Dharma for a Dangerous Time

The world may seem particularly dangerous and uncertain, but it’s wise to remember that the ways of history—and the dharma’s response—haven’t changed.

Charles R. Johnson
1 September 2006
Photo by Schicka.

The painfully perturbing dissolution of familiar forms, which suggests to weaker spirits that the ultimate reality is nothing but a chaos, may reveal to a steadier and more spiritual vision the truth that the flickering film of the phenomenal world is an illusion which cannot obscure the eternal unity that lies behind it.
—Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History

For those who take refuge in the teachings of the dharma, a crucial and recurring theme in our meditation is the experience of impermanence (anicca) and the inevitability of change. For a decade now, I’ve occasionally tried out on my friends and students a prediction about the historical moment we find ourselves living through at the dawn of the twenty-first century. It’s an idea about change for which I have only anecdotal examples, and no empirical proof whatsoever. That means this conjecture is only a hunch at best, something glimpsed furtively in my peripheral vision, but perhaps it might serve as a useful thought experiment when the changes, local and global, that are reshaping our world so rapidly cause us to feel anxiety, fear, or anger.

For me, it is axiomatic that while pain is inevitable in life, suffering is produced by the mind, frequently by our conditioned ideas of what is and ought to be. I find it helpful to remember that in the 4.5-billion-year history of the earth, modern humans (one of twenty humanoid species that once existed) have only been around for an estimated one hundred thousand years, the mere blink of an eye in a universe that is 15 billion years old. Twenty-three percent of the universe consists of dark matter, 73 percent is dark energy, discovered eight years ago, which leaves the measurable cosmos—what we can experience—at only about 4 percent.

During our brief, flicker-flash time here, there have been long periods of stagnation in our social evolution, notably the Dark and Middle Ages, which lasted a thousand years. But since the seventeenth century of Descartes, and certainly since the European Enlightenment, civilizational change has seemed relatively constant, sometimes marked by brief, intense periods that compress paradigm shifts and technological developments so far-reaching one is tempted to compare them to the movement of tectonic plates that alter continents and reshape the surface of the earth. Old and often cherished ideas and ways of life die; new experiences arise and require a new vocabulary, a new grammar, a new vision.

Our children may live in a world as experientially different from the twentieth century as our time is from, say, the eighteenth.

For example, a glance at the thirty years between 1895 and 1925 discloses a startling shift from the horse-and-carriage world of my great-grandparents (who lived a hairsbreadth from slavery and when average life expectancy was forty-seven years in 1902) to one in which the era of the Victorians ended, quantum mechanics provided a deeper understanding of matter than Classical or Newtonian physics, and new forms of art emerged (poetry’s free-verse movement, the revolt against formalism, the paintings of Picasso and sculpture of Eric Gill), and new philosophical and conceptual models took hold. In a very short time, our lives filled with the all too familiar “furniture” of the twentieth century. Just three dizzying decades produced such forms as the airplane, radio, modern naval submarine, diesel engine, typewriter, electric iron, talking pictures, television, x-rays, zippers, and the calculating machine—all came into being and restructured the possibilities of lived experience.

However, even that period of accelerated change seems lethargic when compared to the florescent moment we find ourselves immersed in at the beginning of a new century (and millennium). Given the sequencing of DNA, and the exponential progress in such fields as biotechnology, robotics, and nanotechnology, our children may live in a world as experientially different from the twentieth century as our time is from, say, the eighteenth. As a species, we have sent probes to Mars, Venus, comet Tempel 1, and to objects in the outer solar system like Saturn’s moon Titan—all with the aim of clarifying the origins of our universe and delivering knowledge unknown to our predecessors. (A company with the wonderfully ludic name Genetic Savings and Clone will duplicate your cat for only $50,000.) “Chimeras,” creatures genetically engineered with the traits of two species—florescent animals, for example—are already among us. Two years ago, scientists achieved “quantum teleportation,” the transfer of physical characteristics between atoms. A time may come, and soon, when stem cell research allows us to grow livers and kidneys keyed to our individual DNA, thus removing the likelihood of such organs being rejected by our immune systems. “People have this sense that as twenty-first-century humans we’ve gotten as high as we’re going to go,” says Greg Wray, director of Duke University’s Center for Evolutionary Genomics. “But we’re not played out as a species. We’re still evolving.”

Yet that evolution, of course, is contingent on whether we as a species can survive. Martin Luther King Jr. observed in a sermon delivered in 1954 that “The great problem facing modern man is that the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live. … The real problem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make it a brotherhood.”

How remarkable it is that half a century after King delivered that speech our era looks eerily like the time of Petronius, author of the Satyricon, at the end of the Roman empire.

On the global level, we often feel that we are helpless spectators to a war on terrorism that the vice president of the United States warned will continue well into the next generation. The Iraq war, now three years old, with its “thousands” of strategic errors Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice confessed the United States has made (which include, many would say, invading that country after cherry-picking basically flawed intelligence), leaves Americans of conscience and goodwill in a daily state of anxiety and suspense greater than any novelist can achieve, hoping that a sectarian civil war between Sunni, Shiites, and Kurds can be avoided, and that the Middle East will not be further destabilized by the dream of jihadists spread across eighty countries: namely, a modern holy war between Muslims and Christians (and Jews).

As I have followed the unfolding events in dangerous neighborhoods like Iraq and Afghanistan, I have been shocked and sickened by the almost surrealistic images of prisoners humiliated at Abu Ghraib, by the videotaped decapitation of American businessman Nicholas Berg by al-Qaeda led by Iraq’s then leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, by the seemingly endless suicide and car bombings, by the kidnappings and torture of innocents, and by the deaths and mutilations of between 30,000 and 100,000 Iraqis, and over 2,000 Americans and coalition forces (and counting). Even Stephen King’s feverish imagination doesn’t compare to this real-world horror story.

Across the border from Iraq, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad questions the abundantly documented reality of the Holocaust, promises in his speeches that the state of Israel must be “wiped off the map,” and works with his nation’s mullahs toward the production of enriched uranium that could be used to make a nuclear bomb. In the first letter to an American president from an Iranian leader since 1979, Ahmadinejad attacked the fundamental values of the West, stating that liberalism and Western-style democracy “have not been able to realize the ideals of humanity. … Today these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the Liberal democratic systems.”

Meanwhile, in Sudan’s Darfur region, where an Arab militia called the Janjaweed has raped, killed, and driven ethnic African villagers from their homes in the past three years, 20,000 people have died. The United Nations calls this “one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.” (Given so much admirable work done by the UN, I would rather not dwell on distasteful reports of its peacekeepers, aid workers, and teachers trading money and food for sex with African girls as young as eight years old.)

And here in America, a plutocracy with a broken moral compass, a Cook’s tour of our dilemmas reveals that our ship of state has run aground on the problems of immigration; poverty; the lack of universal health care; the complex issue of a planet-altering global warming; political corruption such as influence peddling by lobbyists like Jack Abramoff; the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; racism; the startling decline of literacy (only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it); the loss of not only civility and courtesy but also safety in so many of our public spaces; the failure of 1,750 schools to meet the No Child Left Behind standards for math and reading (all fifty states received an F from the federal government on demonstrating their teachers had a bachelor’s degree, a state license, and proven competency in every subject they teach); a burgeoning prison industry; the failure to address the plight of young black males who are increasingly alienated from society in violent, drug-ridden neighborhoods; the outsourcing of jobs; growing electronic surveillance and accumulation of private information on citizens; a president (and congress) with the lowest approval ratings since Richard Nixon; and the saddling of future generations with a staggering national debt. The list of dysteleological characteristics—all signs of internal social decay and decline in what historian Oswald Spengler described in The Decline of the West as a culture’s period of senility—goes on and on.

Our era looks eerily like the time of Petronius, author of the Satyricon, at the end of the Roman empire. The signs of decay and decline go on and on.

Looking at such a pain-wracked world of samsara where many people in non-Western nations live on a dollar a day (or less) while materialistic Americans recklessly consume the lion’s share of the earth’s resources for their entertainment and ease, one justifiably feels despair and a powerlessness to alleviate one’s own pain, let alone that of others. Some cultural commentators recommend that we simply withdraw from those dimensions of the world that have become unworkable. I’m thinking of a beautiful Modern Library edition of Voltaire’s Candide that bears a blurb by the esteemed philosopher A. J. Ayer, who says, “When we observe such things as the recrudescence of fundamentalism in the United States, the horrors of religious fanaticism in the Middle East, the appalling danger which the stubbornness of political intolerance presents to the whole world, we must surely conclude that we can still profit by the example of lucidity, the intellectual honesty, and the moral courage of Voltaire.” And what wisdom does Voltaire’s 1759 classic offer us? The story’s final eight lines reveal a psychological strategy popular among many in our troubled time (as well as a surprisingly Buddhist understanding of cause and effect):

Pangloss sometimes said to Candide: “All events are linked up in this best of all possible worlds; for, if you had not been expelled from the noble castle, by hard kicks in your backside for love of Mademoiselle Cunegonde, if you had not been clapped into the Inquisition, if you had not wandered about America on foot, if you had not stuck your sword in the Baron, if you had not lost all your sheep from the land of Eldorado, you would not be eating candied citrons and pistachios here.”

“Tis well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our gardens.”

Living scarred and scared, stressed and depressed, burned out on utopian thinking, many citizens have turned to tending to their own personal gardens, cocooning with their immediate family and friends, and retreating with a feeling of disillusionment and defeat from efforts to tackle social problems (in other words, “dropping out”) as their existential default position. Unlike the era of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Eugene McCarthy, in our period of postmodernism the belief in a historical and progressive Grand Narrative has been lost.

A more positive spin on the Voltarian solution, one that inches closer to a Buddhist approach, can be found in Morris Berman’s powerful The Twilight of American Culture (2000), a work the author says he created as “a kind of guidebook for disaffected Americans who feel increasingly unable to fit into this society, and who also feel that the culture has to change if it is to survive.” Berman, whose most recent book is Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, is an admirer of Ray Bradbury’s inspiring and influential Fahrenheit 451, a novel that imagines a coterie of cultural rebels in a book-destroying future dystopia. They each memorize a classic work of literature and thus become living books themselves in order to transmit the hard-won treasures of civilization to the next generation.

Today we must do something similar to this, Berman argues, becoming what he calls a New Monastic Individual (NMI), “a sacred/secular humanist dedicated not to slogans or the fashionable patois of postmodernism, but to Enlightenment values that lie at the heart of our civilization: the disinterested pursuit of truth, the cultivation of art, the commitment to critical thinking inter alia.”

Not retreating from an infantilized, culturally diminished social world, where consumers are bombarded with three thousand product messages a day (according to Brad Adgate, senior vice president of the New York branding firm Horizon Media), the NMI “knows the difference between quality and kitsch, and he seeks to preserve the former in the teeth of a culture that is drowning in the latter. If she is a high school teacher, she has her class read the Odyssey, despite the fact that half the teachers in the school have assigned Danielle Steel. If he is a writer, he writes for posterity, not for the best-seller lists. As a mother, she takes her kids camping or to art museums, not to Pocahontas. He elects, in short, to save his life via the monastic option.”

Both the cultivate-your-own-garden and NMI models for dealing with no longer healthy societies have value, but they are missing the profound clarity provided for 2,600 years by the buddhadharma, which has witnessed and survived the waxing and waning of civilizations. Albert Einstein is reported to have claimed, “If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.” That quote may be apocryphal, but if the attribution is accurate, Einstein may have been inspired in part by these memorable lines that conclude the Diamond Sutra:

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

After looking outward, a Buddhist is compelled to look within, and through meditation recognizes the truth of the ephemerality, the arising and falling, of all labile phenomena, whether that be our thoughts and feelings, nations, or situations we judge from our relative perspectives to be “good” or “bad.” From the moment of our birth we have been dying, and one day this universe itself will experience proton death. Black holes will eventually evaporate into photons, leaving only a void from which (perhaps) another, different universe will arise. All that men and women have done will be as if it never was. There is nothing to which we can cling or be attached, including our passionately held “views” on matters political, scientific, or spiritual.

Hope is baggage we no longer need to carry into this stormy new century. Hope is a major impediment on the path, an obstacle to addressing the real, quotidian demands of the here, the now.

Even Buddhism—especially Buddhism—knows it is subject to change. Instead, what is required of practitioners, first and foremost, is what I call “epistemological humility,” and an egoless listening to all that is around us, for attentive listening is an act of love. Arnold Toynbee recognized this in 1947, and in a remarkably Eastern way, when he wrote in A Study of History that “The music that the rhythm of Yin and Yang beats out is the song of creation; and we shall not be misled into fancying ourselves mistaken because, as we give ear, we can catch the note of creation alternating with the note of destruction. … If we listen well we shall perceive that, when the two notes collide, they produce not a discord but a harmony. Creation would not be creative if it did not swallow up all things in itself, including its own opposite.”

That region in which a dhammin dhammiko (dharma practitioner) dwells is, therefore, beyond the countless illusory forms of dualism—Christian and Muslim, spiritual and secular, East and West, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, black and white, male and female, life and death—that moment by moment we impose upon our experience, thereby obscuring it.

We are all these opposites. And none of them. Recognizing this, a young Thich Nhat Hanh and his fellow monks during the Vietnam War were empowered to come selflessly to the aid of the wounded women and children on both sides of the civil strife that overwhelmed their country. They chose not to merely tend their gardens or remain in the monastery memorizing beautiful sutras (although they certainly did such important things, not blind to the classics but not bound by them either), but put the dharma in practice, here and now, by alleviating the suffering of sentient beings regardless of their politics, their past, or their deeds. Clearly, they understood Shakyamuni Buddha’s counsel that we must “Give up what is behind / Give up what is before / Give up what is in the middle / Cross to the other shore.”

Those words refer, of course, to the movement from delusion and ignorance to awakening. But, as with all things in the polyvalent dharma, they provide us with upaya kaushala (skillful means) when we feel “unable to fit into this society” and feel that “the culture must change.” Indeed, it must. And like all impermanent things, it will, whether we want it to or not. The point is that we must always first examine ourselves. When he feels anger or fear, a Buddhist rightly asks, “Who feels this anger and fear? What is this I that knows despair and depression?” (Hunting for the self, one soon discovers, is as futile as searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.)

During periods of great transition, like this moment in history, we cannot afford to be trapped and limited by our own narratives, by a miscellaneous list of egoistic “likes” and “dislikes,” or by the forever-running magic show that is a product of the conditioned Monkey Mind. All that we must give up. As Thich Nhat Hanh and his disciple Claude Anshin Thomas teach endlessly and so beautifully, if we want peace, we must be peace ourselves. When I wonder how to achieve right speech, I try to remember one of my favorite Zen sayings, Open mouth, already big mistake, and frisk my planned utterance at three gates before I release it into the world. These three gates are questions: Is it true? Is it necessary? Will it do no harm?

Like right speech guided by nonviolence and ahimsa (harmlessness), right action necessarily demands that our deeds do not contribute to division and divisiveness in the world. Leaving our private gardens, we got to our workplace, the professional and service organizations we belong to, and other places in the social world where we work in concert with other men and women on life-enhancing, dukkha-reducing projects too great for us to accomplish individually. Such work is done with no thought of reward. If we feel we have achieved “merit” through such action, we—inspired by the bodhisattva ideal—might transfer in our practice that “good” karma to other sentient beings for their benefit and happiness, seeking nothing for ourselves, for when we progress enough along the path we no longer create for ourselves the dualism involved in either “good” or “bad” merit. And, once done, we “let go” that particular project and move on to the next, understanding that everything in life, each precious moment, is an opportunity for spiritual practice, not to be wasted by a lack of mindfulness. We live always in the present moment (for where else is there to live?), not becoming “stuck” on results, nor to “hope” or “despair,” those false polarities that are more about the needs of the fictitious ego, so full of itself, than anything else.

For when we hope, we prelive or project an imagined future spun from our conditioned desires and fears. Hope is baggage we no longer need to carry into this stormy new century, once we “cross to the other shore.” Hope is thirst (trishna), the cause of suffering identified in the second noble truth. Hope begs the question and, as every practitioner knows, hankering for the experience of nirvana—enlightenment or liberation—is a major impediment on the path, an obstacle to addressing the real, quotidian demands of the here, the now. If we are not monks but lay practitioners, we must work and practice daily at the white-hot center of samsara with a glorious hopelessness and devotion to the ten paramis (virtues): loving-kindness, compassion, joy in the happiness of others, equanimity, giving, keeping precepts, forbearance, assiduousness, meditation, and wisdom. The paramis vouchsafe no guarantees. They offer no safety net. But for followers of the dharma, this exhilarating challenge, during the Buddha’s time or in our own era of complex and tempestuous change, has always been quite enough.

Charles R. Johnson

Charles R. Johnson

Charles Johnson won the National Book Award for Fiction for his novel Middle Passage. He’s coauthor of the new graphic novel The Eightfold Path.