by Alfred Bloom, Emeritus Professor, University of Hawaii

In a 2011 op-ed essay, the noted commentator David Brooks, after viewing various forms of evidence, concluded: “In short, there’s abundant evidence to suggest that we have shifted a bit from a culture that emphasized self-effacement to a culture that emphasizes self-expansion.”

He questioned whether this change in self-understanding may be related to many of the problems, social and political, that we are having presently in our nation. Particularly he sees this in the loss of awareness “of the virtues associated with citizenship.” As he describes citizenship, he is really talking about our interdependence, a central principle for self-understanding in Buddhist teaching. As he explains, citizenship means we are involved in a “common enterprise” which gives meaning to our lives because of the “service we supply to the nation.” Noting that there has been a shift in the culture with its attendant problems, Brooks suggests that there needs to be “a more comprehensive shift in values” in order to rebalance the “expansion of self” (read egoism) that has undermined our social net (Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 3.14.11, pp. A-8-9).

The character of American politics and the malaise of American society indicates the necessity for a new paradigm or way of thinking by which to evaluate contemporary life. We have all advocated and promoted the so-called American Dream, which, as a dream or personal goal, has motivated the upward striving of American youth and immigrants for decades, while stirring the admiration of people around the world, encouraging them to stream to America.

However, in this process we have ignored the oppression of many segments of our society which enabled that dream. Our history of unjust treatment of native peoples, slavery, later racism and the terrorism of Jim Crow, the exploitation and discrimination of the Chinese and Japanese, the incarceration of the whole mainland Japanese community in wartime, as well as the opposition to other European immigrant groups who came to share the dream. The dream was also a nightmare for many. We often forget that the American dream is more than an economic success; it is a dream where each person has the right to fulfill their deepest potential, through realizing of all their human rights.

The effort to limit the American dream to a particular segment of society lead to the Civil War whose aftermath we are still experiencing in politics and society. The struggle for women’s rights indicates another effort to limit the dream. Issues such as women’s suffrage, i. e.. the right to vote, women’s equality, equal pay for equal work, or the freedom to make decisions concerning their own bodies, continue on as there are those who continually try ‘to limit the dream.’ The forces resisting women’s rights or gay rights are strong, undermining the universality of the American dream in our own society.

American society has become so uncritically identified with laissez faire capitalism, unbridled competition, and a more subtle racism that we have been willing to compromise our cherished ideals of freedom and equality that have made us the envy of the world in order to gain an uncertain and fragile security in a violent world. We fail to distinguish Nationalism, which is basically tribal, from Patriotism. Nationalism claims we are exceptional, God-ordained, above history, and overlooks the contradictions of our history. Patriotism, however, is aware of the contradictions we have nurtured in our history. It does not shrink from self-criticism in order to widen the dream and perfect it. Nationalists see no evil, while patriots try to improve and maintain our ideals.

Underlying these developments and conditions is a pervasive individualism whose roots trace back deep into our traditional culture and religion, the frontier mentality of being a man who is self-made man or self-sufficient and independent. Capitalism, our fundamental ideology of individual competition, has roots in Neo-Darwinism with emphasis on competition and survival of the fittest.

The pervasiveness of this perspective and its hold on the American mind has resulted in the wedding of nationalism, social and economic theory and expressions of religious faith. The result of this combination has brought us to a social and cultural dead-end. We cannot solve our problems because any deep critique of any of these facets brings charges of lack of patriotism, socialism, or atheism and materialism. The term secular humanism is used widely to stigmatize any alternative mode of thought.

We are in great need of a new paradigm, a new perspective, by which to view and understand our current problems. Buddhism offers us an important alternative. However, traditional Buddhism is often presented as a ritualistic or otherworldly faith, rooted in Asian cultures and largely irrelevant to western societies. An exception to this rule is the effort of the Dalai Lama to present Buddhism as a universal faith, harmonious with science and relevant to personal as well as social problems. It is important in this connection to see Buddhism as a way of thinking and understanding life and culture, as well as a religious faith for negotiating the uncertainties of life.

It is also important to recognize that Buddhism from its start was directed at the individual. It appeared at a time when the ancient Indian communalism was shifting and numerous teachers appeared, much on the order of Socrates in Greece, offering various philosophies to understand reality and the self. These teachers appear in the famous Upanishad texts. Teachers went out from the villages to teach disciples a spiritual path while gathered under the shade of trees.

Gautama (6th C. BCE) himself followed this pattern. He first studied with several teachers. Rejecting their paths, he set out to discover his own way independently. His teaching, following his enlightenment, was not in its origin a religion as we understand religion today. Rather, it was a philosophy that cultivated a way of life and personal transformation which resulted in spiritual freedom.

Buddhism clearly appealed to the individual and described the monk as a “rhinoceros” alone in the field. The path to enlightenment had to be won by the individual. The discipline was the training of one’s own mind. In order to engage this training, it was necessary to leave home and family. Buddhism permitted even young men to enter the Order before they completed their social duties, thereby receiving criticism in India. However, despite the individual orientation of Buddha’s teaching it was not merely individualistic. He soon formed a community, a sangha, where all shared together and mutually supported each other.

It may be better in Buddhism to speak of the person rather than the individual. In our modern conception, the individual tends to stand alone, stressing independence. The person is the individual in the context of relationships, family or community. Hence, Buddhism set forth the principle of interdependence which became the core element of its philosophy. Nothing is totally independent or self-existing. Everything and all persons are configurations of many causes and conditions. While the individual has provisional existence and responsibility, it is not fully understood without taking into account the many relationships making up the person.

Viewed in this way, the person’s participation in a team is much more central and indicative, than focusing on individuality. The interconnection between the individual and the group gives the individual true strength. As in Aesop’s famous fable, one stick is easily broken, while bound together, they have strength. The individual gains his/her strength from participation and togetherness. Many athletes, winners in various fields, as well as leaders, note their indebtedness to others for achieving their success or fame, during occasions of recognition. While the individuals may hold such feelings, these statements, unfortunately, do not express the deepest sentiments of a society where winning is everything, and it is all about competition. Such remarks are more a formality rather than revealing a deep degree of humility which would be displayed in other areas of social life. If we were to take it more seriously as the central idea of the culture, we would more easily understand the need for more corporate and cooperative solutions to our problems and seek more equitable solutions for poverty, homelessness and various forms of discrimination.

Buddhism views reality and life as a great jeweled net in which each node in the net reflects all other nodes in the net. Ultimately we are all one. “The One is All and the All is One.” All exist in mutual interrelation within the totality of reality. This is not simply an abstraction or theoretical. Through self-reflection on the nature of our lives, we begin to see the concentric circle of relations in which we are nurtured in our families, educated by our societies, fed through the efforts of farmers, fishermen, and all sorts of tradesmen. Society cannot function without each person, in one way or another, providing some skill or effort. As we see in recent disasters, people must work together to overcome the tragedies.

An implication of the Buddhist perspective on the person is the fundamental equality of each person. While Buddhism recognizes individual differences in capacities and roles that enable society to function, it also taught that all beings possess Buddha-nature, the potentiality to realize their true nature. We are all equal manifestations of the Buddha-mind. In Shin Buddhism, Shinran rejected the Teacher-Disciple relationship, asserting that we are all fellow travelers and companions on the Way. People might claim him as their teacher, but it is nothing that he claimed for himself. There is a spiritual basis for human dignity and rights.

Another aspect is the Buddhist perspective on education. In line with the essential equality of all beings, the Buddhist educational perspective focuses on enabling the student to realize his/her latent capacities and interests. In Mahayana Buddhism there is the principle of Upaya which means teaching people according to their abilities and taking into account their individual differences. It suggests a person-centered approach to education. Also the ideal of the Buddha-to-be, the Bodhisattva, expresses an ideal of service to others as the way to fulfill ourselves. It teaches that there is no given meaning to life except in bringing meaning into others’ lives. The question we should be asking is not: what is the meaning of my life? But, rather: how am I meaningful to others? There is no meaning to my life that does not include others.

It might be noted in passing that Buddha de-sacralized the cosmos and rejected magic. He sought solutions based in the principle of cause and effect. He did not claim his path was the absolute truth, but it had to be tested in personal experience. Rather than judging things simply right or wrong by an abstract standard, we should observe whether our actions are fruitful or unfruitful for realizing our ideals.

All of this is not to suggest that adherence to Buddhism will magically solve all our problems. Nevertheless, in its history Buddhism has shown humaneness, less violence, and compassionate efforts to improve life. In the context of our rampant individualistic and competitive life today, Buddhism can help us to better understand the corporate significance of life and our mutual responsibilities. It can provide a spiritual context for recommitting ourselves to the fundamental values that have undergirded the ideal of the American dream and give it a new reality in contemporary life.