Humanity’s spiritual paths do offer penetrating morsels of wisdom, some of which have helped me in my journey. Buddha’s path has been especially useful as it shares much common ground with the Taoist’s path. That is before it veers off on its own tangent. Of course, what is a tangent for me is orthodox truth in someone else’s eyes. How does one separate the wheat from the chaff?
There is a mythical bird, in the Yoga tradition as I recall, that can extract pure nectar out of a blend of nectar and muck, and leave all the muck behind. Take the useful part and leave the rest. It’s been a handy way to approach life for a heretic like me. Of course, this drives some traditional orthodox folks crazy. To them, their way is the Way. Thus, if chapter 20’s I alone am anchored without anticipation, Like an infant, not a child; Lazy, as if without a place to go back to describes you, why not approach life like that bird and cobble together a path that works for you. My wish is that Centertao.org may provide some useful materials to use for cobbling yours. By the way, you can make your own Zen (i.e., Buddhism + Taoism = Zen). My problem with Zen is that, as a synthesis of Buddhism and Taoism, it leaves out some parts of each. Therefore, I take from each what I wish, add my own intuitive two cents, and create a personalized Zen.
… And Beyond?
Finding the underlying cause of humanity’s core problem offers the best chance of finding a solution, or at least dealing with it better. If we don’t know how it is broken, how are we going to fix it?
Buddha does a remarkable job with what I would call scientific simplicity. His Four Noble Truths diagnose the cause of suffering and then proceed to offer solutions. However, does his diagnosis fully encompass modern circumstances? Perhaps we need to reexamine our problem in light of what is happening today.
Throughout history, people have singled out various scapegoats to pin humanity’s problems on, such as: Eve disobeyed God causing him to kick her and Adam out of Eden; or that we are swirling around in bad karma; or money is the root of all evil, and so on.
In any case, the advent of nuclear and genetic engineering, to name two foreboding innovations, makes the situation much more serious today than in Buddha’s time. On that, most people agree. The cause of our problem is less clear. While Buddha’s Truths identify the basic framework, they may not fully meet the challenges of our time. The following diagnosis is a blend of the Four Noble Truths and Taoist views, grounded in history and biology.
We normally look to civilization to solve humanity’s societal problems. This would certainly be ironic if civilization itself was the underlying cause for most of these. All the evidence I see says it is. Simply put, the hierarchical nature of civilization, and the rapid changing circumstances it enables, bears the most responsibility.
Of course, civilization is only part of the problem. Civilization, in conjunction with the dynamics Buddha pointed out, is at the root of the social troubles we have faced ever since the Agricultural Revolution. Buddha identified deep-seated elements, actually common to all life, but especially troubling for humans. (See Buddha’s Truths Pertain To All Life)
These deep-seated elements will be either exasperated or ameliorated by circumstances, and circumstances now are much different from the time of Jesus and Buddha a few millennia ago. More importantly, circumstances now are vastly different from the several thousand millennia of human evolution leading up to the Agricultural Revolution and civilization.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we abandon civilization and return to the trees — even if we could. My view is that we will manage our societal problems better once we deeply analyze all aspects of society. Certainly, humanity’s forms of social organization are a foremost factor.
Analyze… Understand… Muddle through!
The question is, how influential to human happiness are the changes civilization has made to human society? There is no doubt that civilized social dynamics are vastly different from the hunter-gatherer ways of our ancestors. Nonetheless, are those differences truly that significant in the great scheme of things? Naturally, the answer to that lies in the eye of the beholder. If you can buy civilization’s narrative and believe it to be the godsend people claim, you are bound to see the issues I raise here as ‘no big deal’.
I liken the significance of civilization’s impact on humanity to that of having a splinter. As small as it is, it can totally ruin your day. Another example is asocial behavior. It only takes a few vandals, robbers, or terrorists in a population to make a whole community miserable. Small influences can have earth-shaking consequences, as can small changes in those influences… remember chaos theory’s butterfly effect?
Energy must be used!
The Agricultural Revolution required humanity to resort to hierarchical forms of social organization. This ‘top down’ social dynamic enables leaders to marshal large numbers of people to focus their lives on specific tasks, which initially would have been for growing food — irrigating, planting, tending, harvesting.
The food surplus agriculture produced enabled the hierarchical social system to divide society into increasingly specialized niches. Such specialization divides and ranks a population from ‘high’ to ‘low’, usually in this order: kings, priests, warriors, artisans, traders, farmers, slaves.
Gone are the egalitarian ways of the past. Indeed, such specialization was impossible in hunter gathering times; everyone needed to pitch in just to survive in the wild. In that egalitarian old way of our ancestors, hierarchical dynamics were shallow and stable. There was no social ladder to climb, and no niches in which to become a specialist.
One of the most striking outcomes of specialization is the rapid technological progress humanity has made in the scant 12,000 years we’ve been traveling down this progressive civilized path — from the stone axe to space travel.
Technology is one of those ever-changing circumstances that influence us. What effect do tools, from the first stone axe to the latest computer, have on us? Tools make it easier to get a job done, and thus save immense amounts of human time and energy. On the other hand, we evolved to expend a certain amount of time and energy hunting and gathering in the wild.
What happens in a natural system when that energy dynamic becomes vastly under utilized? By liberating us from continuous daily hunting and gathering, the Agricultural Revolution set the stage for an enormous increase in idle time. As they say, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” .
Ever-increasing idle time also evokes questions about the meaning of life itself. In contrast, our hunter-gatherer ancestors never enjoyed too much idle time! In addition, they could rediscover any minor losses in the meaning of life through their egalitarian, “all for one, and one for all” labor in the wild — daily survival. Simply put, in a hunter-gatherer way of life, people would naturally feel mentally and emotionally grounded.
Leap fast forward to the dawning of the Electric Age, which began freeing up human energy at an exponential rate. This innate physical and emotional energy potential, so fully utilized in the wild, is still within us and still needs a balancing healthy outlet. Finding such an outlet can be very problematic under modern circumstances. Sure, jogging takes up some of the slack, but…
Civilization Co-opts Innate Instincts
To function, civilization replaces the intimate hunter-gatherer social connections with its own niche substitutes: armies, sport teams, corporations, churches, political organizations, sewing circles, etc. All the niches within civilization utilize our basic social instincts, from cooperative to competitive, in order to operate. While civilization draws on our innate social needs, does it truly satisfy those needs?
Historically, these niche-filling attempts have often taken extreme paths. For example, consider how Sparta divided families to enhance its military prowess, or how Mao separated families in the peasant communes in an effort to integrate the peasants into the Marxist ‘family’. Less extreme, but more pervasive in modern times, is the fragmentation of the family which is required to support the highly industrial nature of modern civilization; namely, a father works here, a mother works there, a sister goes to this school, a brother goes to that school. This social fragmentation also manifests itself in music, food, clothes, friends, politics, and most everything really! The price we pay is that none of the niche-substitutes that civilization employs ever match the intimate sense of connection that the pre-agriculture ancestral family and tribe provided.
Is there any solution? Not really, according to the old maxim “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”. Certainly, moderation in the sense of less civilization might make life more balanced, as chapter 80 notes, Enable the people to again use the knotted rope. However, even if that is the case, there is no one who can “enable” such a return for “the people”. As they say, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”. Besides, various cults throughout history have tried and failed at similar solutions. Chapter 25 suggests a more realistic outcome, And the way follows that which is natural and free from affectation. All we can do is wait.
More importantly, we don’t need to return physically, even if we could. I find that returning in spirit, as chapter 16 below advises, is more than enough. Simply watching the root cause of why, what, and how life came to be the way it is, offers great solace.
A Civilization Reflects its Population
Civilization reflects the median aspects of its population’s inclinations. A population’s median age plays a major role in these aspects, i.e., our inclinations mature as we age, and thus so should a civilization’s. In other words, a population whose median age is 18 would result in a civilization far more ‘active’ and ‘teen-aged’ than one whose median age is 80… or 180! As the median age of the population rises, the median wisdom in that population rises as well. This bodes well for our descendants.
Nevertheless, the median characteristics of a population can leave some people out in the cold, so to speak. The median of a population is the midpoint on the whole population’s bell curve. The bell curve spans from one extreme to the other and everything in-between. Because civilization reflects the average characteristics of the whole population, it best matches those people who are closest to the median. Folks on either extreme are not going to feel as good a fit with their particular civilization’s paradigm; they will have the most difficulty fitting in and connecting. Actually, the sheer scale and diversity of modern civilization inevitably leaves most of us feeling more disconnected than in the recent past.
The intimacy of the family connection is weaker now than ever. As always, this deficit cannot be compensated for by civilization. The sense of disconnection, to whatever degree each of us feels, evokes a sense of fear and insecurity that manifests itself in myriad ways. The changes that have occurred over the last few hundred years have deepened our personal sense of disconnection. This probably corresponds to the exponential rate of technological and economic change and innovation humanity has experienced over this period. If so, then feeling disconnected should increase at a similar rate in the future.
YIKES! This underlying sense of disconnection drives us to seek re-connection as never before and in countless ways: shopping, drugs, travel, work, media, sex, food, sports, clothes, politics, and so on. Now, if you concur with Buddha’s Second Noble Truth, you know that none of this can possibly re-connect us to the ‘whole’. Consequently, while Armageddon is unlikely, the next few centuries sure look to be an interesting time for us all.
What Is the Worst Part of Civilization?
The worst aspects of civilization include a little bit of everything, and I hesitate to be more specific. I want to avoid singling out any particular scapegoat, i.e., drugs, sugar, guns, blah, blah, blah. By pondering any aspect of civilization seriously, you should be able to see how we take it too far! If we could, as a species, live the Buddha’s middle path between self-indulgence and self-renunciation, things would obviously be different. This returns us to Buddha’s Second Noble Truth:
The cause of suffering is lust. The surrounding world affects sensation and begets a craving thirst that clamors for immediate satisfaction. The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things. The desire to live for the enjoyment of self entangles us in a net of sorrows. Pleasures are the bait and the result is pain.
Civilization evolved to maximize our pleasures, our comforts, and our sense of security. However, it didn’t evolve naturally as traits usually do; civilization is a cultural innovation that draws on natural instincts, but skews them to serve short-term goals. Absent are any natural brakes on where the need for comfort and security would lead, and the result is the innumerous unintended consequences of civilization.
Up until 12,000 years ago, nature was able to apply the brakes on where our need for comfort and security would lead us. Of course, nature still does that for all the other species living in the wild. Human innovation has been increasing exponentially since the Agricultural Revolution »12,000 years ago, and this has steadily liberated us from nature’s moderating influences. This automatically leaves us increasingly imbalanced: physically, emotionally, and mentally. Alas, I wonder if the more unbalanced one is; the more difficult it is to see this big picture. The imbalance hampers awareness of deep-seated causes. As a result, one can only seek out scapegoats to satisfy the need for answers and solutions.
Note however, I’m not looking back on the ‘good old days’. There has always been plenty of suffering, as we see in the wild any time we look. You could say that we’ve just traded one form of suffering for another. A clear example of this tradeoff and the ensuing imbalance is evident in human nutrition. We are instinctively attracted to sweet and fatty foods. In the wild, such rich food is always scarce and when found, is always health giving. In the wild, no one would have enough access to rich food to become obese. The same distortion applies to countless other areas in life. Indeed, it is difficult to think of an area where it doesn’t apply!
Human innovation has been an evolutionary game changer, beginning with the stone axe and continuing right up to where we stand today. Even so, this only really got out of hand with the advent of agriculture. The progress made possible by the Agricultural Revolution truly exasperates the extremes that Buddha’s path addresses. While Buddha addresses the core issue of our innate thirst for pleasure, we fail to appreciate civilization’s role in this… or if we do, we go to extremes. We clamor to ban this, or push that, in our search for a panacea. We have yet to consider civilization calmly as a whole. This may be partly due to a visceral reluctance to own up to any problem that has no solution that meets our expectations. We just end up poking at slivers of civilization (scapegoats) that we think we can fix.
Isn’t There Anything Good About Civilization?
Civilization has many benefits; enough, in fact, that we’d never dream of returning to our ancestral ways. Desire has many benefits too, and living without desire is unimaginable… or rather impractical and undoable. The benefits of both come with unintended consequences. As Buddha’s Second Noble Truth states, desire causes suffering. Obviously, the answer to the ills of both civilization and desire is moderation!
The devil is in the details though; how much is too much or too little is the gnarly question embedded in any answer that advocates moderation. What is just right for me can seem too much or too little for you. However, until we realize that both desire and civilization contribute profoundly to our suffering, we’ll just keep going around in circles pinning the blame on scapegoats instead.
If Civilization Causes Problems, What Is the Solution?
The first step is, as Buddha put it, Right Comprehension. We must appreciate the deeper causes before we have any hope of finding any potential solutions. Currently, we are far away from realizing that civilization overall is a primary cause. Indeed, we tend to feel that civilization is a solution to our problems. How often do we say, “Don’t be an animal!” Thus, simply realizing that civilization is one major cause of our problem is in itself a solution. A thousand mile journey begins below the feet, or in this case, in brave honest reflection.
Once we recognize the unintended consequences of civilization and its role in human suffering, we’ll be in a better position to ameliorate the situation. As it is now, we just blame each other, technology, modernity, politicians, guns, terrorists, drugs, etc. These are all symptoms, not causes! Blaming scapegoats is a by-path plain and simple. The great way is very smooth, yet people are fond of paths — paths that lead to dead-end panaceas, as history so amply shows.
As a species, we are now like teenagers given the keys to our first car. The Electric Age at the dawn of the 20th century has given us the key to unlimited energy and technology. Once a kid has the keys to the car, knowing the potential danger is essential for safe driving. Although we use modern technology daily, we’re still approaching life from the ‘pre-car’, pre-electricity worldview of the Agricultural and Iron Revolution. True, many do worry about and fear certain aspects of technology like nuclear and genetic engineering, yet still fail to face the underlying cause… civilization. We are no longer living in the same world that people in Christ’s or Buddha’s time coped with, or even in George Washington’s… or Einstein’s, if truth be told. The consequences of hanging on to our idealized panaceas of the past, blithely ignoring ultimate causes, will turn out to be deeply awe-inspiring. As chapter 72 hints, When the people don’t fear power, Normally great power arrives. We fail to respect, to fear, civilization’s powerful influence on humanity. Instead, we look to civilization to improve our standard of living and to solve any subsequent problems. Talk about fighting fire with fire!
I ran across this book in Thailand years ago. It’s a favorite and the source for the Four Noble Truths here.
The introduction gives some good background on Buddhism, from a Theravada point of view, and then offers a fine translation of the Dhammapada.
Tashi Tsering gives an excellent account of classical Buddhism’s foundations as grounded in his personal experience (as opposed to academic hairsplitting).
This is an excellent account of Zen Buddhism. Like Tashi Tsering, Mr. Suzuki’s understanding is deeply grounded in personal experience.
This “Idiot’s Guide” book gives a comprehensive overview of Buddhism, and should satisfy your initial questions. After that, see how the Four Noble Truths correlate with your experience of life.