When Buddhism became known in the West around the sixties or so of the last century as something that can be practiced and as something that is more than food for scientists of religion and Buddhologists, it entered a culture that on the one hand was shaped by Christian thought and on the other hand was mentally heavily traumatized, certainly in Europe, by the world wars. The idea that man is not capable of any good and is inclined to all evil, as some reformatory Christian traditions maintain, seemed to be confirmed by what happened in the world wars. These two aspects of our culture have seriously undermined the vision of and confidence in the basic goodness of mankind. For the realization, that we deeply long that things are going well for ourselves, for our fellow human beings, yes, for the world, had (and still has often) no place. It is true that we feel this longing ourselves, almost secretly, but we soon think that other people may not share that longing. And they think that about us. Otherwise, where will all the misery, aggression and harshness we see around us come from? If the devil does not exist, then surely it should be the people themselves in whom devilish powers live! It sounds so logical.
And yet, and yet…we feel this deep longing within ourselves! Isn’t it precisely the sadness, anger and frustration that we feel when we see suffering and injustice around us that is conclusive proof that this longing lives in us? And isn’t it even present when we do all kinds of stupid things out of that frustration and anger? After all, if it were not present in our lives, we would not care if the fulfilment of this longing were frustrated. It would be all the same to us. But it is not. Rather, it is the other way round; every time this longing is fulfilled, it feels good. It inspires us. It makes us, in the deepest sense of the word, happy. At those moments we are at our best, we feel at our best: we experience what is called in Mahayana Buddhism our Buddha-nature, or our basic goodness as it is called in Shambhala Buddhism1. It is a way of experiencing that both goes beyond and comes before any form of conceptual codification of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’. This foundation of our humaneness can also be called basic humanity2
Every time this longing is frustrated, we are unhappy. That this frustration, when it then enters into an unholy alliance with short-sightedness and prejudice and other forms of confusion and blindness, can lead to the most destructive acts and to a great deal of suffering, that is beyond dispute. But even then it is this deep longing that underlies these actions! Therefore, even in these actions, stupid and even mean as they might be, we can recognise the presence of this longing. And from that restored contact, which has clarity of mind in its wake, wells up the longing to repair the damage caused by these acts. Again, we then experience our Buddha-nature.
Nevertheless, even today in our culture, it is almost shocking to say out loud that we experience being deeply benevolent beings; that we mean well, that we have basic goodness. We hardly dare to admit that to ourselves! Did we not learn to mistrust this longing in ourselves and in others, or to doubt its existence? Perhaps we even consider it a worldly-wise action to deny and ignore this longing within ourselves. But this distrust, this doubt is not without consequences! It is at the expense of how we live together and whether we want to live together at all – in the family, organisation, business and society.
Discovering and once again feeling our basic goodness is not an intellectual matter, but an experience. And that experience instantly sweeps all distrust of people’s deepest nature from our ideological drawing tables. Every time that happens it amounts to an inner revolution, that makes us look in a very different way at all this suffering in ourselves and around us resulting from aggression, greed and indifference. In fact, it revolutionizes our self-image and our human image in the direction of an unmistakable confidence and trust in the basic goodness of ourselves and other people. In so doing, it also awakens this deep longing to base and build our society on this trust and to express it in words and deeds in our society.
Individualism, consumerism and imperialism
Living together is based on connection. And connection is based on trust. Trust in what? In the basic goodness, the Buddha-nature of ourselves and of others.
What if there is a lack of trust in our Buddha-nature? We will then no longer want to, or dare to live together and cooperate with others. And that means that a society – at whatever level, from family to society – falls apart and disintegrates into ‘every man for himself and God for us all’. Individualism, wanting to be independent of others, now seems to be the way to human happiness. In the wake of this individualism, when people are no longer trusted as a source of basic goodness and happiness, seeking happiness in material matters seems to be the only remaining option.
As we know the materialistic vision has no connection with this deep longing, with our Buddha nature. It does not bind or nourish our society. It often awakens and reinforces – let me call it by its name – greed. Or in more veiled language, ‘consumerism’. A materialistic culture does not support our basic goodness, but constantly ignores it. It leads people to see each other as consumers and even as consumer goods instead of as fellow human beings. As satisfying our greed only provides a temporary sense of well-being, the need for satisfaction takes on the character of an addiction. This addiction is good for the economy. The ideology is: consuming increases prosperity and prosperity increases happiness. In order to consume one has to spend money and those who do not have money, it is annoying, they just have to borrow. Happiness does not come for free! And what that leads to – the financial crisis – better to not think about it for the moment. Live now, pay later.
Individualism and consumerism do not cultivate our Buddha-nature. Rather they lay the seeds for struggle; they are the breeding ground for organised violence directed at the elimination of what threatens our individualism and consumerism. Imperialism, supported by militarism, is a socially accepted form of aggression in favour of desire and blind self-interest. These three – individualism, consumerism and imperialism – are the social manifestations of the three forces, which in Buddhism are called the three poisons (Sanskrit: klesha): indifference, greed and aggression respectively.
Where do these three come from? From a sense of separation. Separation, distance, makes unknown. And unknown makes unloved. The more connected, the more intimate we are with other human beings, the less inclined we will be to take advantage of them, to attack them or to treat them with indifference. If the three poisons are unleashed, they ultimately destroy every form of culture, organisation and society at every level.
Individualism, consumerism and imperialism are at odds with what Shambhala Buddhism describes as enlightened society. Such a society is based on deep faith in our basic goodness. This trust is not based on opinion or credulity, but on personal experience of basic goodness. This experience and its recognition is the heart blood of this society. Even so, in this society human beings are not saints. But they know what greed, aggression and indifference does to their and others’ happiness in life. Therefore they also know how important it is to prevent these three from becoming the cornerstones on which their society is based.
The experience of basic goodness, this deep longing that things go well for oneself and for the world, is the cultural basis of this society. How to create and cultivate such a society is what the Buddha taught to the kings of his time, including Suchandra, the legendary king of Shambhala. Such a society is not utopian, but it can exist and it has existed.
What does all this mean for our dealings with Western society today? Two things. Firstly, that we can learn from the Buddha and from his royal students such as Suchandra, Ashoka and many others how fruitful it is to create a society based on the vision and experience of basic goodness, on all levels: family, school, organisations, businesses and society at large. This royal Buddhism is different from monastic Buddhism. It is a secular Buddhism: society itself is the place of practice. Moreover it is not aimed at achieving personal or individual enlightenment for oneself, separate from society. It is aimed at creating and cultivating a society that supports and develops our humaneness, our Buddha-nature.
Just as King Suchandra, after receiving instruction on this from the Buddha, went in search of those elements in his kingdom that could support the process of an enlightened society, so we too can do so within the contexts in which we ourselves live together with others. How? By looking for those aspects of our society that resonate with our basic goodness, and then, as a second step, by supporting and strengthening those aspects. What these are, we ourselves will have to assess over and over again and freshly in every situation. There is no formula for this. From the experience of basic goodness, from being in contact with our deepest longing that things may go well in the world, we can learn to act and speak, work, organize and what not?? already. Not out of a sense of duty, or out of fear of retaliation or punishment, and certainly not out of a preconceived political or social ideology to which reality should conform, but out of the experience that acting from basic goodness raises and humanizes our culture.
Secondly, if we are serious about developing our Buddha nature, we cannot ignore the tendencies of indifference in the form of individualism, greed in the form of consumerism and aggression in the form of imperialism within ourselves. Society is also within us. It is therefore a question of finding and freeing ourselves from our own indifference, greed and aggressiveness, rather than of thinking, despondently, that this is just the way human beings are. With this in mind, Chögyam Trungpa has brought this social Buddhism of Shambhala to the West, in which the spiritual and the temporal are not separate domains. We will have to anchor ourselves firmly in the experience of basic goodness. That is what the practice of the spiritual path of Shambhala is about. That allows us to recognize and fearlessly cultivate the enlightened aspects of our society. And that makes our humanity blossom and bear fruit.
Dr. Han F. de Wit holds a Ph.D. in psychology (from the University of Amsterdam). A research fellow in 1976 at the University of California (Berkeley) and at Naropa University (Boulder) brought him international acclaim as the founder of a new branch of psychology, as outlined in Contemplative Psychology (Duquesne University Press, USA, 1991) and The Spiritual Path: An Introduction to the psychology of the spiritual traditions (to be republished by Shambhala Publ, 2018), Bouddha philosophe, L’Iconoclaste, Paris, 2016, and El Loto y La Rosa, Kaicron, Castellón, 2018. As a student of Chögyam Trungpa he was authorized in 1977 to teach Buddhist meditation. In 2000 he has been appointed by his current teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche as Acharya (Buddhist teacher). He gives seminars at the centres of Shambhala International and at other Buddhist organizations. See: http://www.shambhala.org/teachers/acharya/hdewit.php