Is a new Buddhist story beginning to develop out of the interaction between Buddhism and the modern world? Both need such a new story. It’s not only a matter of seeing the problems with modernity: we need to become aware of the difficulties with traditional Buddhist worldviews as well.
Anyone who is paying attention knows that we are living in a time of crisis—most obviously, severe ecological and economic challenges. They are interconnected: an economy based on consumerism and perpetual growth is incompatible with the well-being of our biosphere. What is less obvious is that there are also fundamental problems with the story that underlies these crises. By “story” I mean our basic way of understanding who we are, what the world is, and our role in it.
A Devalued World
The modern world emerged out of the fragmentation of Christianity. As a result of the Reformation, God disappeared up into the heavens, and we ended up with a secular world—but a devalued one because God was our traditional source of goodness, value, and meaning. When God faded away, we were left with a desacralized materialist understanding, a world without meaning. Much of our worldview today comes from science. Because of its concern to be objective and neutral, however, science is unable to provide the kinds of meaning and values that we need.
Yet our need for goodness, value, and meaning is inescapable. We can’t live without them. What then fills the vacuum? Since the late nineteenth century, Darwin’s findings about the biology of the evolutionary process have been misappropriated to define the new industrial society. It was the Victorian Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer who coined the term “survival of the fittest.” Human society came to be seen as another jungle environment where you must crawl over the next guy on your way to the top, because if you don’t he will crawl over you. The value and meaning of life was reduced to survival and success. And what we’ve seen over the last century and a half is robber barons and capitalist magnates like Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, both of whom embraced Spencer’s worldview.
From a Buddhist perspective, Social Darwinism (including its contemporary versions by Ayn Rand, and populist versions of “selfish gene” theory) rationalizes some pretty unsavoury motivations, especially the greedy aggression of the separate self. Basic to this worldview is that I can pursue my own benefit even at the cost of your (or everyone’s) well-being. If we look for what really motivates corporate CEOs or nation-states, we usually recognize a larger-scale version of the same worldview that prioritizes success, growth, and the exploitation of others. And that is what has gotten us into such an unsustainable economic and ecological state.
Interrogating traditional Buddhism
The solution is not simply to import some Buddhist philosophy, however, because contemporary Buddhism also has its problems. It originated as an Iron Age mythology and still contains many mythological elements that shouldn’t be accepted merely because they are traditional.
The most obvious challenge, of course, is how to understand karma and rebirth. But there is another (and even bigger) problem with the Buddhist worldview, one that it shares with Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions.
The Axial Age & Cosmological Dualism
The German philosopher Karl Jaspers popularized the idea of an Axial Age (800-200 BCE). He believed that during that period the spiritual foundations of humanity (upon which we still subsist today) were laid independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece. This period gave rise to the Vedanta, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, the Abrahamic religions, Pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, and Platonism.
Like other Axial developments, Buddhism basically rests on cosmological dualism. Instead of God and the created world, it’s samsara versus nirvana. The Buddha himself didn’t offer many details about nirvana, as if he intentionally didn’t want to provide food for speculation. On the popular level of understanding, however, Buddhism devalues this world as a place of suffering, craving, and delusion, and the goal of Buddhist practice is to transcend it. But what does “transcend it” mean? Escaping to some other reality, or realizing the true nature of this world?
Another implication of cosmological dualism is that my individual salvation or liberation is independent of yours. But trying to attain nirvana by escaping from this world of samsara is incompatible with the situation we face today. What is called for now is not people seeking to transcend this world but people who take responsibility for its well-being. If the fundamental problem is our usual sense of being a self that is separate from the rest of the world—if “I’m in here, and everything else is out there”—then enlightenment shouldn’t be understood as that self attaining some other reality separate from this world. Instead, genuine awakening involves letting-go of oneself—of one’s habitual sense of self—and realizing one’s non-duality with the world, which naturally involves accepting responsibility for it, because its well-being can no longer be distinguished from one’s own well-being.
The Axial worldview was quite distinct from that of the older empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt, which understood that a higher reality related to humanity mainly through a king, emperor, or pharaoh at the top of the social pyramid. The power of such rulers was as much sacred as secular, because they were the only ones directly in touch with the transcendent. The Axial revolution brought about a new relationship between the sacred and every individual. In fact, this is what created the individual. Everyone has their own personal relationship with God, Brahman, or the Tao. A circle of empathy now includes everyone else who also has a relationship with the sacred.
One essential aspect of this relationship is a transcendental demand that we transform ourselves. In the Abrahamic traditions this is primarily an ethical demand that we live in a certain way. The problematical aspect is that the impetus to transform comes from something outside this world—which inevitably involves some devaluation of this world. If God is the source of goodness, meaning, and value, the corollary is that this world by itself lacks them.
In contrast to the ethical focus (good vs. evil) of the Abrahamic traditions, the emphasis in India was on awakening (delusion vs. enlightenment). The Samkhya-Yoga traditions focus on realizing that pure consciousness is separate from this material world. Brahman, the ground of reality according to the Vedanta traditions, is very different from the particular manifestations or forms we experience in this world. Such metaphysical worldviews also devalue this world. In India generally, the idea has been not to transform the world, but to realize something that enables us to become indifferent to it. This world is maya, usually translated as illusion. Wise people don’t waste their time trying to fix an unreal reality. To awaken is to realize the really Real, which is something other than its forms.
There is another aspect of maya that is more relevant today: it can also be translated as creativity. This fits better into the new story that we need now, one more consistent with recent cosmology and evolutionary theory in understanding the fundamental ground—the basic stuff of the cosmos—as an inexhaustible creative process of always taking new forms (matter and energy being two of the most basic forms, which enable infinite others to develop). As the Heart Sutra emphasizes, it’s not simply that form is empty, for emptiness is also form. Rather than devaluing the reality and validity of the forms of this world, we can appreciate them as the (wonderful, delightful, frustrating) ways that shunyata manifests. We can embrace its confluence of processes and transformations, a field of incessant creativity that includes my own activity.
The Axial worldview fits only too well with our human yearning for immortality. In this material world, things are born and die, but if I have some self that can be “transcendentalized,” perhaps I can escape death. Here, again, is a devaluation of this world and all the things associated with it: matter, nature, and animals, bodies and their desires, and of course women, who remind us that we are conceived and born like other mammals (all the Axial traditions are patriarchal). We who have language assume we are superior to animals. In fact, our linguistic representations of the world are superior to the world itself, since they can control it. Ironically, the sense of a self that uses language is itself an artefact of language—a linguistic construct. Indo-European languages are dualistically structured in the way they distinguish nouns from verbs, subjects from predicates. To believe that words like I, me, mine, you, yours, etc., correspond to something real (“self-existing” is the Buddhist term) is to be trapped within a linguistic schema. Today we have neuro-scientific explanations of this process that are consistent with what Buddhism has been describing in its own way for 2500 years. And if the entanglement of language and our nervous system is what maintains the self, then we can appreciate why meditation is so important. Meditation enables us to let go of those dualistic linguistic patterns that largely determine our ways of thinking. Meditation helps us to transcend transcendence.