- Why Buddhism and the Modern World Need Each Other:A Buddhist Perspective
The mercy of the West has been social revolution. The mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.—Gary Snyder1
Another way to make Snyder’s point would be: The highest ideal of the Western tradition has been the concern to restructure our societies so that they are more socially just. The most important goal for Buddhism is to awaken and (to use the Zen phrase) realize one’s true nature, which puts an end to dukkha—especially that associated with the delusion of a separate self. Today it has become more obvious that we need both, not just because these ideals complement each other, but because each project needs the other.
As far as I have been able to determine, the Western conception of justice largely originates with the Abrahamic traditions, particularly the Hebrew prophets, who fulminated against oppressive rulers for afflicting the poor and powerless. Describing Old Testament prophecy, Walter Kaufmann writes that “no other sacred scripture contains books that speak out against social injustice as eloquently, unequivocally, and sensitively as the books of Moses and some of the prophets.”2 Is there a Buddhist equivalent? The doctrine of karma understands something like justice as an impersonal moral law built into the fabric of the cosmos, but historically karma has functioned differently. Combined with the doctrine of rebirth (a necessary corollary, since evil people sometimes prosper in this life) and the belief that each of us is now experiencing the consequences of actions in previous lifetimes, the implication seems to be that we do not need to be concerned about pursuing justice, because sooner or later everyone gets what they deserve. In practice, this has often encouraged passivity and acceptance of one’s situation, rather than a commitment to promote social justice.
Does the Buddhist emphasis on dukkha (suffering in the broad sense) provide a better parallel with the Western conception of justice? Dukkha is arguably its most important concept: According to the Pali Canon, Sakyamuni Buddha said that what [End Page 39] he had to teach was dukkha and how to end it. Historically, Asian Buddhism has focused on individual dukkha and personal karma, a limitation that may have been necessary in autocratic polities that could and sometimes did repress Buddhist institutions. Today, however, the globalization of democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech opens the door to new ways of responding to social and institutional causes of dukkha.
On the other side, the Abrahamic emphasis on justice, in combination with the Greek realization that society can be restructured, has resulted in our modern concern to pursue social justice by reforming political and economic institutions. This has involved, most obviously, various human rights movements (the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, feminism, LGBT liberation, etc.), which have not been an important concern of traditional Asian Buddhism. As valuable as these reforms have been, the limitations of such a institutional approach, by itself, are becoming evident. Even the best possible economic and political system cannot be expected to function well if the people within that system are motivated by greed, aggression, and delusion—the “three fires” or “three poisons” that Buddhism identifies as unwholesome motivations that need to be transformed into their more positive counterparts: generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom.
Today, in our globalizing world, the traditional Western focus on social transformation encounters the traditional Buddhist focus on individual awakening. This essay addresses why they need each other in order to actualize their own ideals and uses the example of our present economic situation to explore some of the implications of this interdependence.
good versus evil
The difference in focus can be traced back to different paradigms. One way to draw the contrast between the Abrahamic and Buddhist traditions is to consider their dissimilar attitudes toward morality. The Abrahamic religions are (the primary) examples of “ethical monotheism” because they emphasize most of all ethical behavior. God’s main way of relating to us, his creatures, is instructing us how to live by giving us moral commandments. To be a good Jew, Christian, or...