The Three Self-correcting Orientations Required for Human Survival
Glen T. Martin
At the dawn of the 21st Century, the fate of mankind and the meaning of the human project hang in the balance. Caught in the powerful current of the immense river of history, we are being swept headlong toward disaster for both our planet and humanity. It appears as though solutions to our immense problems are nowhere to be found. Nowhere do there appear possibilities that might save us a nightmarish future. The traditional ideals of every human religion and culture pointing toward a world of peace, freedom, and justice appear to have disappeared from our spiritual and intellectual horizon.
Some thinkers have asked whether we are “unteachable,” for we have not even learned the lessons of the first 50 years of the 20th century, let alone the lessons of the past 50 years. We have not understood the disastrous dead ends of nationalism, nation-state sovereignty, racism, religious bigotry, global capitalism, or the worship of technology. All six of these idolatrous and dehumanizing phenomena have proved absolute disasters.
They have turned human beings into indoctrinated, utterly fragmented national collectivities, into psychopathic creatures of mass hatred, into bigoted denizens of some idolatrously held absolute truth, into economic cogs enslaved for the wealth of others or egoistic monsters seeking personal wealth and power at the expense of others, or, finally, into robotic machines themselves, compulsively jerking to electronic flashes on computer screens or video monitors, pushing buttons on screens from naval ships or fighter aircraft, burning people alive and destroying their life-supports systems, without remorse, compassion, or intelligence.
Where, today, do we find a sense of the immense dignity of our humanity that animated the poets, religious prophets, mystics, philosophers, and creative thinkers of every culture and every century? Where do we find a sense of the higher possibilities of our common human project? How is it that the inner human being, the inner life of reflective thought, conscience, self-awareness and personal integrity, seems to have disappeared from culture, literature, and the public media?
Many of those interested in “spirituality” in our day live apart in ashrams, monasteries, cloisters, or small religious enclaves. They cling to their awareness of the sacred value of the inner life and its connections with deeper meaning of our cosmos while ignoring – or despairing – over the immense river of history sweeping our entire planet toward implacable disaster. They live apart free of the nationalism, nation-statism, racism, religious bigotry, capitalism, egoism, or worship of technology that corrupt and pollute the higher meaning of our humanity and portend the end of history. Yet they see no public path beyond that end, no way to the future except a blind clinging to the sacred inner life in the face of the immense chaos of the outer world.
However, pubic, universal, and non-dogmatic paths of thinking and acting have emerged in human history that are available to every human being and together form the a very real hope and possibility for human beings to free themselves from their pathological cultural or personal fixations and move into a future that is liberating, peaceful, just, and ecologically sustainable. These paths of creativity and openness I will call these the scientific spirit, the Buddhist spirit, and the democratic spirit. Each of these three encompasses a different and essential aspect of our human project. Each is necessary to authentic human life, and therefore each is inherently universal. But only together are they fully sufficient for human transformation from our present nightmare world to a world of peace, justice, and ecological sustainability.
The spirit of science is well-known for its freedom from dogmatism. All ideas about the world in science function as hypotheses that are more or less probable, more or less supported by empirical and experimental evidence. Scientists communicate with one another in a language of hypotheses, evidence, degrees of support, and probability that leaves open the possibility of future transformation of inadequate ideas into ever-more adequate understandings of the structure and intelligibility of the universe.
One tragedy of the past 60 years is that much of science has been colonized by the industrial-military complexes of imperial nations, placing a large portion of the non-dogmatic, exploratory and creative nature of the scientific spirit in the service of dogmatic and pathological nation-state agendas. But this does not invalidate the creatively open nature of the scientific spirit that progressively unlocks the secrets of nature, and the interrelationship of the diverse phenomena of nature, through a non-dogmatic, hypothetical openness to its conceptual frameworks.
Human beings need science, and the results and applications of science, not only for the power of science to heal disease, protect the environment, house, clothe, and feed the people of Earth, but also human beings need the lessons of the creative, open, and non-dogmatic approach to ideas to empower the process of liberation. But they need something comparable for their spiritual life.
The second creative and non-dogmatic approach to human life is what I call the Buddhist spirit. Buddhism emerged 2600 years ago through the teaching of the Lord Buddha, revolutionizing and repudiating the dogmatic aspects of its Hindu context. What the Buddha taught was not a new set of concepts about ultimate reality, about God or the soul. Indeed, the Buddha refused to discuss these subjects with his followers.
What he taught was a spirit of self-discovery, a practical orientation through recognition of the four noble truths by which suffering and its causes can be overcome by treading the noble eightfold path of self-exploration, concrete practice, systematic meditation, and daily mindfulness. For this reason, Buddhism is often said to be the one major world religion that is not incompatible with the spirit of science (see Jacobson 1983). Buddhism clings to no dogmas that need defending as an ultimate “truth.” The vast body of literature that comprise Buddhist sutras and teachings offers a network of concepts and analyses that are themselves a creative and practical approach to freeing human beings from their habit ridden compulsions, fears, anxieties, and dogmatisms that perpetuate psychic and physical suffering everywhere on Earth.
The second-century Buddhist sage Nāgārjuna in south India offers his Mūlamadhyamikakārikā as a deconstruction of “conceptual proliferation” intended to free human beings from their dogmatic clinging to the illusion of substantial entities (svabhava) and illuminate the interrelatedness of all things (their dependent co-origination or pratītya-samutpāda) (see Martin 1989). The function of concepts in the Buddhist spirit emerges as pedagogical, non-dogmatic, deconstructive, and spiritually suggestive. Never do we find a set of beliefs required of a person to practice Buddhism in the Buddhist spirit. The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon, they say in Zen-Buddhism. When a person is hit by a poisoned arrow, the Lord Buddha asserts, this is no time to speculate about the true nature of the arrow, the poison, the marksman, or immortality of his soul. Creative practical action to realize for oneself the path to liberation is the very essence of the Buddhist spirit.
In this sense, the Buddhist spirit is very much in accord with science. Science encourages a hypothetical and non-dogmatic mode of discourse directed to illuminating the structures and interrelatedness of the universe. Buddhism focuses specifically on the suffering individual, on the human spiritual dimension, and through a similar non-dogmatic and experiential approach illuminates the creative roots of the human spirit emerging out of the fullness-emptiness (Śūnyatā) at the creative ground of the universe itself. The scientific spirit is necessary for us to progressively comprehend the universe we live in. The Buddhist spirit is necessary for each of us to free his or her self from the traps of name and form, the dogmatic and often pathological clinging to conceptual forms in order to cover over the emptiness and anxiety at the root of our uncreative and unfulfilled lives.
It is appropriate that this similarity between the open attitude of science and that of Buddhism be affirmed, here in Thailand, by a quotation from a Thai Buddhist leader. Chamnong Tongprasert of the Royal Institute, here in Bangkok, wrote the following:
In the history of Buddhism, there have been no disputes between religious beliefs and scientific knowledge, since Buddhism is not contradictory to science. There is no point at which science comes into conflict with Buddhism, which is fully in accord with reason. Buddhism does not ask its followers to believe in anything outside the normal order of nature. Thus, the rationality of Buddhism is required most in our age. Einstein himself wrote that if there is any religion which is acceptable to the modern scientific mind, it is Buddhism, because it applies to all times and to all men without regard to race, nation, or faith. (In Jacobson 1983, p. 119).
The third spirit necessary to human liberation is the spirit of democracy. The scientific spirit is said to be inherently democratic, since what counts in scientific dialogue is ideas, evidence, arguments, and creative hypotheses, not rank, race, class, power, or military might. The same is often said of Buddhism. Buddhism recognizes the interrelatedness of all persons, the mutual interpenetration and communal formation of personhood understood not to be structured as mutually exclusive ego substances. In this spirit decision-making involves dialogue, debate, recognition of differing point of views and a communal striving for consensus or collective decision-making.
But neither science nor the Buddhist spirit institutionalizes this spirit of democracy into formal structures officially recognizing the dignity, freedom, rights, and duties of human beings with regard to one another in the process of collective decision making. The true democratic spirit does just this. Knowing full well the tendency of human beings to usurp one another’s rights; knowing full well the tendency of human beings to bigotry, prejudice, manipulations and lies, democracy institutionalizes procedures by which collective decision-making can take place through the potentially equal participation of the entire community. Both the scientific spirit and the Buddhist spirit can flourish best within the framework of authentic democracy, for they both are inherently non-dogmatic as is democracy.
In democracy, no political, ideological, religious or other ideas are officially proffered. Democracy opens up decision making to a universal public discourse in which decisions are made through the equal right of participation of all citizens. Democracy functions at the very heart of non-violent conflict resolution, of non-violent decision making. The conflict of ideas, the rage of passions, the dissemination of untruths are all subjected to the winnowing effect of open public discourse and debate in which concepts are sifted and filtered to the point where the majority can agree on how to move into the future without violence and without repression of the minority. In democracy, minorities rights are protected, including the freedom to promote their views.
The promise of democracy, as it developed from its ancient beginnings through the Enlightenment of the 18th century, involved ending systems of privilege, domination, and exploitation that crushed the spirit of humanity. It was the promise of recognizing the unique value of each person as person – his or her human rights, dignity, and humanity, and the right of each person to follow his or her own path toward developing the potential, the possibilities, the creative value of his or her life. The assumption behind democracy was that free development of the inner potentialities of each person would become manifest in creative service to humanity, forever enriching the quality and dignity – along with the peace, freedom, and justice – of human life on Earth.
The democratic ideal has never been realized and is becoming discredited in our time because it was always conjoined with profoundly undemocratic incompatibles: with the freedom of capital to exploit, with a totalitarian imposition of a so-called Communist community, with the attempt by some nation-states to command economic life, with the nationalism and exclusivism of sovereign nation-states, with ethnic or racial prejudices, or with the religious identity of certain intolerant groups.
In each case the point of democracy – the inner dignity of persons and the free development of their possibilities for self-realization – was perverted by something exterior to personhood and destructive of it. Capitalism dominates and exploits persons and makes the self-development of the masses of persons impossible. Nationalism suppresses human interiority with the ideological demand of conformity, patriotism, and acquiescence to the imperial or cultural goals of the nation. A religious identity colonizing governmental systems crushes authentic human spirituality in the name of externally imposed systems of morality and religious conformity.
It is only when we break the connection of democracy with any and all of these phenomena that its ability to enliven our higher human possibilities can be released. Democracy as a set of social institutions is not itself the fullest actualization of our higher human possibilities. Just as science is the universal non-dogmatic spirit for unlocking the secrets of nature insofar as these are intelligible, and the Buddhist spirit is the universal, non-dogmatic path toward blissful and liberated spiritual life, so democracy is the universal set of institutions that make possible moving into the future through creative, non-violent decision-making and change.
That is why persons of compassion and intelligence must work diligently to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. This Constitution, and this one alone, was winnowed through a process of four world constituent assemblies over a period of 33 years involving thousands of world citizens. Ratifying this Constitution for the people and nations of the world will go a long way toward freeing people from their destructive compulsions and self-defeating fragmentation. It will go a long way toward universalizing both the scientific spirit and the Buddhist spirit, and toward placing human beings on the road to true, universal liberation.
Sovereign nation-states cannot be the proper locus of democracy, since their undemocratic and arbitrary relations with one another inevitably brings with it militarism, arms races, and internal repression for the sake of national security. The non-democratic autonomy of sovereign nations exacerbates racism, ethnic prejudice, collective egoism, and religious intolerance worldwide, since some nations are liked with their religions, their races, ethnicities, or egoistic “manifest destinies.”
As the river of history implacably carries us toward impending disaster, our rabid nationalistic, racist, dogmatic, or technocratic “solutions” will only further inhibit the creative scientific, spiritual, and democratic paths of action that are needed most. Our weapons of mass destruction remain on alert for wiping out civilization due to some terrible error in calculation or power politics. Our environment moves toward total climate collapse and the inability to sustain higher forms of life. Is there any hope at all within this intolerable situation?
In his essay “Sovereignty Rests with Mankind,” Japanese Zen-Buddhist philosopher Masao Abe describes this transcendence (1985, pp. 249-260). He recognizes the legitimacy of the nation-states in their historical development as a combination of political power and “ethical or moral force.” But today the power of these nations, based on the individual egoism and “national egoism” of their peoples, is submerging the ethical justification, for “the state is now developing a demonic character as it destroys the balance of moral restraint and controlling power which should be the rationale of the state.”
Sovereignty now rests with humankind, and the idea of nations must be returned to a cultural and historical one that no longer dominates human destiny: “I would like to maintain, therefore, that the term ‘world’ should now be grasped qualitatively rather than quantitatively – that is, not as a mere gathering of various nations but as one single human community participating in a common life and sharing the same fate” (ibid. p. 268). We have reached the point where “the age of nation states as the bearers of history must proclaim its end, and the age of mankind must begin.”
The egoistic level of individual and collective selfhood in which we are mired “alienates the individual from mankind and does not truly enliven either the individual or mankind.” In our age, where we are now in a position to understand the inseparability of individual fulfillment and well-being from that of the human community, we must engage in the “self-negation” that will move us to a higher level of selfhood. Today, we live in an untranscended selfhood characterized by “individual, race, class, and nation – endless conflicts that have at their base ego and power.” Abe writes:
From what position is it possible to grasp mankind as a single, living, self-aware entity? I believe that the foundation of this position is for each of us to awaken to his or her true Self, that is, each individual must break through his or her ego structure, thereby realizing original Self. At the same time that this is a thoroughly individual ‘Subjective’ manner, it is also a thoroughly universal objective one. Why is this so? It is so because to overcome the ego is to overcome the very standpoint wherein one distinguishes between self and other. (Ibid. p. 251)
It is precisely this oneness of humanity that the Constitution for the Federation of Earth recognizes – in the principle of unity in diversity that is emphasized in its Prologue – that is at the heart of all non-dogmatic and creative orientations to life. Article two of the Earth Constitution affirms the sovereignty of humankind as the only legitimate form of sovereignty. To overcome dogmatism, conceptual proliferation, hatred, division and fragmentation on the Earth we need the scientific spirit, the Buddhist spirit, and the spirit of democracy, the latter institutionalized for all of humankind.
Once democracy is institutionalized on the Earth, the differences of nations, races, religions, etc., then become precious cultural differences that lose their power to destroy. They lose their power to colonize the democratic idea and subvert it through turning diversity into collectivized “isms” of imposed sameness. Nationalisms exacerbated by the system of autonomous, sovereign nation-states lose their absolute character. Their diversity then becomes essential and beautiful as long as it is encompassed within the unity of universal democracy respecting the dignity and autonomy of each person on Earth. Dogmatism, prejudice, hatred, and compulsive clinging to fragmented forms begin to vanish within a framework affirming the equality, freedom, and unity in diversity of all nations, peoples, and individuals. The universal realization of Original Self that constitutes human spiritual liberation then becomes a possibility.
Our choice today is absolute. We no longer have the luxury of postponement. We can allow ourselves to be swept to disaster within the currents of history premised on nationalism, racism, bigotry, exploitation, or technocracy. Or we can foster a new Renaissance for the Earth, giving birth to our real human possibilities and premised on liberty, equality, and community for our entire planet. We are at high noon – a time of absolute decision when the shadows of ambiguity have disappeared.
We choose either to do nothing and be swept toward our pending death, possible extinction, and coming perdition or we can embrace the fullness of life, a fullness that is intrinsically creative: simultaneously scientific, spiritual, and democratic. We can embrace integrity of personhood for all human beings and precious natural environment that we share with the Earth’s other living creatures. Or we can be swept to perdition as we duck beneath the storm to preserve our private security and selfish personal and national interests. We can act to realize our higher human possibilities and create a human and planetary renaissance for the 21st century. That planetary renaissance will universalize, for the first time in history, the scientific spirit, the Buddhist spirit, and the spirit of democracy. The framework that will make this possible is worldwide ratification of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.