A commonplace of Buddhist history holds that wherever the dharma goes—from Mongolia to Thailand, from Afghanistan to Vietnam—it adapts to the local scene in a spirit of accommodation. But there is another way to explain the dharma’s ability to take root in very different societies. At crucial turning points, Buddhism has arrived in the nick of time to save its hosts from cultural paralysis. A good example comes from the Tang dynasty, where for centuries Buddhism was confined to urban enclaves. Then a catastrophe, the An Lushan rebellion, forced many ordinary Chinese to rethink their fundamental values. Crisis alone, it’s important to see, wasn’t enough to generate the necessary change; the Chinese had to use new tools supplied from outside the cultural mainstream—that is, by the dharma.
An exotic import from India, Buddhism brought an entirely new architecture of consciousness, a structure of metaphors, symbols, and myths that allowed the Chinese to experience their lives in ways unavailable before. As Americans, we find ourselves today in a similar dilemma, unable to respond to epic change because our old ways of thinking just won’t budge. What happened in China could happen here: Buddhism might offer us a route out of our impasse—if we don’t domesticate it so rapidly that its transformative elements get lost because they are challenging. For the Chinese in the 8th century, the problem was their fixation on the past, but for modern Americans, the problem is the very opposite: it’s our imprisonment by the future.
To understand this imprisonment, think back to 1979. In a speech announcing his run for the presidency, Ronald Reagan invoked an idea at the heart of our way of life. He told his audience that Americans, unlike people everywhere else, live in a constant state of anticipation because they know the future “will be a great place.” In the decades following this speech, much about the United States has changed, but in 2013 a very different president, Barack Obama, still chose “Faith in America’s Future” as the theme of his second inaugural address. This continuity was no accident: for centuries, the entire Western world—but especially the United States—has believed that history is leading us to some version of a heaven on earth, an article of faith that has its sources in messianic Judaism, Christian end-time theology, and Puritan ideas about predestination. What we call the “modern era” began when preparations for Christ’s return assumed a new and revolutionary form as technological control over the whole of Creation. Progress, innovation, development, growth—these became the new Commandments. And personal salvation was reimagined as the competitive pursuit of material success.
Yet more and more of us have begun to feel that the future we were promised has failed to arrive and probably never will. Not so long ago, our prophets of the future conjured up gleaming white cities and flying cars, saucer-shaped houses under bright blue skies, and robots happy to lift the weight of our drudgery. Inequality would be a thing of the past. But now, almost everywhere we look, we can see the return of the re-pressed. Our middle class is shrinking at an alarming rate. Almost a quarter of all children in the United States are growing up in poverty, while automation threatens to eliminate the kinds of jobs that might have given them a leg up. Asia gets applauded for its explosive growth, but hundreds of millions have been left behind, a permanent underclass not so different from those that seem to be emerging in Spain, Portugal, and Greece.
Even worse than the bad news itself is our failure of imagination. It might be true that the wheels of government always move at a frustrating pace, but the problem surely goes much deeper than that. It goes to the basic architecture of our minds, the structures of meaning and feeling that our culture provides. With the New Deal now a distant memory and socialism a dirty word, we have lost the power to imagine ourselves as moving forward together. And if we lose the future as our cherished ideal, the holiest of modern holies, what could possibly replace it? For many people, its demise invites resignation and despair, or the unapologetic selfishness of the lifeboat mentality. Unless we are willing to accept this fate, we will have to find an architecture to replace the one that has already failed us. No matter how many politicians try to revive a future whose time has passed, mainstream thinking is probably not the place to look. I believe another option exists, an option from outside. The core of the new architecture we need, if we are willing to try it out, might well be the Buddhist teaching of rebirth.
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