In response to the delusion of separation and alienation, Buddhist teachings emphasize interconnectedness.
All the above (click to read Dharma of Alienation Part 1) is an effort to understand some of the factors that cause people today, especially young people, to feel isolated and alienated. By emphasizing these issues, I do not mean to justify alienation. Alienation remains a problem, both for those who feel isolated and for the society – especially the family and friends – that they feel alienated from. My point is that perhaps we need to evaluate the social forces that encourage alienation, and consider whether some structural changes need to be made. In any case, though, personal alienation remains a problem. What do Buddhist teachings imply about this problem, and how we might address it?
From one perspective, Buddhism is all about overcoming alienation – the sense of separation between myself “inside” and the rest of the world “outside.” This is the meaning of the essential connection that Buddhism sees between my dukkha (“suffering” in the broadest sense) and my sense of self. The Buddha himself emphasized that the Buddhist path is about understanding and resolving dukkha, and the most important point about dukkha is that even those who are wealthy and healthy experience a basic dissatisfaction, a disease, which continually festers. That we find life dissatisfactory, one damn problem after another, is not accidental, because it is the nature of an unawakened sense of self to be bothered about something. This sense of being a self that is separate from its world is illusory – in fact, it is our most problematic delusion.
According to this Buddhist understanding of dukkha, the growing problem of social alienation today is only a more extreme version of the perpetual human problem that each of us needs to resolve.
Curiously, the environmental crisis – for example, global warming – can also be understood as a much larger version of the same problem: a result of our collective sense of separation between ourselves (human civilization) and the biosphere, which we dominate and over-exploit despite the fact that Earth is our mother as well as our home. Is it a coincidence that both types of alienation – personal and collective – have become so critical at the same time?
In response to the delusion of separation and alienation, Buddhist teachings emphasize interconnectedness. Thich Nhat Hanh, the well-known Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, scholar, and peace activist, uses the term “interbeing” to describe our interdependence. Not only is everything impermanent and constantly transforming, but nothing has any self-existence of its own apart from everything else. Like it or not, we are all parts of each other.
A Buddhist metaphor often used to make this point is Indra’s net:
Far away in the heaven of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net that stretches out infinitely in all directions. In each node of the net there is a jewel, and since the net itself is infinite in all dimensions, the jewels are also infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now select one of these jewels and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface all the other jewels in the net are reflected, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring. (Adapted from Francis Cook, Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra)
The point is that our universe is just like this net, for everything in it is one of those jewels, reflecting and reflected in all the other jewels.
This includes us, socially as well as physically: not only is each of us constantly dependent on air, water, food, and so on, but we learn from others – especially parents, siblings, and friends – what it means to be a person and how to live. That everything is impermanent means that our sense of self is always being reinforced or reconstructed, as we live and learn. This highlights, again, the problem with living in a self-enclosed media bubble, which can seriously affect one’s personality, according to the kinds of stories and models one is exposed to. According to the Buddha, the most important part of our (sense of) self is our motivations. This is also the key to understanding the Buddha’s teachings about karma: it is our intentional actions that have karmic consequences. This means that the best way to transform ourselves is to change our motivations.
When what I do is motivated by greed, ill will, or the delusion of separateness (the three poisons), I create problems for myself and others. If my motivations change, so that I am motivated instead by generosity, loving-kindness, and the realization of our interdependence, then my actions will have the opposite effect: they create good feelings and build a stronger connection with other people.
This points to the Buddhist way of overcoming feelings of isolation and alienation. Motivations involve positive feedback systems that tend to incorporate other people. The more I manipulate people to get what I want from them, the more separate I will feel from them, and the more alienated others will feel from me, when they recognize that they have been manipulated. This mutual distrust encourages both sides to manipulate more. On the other hand, the more I am motivated by generosity and loving-kindness, the more I can relax and open up to other people, and the more connected I feel with them; consequently, others too become more inclined to trust and open up to me.
The important point is that, because we are so deeply interconnected with each other, our own intentions usually have a very direct effect on other people. One of the great secrets of life is that people normally respond to us in the way that we approach them. Realizing this gives us power over our immediate circumstances. If we feel isolated and alienated, there is a simple way to begin to break down that wall between us and others: be kind to them. The same is true if we want to reach someone else who feels isolated and alienated, although in some cases it may also be important to do something about the “media bubble” that encloses the person.
The great Islamic philosopher Ibn al-‘Arabi (1164-1240) wrote something similar. He asked: When God wants to be compassionate to us, how does he do it? He makes us compassionate. We don’t need to believe in God to appreciate this profound truth. When we’re feeling alone and sorry for ourselves, what is the best thing we can do? Something that helps others.
Does this have implications for how we understand the bodhisattva path? Traditionally, a bodhisattva is someone who postpones his or her own complete enlightenment in order to help other people become enlightened, but that is a dualistic way of thinking. If enlightenment involves realizing that I am not really separate from other people, how can I be fully enlightened unless they are enlightened too? Then helping others is like taking care of my own leg – something I naturally want to do. By taking care of others I am also taking care of myself.
When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that’s wisdom.
When I look outside and see that I am everything, that’s love.
Between these two my life turns.
– Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981)
Indian spiritual leader and philosopher
David R. Loy is Besl Professor of Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. His specialty is comparative philosophy and religion, particularly comparing Buddhism with modern Western thought. His recent books include The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory and Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution.
The Dharma of Alienation was originally published in the January-March 2010 issue of Dharma World.