I see world-history as a picture of endless formations and transformations, of the marvelous waxing and waning of organic forms.
Since the November ’94 elections in America, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fate of nation-states and civilizations, and how we all share in a collective karma. Like the proverbial fishes who don’t see the water they are swimming through, we may not notice the influence of history on our lives, but we are all part of this medium, caught in a particular surge or ebb tide, subject to the twists and turns of social or political currents.
American politics have been in turmoil recently, and the trends are disturbing to me and most people I know. We hear our fellow citizens calling for reductions in funding for welfare and health care, an end to foreign aid, harsher punishment of criminals, reversal of affirmative action programs and exclusion of immigrants. These proposals seem to signal a withdrawal of the compassion that has made our nation a unique haven of freedom and opportunity. Sadly, those who want to cut back on spending for social programs sound as though they are anxious about losing the very freedoms and privileges that they are reluctant to share with others. You can hear their fears and anger on almost any AM radio talk show.
As a way of getting some perspective on our current national disputes, as well on as my own reaction to them, I find it helpful to look at America as a single living entity. Then I can apply the laws of dharma to that being, and better understand its collective suffering. Perhaps I will even generate some compassion for our nation-state of mind.
We start with a basic law of dharma. “All conditioned things are impermanent,” said the Buddha, and that not only applies to you and me, and to microbes and mountain ranges, but also to more abstract notions such as nation-states and civilizations. All are born as a result of conditions, and will disappear into different conditions. All are void of any lasting substratum that we might call “self.”
America is a good example. There is no single unchanging nationhood here. Like all living systems, America is a shape shifter, and a completely different entity today from what it was just 250 years ago. Back then it wasn’t even America, but a collection of several hundred tribal nations—Sioux, Pomo, Hopi. Even the landscape has been transformed, the once vast wilderness tamed and “cultivated.” A completely different civilization lives here now: Turtle Island has become the United States of America.
The good ol’ U.S.A. has grown up over two centuries to become a superpower, the economic envy of the world, a star among nations. But along the way our identity has changed substantially. We were once a predominantly white European nation with a big-hearted policy of taking in the world’s tired, poor and persecuted. We were the mother country, and many came here hoping to climb into her lap of luxury. As we grew older, our population (the cells in the body politic) became a mixture of all the peoples in the world whom we attracted and absorbed. As a result we are a very different nation today from the one we were even fifty years ago.
We are still transforming, of course, continually in the process of becoming something else. To paraphrase Chuang-tzu, “Who knows what shape the Tao will change the nation into next?” We can be certain, however, that clinging to any idea of a permanent, unchanging national identity is bound to lead to suffering.
Another reason for our national bad mood is because we are finally confronting the fantasy of the American Dream, the belief that we could create a paradise here and live happily ever after. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, and as a result many citizens appear to be nostalgic for a time when we still held those fantasies, before we lost our innocence as a nation. Some conjure up an idealized version of an America that existed before the various civil rights movements made us face our history, before Elvis Presley shook his hips on T.V. and shattered our Puritan image, before the Vietnam War caused us to question our morality and lofty values. But we can’t turn back the clock and reenter the dream of an American Eden. We are beginning to awaken to the first noble truth of suffering, to recognize that even the American way of life will not cancel out the human condition, the certainty of loss, old-age, sickness, and death, for individual citizens or for the nation itself. Painful as it may be, the end of the American Dream can be seen as a sign of wisdom, a necessary insight.
Imagining the nation as a single living entity, I can also feel compassion for its plight. As I see it, America is having an identity crisis. For one thing, our past is being reinterpreted by people who have been the casualties of our success and who have since have become part of us—Native Americans, Latinos, African-Americans. They don’t regard Christopher Columbus, Davy Crocket, or Teddy Roosevelt as politically correct heros. Secondly, we seem to have lost our national purpose. Over the last century we told ourselves we were making the world safe for democracy, and we defined ourselves by our struggle with various Evil Empires. But now that the Cold War is over, what are we supposed to be doing? Just producing and consuming things? Is this a life? Is this a justification for our national existence?
Another important reason why America is having a hard time right now is because the nation-state is part of a larger historical process known as Western civilization, which appears to be going through its own difficult transition. This entity is a little more abstract, harder to identify than America, but also can be seen as a single living process, and subject to the laws of dharma.
Taking the big view, we recognize that a civilization is really nothing more than an idea in the world mind: a collectively agreed upon theme that for a moment in history defines humanity to itself, taking physical form in cities, economies and armies. To the extent that we believe in this theme—this worldview—we allow it to shape our understanding of ourselves, and to define for us what it means to be successful, free or happy.
For help in visualizing our civilization as a living system, I went back to Oswald Spengler’s book The Decline of the West, which Joseph Campbell cited as one of the most influential books in his life. Spengler applies his own historical big-mind to many world civilizations, and, upon examination, finds that they share a common lifecycle. Spengler says it begins with a creative period, a “culture,” which, if it works, grows into a full-fledged civilization. For example, Spengler says that the Greeks created a culture, which the Romans turned into a civilization; the Greeks had soul, which the Romans replaced with intellect. According to Spengler, “The energy of culture-man is directed inward, that of civilization-man outward.”
According to Spengler’s reckoning, we are now living through a late period of the civilization which began with the Culture of the Renaissance/Enlightenment. Although the current phase of the lifecycle is one of hardening and disintegration, this condition is neither to be feared nor mourned. In Spengler’s view, it is simply the nature of the organism, part of the inevitable cycle of change. One can hear the Buddha saying, “anicca, dukkha, anatta.”
Spengler sees our cultural skepticism as a sure sign of our aging. “The skepticism of the West is a symbol of the autumn of our spirituality. Its solutions are got by treating everything as relative.” That certainly describes our dominant belief system, or lack thereof. Even our advanced science hit a relativistic cul-de-sac with the principle of “uncertainty.” We now think we know for sure that we can’t know for sure! As Spengler predicted, “Exact science must presently fall on its own keen sword.” Our worldview was mortally wounded inside of a particle accelerator.
Other themes of our civilization seem to have played themselves out. Our emphasis on individualism has reached an extreme, and we all appear to be suffering from the burden of “being someone” and “going it alone.” Meanwhile, the external focus on materialism which created our great civilization has turned itself into a kind of religion, a worship of consumption. But our ethos of accumulation also seems to have reached its limits, both in the scarcity of resources to feed it and in the satisfaction it can offer. Perhaps we are just beginning to realize that material comforts will not make us happy—and just in time!
The main thing to remember is that the dharma can guide us through this transition period. The insights we gain in meditation practice can be applied to all living systems, including our nation and culture. Furthermore, as Nietzsche wrote, “Buddhism is a religion for the end and fatigue of a civilization.” So as we seek fresh answers to the perennial questions, Buddhism arrives to show us how to study ourselves and find new meaning. We once again ask “Who am I?” to break ground for a new “culture” perhaps, or just to serve as a balm for the irritations and distractions of the aging one.
Finally, seeing ourselves as part of larger processes is a skillful means of dharma practice, another way of arriving at anatta. Understanding the power and influence of the historical process on our lives makes it harder to impute blame to ourselves or to people who we think may have stolen our birthright. We begin to see that we do indeed share a collective karma, that we go through this history together, that we are dependently co-arising. That insight could help us solve our dilemmas, which themselves are partially the result of the unbalanced individualism of our age.