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Buddhist Solution for the Twenty-First Century (1/2) - Bhikkhu P.A. Payutto

Tuesday 22 September 2009

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Buddhist Solution for the Twenty-First Century (1/2)

Friends and kinsmen of our global village:

Today, it is the first time in this century that we come to attend a grand international religious assembly of this magnitude. During the interval of one hundred years since the last meeting of the Parliament, the world has undergone so many great changes. People say now we are already in the post- industrial Information Society, entering the Post-Cold War period.

With the end of the Cold War, the tension and fear resulting from the threat of confrontation between the two superpowers and a world divided into ideological camps seemed to dissolve along with it. This was around the end of the twentieth century. Many people felt that in the approaching twenty-first century, the human race would be blessed with a much more peaceful existence, that the world would live in peace.

But it soon became apparent that this was not to be. The threat of total annihilation through nuclear war seemed to have been averted, but although this posed a great danger to mankind, it was a danger that never actually come to a head. With the passing of this greater threat, it was replaced by one of lesser magnitude, but scattered over the planet in many areas. These were dangers which actually come to a head. The threat of the Cold War a very definite, tangible one, a threat that could be focused on quite easily. Although it was a very dangerous situation, it was nevertheless one which was very unlikely to actually develop into a full scale war. The wars that have since sprung up all over the globe are much more difficult to control. Even the threat of nuclear war, which seemed to have passed, is not gone any means. In fact it poses an even greater threat than before because it is now much harder to control, nuclear weapons being scattered over a large number of countries, with very different backgrounds.

Although the ideological wars seem to have passed on, we now have more wars arising from racial and religious confrontation, which are much more passionate and brutal. Civil wars and racial confrontation are becoming more and more common all over the globe. In addition, terrorism is becoming both more common and more violent. The fact that the world has been made smaller through the development of information technology not only facilitates travel and communication, it also facilitates the spread of terrorism. Terrorism rides the media of communications technology, making travel no safer than before, and increasing the likelihood of danger in all countries. Terrorist activities are much easier to carry out because of the development of communications and travel.

This leads to the problem of immigration and refugees. People in most countries are now more suspicious of outsiders. Nationalistic, racial and religious wars have led to increased numbers of refugees, among whom may be terrorists infiltrating into the host country to undertake terrorist activities.

Hatred, discrimination, and mutual distrust in intensified by the struggle for natural resources. The avaricious competition to amass natural resources not only leads to strife within human society. These resources must be found within the natural environment, which gives the problem a double edge. On one hand, there are problems with the environment, in the form of depletion of natural resources and destruction of the environment, which has been gradually intensifying through the increased competition for these resources, and on the other hand there is and intensification of mutual human destruction.

The environmental crisis and the shortage of natural resources began to become really clear only towards the end of this twentieth century. These problems are going to have a big effect on the people of the twenty-first century which we are now approaching. Twenty-first century man will inherit the fruits of twentieth century man’s destruction of the environment. The enormous amount of natural resources on this planet, amassed over a period of hundreds of millions of years, have mostly been consumed by humanity in a period of only one or two hundred years.

All of these problems stem from the problem of hatred or violence perpetuated under the power of what we call in Buddhism dosa, or aversion, and lobha, desire or greed. These two forces, greed and hatred, are very important forces in the mind. With the development of technology, and in particular, so-called ‘high technology’, which deals with information and communications, greed and hatred have acquired much more effective tools.

Technology has become a tool of greed and hatred, and technological progress, in the form of industrial development, has been almost exclusively to their ends. Science, technology and the development of information and communications technology have been used to lull humanity into heedless consumption, dullness and intoxication in various forms, rather than for the development of the human being or quality of life. They have been used as tools for seeking objects with which to nourish greed, and in so doing, have fired hatred through the contention and dispute over material wealth. In the destruction which results from racial and religion an-tagonism, hatred is already in abundance. This is further intensified by the influence of greed and the struggle for material resources.

Even forms of technology which are created for our benefit become tools for destruction. It is much easier for human beings to inflict destruction on each other. Take, for example, electricity: in the past, if an enemy wanted to put out all the lights in a city, they would have to go throughout the city, putting out the lights in each house. Now, simply by destroying the central power supply, the whole city would be thrown into darkness and almost all activities paralysed.

The influence of these two qualities, desire or contention for resources, and hatred or enmity, have caused many problems for human beings, both within themselves and within the environment. In order to really address these problems, it is necessary to bring these two forces under control.

Greed and hatred, which are natural conditions within the human mind, would be much easier to control, and would be much shorter lived, if it were not for the influence of a third condition, which in Buddhism we call ‘ditthi’, views and beliefs. Ideologies, religious beliefs and social values are all aspects of ditthi. Whenever greed, anger and hatred are reinforced with beliefs and social values, they acquire a clearer direction, an impetus which channels them into much more destructive activities. Greed and hatred are maintained and prolonged by the influence of ditthi, making them much harder to resolve.

Adherence to different ideologies and social values, be it conscious or otherwise, becomes kamma on a social scale, which is of far-reaching effect, extending over long periods of time. Conversely, if there is right view, right belief, social values or ideologies which are right, greed and hatred will arise on an much lesser scale, and will be much easier to control, because they are not supported or encouraged.

In the present time we can see that greed and hatred are positively flourishing. They are supported or based on a powerful foundation of wrong views. In the preceding decades we experienced problems with ideologies. There were two major schools which had split the world into camps. Now the contention between these ideologies has petered out, but we have not resolved the problems of nationalism, racism and sectarianism. Ideology is in fact a kind of ditthi, and so we come back to the problem of ditthi or ideology to find a solution.

Briefly speaking, the beliefs that have held control over modern human civilization can be grouped into three main perceptions:

  • 1 - The perception that mankind is separate from nature, that mankind must control, conquer or manipulate nature according to his desires.
  • 2 - The perception that fellow human beings are not ‘fellow human beings’. Rather than perceiving the common situations or experiences shared among all people, human beings have tended to focus on the differences between themselves.
  • 3 - The perception that happiness is dependent on an abundance of material possessions, that human beings will only find happiness through a wealth of material possessions with which to feed their desires.

The first perception is an attitude towards nature; the second perception is an attitude towards fellow human beings; the third perception is an understanding of the objective of life.

These three beliefs or perceptions have determined the direction of human development and undertaking. It is not difficult to see the role of these three views in the present time; people in the present time are almost entirely dominated by these perceptions. Being held under the power of these three perceptions, their resulting actions become kamma on the social level. That is, the development of human society is guided by the kamma, or action, of human beings blinded by these three views or perception.

It must be stressed that when greed and hatred or anger are founded on or supported by views, be they religious, political or otherwise, they will be intensified and sustained, yielding a result that is far-reaching and long-lived. They will be very difficult to put right. If they are not addressed on the level of ditthi or view, it will be impossible to rectify hatred and greed.

Even the different sciences and branched of learning which have been responsible for the material progress of humanity in recent times, and on which modern civilization is founded, have unknowingly developed under the influence of these three perceptions or attitudes.

Broadly speaking, without going into a detailed analysis, we might say that the natural sciences have developed under the influence of people who had a tendency to aspire to conquering nature, who perceived human beings as separate from nature; the social sciences have developed under the influence of those who perceived not the similarities in human beings, but the differences, seeing human beings as divided into different groups, tending to look at society in terms of the struggle for power. Thirdly, the humanities have developed under the influence of those who see freedom, the goal of life, as an external condition, as the power to control other things, such as nature or fellow human beings. This kind of freedom seeks to have power over external conditions, and as such influences the development of the natural and social sciences. When freedom is seen in this way, happiness is likewise perceived as being intimately related to the power to control external circumstances, which in turn can be used to satisfy personal human desires.

As I have already mentioned, as long as people are under the away of these three beliefs or perceptions, there is no way that the problems in the world can be realistically solved.

In coming years the population of the world will continue to increase, the resources of the world will continue to dwindle, and the environment will continue to deteriorate. These three attitudes or beliefs will escalate these problems to more critical dimensions. While the population is increasing, and the natural resources of the world dwindling, human beings still perceive their happiness as dependent on sensual pleasures and material possessions. They still perceive freedom as the power to control external conditions, and fellow human beings as rivals and hostile groups. Human beings will be under more pressure to vie with each other for the possession of natural resources on a more violent scale. Under the misdirection of these three wrong views, human beings have also developed the lifestyles that lead to the widespread of such life and social ills as drug abuses, violence, stress, mental illness, suicides, and AIDS. This is why I say that the people of the twenty-first century are going to have to receive the fruits of our actions in the twentieth century.

I would like to stress once more that in order to solve the problems of greed, hatred, selfishness and mutual destruction, they must be addressed on the level of views or attitudes. Greed and anger must be allowed no footing or foundation on which to grow into uncontrollable proportions, giving results that are widespread and long-lived.

When we speak of views, we are coming into the domain of religion, because religion is view. For religion to be effective in addressing the problems of the world it must be based on good or right views, and must encourage the propagation of such views in the world. That is, religions should not encourage or teach in accordance with any of the three views or attitudes mentioned here.

In the present time, the developed countries are in agreement that the perception of mankind as separate from nature, and the desire to conquer nature, are not correct views. Those analysts who are examining environmental problems and looking for ways of achieving sustainable development stress that we must begin to look on human beings as part of nature, that human beings must learn to live peacefully with nature.

This is a very good sign, a sign that human beings are beginning to address the first of these three pernicious views, by learning to reconsider their relationship with nature. Although it is a beginning, it is not yet enough. The three views or attitudes I have mentioned are all interrelated, and all must be addressed in order to really solve the problem. It is not possible to really solve the problem by simply addressing one of these views. Such a solution would be insufficient, it would not be a complete solution.

One of the factors involved in the process of causing the problems we are presently experiencing is the way human beings look on each other. How do we look on other people? This is the second attitude which must be rectified.

Today all our different religions are meeting together, seeking a way to enable human beings to live together in peace and harmony and to relieve the suffering in the world. This is a very fine undertaking, a very timely effort, perhaps even a little overdue. But among religious circles it must be conceded that religions have had a major role in the appearance of many of the problems I have been speaking about. In the past religion has been one of the major causes for disunion and discord, and even not a few cases of war and atrocities. In order to really address these problems we must be bold enough to speak up, to be honest and to look within ourselves before we can really teach or appeal to others. We must turn around and search within our religions to find out the cause, the reason, that in the past people have killed each other and gone to war over religion. If we can find that point, then we can really address the problem.

Our meeting together today is a very auspicious sign. If we can look into these problems and see their causes, if we can together discuss them and see them within ourselves, this will be the beginning of a solution. The most important point for us to closely examine ourselves in, is how does our religion teach us to look on people of other faiths and different groups? Does it teach us to look on others with mutual respect, fraternity and concord, or does it teach us to look on others as inferior, as sinners or heathens, or even something which should be destroyed?

In the past, the larger proportion of religions has helped only select groups of people, fostering harmony and friendship within that group, but greeting others with hostility. This is why religion has been such a divisive force in human history, a catalyst for war and destruction.

Many teachings which were suitable for small groups of people are no longer effective in today’s ‘Global Village’. They are not up to the current situation. In the present time, material development has led us to a world that is linked over the whole planet, but religious teachings are still addressing the human situation in terms of small groups. As a result human beings are not yet ready to live together on a global level.

So it seems that personal human development is not commensurate with the physical world situation. Religions are not yet attuned to addressing the needs of people on a global level. Instead of being a factor for mutual peace and harmony in the world, we find that religions are a cause of more and more contention and strife, wars and bloodshed.

In this case, religions must re-appraise their role, they must re-examine their basic views and attitudes. Before religions are able to play a constructive role in human development, the foundation of views upon which they are based must be sound. Human beings must be encouraged to look on others on an equal basis, they must be encouraged to respect and accept each other, seeing each other with an attitude that is harmonious.

If it is not yet possible to look at others in this positive way, then we must at least address the negative situation, by teaching that to kill other human beings is a sin or an unskillful act. That is, to kill a human being, of no matter what description, denomination, race or group, is always a sin. Let us have this as a basic foundation, as a beginning.

It is very obvious in the present time that human beings are plagued with contention and conflict. Human life is characterized by competition and dissension. If we look into this deeply we will see that the reason that such values as human rights and religious tolerance are so important in this age is because we do live in such an age of contention, where our thinking is divisive and factional. While we acknowledge that the concepts of human rights and religious tolerance are very important in the present time, and are very noble qualities, we must also recognize that this is so because the world is still under the influence of divisive ways of thinking. Human thought is still largely rooted in dualism. Human right are our guarantee that while human beings are still under the influence of this divisive kind of thinking, they will be able to live together without destroying or exploiting each other.

The concept of human rights arose from a historical background of division, segregation and competition. Human rights are a necessary protection from aggression from other parties, an answer to a negative situation: when humanity is plagued by aggression and contention, it is necessary to devise some protection from aggression. Human rights have led to the establishment of laws and regulations devised to try to maintain harmony within human society. Within developed countries these qualities are very effective and as such are very useful to the global situation.

While human rights are useful within the environment of dissension, they are not very far reaching. They are only a compromise. Compromise is not capable of leading human beings to true unity and harmony. Compromise is a situation in which each side agrees to give in a little to the other in order to attain some mutual benefit. A quality of force or mental resignation is involved.

As long as human beings do not outgrow their old ways of thinking, it will be impossible to bring about true peace in the world. The concept of human rights is useful in an age of fighting and contention, or when human thinking is divisive and separatist, but is not enough to lead humanity to true peace and harmony.

Read more : Second part (2/2)

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