It’s hardly a secret that human recklessness is reaching a critical mass, threatening not only our collective sanity but even our long-term survival. Ever more powerful and impersonal weaponry, endless warfare, super-quick changes in technology, a volatile global economy, the widening gap between the ultrarich and everyone else, climate disasters, species extinction, and ecological devastation: these crises are escalating out of control, and even what was once the most idyllic South Pacific island offers no escape. We’ve got to find ways to put our house in order, and we’ve got to do so fast; otherwise the rapid descent of our civilization towards collapse seems unavoidable.
The critical problems that loom over us—economic, political, and ecological—can be dealt with in either of two ways. One is the symptomatic approach favored by policy wonks and conventional liberal politicians, who view each problem as distinct and propose tackling them through more finely tuned policies. The other approach is holistic. It looks at these problems as interwoven and mutually reinforcing, seeing them as objectifications of our subjective propensities mirroring back to us the distorted ways we relate to ourselves, other people, and the natural world. From this angle, any effective solution requires that we make fundamental changes in ourselves—in our views, attitudes, and intentions. These can then ripple out, coalesce, and inspire transformative action.
I suggest that it is the task of religion—understood broadly as comprising forms of spirituality that don’t necessarily constitute an organized faith—to offer us guidance in making those redemptive changes. In trying to implement them we can expect to meet hardened resistance both from mainstream culture and our own entrenched habits. To understand the necessity of change, we must consider not only our short-term personal advantage but also the long-range impact our choices have on others we will never know or see: on people living in remote lands, on generations as yet unborn, and on the other species that share our planet.
What is required of us is to adopt a panoramic ethical point of view that takes us far beyond the bounds of mere expediency. By connecting us to the deepest sources of ethics, religious consciousness can play a pivotal role in promoting the inner transformations needed to ward off collapse. But for religion to guide us through the approaching storms, the scope of religious consciousness must itself be extended and deepened. We have to draw out from classical spiritual teachings fresh implications and applications seen against the cultural and intellectual horizons of our time.
I have found that by balancing fidelity to tradition with relevance to the present, the classical teachings of Buddhism can be newly formulated to meet the challenges of the historical moment. Classical Buddhism at its core is a path of personal liberation, but its rich array of principles and practices offer powerful tools for accelerating the type of inner growth that can promote outer transformation. Specifically, Buddhism offers us two complementary perspectives that can guide us in our engagement with the world. One pertains to our way of understanding ourselves, the other to our relationship with other living beings. These two perspectives are, respectively, the wisdom of selflessness and universal compassion. Though distinct, the two are closely bound, and in their unity they provide a potent antidote to our current perilous drift.
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