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.
(To be continued)
Deepak Chopra's most recent book is a novel, Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment