Posted inOther Teachings

The World is made of Stories, by David Loy, Part 3 of 3

March 14, 2016

It is the deluded belief that one is separate from others that permits one to pursue one’s own interests indifferent to what is happening to those others.

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Click to read Part 1 and Part 2 of The World is made of Stories.

One of today’s dominant stories is that we live in a world ruled by impersonal physical laws that are indifferent to us and our fate. Human beings serve no function in the grand scheme of things. We have no significant role to play, except perhaps to enjoy ourselves as much as we can, while we can, if we can.

This story of a universe reducible solely to physical laws and processes has social applications as well. Evolution by natural selection undercut what remained of the West’s old religious story: God was no longer needed to explain creation. Soon after Darwin published The Origin of Species, his theory was appropriated to justify the evolution of a new type of industrial economy. Herbert Spencer coined the term “survival of the fittest” and applied it to human society. You must crawl over the next guy on your way to the top, or he will crawl over you. The value and meaning of life were largely understood in terms of survival and success, the measure of which was mainly financial, not reproductive. In this story, life is about what you can get and what you can get away with until you die. You’re either a winner or a loser, and if you aren’t successful, don’t blame anyone else.

Not coincidentally, Spencer’s social Darwinist story appealed most to the most powerful. Industrial tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie embraced his philosophy. As did John D. Rockefeller, who in a talk to a Brown University Bible class justified his business principles by comparing them with cultivating a rose, which “can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God.” It is not clear whether the pruned rosebuds refer to Rockefeller’s competitors or his employees, but we can be sure who the splendid, fragrant rose was.

Obviously, the basic outlook of social Darwinism—that one should pursue one’s own economic interest even at the cost of others’ well-being—is still very much alive and thriving. From a Buddhist perspective, it seems equally obvious that this story rationalizes some very unsavory motivations, including the “three poisons” of greed, aggression, and delusion…

It is the deluded belief that one is separate from others that permits one to pursue one’s own interests indifferent to what is happening to those others.

Sociologists have pointed out that a social application of Darwinism confuses impersonal biological processes with more reformable social arrangements. But if enough people believe in that story and act according to it, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We socially construct the world according to those principles and society in turn does indeed transform into something like a Darwinian jungle. Using natural selection in that way becomes a Kipling-like “Just So” story along the lines of “How the Leopard Got Its Spots.” Such tales typically begin “Long ago on the African savannah” and become a game of finding the evidence for the worldview we want to buttress: “And that is how we came to be how we are now.”

As I write this, a new Oxfam report states that in 2014 the richest 1 percent owned almost half the world’s wealth (48 percent), while the least well-off 80 percent owned about 5 percent. If this were happening in accordance with basic socioeconomic laws—well, we may not like such a development and might try to constrain it in some way, yet fundamentally we would need to adapt to big disproportions. This is how a social Darwinist type of story can “normalize” such a disparity, with the implication that it should be accepted.

But there are alternatives. Instead of accepting such a story—which serves only to rationalize the growing wealth and power of a privileged elite—we can look for better ones, better because living according to them would reduce social dukkha, or suffering. Collectively as well as personally, our stories can change, and in this case must change, so that we can better respond to the economic and ecological challenges that now confront us.

In the pluralistic climate of contemporary life, the foundational narratives that served us in the past—religious and secular—can no longer be understood in the same ways. We can retreat into a parochial framework that views only one worldview as true, or we can embrace the multiplicity of stories and perspectives in a spirit of playful nonattachment. Knowing that we live in a world made of stories, we can, in the words of the Diamond Sutra, “let the mind arise without fixing it anywhere.”

 

David Loy is a writer and teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition and author of A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World.

Originally published as The World is made of Stores, in Tricycle, Summer 2015.

Featured Image by Torbakhopper, CC BY-ND 2.0 from Flickr.com
Image: Caleidoscopic eyes, by Carlos Andrés Reyes CC by 2.0 from Flickr.com

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