Saturday, 30 August 2008

A World of Possibilities

A few months ago I watched a film DVD called “What the bleep do we know”. It is a kind of documentary about quantum physics, but looking at the spiritual implications of what quantum physics says about the nature of matter. I have no idea whether it was portraying a completely idiosyncratic view or whether views expressed are widely held by physicists. Anyway one of the points that came across quite strongly is that there is nothing fixed abut the material world and it changes by the mere fact of being observed - it is more of the nature of energy - constantly moving - not even energy but more like consciousness of thoughts - than of matter as we usually tend to think of it. Following on from that was the idea that the world, reality is completely malleable and therefore we can and do create our own worlds. Consciousness, thoughts and what we think of as matter are not that different - they are all equally ephemeral and impermanent - without any fixed essence or substance. So the result of all this is that anything is possible. We are only limited by habitual perceptions and a habitual conceptual framework which means we don’t see reality but our ideas about reality. Anyway this was in my mind when PV (Padmavajra?) asked me for a title for this talk about transforming the world - so we have “A World of Possibilities”.

I am going to make a few points by way of introduction and then I will approach this whole topic under three headings: education, ecology and economics.

The first point I want to make is that the whole universe is interconnected and that of course includes us. There is no such thing as an isolated individual. We may experience isolation on a social or psychological level - but real isolation from the rest of the living universe is not possible. We eat food which we buy in a shop where we are served by people and the food was put on the shelves by others and delivered by others and harvested and grown by others and the soil was prepared by others and the seeds provided by others and the plants grew because there was sufficient light and moisture and space. All of these things connect us to vast numbers of people and to the sun and the climate and the earth’s atmosphere and the solar system and galaxy and so on. We cannot be isolated from life. Even when we are dead our body returns to the earth and nourishes the plants and so on.

We are also connected to other people by virtue of influence and effect. The influence they have on us and the effect we have on them.

If we think about it - virtually everything we know, all our knowledge, comes from somebody else. We learn from books, from other people, parents, teachers etc and is a completely rare event for anyone to have an original thought and even when that does happen it is in relationship to all the thoughts others have had previously in a particular area - whether it is art or mathematics or science. We are made up of influences which we have imbibed since birth and which we continue to imbibe. It is good to try to become aware of this - what has influenced us, what is influencing us? What do we know? How have we come to know what we know? In our western culture a great emphasis is placed on freedom, independence, choice and so on and we are influenced by this emphasis to such a degree that we can become completely blind to how strongly connected to others we are and how strongly we are being influenced all the time. To a large degree we are made up of influences - whether from other people or the climate or the environment we live in. All these things form and shape our consciousness, affect our thoughts and emotions and are very much who we are. So in a sense all we are is interconnection - there is nothing solid or substantial or fixed that we can point to and say that’s me - completely unaffected by any influence from elsewhere.

The other side of this is that we are always having an effect - we are always influencing. Some people are referred to as influential people - well everybody is influential - it is not possible to have no effect on anybody or anything. By eating food you have bought in a shop, you have had an effect on the shop and those who work there and the whole chain of supply. I was reading an interview in a magazine recently with the CEO of Tesco’s. The point was put to him that a huge store like Tesco has a lot of power - too much power even. He said that from where he stood - all the power was with the consumer and he had to be constantly attentive and sensitive to what shoppers wanted or didn’t - otherwise even the biggest business could collapse quite quickly. There is obviously a lot of truth in that. But more immediately than that we have an effect on people we come into contact with. We can never know how much of an effect we are having. Sometimes we say or do something quite small and it has a big effect on someone. Perhaps a little act of generosity where it was not expected or a sharp word or a flippant remark.

I ordained someone a few years ago who in his early life had spent some time in prison. While he was there he was sent to solitary confinement for gross misbehaviour. He found solitary confinement extremely difficult and the prison warder noticed this and deliberately left the door of his cell ajar and sat in a place where he could be seen. My friend said this was a real act of kindness on the part of that warder and it had a huge effect on him - it was the turning point which led him away from a criminal life and towards a spiritual path.

Well we won’t always have a dramatic effect on others – we will have an influence. We could go further and say we are always becoming part of the consciousness of others and they are always becoming part of our consciousness. This is the case even with people that we just see in the street or the park or on the bus. They live in your mind – perhaps only momentarily or perhaps for longer. The more focussed and intense our awareness is the more impact we have on others and also the more impact they have on us.

So all this is by way of introduction - to say that we are interconnected with the whole of life and that we are always being influenced and influencing. We are a part of each other, part of the make-up of each other’s consciousness.

This is very much the outlook of Tibetan Buddhism: as Reginald Ray puts it in “Indestructible Truth” (page 47)

“..we humans are one part of a vast, interconnected web of relationships with all other inhabitants of the cosmos, both those still living and those who are awakened.

An awareness of these relationships is critical because, to a very large extent, who we are as humans is defined by this network of relations. To be able to know this fact, and to take responsibility for it, gives us a dignified and directed human life. Within Tibetan tradition, the isolated individual – the one who is unaware of the vast cosmos of beings within which we live and who attempts to live as if it did not exist – is lost. He is a dundro, an animal-realm being in human form, controlled by ignorance, with its nose to the ground.”

This view has also had enormous implications for our own modern world. The collapse of the Soviet empire at the end of the 1980s was at least in part due to a recognition of interconnectedness. Here is how Mr Gorbachov puts it …

“We had to create new relations together,” Gorbachov says, “but for that we needed to understand that the stake placed on confrontation has yielded nothing. It had only led to a situation where the world was divided into opposing camps. It was a policy of blocs, confrontation and the arms race. This policy had only led us to the edge of a precipice. And we found new paths only by realising that we were all part of one civilization and that we lived in one interconnected world. The new thinking was born, and out the new thinking came the new policy”


(Gabriel Partos “The world that came in from the cold” p.234)

So when we come to look at this world of possibilities and how it might be transformed for the better we need to bear in mind this fact of interconnection and its’ implication for the effect that all of us have, all the time.

Now I will move on to look at the three areas of education, ecology and economics and the bearing they have on transforming the world and making the best of the myriad of possibilities available.

When I say education I don’t intend to say anything about the British school system or how universities work. At least not directly. What I want to talk about is our responsibility to educate ourselves about the nature of the world and the reality that we inhabit.

I have just been talking about influence and the fact that we influence each other. One of the most obvious ways in which we influence others is through what we so and what we say. However what we do and what we say are based on what we think and feel. So it is important to educate our thoughts and emotions so that wee can have a beneficial influence through what we do and say.

As Buddhists we have already begun this process – by thinking about and engaging with questions of value and meaning. However, it has been said that laziness is the besetting sin of Buddhists and often we don’t take our investigation and exploration of values and meaning much further than the most basic stage. We might feel we’ve got a grasp of the five precepts and therefore we know enough about Buddhist ethics or we have been told about impermanence and insubstantiality and shunyata and conditionality and so we are familiar with all the most essential aspects of Buddhism.

But it doesn’t work like that. We need to be thoroughly familiar with the teaching of the Buddha and other great Buddhist teachers and in our own case we also need to be thoroughly familiar with Sangharakshita’s interpretation of Buddhist teachings. (By the way, the more I read Bhante the more impressed I am by his clarity and profundity). But this is just the beginning. It’s as if we have been given a box of tools and trained in what each is for and how to use it – but the next step is to actually use these tools.

As Buddhists – this means learning to understand our experience more and more in terms of the Dharma. We need to understand our experience of happiness, anger, loneliness and so on, in terms of the Dharma. We need to get a thorough grasp of the central task of Buddhism - which is to undermine and transcend all egotism, all self-centredness. We need to learn how to gradually stop building a fixed self for ourselves and others. This is what the tools are for. This is what all the Dharmic concepts and lists are for and this is a big task – one that we need to bring as many approaches to as we can and a task that we need to patiently pursue for many many years.

So our understanding and ability to use the ideas of the Dharma can fee dour meditation – so that our meditation is much more than a pleasant interlude in the day. Our meditation can become a slow unveiling of all that is positive in us, all the qualities that out spiritual aspirations point to until we are face to face with the Buddha nature – which is another way of talking about the complete absence of egotism.

Okay so if we educate ourselves by going deeper and deeper into the Buddha’s teaching and if we allow those teachings to really affect our lives then we will change and as we change we will become more and more of an influence for good in the world. To allow the teaching of the Buddha to really affect our lives we need to give them the prominence and priority in our lives, so that it becomes quite natural for us to contemplate and explore our experience via the Dharma, primarily.

I am not saying we should not use other ways of looking at our experience - just that as Buddhists we need to give pre-eminent position to the Dharma. Personally I have found many other disciplines - psychology, art – useful – especially when filtered through a Dharmic perspective.

So our education in values and meaning requires us to become as familiar with the teachings of the Buddha and Bhante as a carpenter is with his tools or as familiar as an astronomer is with the stars. That’s probably a better analogy, as the astronomer knows that there are always new discoveries to be made and new things to learn. That is how it is with the Dharma too.

???What is metta?

As well as educating ourselves in the Dharma I thin k it is important that we try to have a really broad knowledge of the world around us. We should try to know something of history, art, nature, science, economics, politics and so on. If we are able to communicate with different kinds of people and be an influence for the good – we need to know something of the different worlds people inhabit.

I don’t mean that we need to have apposition or opinion about everything but it is helpful to at least know some facts. For instance, in this country, there are issues about immigration, the education system, the health and welfare systems, that impact on the lives of millions of people and it’s good if we have at least a minimum of facts available to us. For instance we ought to know the difference between an immigrant, an illegal immigrant and an asylum seeker. Or if we have at least a vague idea of the history of the 20th century we may understand better some of the forces at work in the world – which influence us all.

It is said that a Bodhisattva should be able to communicate with everyone on the own ground, in their own language so to speak, and that is something for us to aspire to – so that we can use metaphors and examples relevant to people’s lives when we talk to them or try to explain Buddhism to them.

In the FWBO more and more people are working alongside non-Buddhists in all walks of life – this is a change from how things werw15/20 years ago when large numbers worked and lived in Buddhist environments. This means that there is an opportunity for many FWBO Buddhists to have a positive influence on the values and discourses of the world around us. And this influence is not necessarily a matter of telling people about Buddhism – it is more a matter of educating our own hearts and minds in the values and meaning of the Dharma so that all our communication is permeated by those values and then people will notice and be affected by it. People will be affected by honesty and generosity and awareness and kindness and that is one way of transforming the world and giving emphasis to one very beneficial possibility in this world of possibilities.

From education in the sense of educating our hearts and minds with a deep sense of values and meaning, it is a short step to ecology. It is a short step because there is a direct link between the state of human consciousness and the effect that consciousness has on its environment.

Having mentioned the environment I want to quickly make a distinction between environmentalism and ecology. Environmentalism can be and sometimes is understood to be concerned with the environment we live in, but in talking about the environment we may subtly or not so subtly exclude ourselves. But we are the environment too. That’s why ecology is a better term for because it involves a whole system and we are obviously a part of that system. I believe there is a phrase which “deep ecology” which I think takes into account factors like consciousness, which is what I would like to talk about.

Ecology includes us. Nature includes us. What we do to ourselves we do to nature. What we do to ourselves, we do to the ecology of the planet. This is again that question of influence or effect I spoke about earlier. It is not just other people that we influence – we influence the whole planet. Our state of mind as human beings is a major factor in the ecology of the world. Much working the sphere of ecology in recent years is about trying to get human beings to realise this. As Buddhists we have our part to play because as I mentioned earlier, we have available to us a whole toolkit to perform the work of transforming human consciousness. And transforming human consciousness is ecological work. Much of the damage we have caused to the delicate ecological balance has been due to lack of awareness. This lack of awareness was compounded by some ideologies which saw the natural world as separate from man and something that had been given to him to use a she wished.

This unawareness and these ideologies are n longer such a big factor, but there is till a great deal of unawareness around the issue of interconnectedness and interdependence and how each individual has an impact on the overall web of conditions.

This is where the Buddhist perspective can be very helpful. With a profound teaching like pratitya samutpada available to us we are well equipped to begin understanding and even explaining the reality of the universe. Pratitya samutpada says that everything arises in dependence on conditions which n turn arise in dependence on conditions and so on until all conditions everywhere and in every time are encompassed. In other words, what pratitya samutpada shows- when we penetrate deeply into it – is that everything throughout time and space is inter-related. This is an awe-inspiring vision, which has implications in the cosmic level, and on the personal level. On the universal level it has ecological, political and life or death implications. On the personal level, it is a way to understand and penetrate more deeply into our minds. We tend to thin k in linear cause and effect terms – e.g. He said something that upset me and made me angry. If we apply pratitya samutpada to a situation where we have become angry because of something someone has said, we will find that it is not so simple, straightforward and linear – there are a whole multiplicity of conditions which have led to us becoming angry – some of them to do with what’s happening immediately in our life, some to do with our conditioning, some to do with the other person’s conditioning and what’s happening in their life, some to do with spiritual ignorance and resistance to reality and so on – a whole myriad of conditions. If we can work with pratitya samutpada like this we may find a bigger perspective opens up for us and we gradually move away from the narrow linear cause/effect interpretation of reality and come to more and more to see everything in terms of interconnection – inter-relatedness. If we can do this kind of work on our own minds – our own emotional and mental states – then we will be doing ecological work at the deepest level – transforming the structure of consciousness. And it could be argued that a transformation in the structure of human consciousness is in the final analysis the only answer to the problem of a consciousness that blindly destroys it’s own nourishment. However, as well as that work on the mind, I believe, as Buddhists, we should also be trying as far as possible to put all the other ecology enhancing measures into action in our lives. I won’t go into them here because they are well documented. But we all know the sort of thing – energy saving, recycling, a simpler lifestyle, using public transport and so on.

As with many things it is the small things that often matter greatly and can also be influential. For instance we could just try to be aware of the electrical appliances we own and what state of energy consumption they are in. We probably have lights and lamps of various kinds and maybe computer, hi-fi, TV, DVD player, electric kettle, microwave and so on. Are we aware of all these things and are we aware of how we use them? Apart from the energy saving and money saving that could come form from a greater awareness, there is also the benefit of awareness itself.

So as Buddhists what we have to offer to the ecology of the planet is potentially enormous – awareness, conditioned co-production with its implications on interconnectedness and of course the image of Indra’s net as a graphic description of the dynamic nature of reality. We can offer these tools and perspectives primarily by putting them into practice in our own lives and transforming ourselves. As we do that we will begin to have a beneficial influence wherever we are and add some creative possibilities to the world of possibilities.

Now to move on to economics. I must say first that I am not an economist and don’t know much about the technicalities of economics although I do find the topic fascinating especially since so much of it seems to be totally sensitive to mental states – in particular confidence, fear and greed.

What I do know is that everybody’s life has some sort of economic aspect to it and this can be the source of pain, fear, confusion, joy, sadness and so on. So when it comes to the topic of transforming the world, what does Buddhism have to say about economics?

I think it is probably usual for Buddhists to have a go at consumerism when it comes to the topic of economics. The usual argument is that consumerism is blind to the damage it causes, it’s insatiable, it is based on the constant encouraging of greed and so on. I have made all these points myself in talks. But today I want to say something different about consumerism. But before that, let’s have one more blast of consumerism. Here is a quote from Thai monk and activist Sulak Swaraksha

Consumerism supports those who have economic and political power by rewarding their hatred, aggression and anger. And consumerism works hand in hand with the modern educational system to encourage cleverness without wisdom.We create delusion in ourselves and call it knowledge.Until the schools reinvest their energy in teaching wholesome, spiritual values instead of reinforcing the delusion that satisfaction and meaning in life can be found by finding a higher paid job, the schools are just cheerleaders for the advertising agencies, and we believe that consuming more, going faster, and living in greater convenience will bring us happiness. We don't look at the tremendous cost to ourselves, to our environment, and to our souls. Until more people are willing to look at the negative aspects of consumerism, we will not be able to change the situation for the better. Until we understand the roots of greed, hatred and delusion within ourselves, we will not be free from the temptations of the religion of consumerism, and we will remain stuck is this illusory search for happiness.

(Dharma Rain, p. 182) By the way, I have just finished reading a book, “Paradox of Choice” which refers to many studies which show that too much choice does lead to unhappiness. So Sulak Swaraksha is not just engaging in polemic.

Okay so that’s a real kick in the teeth for consumerism. Now I want to say something a bit more positive about consumerism. One of the reasons I want to say something positive about consumerism is that barring catastrophe, it is going to be with us for a long time and those who have not had the opportunity to consume the so-called good things on life are going to want to.

So in the foreseeable future we are likely to have more consumerism rather than less with India, China, south America and eventually Africa stepping on to the train to go shopping with everybody else. So given that is what we have and are likely to have, what positive possibilities does consumerism hold for us?

It has been said that these days we are consumers rather than citizens. I was thinking about this and I came to the conclusion that it may not be such a bad thing if people were less identified with being citizens. Being a citizen implies belonging to a particular nation with all the characteristics of group mentality that that implies. As we saw from the Gorbachov quote earlier, it can lead to a sort of defensiveness and isolationism that is both oppressive and dangerous. Consumerism on the other hand crosses boundaries and cultures and o the level of international business it creates a world of connections and relationships that have the potential to defuse dangerous situations. On the personal level it gives a certain amount of power to the consumer. When you vote in an election you exercise some power, but also when you spend a pound you exercise power. You exercise power because just as with your vote you can make a choice. Your vote gives you a choice every four years or so to say who you want to govern or what policies you favour. The pond in your pocket gives you a choice every day to say which products and companies you want to support and which you would prefer not to. From my reading about business it is clear that businesses – even the biggest of them – are quite sensitive to what the consumer wants and doesn’t want. It has even been noted that sometimes business is ahead of government in its thinking on issues of an ethical or ecological nature. Anyway the point I am making is that since we are consumers, that means we are connected to a vast international web of trade which has a positive side to it and we can exercise some power in this network of trading by making informed choices about where to spend our money. Another point worth noting is that businesses are sensitive to criticism and if you see a business doing something you think is unethical, it is worth writing a letter to point it out. Every businessperson and politician knows that for every two people that complain there are probably another 20 who have the same complaint but stay silent.

It is not easy to make choices about our spending. To begin with there is so much conflicting information available and international trade is a complex network. But we can still make an effort – even seemingly small gestures do make a difference. You might need to support local produce for instance, or organic food or fair trade or ethical trading. You can always do a little research and make some small choices, without having to contemplate changing your whole way of life overnight. So this is about the power of the consumer to influence business and government by making spending choices.

But there is more to economics and its potential to transform than what we do with our money. If we go a bit deeper we can begin to look at our whole attitude to money. We could start by considering our conditioning in relation to money – what was the attitude of our parents to money? What part did money play in the family? Was it talked about? What was the emotional flavour of conversations about money? Fear? Anxiety? Freedom? Happiness? Joy? Anger? Insecurity? Did you rebel against family attitudes to money? Have they re-emerged as you have grown older? What is your own conscious attitude to money? What do you spend most of your money on? What does this tell you about yourself? And so on. It is a very good exercise in self-awareness to become more and more conscious of what money means to us. It is very easy to have consciously held superficial views and attitudes about money, which are not our real and deep attitudes.

But we can go further and ask what is money? Perhaps we know how we feel about money but do we really know what money is? Money is not pieces of paper. Those pieces of paper or the numbers on your bank statement represent something, but what do they represent? Do they represent bars of gold in the vaults of some bank? If they do, what sense does that make?

Mainly what money represents is energy. It is the energy of production and trade – and money is a convenient way of exchanging products and services without having to resort to barter every time. The money in your bank account or wallet in some way represents some of your energy. You have expended energy in some way and so much money has come to you. And it is lying there with unrealised potential – latent energy. What will you do with it is buy somebody else’s energy or if you save it in the bank, you in effect, give it to someone else to use and the interest in unearned income – unearned because you expend no energy for it.

So money is not a thing – it is a movement of energy, with potential for creation and destruction. Money is full of possibilities – that’s why we like it so much. So to go back to attitudes for a moment – our attitude to money can be seen as our attitude to energy and potential and possibility.

Another thing about money is that there is no security in it. It is a symbol of security and a very potent symbol but money itself is almost the opposite of secure. Security brings up an image of something fixed, safe, comfortable, but money is fluid, moving, never quite what it seems.

So I’m trying to take us deeper into the world of economics and its potential for transformation. And Buddhist economics has to be an economics of generosity. Buddhism tells us that we are not fixed separate entities and that al our ego building – protecting, defending, and enhancing our sense of self – is a gross delusion which brings us nothing but sorrow. Buddhism opens out a vision of a vast interconnected web of relations where consciousness is penetrated by consciousness, consciousness is influenced by consciousness, consciousness is in a dance with consciousness. And this is a dynamic vision of a constant interplay of energies. When we can enter into this vision, as a way of being, the expression of it is happiness, compassion, expansiveness and generosity. It becomes natural to give and receive because that is how things are, that is the nature of reality.

Egotistic vision wants to take and keep. Realistic vision wants to give and give. As ego-identified, self-centred beings who aspire to transcending this deluded state, one of the first and most effective practices to help us on our way is the practice of generosity. As PV said, when we talk about practice, it is good not to narrow it down to meditation. Ego will of course try to take over the practice and say “Look how generous I am. Look what a good Buddhist I am and I’m so humble about it all too. I must be making a lot of spiritual progress.” Well ego is tenacious but that is the territory we are travelling through – vistas of awareness, jungles of ego, and sometimes plodding, sometimes striding practice of generosity, ethics and meditation. As Buddhists then, to transform the world of economics, we can try to bring some awareness to it and be as generous as possible. The aim is not to be generous but to become generosity. If we become generosity, we will no longer have any sense of being generous.

Generosity of spirit has a very positive effect in the world and introduces a really moving and exuberant possibility into this world of possibilities.

What economics means to most of us is work. We work to get the money to pay the bills and enjoy our leisure. Quite a chunk of most people’s time is spent at work. It is worthwhile giving some thought to the area of work then and considering whether there are choices we can make in that area of our life which would give us a better basis for our spiritual practice. I don’t have any particular suggestions to make. It just seems necessary to seriously consider whether the thing you spend so much of your life doing is helpful to reaching your spiritual aspirations. Does it enable you to be generous? Does it allow you to be ethical, honest, kind? Does it leave enough time and energy for some meditation? And retreat? Subhuti gave a good talk about five years ago on this whole topic which it might be worth listening to (Reading – Roads to Freedom)

So I’ve been talking about transforming the world. I have looked at this under the headings of education, ecology and economics and I’ve made some points about each of these.

But really I have just been making one main point, namely: the reality is that all life is interconnected and following on from this is the point that we are all influenced and influencing all the time.

These points can be taken from the Buddhist teaching of pratitya samutpada - conditioned co-production and if we study, penetrate and try to practice with the implications of this profound teaching, we will transform ourselves and set in motion energies that will transform this world from a vale of tears to a world of possibilities.

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