Early Buddhist texts, as translated, have a tendency to place a surprisingly negative spin on the notion of existing in the “world.” Worldly life is often depicted as a dirty realm inhabited by those still caught up in their samsaric commute, those blinded by activities of commerce and romance, those who have yet to get serious about the spiritual journey. Before we start thinking that Buddhism is some world-denouncing pursuit, we have to understand the cultural context of such ancient statements.
When Siddhartha lived, all of society was divided into small tribal city-states. Up until very recently in human history, this was mostly still the case. In ancient India, if a person became serious about his spiritual path, he left the city behind and “went forth” into the wilderness just beyond the city to engage in contemplative and yogic practices.
To understand the context of the Buddhist teachings in the 21st century, we have to recognize a new historical development: escape from society is now almost impossible.
When I was growing up, my mother’s apartment was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and our block was named Edgar Allan Poe Street, because Poe wrote several works living in a farmhouse near that site in the 1840s. For anyone familiar with Manhattan, this should give you some pause. This was a bit more than a century and a half ago, and there was a farmhouse, and a large surrounding farm, right on Broadway, in what is now a densely populated island metropolis. The city, and for all intents and purposes the “world,” simply ceased to exist two miles downtown. If Poe wanted to get away from the “world” for a writer’s retreat (or a meditation retreat), all he had to do was stroll a few miles north up Broadway! This is quite similar to what the Buddha did a few millennia earlier, when he left his father’s estate in the small tribal region of Shakya to pursue his personal awakening in the forest, which was most likely right outside the city. Thus, when an ancient text describes “worldly concerns,” it is very important to understand that this is actually a geographic designation, not an existential one. The “world” really just encompassed the frenetic endeavors of life in the city, that place of hustle and bustle, lust and heartache, career and ambition, art and entertainment, government and politics. Deeply pursuing spiritual practice meant leaving the city behind.
Nowadays, by contrast, the entire East Coast of the United States, from the southern suburbs of Washington, DC, all the way to north of Boston, has the continuous population density of a city, forming one massive “megalopolis.” There is no escape from the world anymore. In truth, because all phenomena are interdependent, the idea of escaping the world, or of somehow being “in it, but not of it,” was always just an existential fantasy, a delusion of transcendentalism. But now even the fantasy of leaving the world behind seems gone. Even my favorite meditation retreat center, in the remote Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, several hours away from the nearest city of Montreal, has had wireless Internet for many years.
I write from the fundamental premise that there is no escape from your own mind, because it’s where you all live, whether you like it or not. So if there’s no escape from your own mind, and there is also no escape from “the world” anymore, what does this mean for the journey of awakening?
It means we must see the interdependence between the journey of the individual and the journey of the society in which that individual lives. This crucial relationship between personal and communal realities is also outlined in early Buddhist teachings, with their emphasis on embracing sangha, a community of practicing peers. It isn’t the case that the earliest Buddhist teachings were completely isolationist; they just deprioritized “worldly concerns” for certain historical reasons that are no longer valid, if they ever really were to begin with. Personal transformation and societal transformation have always been completely interwoven—it is merely a recent evolution in human history that has allowed us to be irrevocably confronted with this timeless fact. The bad news is there is no escape from engaging in society. The good news is that there is no need to. Because we can’t escape the world, we must embrace the world as part of our practice.
The historical Buddha mentioned two difficult-to-reconcile facts about the way reality is structured. First, he said that sentient beings are the inheritors of their own karma. This was a call to accountability and self-empowerment, not an attempt to blame people for their difficult circumstances or experiences. It means that, at the end of the day, only an individual can work with his own mind, his own habits, his own conditioning. This first relevant premise seems quite conservative, or libertarian, on its face. It seems to be a very “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” way of looking at life. Taking personal responsibility to heart is also how we overcome the idea that some relationship—spiritual, romantic, or otherwise—is going to swoop in and save us from the tough job of working with our own life situation. The basic premise of Buddhism is that there is no savior to worship: nobody is going to save you from your own mind. Nobody can get into the heart of your experience and fix anything for you. If you want to make your own internal experience more hospitable, only you can do that work. Others can always support and guide you and spark insights, but ultimately you are your own boss and the agent of understanding your mind and opening your heart. Nothing has been more profound for me than taking this teaching on accountability to heart, especially when I fall on hard emotional times and must remind myself that my heartmind is my true home.
Now, the Buddha—as well as countless wise ladies and gentlemen throughout history—also said that all phenomena are completely interdependent. Nothing ever happens in a vacuum. Whatever you built, you didn’t build it all alone. In societal terms, this truth puts a huge dent in much of the logic of self-creation that currently enables a massively unequal accumulation of resources among a very few members of our society. In spiritual terms, whatever awakening you achieve, it is conditioned by the influence of others. Even the Buddha had teachers. He awakened because of a supportive environment where all the necessary conditions were present for his journey. He didn’t even teach himself how to meditate! (It’s said that Siddhartha studied with two different masters of concentration before going off on his own. He saw strengths in their practice methods but also limitations—namely, the confining attempt to permanently objectify states of concentration. He later utilized and evolved their meditative methods into his own system of meditation.)
Cocreation is just the very way our universe is structured, the way everything happens. If you are reading this magazine on paper or on a device, the very surface you are reading from connects you with countless other beings, from the paper mill to the Apple or Kindle factory, as well as to everyone those people ever connected with. Without those people, some of whom toil in horrible conditions, this magazine could not happen. Whether we see it or not, we support, influence, and condition each other’s experience all the time. If you are reading this in a café and the barista was kind to you and you said something sweet in return, that exchange may influence the quality of thoughts and feelings you both have for hours into the future, as you interact with many other people. The pond never stops rippling. The immense suffering that exists in our shared society implicates all of us, and is akin to the “silent war” that the Indian author and political activist Arundhati Roy declares cannot be unseen once it is witnessed.
How do we reconcile the two teachings above—personal responsibility for karma, and interdependence—which seem to directly contradict each other? Here’s what I believe. The second premise, interdependence, provides the proper and appropriate context for understanding the first premise, personal responsibility for one’s karma. In other words, it is when we begin to witness interdependence that we see the true importance of personal responsibility. Once we see that nothing happens in a vacuum, that’s the exact moment when we are properly inspired to become accountable for our own mind.
If we separate personal responsibility from the context of interdependence, we end up psychologically and spiritually disabled, holding to a vision of life that is isolated, fearful, and compassion-deficient. We end up with Thomas Hobbes’s awful interpretation of this sacred world as “a war of all against all.” We end up with Gordon Gekko’s emotionally crippling falsehood that “greed is good.” For our political leaders, or anyone else, to preach personal responsibility without preaching interdependence is to engage in an unintended cruelty, because it leads us to isolate our view of personal transformation outside of its true context, which is always the community and society in which we exist.
The version of personal responsibility that comes from seeing interdependence holds each of us no less accountable for learning to work with our own minds. But when we see interdependence, we experience ourselves as connected, brave, and deeply empathetic. This transformed view makes all the difference in the world.
On the deepest level, even the thoughts that arise in our head during meditation are cocreated with the society in which we live. When we think any thought, it is a reflection of our cultural heritage, our education, and our socialization. Even when we sit down to meditate alone, we hear the voices of our parents (whether kind or harsh) and we think within the ideological frameworks of our education (whether encouraging or oppressive). When song lyrics come to us in meditation, we are hearing the music of our culture (whether it manifests as brilliant art or apathetic consumerism).
While our relationship with our experience is deeply intimate and personal, each time we sit down to meditate, we are plugging into our social conditioning. Within the home of our awareness, the thoughts we think and the emotions we feel link us to all other beings who have ever influenced us, especially those people who most directly taught us how to relate to our thoughts and emotions. Every thought and feeling we have is influenced by family, teachers, and the community in which we live. The bad news is that this means none of us has ever had a completely original thought—all our thoughts are momentary expressions of an inherited social context. This doesn’t mean we are uncreative, though, because we each get to synthesize the ideas we inherit into new and brilliant expressions.
If we only looked at personal accountability for karma, we would end up with claims about reality that make no sense. It would be preposterous to argue that all those self-loathing thoughts that tell you that you are “not good enough”—those thoughts that constantly beat you up—are somehow independent of all the advertisements you saw today that sold you an aggressively idealized and airbrushed version of how to be you. It would be both cruel and inaccurate to claim that the sense of self experienced by an impoverished or historically oppressed person in our society exists separately from the social messages, both subtle and obvious, which that person receives daily. As Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche puts it, “Many ideas we take to be our own are actually coming from social ceremonies that have been grafted onto our minds.” Why does he use the word “ceremony” here? Because he is drawing a link between the rituals an individual practices in her spiritual life and the rituals that we engage in when we participate in society. According to the Shambhala teachings on sacredness, every communal act is a social ceremony, whether it’s a trip to the grocery store or navigating the system of streets, highways, and traffic lights that allows us to arrive safely at work.
This incredible fact—that even our most personal and private thoughts are interdependently constructed with our society—is the ultimate downfall of all our libertarian tendencies, whether those tendencies take the Eastern form of the yogi or the Western form of the cowboy. The view of interdependence necessarily moves us beyond the naive notion that our spiritual journey can be isolated from our societal context.
Adapted from The Road Home, by Ethan Nichtern, published by North Point Press, a division of Staus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Ethan Nictern. All rights reserved.
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