I was exceedingly disappointed not to be able to attend this conference. As most of you know, I had been suffering from lumbar pain, bad balance and poor walking making movement etc. difficult. This has been exceptionally troublesome as I was additionally prevented from attending a brief meeting convened by Archbishop Rowan Williams at Lambeth Palace on the climate situation and the gathering of religious leaders by the Global Peace Initiative of Women in Copenhagen to consult on the climate conference there. I was hoping to discuss points from my recent book1 with participants at all these events. For the same reasons, I was unable to complete a text for use at this conference, although I did send a brief audio disc with some suggestions.
In reading and editing these papers, I am struck by their detailed attention to serious matters with deep implications. Although perhaps not all the questions we hoped to be addressed by the conference were covered, these proceedings merit extensive reading and study by all. As we face the oncoming dilemmas of transition to some workable state of society that responds effectively to the Peak Oil and Climate crises, matters of psychology, work, education and the implementation of holistic philosophy will need more such detailed attention as the writers have given us here. We have made a good start.
I have recently been studying ‘The Transition Handbook’ by Rob Hopkins2 in which he not only presents the truly alarming environmental crisis that we face with relentless clarity but also puts forward ways and means whereby local communities can make transitions creating functional adaptations to the inevitable effects already forecast. In particular, he faces the fact that many people are in denial of the seriousness of our dilemma. He puts forward ways by which workshops and individual initiatives can stimulate communal responses. He demonstrates his points by references to such activities in the Devon town of Totnes and other places. This is excellent stuff and everyone should consider how he/she might respond to his suggestions. What is lamentable, of course, is the way in which almost none of this appears in national politics as the recent, extremely limited, prime ministerial debates have shown.
Yet, there is a further difficulty. The current crisis has developed within the context of general dissatisfaction with the quality of life that consumer capitalism has entailed. There has been a general assumption that economic prosperity brings happiness. The evidence refutes this. Economic growth has in fact gone hand in hand with a rise in psychological distress, mental disorder, family breakdown, social exclusions of several types and falling levels of trust in government and politics generally. Strikingly, recent work in China shows that the lifting of millions out of poverty has been associated with decreases in life satisfaction at every level of income in both urban and rural areas. Comparable distress is only too clear in the UK; the nation has probably never before reached such a low state of social morale.
Professor Derek Bok makes a strong case3 that it is time to rethink the function of politics to promote well-being rather than wealth. Research on happiness has shown that it has great social and environmental benefits and can contribute to prosperity, but most people have little idea as to what brings them lasting satisfaction .Bok’s book parallels Hopkins’s in its general stress on the need for a fresh world-view encompassing both environmental and socio-personal issues. Anyone familiar with the Buddhist Dharma knows that it is precisely in this direction that it points.
All of these suggestions tend to miss an important issue. It is not enough to consider only the local, the small and the personal. Everything ‘small’ arises within the ‘big’. Co-dependency is not only local; it is planet-wide. What may suit Totnes may not suit London. Approaches at local levels will need to be related to overarching national and trans-national policies. This gap is still not bridged and there is little thought going on about it. As Niko Tinbergen has remarked, what is needed is ‘a new type of citizen’ and this, I argue, depends on changing our basic, global world-view.
A world-view summarises attitudes and practices of a community, a group or an individual and determines the overall effect of behaviours and policy. Our current world-view is based in consumer capitalism, which, beginning in the West, now determines virtually all economic and ecological policies. It is fundamentally based in the concept of endless wealth advancement through profit-based investment in non-sustainable energy exploitation and so structured that the unthinking greed of senior officials has lead to gross corruption and financial crises. What is wrong here is the absence of clear moral values based in an understanding of world-mind relations. The dualisms of the Western religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism split thought between the worldly and the spiritual and cultivate mutually divisive metaphysical beliefs that have no scientific basis and which lead to conflicts distracting us from the truly serious problem we are considering. Much science too, based in Cartesian dualism fails to relate the mind with matter, society with the world. While the hypothetico-deductive methods of science are fine for the study of mechanism, they fail when faced with the problems of their place in a totally integrated cosmic or planetary system. Holistic scientific approaches are now developing again and they are essential.
As I argue in my book, the holism of Buddhist philosophy based on Gautama’s original insights can provide an overarching understanding of world-mind relations based in the subjective empiricism of yogic investigation and clearly argued, reasoned understanding. Here is the basis for a holism that focuses on the total co-dependency of mind and matter on this planet and hence the co-dependency of thought, feeling and action, economics and ecology, wind and sun shine. Such co-dependency makes essential those ethical values that sustain qualities of homeostasis in the world. These too are provided by the precepts of the Dharma.
Of course, this does not mean that conversion to Buddhism is the necessary answer to all our problems. It does point however to the need for a holistic world-view that relates these Buddhist values and interpretations to other similar perspectives in some world philosophies and some existing world-views stemming from both the Asian and European ‘enlightenments’. As we have heard, Lama Thubten Yeshe and Thomas Berry, coming from such different cultures, none the less focus their concerns within the field of the same holistic themes. In several ways our conference has emphasised this need for a profound holism as a world-view that can function at many levels, in education, in ethics, in participatory perception, in philosophical and personal understanding.
As Teacher of the Western Chan Fellowship, I would like therefore to recommend that the contrasting issues we have discussed here be increasingly inter-related within an overarching world-view that can be understood worldwide by all educated people. Science and economics in the service of capitalism have spread from the West to all cultures using the English language and provided a global overview. In spite of fears and denials, there is therefore a common, world-wide potential for reasoned communication on forming a global philosophy through using all the modern electronic devises now available. Furthermore, new universities world-wide, as far apart as Saudi Arabia, Singapore and China4, are establishing intercultural relations that can foster such debate. Rather than current trash and clever hearsay, we need a serious debate among these educated and often deeply concerned people world-wide, understanding varying approaches to planetary holism and integrating them in an educative global path to eco-transition and global well-being. In this vital movement, Buddhists have the orientations and practices to play a major role. Let us all go to it, considering indeed our responsibility as lineage holders focussed on the universal good.
1. Crook, J.H. 2009. World Crisis and Buddhist Humanism. New Age Books, Delhi.
2. Hopkins, R. 2008. The Transition Handbook. Green Books.
3. Bok, D. 2010. The Politics of Happiness. What Government Can Learn From The New Research on Wellbeing. Princeton University Press. (Reviewed in Nature, April 29 2010).
4. Wildavsky, B. 2010 The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping The World. Princeton University Press.