For nearly as long as I have been practicing Buddhist meditation, I have also been a radio broadcaster, doing reportage and commentary on the news of the world. Sometimes these two pursuits seem very different to me. After all, the Buddha says you should see this world “as a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream . . . a phantom and a dream.” A journalist at least needs to make the presumption that the world is real.
So I do my radio work remembering that emptiness is also form, and with that half-truth in mind, I try to nudge the world toward my version of sanity. It doesn’t take a Buddhist to see that humankind is incredibly confused and self-destructive, so I might as well offer advice from where I’m sitting, which is sometimes on a zafu.
Even though I don’t often talk directly about my Buddhist practice on the radio, I’m sure its influence seeps into all my news commentaries. For one thing, I consciously try to put the news into a bigger frame, to expand my listeners’ sense of history and sweep of time. Wider perspectives—especially those of biological and astronomical evolution—may offer us relief from the burden of our individual drama, and also help defuse our blame and anger. Therefore, usually in the introduction to my broadcasts, I try to give a cosmic disclaimer to the news:
The little blue-green planet spins endlessly on its axis, causing the lifeforms that live on the surface to become dizzy and bump into each other, creating news. And here is a report on some of the collisions, for Wednesday, October .
Another way that I can offer big perspectives is by reporting on the latest scientific theories and discoveries—news of quarks and quasars, parallel universes and galaxy clusters—reminding people that the universe is larger and more strange than we can even imagine. At least working on these stories is a balm of no little measure to me. As I tell my journalist friends, “You are what you cover.”
In general, I think the more mundane news of the world has a lot to teach us as well, especially about the transitory nature of external realities. These days, for instance, both culture and politics change so quickly that we watch fashions and empires rise and fall before our very eyes. What once were eras have now become decades, each one with its own costumes and trends.
On yet another level, the news can be seen as a report on our collective karma, a mirror where all of our hopes and fears—however distorted and exaggerated—are revealed. For instance, take our current American popular culture. One of the top grossing films of this last summer was The Flintstones. In the summer of ’93 it was Jurassic Park. So what is this fascination we seem to have with the prehistoric and the primitive? Why are we feeling nostalgia for dinosaur days and neanderthal nights? Do we subconsciously dislike our technological civilization and yearn for the simplicity of the stone age? Do we want to go back to a time when high-tech was anything round, and fast food meant you had to chase it down?
It’s not only mainstream Americans who romanticize the good old prehistoric days; that goes on among radical environmentalists as well, some of whom believe that homo sapiens was a happier species back when we were hunters and gatherers. They say we worked only about twenty hours a week, and spent the rest of our time singing, dancing and telling meaningful folktales to each other. Of course, the life expectancy of a hunter-gatherer was only about thirty years, so many of the people who want to return to that time would be dead by now.
Maybe one of the reasons we romanticize the past so much is because we expect too much from the present. Americans especially, seem to suffer under great expectations; I think we still believe, at least subconsciously, that we can build a perfect society and live happily ever after. There was a good example of this kind of idealism in the news recently. A study done by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta found that one in every three Americans feels depressed at least one day a month. What was most shocking was the fact that the scientists were so alarmed by this finding, as if having a “bad mental-health day” once a month was unacceptable. They seemed anxious for a cure to be found, perhaps a pill invented to take away that day of depression. I don’t know about you, but if I only had one day of depression a month I’d consider that a damn good mental-health month.
Speaking of mental health, one story making a lot of news lately is the new information superhighway. And although many people are talking about it, nobody seems to be asking the essential questions: Do we really need another highway? And do we really need more information? One piece of information I read claims we will soon be able to receive thirty thousand times more information, just over our telephones. But hells, Ma Bells! Who in the world could absorb thirty thousand times more information? I defy anyone to absorb even one hundred times more. There just isn’t enough room in the “in.” Already millions of images and factoids are flying at us everyday, a seemingly endless series of info-mercial-tainments. Most of us are already addicted, and a superhighway would be mainlining. Do we really want to do our shopping by TV? Do we need to have access to every fact ever known? Too much info-tainment crowds common sense out of the mind, and wisdom out of the soul. Too much imagery makes us jumpy and nervous and basically dissatisfied.
Instead of an information superhighway, maybe we should build more rest stops on the information highway we’re already on. Let people pull over and check out a reality that is not virtual. See trees in their natural habitat. Instead of plugging into the information superhighway, maybe we would all be better off taking the Beatles’ advice, and at least for a little while every day, turn off our minds, relax and float downstream.
While you are relaxing, I am pleased to be able to give you some good news from the U. S. Pentagon, of all places. It seems that since the end of the cold war the Defense Department has been putting more time and money into the development of nonlethal battlefield weapons. They have developed one device that emits a low frequency infrasound which causes enemy troops to double over and vomit or defecate uncontrollably. That’s great! Let’s have wars where nobody gets hurt, just humiliated. “Look, we win! The enemy is pooping in their uniforms!”
Another nonlethal weapon ready for use is an ultra-slick chemical which creates such a slippery surface that troops would fall down and tanks would be unable to maneuver. This is Keystone Cops warfare, and I’m totally in favor of it. And the best weapon of all would be a potent spray of nitrous oxide gas. As the old vaudeville saying goes, “Get ’em laughing, and they’re yours.”
But for real peace and solace nothing beats the cosmic perspective, and we’ve been seeing a lot of it in the news lately, thanks to the Hubble Telescope. The powerful lens of the Hubble keeps stripping away the veils of the universe, revealing the previously unimaginable vastness and density of space-time. The Hubble recently sent back a photograph of one tiny little nickel-sized piece of the sky, featuring a cluster of seventy-three separate galaxies, each one containing perhaps 200 billion stars. It’s hard to believe that it was only seventy years ago when Edwin Hubble himself first found proof that there were any other galaxies at all in the universe! As we discover how vast the cosmos really is, our own planet seems to shrink in size, and human history loses some of the burden of significance we have placed upon it.
These news stories coming back from the Hubble are part of the big picture, the vast sky-mind perspective, the cosmic consciousness filtered through science; and within that wide view lies the source of our compassion as well. Because, if we earthlings are relatively insignificant in the grander scheme of things, or, to put it in religious terms, if we are just a planet full of extras swirling around some real “stars” who are God’s leading characters and main concern—then that’s all the more reason why we need to love and take care of each other. And that is the reason why we need to pay attention to the news, whether local or international, to hear about the suffering of the world and then try to place our energy and compassion where it can do some good. In short, as I always tell my radio audience, if you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.