In an oft-cited statement, which might be apocryphal, the British historian Arnold Toynbee said, “The coming of Buddhism to the West may well prove to be the most important event of the twentieth century.” Given the monumental social, political, and scientific changes of the last century, that claim seems pretty unlikely. But Toynbee may have noticed something the rest of us need to see: that the interaction between Buddhism and the West is crucial today, because each emphasizes something the other is missing. Whether or not Toynbee actually made this observation, the significance of the encounter may be nearly as great as his statement suggests.

Takeshi Nishijima/Amanaimages/Corbi
Takeshi Nishijima/Amanaimages/Corbi

For many Western convert Buddhists, including much of Tricycle’s readership, the claim that Buddhism provides what the West lacks seems reasonable enough. They are, after all, converts. But I believe the opposite is also true: the West offers something just as important to Buddhism, something Buddhism needs if it is to fulfill its vision of human potential. In a way that neither seems to be aware of, Buddhism and the West need each other to complete themselves. To many partisans of either tradition, this idea may sound absurd or even insulting. Certainly it is challenging. Above all, however, it is hopeful.

In his 1969 book Earth House Hold, the Buddhist poet and essayist Gary Snyder wrote, “The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.” Over the years, this observation has been quoted many times by those making the case for a more socially engaged Buddhism. The challenge is to better understand the relationship between the two: the mercy of the East and the mercy of the West.

What mercy does Buddhism offer the West? For those who read this magazine, answers to that question may already be apparent, but let’s be precise. Buddhist teachings emphasize the basic connection between suffering (dukkha) and the absence of an abiding self (anatta). Why are we constantly dissatisfied? It’s because our sense of self, being a delusion, is incapable of finding lasting satisfaction. We are unable to find happiness in our lives because we are haunted by a sense that “something’s wrong,” something we do not understand, and ego-driven attempts to resolve this just make things worse. According to Buddhism, the self, by its very (illusory) nature, is dukkha.

In contemporary terms, the sense of self is a psychosocial construct: psychological because it is a result of mental conditioning, and social because it develops in relation to others. Since “my” sense of self is composed of habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, letting go of those mental habits (through a practice such as meditation) is like peeling the layers of an onion. Through practice, one eventually realizes directly the emptiness—the lack of self—at one’s core. Awakening is recognizing that awareness is non dual: because “I” am not inside, the rest of the world is not “outside.”

In the context of social ethics, this recognition implies that without individual transformation, social transformations are bound to be impaired. Why have so many revolutions and reform movements ended up replacing one gang of thugs with another? Because, many Buddhists will say, if we do not address our own greed, ill will, and delusion (the three unwholesome motivations, also known as the “three poisons”), our efforts to challenge them in their collective forms are likely to be useless—or worse. Certainly history provides us with many examples of tyrannical leaders emerging from movements whose initial goals were largely just.

But wait a moment … what does Buddhism have to do with political movements? Buddhism, so the response often goes, is a spiritual path for individuals, not a platform for social change. The problem with this way of thinking is that it is not always clear where one ends and the other begins. Buddhism is about ending dukkha by transforming the three poisons, yet those poisons are all the more toxic when they infect a ruler, who easily can—and often does—create widespread dukkha. As Buddhists, we need to consider how much suffering is perpetuated by social and political conditions as well as by individual tendencies.

We know that the historical Buddha applied his teachings to the social world with an insight and vigor unique for a religious figure of his time and place. In the earliest scriptures there are many instances in which the Buddha challenges prevailing social attitudes and advocates reform. Still, social analysis and criticism had a marginal role in the corpus of his teachings. The main thrust of the Buddha’s teachings addressed the problem of individual suffering, and his thoughts about society were never elaborated in a similarly sophisticated or systematic way. As a result, after the Buddha passed away, the sangha (monastic community) for the most part adapted itself to the social forms and norms of Asian cultures. Buddhism has historically tended to passively accept, and sometimes actively support, social arrangements that now seem unjust.

In Asian Buddhist countries, for example, the monastic community has often relied on royal patronage. In these cultures, rulers were not only patrons and defenders of the sangha, they served as cultural ideals and living symbols of the social order, fulfilling a role that was necessary to maintain harmony between the state and the cosmos. In other words, their role was religious as well as political. The sangha generally accepted this view and, along with it, whatever injustices might be part of the social structure, for to challenge the order of society was to revolt against the order of the cosmos itself. What’s more, such a state of affairs can be, and often has been, justified by a simplistic interpretation of Buddhism’s doctrine of karma. The view that there is an infallible and precise cause-and-effect relationship between one’s actions and one’s fate implies that justice is already built into the way things happen. Karma has thus provided a rationalization for discrimination based on ethnicity, caste, class, birth handicaps, illness, and so forth. It has also justified the authority of those with political and economic power and the subordination of those who have neither.

By modern standards, this is an example of collective mystification. But such a way of viewing society is distinctly Western, rooted in ideas that originated in ancient Greece, particularly in Athens. The Greeks’ understanding, which began to develop about the same time as Buddhism, was revolutionary in the way it challenged false ideas about society—in fact, just as revolutionary as the Buddha’s challenge to delusive ideas about the self. It has been the norm in societies not exposed to these ideas to view their social structure as being in some way inevitable: as reflecting natural order or divine will. In the West, this way of thinking was challenged and eventually overthrown.

The Greeks made a distinction between nomos—the “norms” or conventions of human society (including culture, technology, and so forth)—and phusis, the natural world. The Greeks realized that, unlike nature, whatever is social convention can be changed: we can reorganize our own societies and in that way determine (or at least attempt to determine) our own destiny. Traditional societies didn’t realize this distinction. Without our understanding of historical development, and therefore of future possibility, premodern peoples usually accepted their own social structures as inevitable, as something that was just as “natural” as their local ecosystems. When rulers were overthrown, new ones took their place at the top of the social pyramid, which was also a religious pyramid: kings were gods or godlike, because of the special role they played in maintaining harmony with the transcendent powers that kept the cosmos going.

We call the Greeks humanists because their great discovery challenged the religious worldview that supported the traditional social order; now humans would decide for themselves how to live. We in the modern world tend to take this insight and all it implies for granted, as foundational to our way of life and how we see the world. But in a way it was as pivotal as the Buddha’s insight into the emptiness of the self. For just as the (sense of) self arises dependent on conditions, so too do the social and political arrangements under which we live. Self and society: both are impermanent, contingent, and therefore changeable.

An unusual set of cultural conditions encouraged this development in classical Greece. Homer’s detached, ironical attitude toward the gods authorized no sacred book, proclaimed no dogma, and set up no powerful priesthood. Greek merchant fleets sparked a great colonizing movement that exposed the Greeks to very different cultures, which encouraged skepticism toward their own myths. Thales founded natural philosophy when he did not use gods to explain the world. Unlike Moses and Muhammad, Solon did not get his tables from a divine source when he gave Athens new laws. Greek drama reduced the gods’ role by emphasizing human motivation and responsibility. Socrates’ philosophical quest for wisdom did not depend upon them.

With the help of some remarkable leaders, Athens was able to reorganize itself more or less peacefully. Solon broke the power of the aristocratic assembly by admitting the lower classes. Cleisthenes replaced the four traditional family-based tribes of Athens with ten districts, organized by one’s area of residence. Pericles extended the access of humble citizens to public office. The result was a unique, although limited, experiment in direct democracy (women and slaves did not participate).

Not everyone liked democracy. Plato, for example, offered more elitist plans to restructure the Greek city-state in two of his dialogues, the Republic and the Laws. But such alternative visions also presupposed the same basic distinction the Greeks had established between phusis and nomos, nature and social convention.

Virtually every social justice movement in modern times—the abolition of slavery, civil rights, feminism, workers’ rights, anti-apartheid—is a consequence of this distinction. The various revolutions that for better and worse have recreated our modern world—English, American, French, Russian, Chinese, and so forth—all took for granted the understanding that if a political regime is unjust and oppressive it should be changed, because such systems are human constructs and can therefore be reconstructed.

But speaking of these revolutions also reminds us of the horrors of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others—revolutions that devolved into reigns of terror. Revolution, we have learned, does not necessarily imply mercy.

The Greek experiment with democracy failed for the same reasons that our modern experiment with democracy is in danger of failing. It is the reason I mentioned earlier: unless social reconstruction is accompanied by personal transformation, democracy merely liberates the ego-self. If I am still motivated by greed, ill will, and delusion, my freedom will be dangerous, to myself as well as to others. As long as the illusion of an individual self separate from others remains strong, democracy— despite the countless attempts that have been made to create systematic safeguards—can’t help but provide opportunities for some individuals to take advantage of others.

Athenians became aware of this problem quite early. According to the sociologist Orlando Patterson, Greek individualism “was rooted in the Homeric tradition of personal fame and glory and was nourished by habitual competition, as much in art and athletics as in business, but everywhere off the battlefield with little team play.” This individualism “was tempered by little sense of strictly moral responsibility, or in particular of altruism.” It soon became obvious that “private appetites” were motivating people to corrupt the democratic process. Demosthenes lamented that politics had become the path to riches, for individuals no longer placed the state before themselves but viewed it as another way to promote their own personal advantage. Plato’s distaste for democracy is explicit in the Republic, which argues that too much liberty encourages a lack of self-restraint that tends to yield to the strongest pressures of the moment—a recipe for social as well as psychological strife.

This sounds strikingly familiar, although today it’s not so much private appetite as institutionalized greed that subverts the political process. We still distinguish between the economy and the government, but at top levels people easily move from corporate CEO to Cabinet position and back again, because they share the same self-serving vision: continuous economic growth is the most important thing of all, overshadowing all other social and ecological concerns. As Dan Hamburg concluded from his years in the U.S. Congress: “The real government of our country is economic, dominated by large corporations that charter the state to do their bidding. Fostering a secure environment in which corporations and their investors can flourish is the paramount objective of both [political] parties.”

From a Buddhist perspective, it would be naive to expect social transformation to work without personal transformation. But the history of Buddhism shows us that the opposite is also true: although Buddha-dharma may focus on promoting individual awakening, it cannot avoid being affected by the social forces that work to keep us asleep and submissive. It is the mercy of the West that those social forces need no longer be mystified as natural and inevitable.

For modern Buddhists, the world shows us daily that our own awareness cannot thrive indifferent to what is happening to the awareness of others. As the old sociological paradox puts it, people create society, but society also creates people. Our economic and political systems are not spiritually neutral; they inculcate certain values and discourage others. As our awareness becomes more liberated, we become more aware of the suffering of others, and of the social forces that aggravate or decrease suffering. The bodhisattva path is not a personal sacrifice but a further stage of practice: If I am not separate from others, how can I be fully awakened unless they are too? Today our world calls out for new types of bodhisattvas, who look for ways to address suffering, dukkha, as it is institutionalized in our social and political lives.

Western attempts at collective social reconstruction have had limited success, because they have been compromised by ego-driven individual motivations. Buddha-dharma, too, has had limited success, if the measure of its success is eliminating suffering and delusion, because until now Buddhism has not been able to challenge the delusion built into oppressive social hierarchies that mystify themselves as beneficial and necessary. Each has been limited because it lacked the other; their convergence in our times opens up fresh possibilities. Each might find in the other the perspective it needs to realize its own deepest promise.

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