For Buddhism the only true solution lies in realizing our nonduality with “others” and understanding that our own well-being cannot be distinguished from their well-being.
Click to read Part 1 of Discovering our Collective Place in the World.
Does this basic insight about the intimate connection between sense of self and dukkha also apply to the sense of separation between ourselves and others? The issue here is whether “separate self = dukkha” also holds true for our biggest collective sense of self: the duality between us as a species, Homo sapiens, and the rest of the biosphere.
If this particular parallel between individual and collective selves holds, there are two important implications. First, our collective sense of separation from the natural world must also be a constant source of collective frustration for us. Secondly, our responses to that alienation, by trying to make our collective species-self more real—in this case, by attempting to secure or “self-ground” ourselves technologically and economically—are actually making things worse.
Western civilization developed out of the interaction between Judeo-Christianity and the culture of classical Greece. Greek culture emphasized our uniqueness by distinguishing the conventions of human society (culture, technology, and so on) from the rhythms of the natural world. What is important about this distinction is the realization that whatever is social convention can be changed: we can reconstruct our own societies and attempt to determine our own collective destiny.
Today we take that insight for granted, yet it’s not something that most premodern, traditionally conservative societies would have understood. Without our sense of historical development, they have usually accepted their own social conventions as inevitable because also natural. This often served to justify social arrangements that we now view as unjust, but there is nevertheless a psychological benefit in thinking that way: such societies shared a collective sense of meaning that we have lost today. For them, the meaning of their lives was built into the cosmos and revealed by their religion, which they took for granted.
For us, in contrast, the meaning of our lives and our societies has become something that we have to determine for ourselves in a universe whose meaningfulness (if any) is no longer obvious. Even if we choose to be religious, we today must decide between various religious possibilities, which diminishes the spiritual security that religions have traditionally provided. While we have a freedom that premodern societies did not have, we lack their kind of “social security,” which is the basic psychological comfort that comes from knowing one’s place and role in the world.
In other words, part of the rich cultural legacy that the Greeks bequeathed the West—for better and worse—is an increasing anxiety about who we are and what it means to be human…
There is a basic tension between such freedom (we decide what to value and what to do) and security (being grounded in something greater, which is taking care of us), and we want both.
As soon as one of them is emphasized, we want more of the other. In general, however, the modern history of the West is a story of increasing freedom at the cost of decreasing security, in the sense that loss of faith in God has left us rudderless.
Thanks to ever more powerful technologies, it seems like we can accomplish almost anything we want to do—yet we don’t know what our role is. That continues to be a source of great anxiety, not only for us individually but collectively. What sort of world do we want to live in? What kind of society should we have? If we can’t depend on God to tell us, we are thrown back upon ourselves, and our lack of any grounding greater than ourselves is a profound source of suffering. This helps us to understand why our collective sense of separation from the natural world is a continual source of frustration. The stronger our alienation from nature, the greater our anxiety.
Click to read Part 3 of Discovering our Collective Place in the World.
Originally published as Healing Ecology: Discovering Our Collective Place in the World in One Earth Sangha, May 2015.
David R. Loy is a professor, writer, and Zen teacher in the Sanbo kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism. His books include A Great Awakening: Buddhist Social Theory and The World is Made of Stories. This article was adapted from Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution by David R. Loy © 2008. Reprinted with permission from the author.