In an article originally published in 1969, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche reflects on how Buddhism can address the alienation of modern society.
Every age is an age of change. This means also change in the social structure of the life of the people. There is never a still or static moment of time. As the time situations develop—there comes new ways of expressing wisdom — new ways of indulging or one might say corrupting people—and new ways of creating a structure for society. So therefore from a Buddhist point of view one sees that the world is not necessarily going to achieve either a Utopian Golden Age or for that matter going to enter a completely Dark Age.
Now some people may think that since we say that, what is the use of trying to do anything? The point is that the whole structure — everything — depends on us—individually. We may meditate. We may pray. We may work. But we have to do it ourselves.
We may think ‘our strength and energy is given to us by some external power.’ But nevertheless he who feels this energy or wisdom, whatever it may be, still has to have it simplified in human terms. And this is where the practice of meditation plays a very important part.
What was originally known as ‘Westernization’ no more belongs to the West—it is purely ‘modernization.’ The machines, inventions, and technological knowledge that have developed in the world do not belong to any of the continents but are just part of the modern age, the New Age. Equally, for that matter, the spiritual knowledge also does not belong to any particular place, and this does not mean that the wisdom has to be simplified or modified as if one were making it into a neat sort of packed lunch. We can’t really POPULARIZE anything in fact. It has been the human element that has been the source of corruption in the spiritual society, both East and West. So therefore meditation is the greatest factor, force, strength and hope — this is everything.
I am sure that a lot of people have read and heard about the practice of meditation over and over again, but when I talk about meditation in this case it is not that of the mind pondering on different subjects, nor is it some means of achieving power, psychic power or the power of concentration, nor for that matter is it the business of trying to become a successful mentally controlled person. The meditation I am talking about is connected with life itself.
Suppose that everybody has a tremendous urge to practice meditation so they go off to retreats and become sanyasins or bikkus or hermits and so on — there would be no one left to run this world. However much we say we have independence, however much we think we ourselves are independent and self-sufficient, we still share and we still need what one might call the karmic link and the National karma of where we live.
Now with the structure of all countries being Americanized, with things developing as they are — vast machinery, vast organization which transcends the individual mind so that they can only be grasped in terms of computers, the whole thing has grown so big that to some people it is very frightening. Yet I would not say that this was particularly good, or for that matter particularly bad. The point is we cannot fight against it, and therefore our meditation has to be translated in terms of our pattern of life.
Living in such a world we really have to be practical for we cannot afford to divide society up into those who practice meditation and those who are workers, those who work in factories and those who are intellectuals and spend most of their lives in books. We can’t afford to anymore — the world is too small. Once we have grasped this we see that we can only develop by understanding ourselves — that before we blame the world and before we try to save the world that first of all the whole question has to come back to us — OURSELVES – starting on the nearest one, that is — me, you, us. Now in order to start this change it is going to be necessary somehow to re-create the tribal structure that has been dissolved. The tribal structure that once existed.
For instance, if you are in a big city you may feel that there is no kind of link at all. Just one person or a couple of people walking in a street, or getting on a bus, can seem kind of desolate. There is nothing as a binding factor. The only binding factor may seem to be money, but even that is not a binding factor at all. This need to re-create the tribal structure can only be understood, of course, by those who live in the West and so have gone through the various stages of fascination for machine culture that the geographical East is going through at the moment, and of course we still are involved in it ourselves. Then comes the inevitable second stage. We feel we have no alternative, we are drawn into it and we have no control. I am sure that in the East when the technology is developed and this gigantic mechanism and material force has invaded completely that they too will understand.
So you see that the negative happenings of the new age also have a tremendous creative and positive element to them as well. One can’t try to abandon life and try to create a new one, but rather let us try to work with it.
Let us make a beginning. Let us take a group of ten friends — in the sense that ten must have started with one. Without one there would be no two, no three, no four. Start with one of us. Now, how A will communicate to B, and how A will understand the A-ness of himself, say, before he has any idea of B — that is the real problem. This is the problem of communication. Now we have a tremendous problem of communication. In Buddhist terminology this is called duality. There is a tremendously thick wall built between us, between you and me, each of us like animals in a zoo. All of us in cages. There is a monkey from China here — and a gorilla from Africa next door — somehow we have to remove the bars. But if we are going to remove the bars then we have to develop some kind of strength within us. This is what is really lacking. And this strength comes from faith, real faith. And faith is quite different from pride or being self-centered. This faith comes from a willingness to open out. The whole trouble stems from here.
The structure of the future depends on us individually. We have arrived in an age where the study of the great wisdom of the world, religion and tradition however important they are, are not enough. There is one more urgent thing we have to do. We must create a structure which allows a real communication.
At the moment we merely have glimpses of communication that open and close. There is one person outside us and there is another busy monkey working inside us — this is known in Buddhist tradition as the monkey mind. The five senses are like five windows. The consciousness is like a monkey restlessly looking first in one window and then in another. But this is not enough
There has to be real communication. And someone has to start. If no one begins nothing will happen. And having started and developed and been able to contact one person then one is able to communicate to a third person, and then a fourth gradually develops and so on.
It’s no use individuals trying to search for happiness in the beginning, only to find that there’s no one to share their happiness with at the end. For, in the process of finding happiness we forget what we were looking for, and we find something else, and then we go on and on and on — and it is exactly that causes the confusion.
We have to see that the answer is not one of spirituality alone any more that it is one of politics alone. Some people may believe that if the whole world practiced meditation, suppose the whole world meditated for two hours every morning then went to their jobs and continued in business peacefully — some people think that would be enough. Other people think that we are fine as we are — some people live, some people die, in any case I have security, insurance, work, everything — as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t affect me. Others among us think there should be some kind of revolution, perhaps communism, or let us say pure socialism is the only answer because the structure is wrong. And so you see there are many conflicting ideas coming in.
But altogether — there is violence. There is war in Vietnam. There is protest against the war in Vietnam, so one violence has started another violence. There is war in Europe and in America too. One violence creates another. And what Buddha teaches us is not just specifically to accept it, but to understand the causes of it and try to do something creative about it. We really must try to see through events to their source.
A window is smashed. Alright, we’ve done it. Next week the window is repaired again. We smash it again, and in a few days there’s a big article in the newspaper. Then something else comes in the newspaper. People have forgotten about what happened because no positive contribution had been developed.
Before we start the protest, or if you like, the anarchy, we must first of all within ourselves try to overcome this need for an unnecessary kind of outlet of desire to do something. Turn this energy into opening up communication instead of just using it as aggressiveness.
The world is changing at tremendous speed and I would like to end by saying that I realize that we cannot recreate another kind of life by settling whole populations in the countryside with everybody doing manual work and handicrafts and so on, with all the wonderful thing that people have forgotten.
What we have to deal with is the kind of psychological materialism in our heads. We are allowing ourselves to be fed ideas and concepts from outside in a way that never lets us really be free anyway. It is inward materialism that we have to deal with first. It is the war that is going on inside our own heads to which we have to call the truce. Having done so doesn’t mean that everyone has to become an enlightened person by any means. But at least if one person made an attempt at it and then began to work with someone else there would soon be a kind of communal working together.
Like in London it’s not so much the colors, the chairs, the walls of the underground which depress us but the faces, the people moving like ants, people moving in and out, in and out, each with their own depression. Let us begin to create a body of people moving about and carrying their own light.