presented at the international symposium on
Modern Science, Mysticism & East-West Dialogue
Held in Lonavla, India
January 2-6, 2005
This talk is dedicated to the victims, survivors, and responders
to the December 26, 2004 Earthquake and Tsunami in South Asia.
Some years ago, when my daughters were young [today they are college students], they came home from elementary school with a new nursery rhyme. This was not a song that their teachers had taught them, but rather one that was passed along by the children themselves on the playground and lunchroom. The singing of the rhyme involved a series of rubs and pinches to a companion’s back, a kind of Shiatzu massage accompanied by the sing-song refrain:
People are dying,
Children are crying,
I don’t know where the rhyme originated. Perhaps it is a minor epiphenomenon in our elementary school; perhaps it has some broader circulation among English speaking children. Indeed, I have since encountered it among other children in the United States. In any case, at the time I took it to be a kind of revelation from our collective unconscious. I was stunned into silence and despair at the kitchen sink in the midst of the dinner preparations. Would this be the twentieth century’s equivalent to the medieval English nursery rhyme about the Black Plague, still sung by children today:
Ring around the roses,
Pocket full of posies
We all fall down.
After some bewildering moments with the images of Bosnia and Rwanda then, and Iraq and Tsunami now, as precursors of what is yet to come on a grander scale, the dark clouds of despair and powerlessness passed and I went back to my work preparing dinner, playing with my children, preparing the next day’s lessons for my university students, paying some bills, and relaxing to watch some mindless television program before dropping-off to sleep. People are dying, children are crying, but I have a life to live and obligations to fulfill.
And so these dark premonitions come and go, as they have so many other times in my life. The contradiction of modernity is that even as technology and organization have dramatically improved the breadth and reach of human life, they have also created new and greater insecurities and dangers. The paradox of prosperity is that even as living standards have increased to undreamed of bounties, poverty has also grown in mind-numbing scale. The incongruity of the Global Village is that we cannot only communicate at a distance, we can also do harm to each other across great range with the ruthless efficiencies of modern weaponry.
In my brief lifetime, born in 1957, the human population of the world has doubled to over 6 billion. In the same period, the consumption of fossil fuels has quadrupled, fueling previously unconceivable wealth and prosperity. This exponential growth in population and consumption patterns is unprecedented in human history. Seen in biological terms, however, the economic idol of compounded interest is part of a human development pattern on Earth more akin to cancer within an organism or an invasive weed species within an ecosystem. Species that grow exponentially, take for instance a simple bacteria culture in a Petri dish, exhaust their ecosystem and experience a population collapse.
We still don’t know what the future holds for the more complex cultures of Homo sapiens. For a third of the world, the collapse of human cultures and populations is not an abstract possibility, but the daily struggle to survive malnourishment, disease, unemployment, cultural dislocation, and the social unrests that accompany such deprivations. Half of the world’s 6000 languages are expected to go extinct in the next generation. So for many today, brought to my comfortable home and consciousness through the global media, the collapse has already begun. It may be all they have ever known of a brief and bitter life on this planet.
And it is especially poignant that the people who are dying, and children who are crying are the often the same. Some 13 million children will die of poverty related causes this year, a death toll in children alone that exceeds the peak death toll of any year of World War II. I know of no moral calculus that allows us to rank such suffering, except to say that the mortal dangers and moral choices that impinge on our era are no less than those that challenged the world over 50 years ago in the midst of a global war. In the words of Holocaust survivor, Samuel Pisar:
Today, the dangers are of a different order — more complicated, more universal, more widespread. Courage in the face of the “enemy” has become a much subtler ingredient, because we can no longer threaten to eliminate a hostile power without, at the same time, threatening to eliminate ourselves. Moreover, the enemies are manifold; they are everywhere and nowhere; they are difficult to locate, difficult to resist, and difficult to contain (Pisar ,1980, Of Blood and Hope, 307).
So as I live comfortably in the United States, privileged among the privileged of the world, there is a knowing part of me that looks over my shoulder as I travel through the days of the week. This exponential growth in human population and consumption has significantly altered every bioregional ecosystem on the Earth and ominously altered the chemical compositions of the atmosphere and biosphere as a whole. Vast regions of the Earth have been destroyed, species are going extinct, the entire planet is in the midst of a technological domestication, in what can be understood as a new chapter in the evolutionary epic of the planet. Perhaps future paleontologists will look back on this as the end of the Cenozoic era, the incredible fluorescence of biodiversity and complexity that has occurred over 67 million years since the last mass extinction. Perhaps there will be no future paleontologists to look back at all. And those future generations that do look back on us may do so with great disdain for our having indentured them with a polluted and vastly depleted planet on which to live. When economist philosopher, Robert Heilbroner considered the prospect of a population and environmental collapse in his 1974 book, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, he noted that political freedom and democratic government would not fare well at a time of such desperation.
Indeed, might not the people of such a threatened society look upon the “self-indulgence” of unfettered intellectual expression with much the same mixed feelings that we hold with respect to the ways of a vanished aristocracy — a way of life no doubt agreeable to the few who benefited from it, but of no concern, or even of actual disservice, to the vast majority? (Heilbroner, 1974, 26).
I see those future generations and the children of the world today looking upon our own self-indulgent academic luxuries and intellectual leisure here at this conference engaged in esoteric scholastism. All of our claims for relevance in today’s troubled world should be seen as a promissory note, an obligation yet to be repaid to the world.
The prospects of a global economic, social, and environmental collapse for H. sapiens in this Petri dish which we call Earth is part of the apocalyptic nightmare that haunts my waking hours. It would seem that a calm and rational study of business-as-usual in the world today would indicate that we are heading towards multiple catastrophes. In a statement signed by some 1500 leading scientists from over 70 countries, including 99 of the 196 living Nobel laureates, humanity is warned that we must have urgent and fundamental changes in our way of living “if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 1992). That we continue to be “calm” and “rational” in the light of such proclamations is perhaps a further indication of the depths of the dysfunctions in which we are immersed.
In spite of such an impressive scientific consensus, there are others, who are no less calm and rational, or impassioned and emotional, who read the tea leaves in the newspapers, journals, and stock-markets and see the dawn of a great new era of prosperity and advance. The unprecedented growth in productive technologies, the development of global communication systems, global economic trade, new advances in medicine and biogenetic engineering, the decline in human birth rates, and the end of the Cold War are some of the indicators that the future may not be as grim as I and colleagues have painted. Still others see the very exigencies of our global environmental predicament as the catalyst of a global religious-cultural transformation, a New Age, that will usher in peace and sustainable prosperities through the enlightenment for all the inhabitants of the world. Still others look nostalgically towards a revival of some fundamental religious tradition as the path to our salvation and a brighter future in these troubled times.
We desperately need these utopic daydreams to inspire and motivate us in the difficult struggles with resistance and frustration. The word “utopia” was coined in 1516 by Sir Thomas More from the Greek, ou-topas, literally meaning “no-place” or “no-where.” And as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur points out, the view back on ourselves from the nowhere of some hoped for future, or some golden age past, also provides a valuable critique of the traditional justifications for what is business-as-usual today. There is a creative power in this dream of a no-where, because by motivating and inspiring, it has the capacity to redirect history’s unfolding for individuals and nations alike. As a place from which to critique the cultures of business-as-usual, utopias also provide critical analytic perspectives on the ideologies for dominant and domineering social and cultural hierarchies. Utopias and other-forms of wishful thinking, however, can also be dangerously dysfunctional and escapist. Ricoeur writes:
[W]e are always caught in this oscillation between ideology [e.g., a cultural tradition] and utopia. . . we must try to cure the illness of utopia by what is wholesome in ideology — by its element of identity, which is once more a fundamental function of life — and try to cure the rigidity, the petrification of ideologies by the utopian element (Ricoeur, 1986, 312).
So my argument today is really a kind of dystopia — a feared future that is abundantly realized in the present — but this is only part of the story. It is not really about whose predictions of the future are more apt, the dystopias of doom-sayers or the utopias of dream-weavers. I see enormous positive potential in both technology and religious-cultural transformation as vehicles for creating a healthier and safer planet, though in this discussion I have emphasized the present and future cataclysmic. The questions are more complex: which technologies used-how, whose cultural traditions changed-how, how does one “direct” technological development or social transformation to desired ends, who benefits, who decides, and what are the unintended and unforeseen consequences of different world-views and world-doings. To predicting the future, there will be no end; both our fears and hopes can be self-fulfilling prophecies and self-confounding deceivers.
What I really want to reflect on with you is whether the rhyme my children brought home from their classmates at school might also contain some profound insights into what we must know and do such that the epic of evolution and the unfolding of human life might continue to the mutual benefit of all beings. Perhaps the task of creating a better world is not about predicting the future, but paying attention to the present and honoring the past that has brought us to this present moment. My daughters playfully sang these words as a game without any conscious awareness of their horror:
People are dying,
Children are crying,
The proposition contained here, as some kind of message from our collective unconscious in the voice of innocence, may be that if we could just concentrate, concentrate on what is really going on right now on this planet, in our communities, in our own lives, then the intractable problems might become solvable. Pay attention to suffering, but don’t add to the world’s pain by suffering to pay attention. It is unlikely that we can change ourselves or society, unless we awaken to the dysfunctions as a problem in the first place. In the first step of an addict’s long journey of recovery, one has to recognize that there is a problem here. Sounds simple enough, so why don’t we do it, why don’t we pay attention to the people dying and children crying all around us, right now.
There are two main obstacles to embarking on the children’s imperative in the nursery rhyme: denial and powerlessness. We don’t concentrate on the world’s problems, let alone our own, because we feel powerless and live in denial. I will argue that recovering alcoholics, addicts, and those enmeshed in addictive relationships may have some of the greatest insights into denial, powerlessness, and transformation. Here are some folks who have made urgent and fundamental changes in their way of living. I believe they can teach the rest of us how we as a society might make such changes on a global scale, “if,” in the words of the world scientists, “vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”
For a long-time, alcoholics live in denial of their affliction, believing that their drinking behavior is not really out-of-control and self-destructive. As things start to deteriorate with work and family and friends, an alcoholic will often place the blame for their problems on others and feel justified in hitting the bottle anew as the only solace from mounting difficulties. The addict lives in denial, unable to see drinking or substance abuse as a problem in itself. Curiously, spouses, children, friends, relatives, and coworkers may be in just as much denial about this situation as the alcoholic. Indeed, the diseases of alcoholism and addiction infect all those intimately involved with the substance abuser.
In the First Step of the Twelve Step Program developed by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the addicts admit that “we were powerless over alcohol– that our lives had become unmanageable.” This awareness of powerlessness and unmanageability is so terrifying that many continue in their addictions unto death or near death. Sometimes a careful intervention of family and friends can help provoke this awareness sooner, but it may also be futilely self-destructive for these family members and friends to make a job out of rescuing the alcoholic from their addiction. If the addict is powerless to control their addiction, than it is for sure that others can’t control it either. At some point, different for each alcoholic, they “hit bottom” in crisis and are confronted with the miserable reality of their sickness and the task of reconstructing their lives.
I am arguing by analogy that human society, no less than individual humans, can function like alcoholics and substance abusers. We are addicted to fossil fuels, increasing consumption, media stimulation, compounded interest, growth in GNP, and so on. And it is so terrifying to confront our collective powerlessness over these substance and spirit abuses that we live in denial. Everything about our lives would have to change to kick our addiction, but we won’t do that unless we hit bottom, unless some kind of economic and environmental collapse hits us over the head and says“People are dying, children are crying, concentrate, concentrate!”
How and at what point we hit a collective bottom and confront the self-destructive and out-of-control reality of our collective consumptive diseases is a mystery to me. Perhaps it happens one person at a time; perhaps it needs to happen in the collective unconscious as some kind of societal Twelve Step Recovery Program. I know it requires both new ways of thinking and acting. Sometimes we can think ourselves into new ways of acting, but we also need to act ourselves into new ways of thinking. As the Alcoholics Anonymous slogan goes: “Don’t Think, Don’t Drink!” Our polluted thoughts may not be a very good guide in our recovery. We’ll need some kind of collective sobriety first, before our “positive thinking” will lead to a “New Age,” and not just more of the same escapist denial and selfish-justifying rationalization.
Perhaps some of us can help others to recognize these dangerous dysfunctions in our body politic without becoming obsessed with our own addictive control illusions. The danger in intervention, in working to help society confront its sicknesses and get into recovery, is that we end up playing a role in the addictive system as codependents and enablers. In other words, we end up enmeshed in the dysfunctions through rescue behavior and our own obsessive desires to control that which is unmanageable. As enablers we ameliorate the symptoms of the dysfunctions, but in so doing prolong the addiction. Eco-justice and peace do-gooders, like me, are in great risk of becoming part of the problem, instead of their hoped for solutions; as if we could ever really stand apart from the dysfunctional systems in whose society we learned to speak, act, and breathe.
Al Anon, the Twelve Step Recovery Program formed by spouses and children of alcoholics, is very clear on this point. Step Four of the Twelve calls for making “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” In Al Anon especially, the danger is in doing someone else’s inventory instead of your own. You are your own problem. Your real problem is not your addicted husband, wife, or parent. Go back and do your First Step again. You are not in control. Your real problem is not George W. Bush or Osama bin Laden. Go back to Step One.
It is a fearful thing not to be in a control, like driving a speeding car without a steering wheel or brakes, not unlike driving on the streets of India. So much of our lives in childhood and adult years is based on the acquisition of new competencies and power, such that we might better manage our lives and be productive members of society. This is good and as it should be. There is, however, this deeper mystery to life of an ultimate powerlessness and finitude. In this sense, we do not and cannot control our existence. This illusion of self-control arises sometime after infancy and leaves sometime before death. This doesn’t mean that we do not make significant decisions in our lives or that we can’t hold ourselves and others accountable for those decisions. It just means that the big decisions are beyond us. Perhaps this is why both young children and people who are dying have so much to teach us about how to live the big questions in life, like what is the meaning and purpose of it all in face of the absurdity of inevitable death.
Addiction, I believe, can be seen as a very natural outgrowth of a normal development in human life towards greater competencies and powers. Addictions develop as a quest for greater control over feeling-good and being-happy, though addictive diseases ultimately leads to intense pain and misery. In this sense, alcoholics and addicts can be thought of as “failed mystics,” because they are searching for the highest goodness and pleasure that life has to offer albeit in the wrong way. They follow the false “spirits” of liquor, instead of the Spirit of generosity that imbibes in the very existence of the Cosmos and our own Being. To fail as an alcoholic and embark on recovery is really an invitation to become a religious mystic. So for society to fail in its addictive quest for prosperity, security, or the always-better-life can be thought of as an invitation to confront life’s deeper mysteries and become religious mystics.
Step Two in the Twelve-Step Recovery Program of AA talks of coming “to believe in a Power greater than ourselves” that “could restore us to sanity.” Step Three talks of making “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God.” This is a very open-ended religious philosophy, though enormously powerful in transforming desperately sick people. One can be Christian or Buddhist, Jewish or Muslim, Secular Humanist or Fundamentalist. Like Buddha’s near starvation on the road to Enlightenment, or Jesus’s forsaken despair while dying on the Cross, or the Hebrews groaning cries to God in their captivity, this transformational moment in an addict’s life begins with a confrontation with agonizing powerlessness over an affliction.
The paradox of powerlessness is that it leads to restoring sanity in life. The power that we have is to “turn our will and our lives over.” We do not have power over the addiction itself, but this higher Power does. God, as we understand God, has the power to turn us into recovering addicts. Our global civilization’s desires for control, pleasure, and greater consumption will continue, but we might be living on the mend, not acting obsessively upon these destructive desires.
Comparing our global economic, social, and environmental problems to an addiction is a helpful, but limited analogy. For while an addict can live and live better without booze and drugs, we must eat, work, reproduce, survive and find community in the social and biological systems that surround and sustain us. We can’t simply “stop drinking” fossil fuels, for instance. So our afflictions are actually more like an eating-disorder. Over-eating, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia are perhaps closer analogies to our collective dilemma. But the Twelve-Step Recovery Program has been a helpful resource for those afflicted by such disorders. Dozens of self-help groups for any number of compulsive behavior illnesses have modeled themselves on AA and Al-Anon. Seen as a separate religious movement, millions of local AA groups and their prolific off-spring around the world would have to be counted as one of the great world religions today, alongside of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on. The Twelve-Step Program, however, is not a separate religious movement, but is spread through religious practices around the world. In the anonymity of their meetings, Jew, Christian, Hindu, and Atheist can all find powerful unity my sharing their personal stories of failure and recovery.
Making urgent and fundamental changes is never easy. People make mistakes even after they have confronted denial and powerlessness. Recovery is a continuous practice. To aid in this practice, a number of slogans have been passed on in Twelve Step programs:
Let Go and Let God
Easy Does It
Live and Let Live
First Things First
One Day at a Time
Keep It Simple
Listen and Learn
How Important Is It?
Keep an Open Mind
But for the Grace of God
These slogans have become part of my spiritual discipline, not only in confronting the legacies of addiction in my family and myself, but also as I confront the larger addictive systems which are leading to a global economic, social, and environmental collapse. As I head off to the store in my car, I hear myself saying, “How Important Is It?” and “Keep It Simple” and “First Things First.” Sometimes I even have the presence of mind to realize that I don’t really need to go shopping today at all, so I have more time and energy to “Think” and to “Listen and Learn.” When I am overwhelmed and anxious with the business-as-usual of my own life or of the world, I hear myself saying “Let Go and Let God” and “One Day at a Time” and “Easy Does It.” When I judge and criticize others or when I look to others with envy or embarrassment, I repeat the slogans “Keep an Open Mind” or “But for the Grace of God.”
Above all, descending on an airplane at 4000 feet and seeing the haze of pollution that covers and chokes our cities, I repeat the AA slogan, “Live and Let Live.” Most of our lives, we exist in that haze of smoke from our engines and furnaces, unable to even see it for what it is, because we live, breath, and see most of our lives on this horizontal plane within the pollution. The airplane ride into the vertical provides an occasion both to add to that smog, but also to see it more clearly for what it is. So now as I drive around in my car, in my mind’s eye I can “see” the effects of our fossil fuel addiction in the memories of flying in and out of airports from Los Angeles, California to Mumbai, India. Our collective behavior in a multitude of ways is making it increasingly difficult to “Live and Let Live.” Climates are changing, ecosystems are damaged, species are going extinct, traditional cultures are vanishing, and the staggering wealth that some few have achieved seems unable to truly satisfy.
Often I am distressed by my relative powerlessness to make significant changes in this world. After all I am just one person with only one vote and voice, with limited financial resources and perhaps too much education. I am coming to understand, however, that I don’t have to change the world, that I can’t change the world, that our powerlessness is exactly what “it” is all about. Indeed, the very act of concentrating on the enormous problems and confronting our relative powerlessness is what sets the magic working.
That is not all, of course, there are a lot of consequences that follow from the paradox of powerlessness and calling forth our Higher Power. My behavior must change and my thinking must evolve. “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle,” “Think Globally, Act Locally,” “Live Simply, That Others May Simply Live, ” and “Everything is Connected” are additional slogans from the environmental movement that can be added to our recovery tool box in seeking global health and sanity.
On one level, the AA slogan “Live and Let Live” brought into the context of our societal dysfunctions is an acceptance of the way-things-are: stop complaining, find contentment in the simple fact of living, admit you’re powerless, so don’t sweat this big stuff about far away lands and peoples. There is some important truth here. On another level, the slogan can also become a prayer for the way things could be in a world that is healing, in which we can “live and let live,” instead of destroying ourselves and others. “Live and let live” is my utopia, a vision of an Earth restored and life and spirit developed to the mutual enhancement of all beings. Like the escape into the vertical of the airplane, my dream, this slogan, is both part of the problem and an opportunity to solve it.
At the heart of the acquisitive discontent of the prosperous and bodily-affliction of the poor is a spiritual vacuum in our global civilization. I have interpreted the children’s rhyme as to say that the way to create a safer and healthier world is through a profound awareness of present conditions and not a predictive managerial control of the future’s unfolding. Concentrate, concentrate, on what is really going on right now. Be a witness to both suffering and joy of others and ourselves. The reason that we do not pay attention to the world in all its manifestations is that we are paralyzed by fear of our existential powerlessness and blinded by the numbing powers of denial.
To learn more about our resistance to abandoning self-destructive behavior and the dynamics of fundamental change, I examined the process of recovery from alcoholism and addiction as an analogy to our ecological and socio-economic dysfunctions. In the Twelve-Step Program, we can see the paradox of powerlessness and the centrality of a Divine power in the process of creating urgent and fundamental change in an individual or a social system.
So I turn now to some concluding thoughts on the importance of the world religious traditions to integrating the past, living fully in the present moment, and thereby giving rise to a better future. Religions are both part of the problem and a critical part of the solution to our self-destructive predicament in the late twentieth century at the end of the Cenozoic era. Like the airplane, religions can add to our spiritual “air-pollution,” but also provide opportunities to see clearly what this world really looks like from a transposition from the horizontal into the vertical realm of the Divine. This is what Christians call the difference between chronos, linear time, and kaiyros, the eternal time of the Divine in the moments of communion.
Religions are still a big part of our collective dysfunctions, sources for intolerance, barbarism, escapism, and triumphalistic self-rationalizations. It is not always easy with religion to, in the words of another Twelve Step slogan, “take what you like and leave the rest”. In spite of these failings, however, it would be pure foolishness to think that we can live well without religion. Religions are the repository of thousands of years of human attempts to deal with the existential dilemma of life, death, and community. Religious traditions are the accumulated wisdom and failures of different cultures and the passing of many generations. There is something here more than fantasy and wishful thinking. Some Higher Power is manifested, for instance, in the lives of individuals who have literally been saved from life-threatening addictions.
And if an addict is a failed mystic, and if society can be like an addict, than we are somehow failing collectively in our search for group mysticism. We need to reclaim and renew the role of mythic inspiration and ritualized disciplines in order to sustain purposeful and transformative living.
There are many paths that can lead to a spiritual fulfillment of the empty-longings of our collective Self. In trying to live more fully in the present moment, adopting a Buddhist-like discipline of Mindfulness, let us also be extremely pragmatic. Even as the Buddha taught the Dharma withUpaya towards the efficacious Enlightenment of all sentient Beings, so too can we try to separate the wheat from the chaff. Do what works. Experiment, practice, see the results of your spiritual and moral labors as they manifest themselves in your life and the lives of others. Jesus taught that by their fruits, they shall be known. George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement to which I belong, wrote in 1656 that when one is faithful, energetic, and courageous for the Truth, “then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone.”
Concentrate, concentrate is also an invitation to pay attention to what is good and beautiful in life without getting lost in pleasure-seeking. Tears and laughter come easily to children. Our inabilities to witness to the suffering in the world no doubt diminish our capacities to enjoy the goodness of the world. So the imperative in the children’s rhyme is also to turn all of living into play. The invitation is to know the flowers, breathe deeply, explore frivolities, laugh enthusiastically, and play with a child’s abandon. Alan Watts, the great Western interpreter of Eastern religions, writes that:
[T]he ways of liberation make it very clear that life is not going anywhere, because it is already there. In other words, it is playing, and those who do not play with it, have simply missed the point.
There is Japanese Buddhist saying that points without direction to the paradoxical truth of the children’s imperative:
Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water;
After Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
The solution to our problems may lie in a new appreciation of the mundane and common place of our daily living. Though the privileged of the world no longer need to chop wood and carry water as a daily necessity, yet we too can turn our daily life into a continuous liturgy that invokes the Holy. Concentrate on what is before you, not what is in the future. Jesus taught:
So do not be anxious about tomorrow; tomorrow will look after itself. Each day has troubles enough of its own (Matthew 6:34).
Not only can we look to traditional religious teachings, but even modern science offers a powerful mytho-poetic story of creation. This modern scientific cosmology can re-inspire reverence and gratitude in the face of the enormous topographies of space-time and the many improbable miracles that have turned recycled stardust into this human being that looks back with awe upon itself and the stars from which it came.
Mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, in the ripples of Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics, wrote that “past actualities, future possibilities, the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, that whole amplitude of time, which is eternity.” Whitehead suggests that there is something about living in the present, “one day at a time” to use the AA slogan, that holds the key to preserving the past, transforming the future, and experiencing the eternal. It is in some renewed ability to pay attention to what is really going-on, toconcentrate, concentrate, that we will find ways forward out of our global predicaments. In this eternal moment, the past intersects with the present to unfold into future possibilities. We must resist the temptation to be paralyzed by uncertainty, insecurity, and insignificance. The story of the Cosmos is one of erring with the elegantly improbable. Hope is always justified, if not always realized. So throw yourself into the curve of the Universe. A couplet from Goethe offers a profound insight into human nature, human doings, and our cosmogenesis:
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Our bold dreams and our committed doings in this present moment will create some kind of future that, for good or ill, is too complex for anyone to predict. While we can only interpret but not predict the unfolding of natural evolution and human history, we can do something about the troubles enough of this day. If we are appropriately mindful of this day, we may be blessed with the insights of mystics throughout the world’s religions. The Buddha-nature is reflected in all things, like the diamonds in Indra’s net, each reflecting the perfections of all others. Jesus preached the Good News in an impoverished and oppressed corner of the Roman Empire that the reign of Heaven is in our midst, right now, even, especially, among the poor, the sick, the outcast, and the young. Allah, we are repeatedly told in the Koran, is merciful and compassionate. We need not fear the future. What we need to do is recover and recreate powerful group mysticisms to replace the bankrupt false-gods of power and prosperity.
The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, a powerful advocate of peace and justice in our world through the practice of engaged-contemplation and an early pioneer in Christian-Buddhist dialogue, described his encounter with the Buddhist tradition in Southeast Asia just before his untimely death.
The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem and really no mystery. All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life is charged with dharmakaya. . . everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination (Merton, The Asian Journal of . . .).
In my life I have had small epiphanies of the Reign of Heaven in our midst, of the Dharmakaya in all matter, and of the marvelous scientific intricacies of our cosmosgenesis. These moments give me great hope and a peace of mind in the face of my powerlessness and challenge me to act responsibly in spite of finitude. I have experienced some illuminations of the Holy Spirit and indwellings of the Buddha-nature, which have enriched my life beyond measure and filled me with joy. Seek and you shall find.
These religious traditions leave me with a series of paradoxes: a broken world that doesn’t need to be fixed and a realization of ultimate perfection that calls forth compassionate acts of healing. A Bodhisattva gives with no apprehension of self, nor of a recipient, nor of a gift. With total dedication to supreme enlightenment, a Bodhisattva does not apprehend any enlightenment. Jesus speaks in similar paradox, “By gaining his life a man will lose it; by losing his life for my sake, he will gain it” (Matthew 10:39). It seems to me that similar to the paradox of powerlessness, there must be something in all these inconsistencies that we cannot and should not force into resolution. There must be some great wisdom embraced in the wholeness of these dichotomies, rather than splitting them off in two. We need not choose between freedom and discipline, grace and self-help, free will and determinism, justice and mercy, planning and laissez-faire, custom and innovation, continuity and change, realism and idealism, faith and good works, nature and nurture, individuality and codependent-origination, particularism and universalism, science and religion. With grace and our own spiritual initiative, we can contain the tensions and ambivalences as creative guides from the Divine.
The fundamental emotive and intellectual dissonance that I experience in my life in the late twentieth century at the end of the Cenozoic era is the tension between despair and hope, between powerlessness and responsibility. The depths and margins of that very tension, along with our laughter and our tears, will be our guides in our truth-seeking and good-doing in the coming millennium. Jesus taught us that we might enter into the reign of Heaven, if we can become like children. My children have given it to me and I pass it on to you as a prayer and perhaps also an antidote for these troubled times.
People are dying,
Children are crying.