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Buddha and the World

by Deepak Chopra, The Huffington Post, May 21, 2007

Los Angeles, USA -- Since 9/11 there has been a pervasive sense of anxiety in the world, and at the same time a search for spiritual answers. Is violence an aspect of human nature that can be cured, or are we caught in an endless cycle of violence that will never end? One of the most optimistic answers to that dilemma came from Buddha more than two thousand years ago.

In the light of what he taught, I wanted to post my thoughts about the Buddhist solution and what it means for you and me as we seek to live in a troubling world.

Anyone coming to spirituality from the outside asks the same question: "What can it do for me?" There's no universal key that unlocks the truth. However great the teaching, unless it can be made personal, it is sleeping. There's no cut-and-dried case, especially today. You and I seek spirituality one by one, on our own terms. We have our own specific suffering that we want to heal. As old traditions no longer bind us together, isolation, ironically enough, has become the new tradition for millions of modern people. Feeling alone, unwanted, unloved, weak, lost, and empty is how the human disease feels today.

At no time in history have there been more stateless persons, refugees, overpopulation, and restless migration. Globalism makes the individual feel lost in the world, overwhelmed by its chaos, which always seems to be teetering between madness and catastrophe. Yet when people came to Buddha, they brought the same complaints. They felt helpless in the face of natural disasters, war, and poverty. They couldn't comprehend a world on the edge of madness.

This dilemma has brought me closer to Buddha in recent years. I carry with me a few seminal ideas that have guided my life so far. One of them was expressed by Mahatma Gandhi when he said, "Be the change that you want to see in the world." Because the world is so huge, it came as a revelation to me --and also a mystery-- that by changing myself I can affect the world. This idea was not original to Gandhi. It's an offshoot of a much older idea, traceable to ancient India, which says, "As you are, so is the world."
That, too, is a revelation and a mystery.

Most of us survive by pretending that the world is "out there," at arm's length, which gives us breathing space. We can pursue our comfortable lives without merging into the poverty, injustice, and violence that surrounds us. However, our comfort zone disappears if the world is as we are. The individual is suddenly thrust center stage, holding responsibility for troubles that begin "in here" before they appear "out there."

This is the same as saying that the world begins in consciousness. Buddha was famously practical. He told people to stop analyzing the world and its troubles. He also told them to stop relying on religious rituals and sacrifices, which are external. Buddha was the avatar of the situation we find ourselves in today, because he refused to rely on the traditional gods or God. He didn't use the social safety net of the priestly caste with its automatic connection to spiritual privilege. Above all, he accepted the inescapable fact that each person is ultimately alone in the world. This aloneness is the very disease Buddha set out to cure.

His cure was a waking-up process, in which suffering came to be seen as rooted in false consciousness, and specifically in the dulled awareness that causes us to accept illusion for reality. The reason that people resort to violence, for example, is not that violence is inherent in human nature. Rather, violence is the result of a wrong diagnosis. That diagnosis puts the limited ego-self first in the world, and regards the demands of "I, me, mine" as the most important things to attain. The reason that people react with fear in the face of violence is that the ego goes into a panic trying to defend itself and its attachment to the physical body. The answer to violence for both the aggressor and the victim is to see through the false claims of the ego and thus to come to a true understanding of who we are and why we are here. Buddha's answer remains radical, but its truth offers a way out that may be our best hope for the future. Let's examine his solution in detail.

 Buddha stood for peace, and one would think that he would praise us if we ended the present war (and all wars.) We are told that the American people have now woken up to the folly of the invasion of Iraq. Since wars are where illusions die the fastest, Buddha would also want us to end a war because we became more awake.
I think these things are true, but Buddha was more radical. He wanted us to wake up in general, to see through all illusions. That is the only way to escape suffering before it occurs. Learning after the fact, as we are doing in Iraq, doesn't really accomplish Buddha's goal.

Observing how Buddhists follow his teaching, the steps of waking up include the following:

  • Meditating on the core of silence within the mind.
  • Observing the shifting contents of the mind carefully, separating out anything that sustain suffering and illusion.
  • Unraveling the ego's version of reality and piercing through the ego's claim that it knows how to live properly.
  • Facing the truth that everything in nature is impermanent.
  • Letting go of materialism in both its crude and subtle form.
  • Becoming detached from the self and realizing that the individual self is an illusion.
  • Being mindful of one's being, overcoming the distraction of thoughts and sensations.
  • Abiding by a set of higher ethics whose basis is compassion for other people and reverence for life.

Some or all of these things stand for Buddha's method by which the human disease might be cured. So how is the cure proceeding? The cure hasn't found enough people, beautiful and noble as it is. Let's say an outsider is coming in from the cold. He or she wants to be free of pain and suffering, wants to feel that life at its core is meaningful. To an outsider, it seems that the Buddhist cure has become difficult, complicated, and confusing.

  • Sitting and trying to find a core of silence is beyond short attention spans and doesn't fit into the hectic pace of modern life.
  • Watching and examining the shifting contents of the mind is time-consuming and exhausting.
  • Confronting the ego is nearly impossible, because it has a hundred heads for every one you cut off.
  • Facing the truth that everything is impermanent frightens people.
  • Seeking detachment makes people think they will be giving up worldly success and comfort.
  • Abiding by a set of higher ethics makes them anxious that they will be prey to anyone who is stronger, less moral, and capable of using violence without any sense of guilt or remorse.

Bringing wisdom to a world built on illusion and suffering is difficult. Solving violence through peace seems unworkable. Detaching from materialism has little appeal when people everywhere are pursuing materialism with every breath. Yet the genius of Buddha's teaching lies in its universality, and whatever is universal is also simple. Buddha's cure has the capacity to appeal to the entire world.

Right now Buddha's cure isn't simple for most people because being alone isn't simple. By asking people to go inside, Buddha seems to be asking them to be more alone. We must get to the very root of the problem first. Who feels alone? You and I. The minute we use those three basic words we confront the real difficulty. "You" are someone separate from me. "And" implies that we might be connected, and yet we don't feel connected. "I" stands for my ego and everything it is stubbornly or desperately attached to. Buddha had to resolve all three issues of "you and I" before his teaching, the Dharma, could work a cure.



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