- Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness
Can the Buddhist culture of Tibet—until the middle of the twentieth century a medieval theocracy almost completely isolated from the rest of the world—point the way to the fulfillment of the American dream? In his extraordinary book, Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness, Robert Thurman, a distinguished Buddhist scholar, argues that it can.
Inner Revolution is a significant reconstruction of the basic teachings of Buddhism from a Tibetan perspective that shows the important sociopolitical dimensions [End Page 138] of Buddhism, arguing convincingly that mental transformation based on deep understanding of self and reality is the basis for far-reaching peaceful social and political revolution. The energizing vision behind this book is summed up on page 221, in the concluding paragraph of chapter 7, "The World-taming Adepts":
To finish building the free society dreamed of by Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson, we must draw upon the resources of the enlightened imagination, which can be systematically developed by the spiritual sciences of India and Tibet. We have not yet tamed our own demons of racism, nationalism, sexism, and materialism. We have not yet made peace with a land we took by force and have only partly paid for. We are a teeming conglomeration of people from different tribes who have yet to embrace fully the humanness in one another. And none of us can be really free until all of us are.
This is the vision of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness" announced in the book's title. The means to the realization of this vision, the "cool revolution" that Thurman describes, is captured in the first words of the title, "Inner Revolution." This inner revolution is a transformation of the mind, a transformation effected by the deep understanding praised as prajñā or insight in the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras of Mahāyāna Buddhism. It is the deep understanding to which Śākyamuni, the historical Buddha of our era, awakened, making him a Buddha. It is the understanding that the truth of existence, the Dharma, is that things exist in dynamic interdependence. Nothing—persons or things—exists permanently or separately. The fundamental insight of the Buddha, pratītyasamutpāda, is that, in the felicitous words of the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nat Hanh, things inter-are, in dynamic interdependence. It is because of the dynamic interbeing of things that genuine social and political freedoms are impossible without inner freedom. It was in his awakening to the truth of dynamic interbeing that, as Thurman describes it, "The Buddha found that inner freedom—freedom from our negative emotions and obsessive self-concern—is the essential precondition for goodness and social liberty" (p. 30).
There is a tendency among Buddhist scholars to ignore or slight the social and political implications of wisdom and compassion. This is partly the result of reading modern Western individualism into Buddhist teaching and consequently focusing exclusively on how the individual person is transformed by wisdom and compassion, ignoring the social transformation inherent in the transformation of individuals. It is also partly the result of a failure to understand that compassionate action is as central to Buddhism as enlightened understanding. But Thurman clearly understands that the fundamental aim of Buddhist teaching and practice is to become a Buddha. And to become a Buddha, as Śāntideva says in the Bodhicaryāvatāra, a text that has inspired Tibetan Buddhists for over a thousand years, one takes the Bodhisattva vow to work tirelessly and unceasingly to bring happiness to all beings. In Śāntideva's own words: "As long as space abides and as long as the world abides, so long may I abide, destroying the sufferings of the world" (10.55). Compassion is inseparable from wisdom. When one awakens the mind of enlightenment (bodhicitta), compassion arises, leading one to take the Bodhisattva vow that Śāntideva expresses in 3.7 : [End Page 139] "I am medicine for the sick. May I be both the doctor and...