossible to feel impatience, at least as soon as you do the compassion has gone. Maybe your mom knows how to push your buttons and irritate you, but maybe she is very ill in hospital and you are not irritated with her at all.

The second noble truth, the causes of suffering, refers to self-grasping, self-cherishing, and their backing band delusions. These have reduced while we are cherishing others, so we are experiencing some peace. Thus, we gain a little taste of the third noble truth, the cessation of suffering and its causes; we see how this could be possible. How? Through the fourth noble truth, true paths, spiritual paths. These are states of mind such as compassion and wisdom (understanding that the I we normally perceive doesn’t exist) that cancel out our delusions and lead to their cessation.

So in this experiment, hopefully we see in our own experience how a cessation of suffering is possible. This may only be a temporary cessation for now, but through spiritual training it’s possible to get rid of our suffering for good. This is amazing, and gives us the confidence to think, “I don’t need to fear suffering. If I know its causes, I can stop it, and also apply this understanding to others to help them stop theirs.”

Reality

Generally, however, unless we want to train in renunciation or compassion, we try to avoid looking at suffering through distraction etc, and when we can’t avoid it we get depressed. As TS Eliot puts it:

Human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

cow in factory farmIn that state, we don’t really want to explore suffering more deeply to see where it is coming from, let alone to look at others’ suffering. We’d much rather switch on Netflix or self-medicate. Again, in the words of TS Eliot, we spend much of our life “distracted from distraction by distraction.” But even if we were to spend 6 hours on Netflix and manage to forget about suffering for a while, does that get rid of it?

If all our efforts to get rid of suffering through distraction and diversion worked, we would be as happy as clams by this point; but instead we have the same old problems every single day of our life because we are not addressing their causes ie, the delusions and karma. For as long as we are not touching those, for as long as we are fiddling about with externals to solve our problems, we are not getting rid of the causes of suffering and experiencing cessations. The most we’re getting is some temporary relief, like scratching an itch – that is, if we’re lucky, and of course if we don’t keep scratching. Looking for freedom in external sources is a fool’s game. It has got us nowhere.

Training in compassion is not an optional extra, therefore, that might make our life a little better. It is a necessity, the actual path to happiness and fulfillment.

One more article on compassion here.

Do liberals and conservatives share any common ground?

Someone commented on my last article that from the perspective of someone in the UK there is no difference between the two US presidential candidates. But I think that up closer there is a difference in candidates (and parties), not just in terms of their policies but in terms of the core values that motivate those policies.

In general, I think the best value of liberals is their wish for equality and fairness, helping each other based on an understanding of mutual dependence and that the health of the whole depends on the health of its parts.

I think the best value of conservatives is their emphasis on taking personal responsibility for their lives. They also believe in charity and community support on a private, individual, voluntary basis, and can be exceedingly generous. (And giving is the karmic cause of wealth.)

My theory is that these two world views are not contradictory and in fact are mutually supportive. We need both attitudes. You can’t actually have one working properly without the other. At their best, they are two attitudes of a Bodhisattva.

kitten finding forever home
See below for (ir)relevance of kitten photos.

There is a Buddhist Lojong or training the mind meditation called equalizing self and others, where we understand how we are all exactly the same in the way it really means something, in our two main wishes in life – wanting to be happy and free from suffering.  If we value the equality of all living beings, this entails a fairness in our treatment of everyone else. But it doesn’t stop there. We are also entirely bound up in each other in mutual dependence – everything we have and everything we are depends entirely on others.  We are one body of life. And if one part of the body is suffering, say the foot has a thorn in it, the hand will want to pull it out even if not directly affected.

It is all very well not wanting people to take advantage of the system, but you cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if someone didn’t make you those boots in the first place. Everyone needs boots made for them — ontologically speaking, there is no such thing as a self-made man. This is because without others we are, literally, nothing. We came into this world with nothing — not a silver spoon in our mouth, not even a plastic utensil. Rich or poor, we were given everything. All of us are entirely connected in a web of kindness. (For a description of this meditation, read Eight Steps to Happiness pages 54-57.) In that context, people with fewer resources are not undeserving of a helping hand, and they in turn can then pay it back or forward. The safety net can be like a trampoline, helping everyone have more success. (An insight into mutual dependence and karma also indicates that life is not a zero sum game, where some have to lose for others to win – that it can be a win win.) cat going to his forever home

Yet, at the same time, our mutual dependence is not an excuse for letting others pull us along like dead weight without making any effort according to our capacity, power, and ingenuity to help ourselves or others, becoming dependent in a, well, “dependent” way. Understanding our mutual dependence and what we owe to others on the contrary gives Bodhisattvas a strong sense of personal responsibility, called superior intention, where they promise to work continually until they have really freed themselves and all living beings from the ocean of suffering and actualized their full potential. They see this as their job and their obligation. It doesn’t matter what conditions they find themselves in, good or bad; they still take responsibility for their own progress and freedom.

I deliberately went over to watch the VP debate with a friend who happens to be a member of the other party, as a sort of experiment to see if we’d still like each other by the end of the evening (LOL), and during the debate I put myself in her shoes to see what that felt like. I still thought my own candidate “won”, but then so did she, which was in itself quite a teaching on relativity — we had been sitting in the same room eating the same popcorn watching the same screen but, even without watching the Spin afterward, we came to opposite conclusions! However, as a result of putting myself in her shoes, I had more sympathy for her position that I might otherwise have done.

My friend’s point was that she doesn’t like people “scrounging” off the state. I pointed out that in a way we all scrounge off the state and each other because we rely on the infrastructure of this country for everything and we paid for just a fraction of it. For example, to get to work, we all need to use roads or public transport, and even a yard of road would cost a great deal more money than I could afford – I wouldn’t get very far if I had to pay for/build the road myself. The things we use every single day cost billions of dollars, toward which we have contributed a minute fraction, whatever our tax bracket.

In fact (and she liked this point the best), the higher up we are in the world, and the more we have, the MORE we depend on others. I wrote all about that here.

Dependence is not a dirty word. It is a fact. Self-reliance is not a dirty word. We need it. Recognizing our mutual dependence is a strength, not a weakness, for it is in touch with the way things are and it also encourages us to take responsibility for ourselves and everyone else, understanding that no man is an island. Likewise, within that context it is desirable to encourage people to take responsibility for their own destiny, for although others can give us the boots, only we can pull ourselves up by the straps. So, where is the contradiction?

As pretty much half this country is Democrat and half Republican, and that is not going to change anytime soon, I think it’d be a relief if we could recognize what is good or even noble about the other party’s world view and try to embrace it. Otherwise at least half of us are in for a pretty annoying four years, starting Tuesday. We don’t have to like everything the other party is trying to do (like that is ever going to happen anyway!) Some politicians and activists do try to do this, start from respect and understanding rather than dislike; but these days many more seem to be entrenched in the “We’re inherently right, you’re inherently wrong” polarity. Mutual antipathy based on accentuating others’ faults is unrealistic and crippling at any time, as it is based on inappropriate attention. Throw out those attack ads, they demean everyone.  

On the whole, politics and religion have different goals because the former is concerned with this life and the latter with future lives. But we need to overcome our delusions and get along with others to gain peace and happiness in this life and in future lives, and we can find practical ways of doing so through Lojong.

So, for example, understanding how our values are not contradictory but mutually supportive might be a good way of engendering respect and even some affection, and on that basis it might be easier to work together? What do you think? (Now I’m ducking as I wait for some of you to throw eggs at me… This was my last foray into politics. But I still want my candidate to win on Tuesday, ha ha!!)

(By the way, two of my kittens just found a wonderful home, and I had to write this whole article with lonely big-eyed Alyona on my lap, so I blame her cuteness for any sentimental idealism or oxytocin-induced lapses of logic. That has given me an idea… I don’t know what other pictures to use, so I’m going to transform this into a feel-good article by sprinkling it with kittens in their new forever homes.)