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Evolution or Extinction - a Buddhist View of World Problems

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 94: Evolution or Extinction: A Buddhist View of Current World Problems

The Venerable Sangharakshita Friends, The first thing that I must make clear this evening is that the particular topic on which I am going to speak this evening, that is to say, `Evolution or Extinction: Current World Problems, a Buddhist View', was not originally chosen by me. Some weeks ago, some friends of mine in another place - in another city, in fact - suggested that I should speak on this topic, and when I thought it over, when I turned it over in my mind, I realised that in a way I was quite glad to have an opportunity of speaking on this topic. As most of you, I think, know, it*s not the sort of subject on which I usually speak. In fact I can go so far as to say that to the best of my recollection I have not yet spoken, that is to say, not spoken in public, on this sort of topic before. As nearly all of you know, most of the talks, most of the lectures which we*ve had, in the course of the last five years or so, under the auspices of the FWBO, have dealt, in one way or another, with more or less Buddhistic themes, more or less traditional themes, spiritual themes, for want of a better word, or have dealt with some aspect of the Buddhist tradition in relation to some aspect of modern life, thought, experience, and so on. For instance, as many of you again know, we*ve had a whole course of lectures on the Noble Eightfold Path, we*ve had a whole course on the Bodhisattva ideal, we've also had, say, talks, lectures, on the relationship between Buddhism on the one hand and, say, certain aspects of Western philosophy and psychology and art and psychoanalysis on the other.

But at the same time, despite this difference, despite this, as it were, new departure, I can say that there is a sort of connection, there is a connection between my giving this talk this evening, on this sort of subject, on the subject of current world problems, and my preoccupations in other talks, other lectures, more directly with Buddhism, with different aspects of the spiritual path; because I can say, in a very general way, that the giving of lectures at all on Buddhism, whether it*s on the Eightfold Path, or whether it*s on the Bodhisattva Ideal, or whether it*s on Tibetan Buddhism or whether it*s on symbolism, all this is part and parcel of my own life and my own work as a Buddhist. And I may say that I live this life, this Buddhist life, or try to live this Buddhist life, and engage in this sort of work, including the giving of lectures, partly at least on account of the view which I take of modern world problems, or current world problems. So therefore in speaking tonight on this question, speaking tonight on this subject, of current world problems from a Buddhist point of view, I*m not in fact dealing with something which is to me of, as it were, academic or peripheral interest, or even of just general interest; in a sense I*m trying to make clear through this lecture, through the consideration of this topic, the sort of raison d*être of my own existence, as it were, as a practical working Buddhist. Not just a Buddhist inwardly in faith and conviction, but so far as outward activities also are concerned. So for me, therefore, in view of these considerations, this lecture tonight, on this sort of subject, represents a sort of almost, one may say, autobiography, at least philosophical autobiography. It constitutes a sort of confession of faith, because it shows, or will show, I hope, where I stand and perhaps to some extent why I stand where I do. And I hope this will become clear to some extent as I proceed.

Now when, originally, it was suggested to me by my friends in that other city that I should speak on a subject of this sort, as I started turning it all over in my mind, my mind went back, went back a number of years, went back to a quite different place, went back to different country, even to a different continent, went back to India; and in India, as I think nearly everybody knows, I spent quite a number of years, practically twenty years, and in the course of those years which I spent in India, I had the opportunity, I might even say I was under the obligation, of attending a large number of public meetings.

Indians, if I may say so, have a positive weakness for public meetings, large public meetings, the more speakers the better. If you have fifteen or twenty speakers, well that shows your meeting is really successful; and if each one speaks for at least an hour - wonderful! - everybody's very pleased, it*s a very good, a very successful meeting. And sometimes - so fond in fact are Indians of these long speeches - that sometimes as I*ve stood up to speak, someone has whispered behind me, `You must speak at least for two hours!'. This is how generous they are with their time, and with your time also, in India. So attending in this way all these meetings, many of them open-air meetings held late at night under a sort of glare of arc lighting, many of these meetings which I attended were distinguished by lots and lots of speeches. And I remember that at these sort of meetings one of the favourite topics of speakers, that is to say Buddhist speakers especially or people speaking on Buddhism, was Buddhism and world peace.

You go along to any sort of Buddhist meeting, especially large public meeting in India, sooner or later someone is going to speak about Buddhism and world peace. And these lectures, these talks or speeches on Buddhism and world peace would practically always follow a standard pattern, whoever was speaking. First of all the speaker would give a very vivid, very graphic description of the terrible plight -1- of mankind nowadays. He*d dwell upon all the flood, fire, havoc of various kinds - wars, pestilence, examples of human selfishness - and of course he*d bring in the general prevalence of violence, the deterioration of moral values, young people no longer interested in religion, etc. etc. He'd paint a very black and gloomy picture indeed, and say we were on the brink of a holocaust etc, etc. and then, of course, when everything seemed black and no solution, he*d bring in Buddhism. And he*d say, well Buddhism teaches non-violence, it teaches peace, it teaches love, it teaches compassion, it teaches all these wonderful and beautiful things, so if everybody in the world just followed Buddhism, that*s all they have to do, then of course there would be world peace, and all our problems would be solved automatically. And at this point, of course, everyone in the audience would burst into spontaneous applause, they*d think how wonderful this was, and what a wonderful thing he*d said, and he*d sit down beaming with satisfaction, you know, having said all this; everybody would be happy and of course the world would go on just as before. [Laughter] So I*m not going to follow this line tonight. I*m not going to paint a picture of all these dreadful world problems, current world problems, and then say, well look, let*s all follow Buddhism and it*ll all be beautiful. It*s not that this particular line is untrue, it*s not that. Of course, we know, if everybody in the world followed Buddhism, if everybody followed the Noble Eightfold Path, if everybody sat down and meditated every day, if everybody practised the four Brahma Viharas and tried to be affectionate and kind and joyful and peaceful, well of course we wouldn*t just have peace, we*d have heaven on earth.

We know that. But it represents really far too much of a simplification. It*s an over simplification. You simplify the problem, you simplify the solution. In the abstract it*s beautiful, but in practice nothing seems to happen. Not only that: one brings in Buddhism, but why bring in only Buddhism? You could say well if everybody in the world followed, for instance Jainism. Jainism is even stricter about non- violence etc. than Buddhism itself is. Or suppose you followed certain forms of Hinduism, or Taoism, if everybody followed any of those, you*d still have world peace. You don*t even necessarily have to bring Buddhism in. Or you might say you don*t even have to bring religion in. Suppose everybody was a Humanist, suppose everyone followed Plato, or Socrates, or even Bertrand Russell, you*d have world peace on the spot. So religion even here has no monopoly.

So this is not the sort of approach, this sort of over simplified approach, this is not the sort of approach that I am going to try to make this evening. I should perhaps also make it clear that what I shall be giving is a Buddhist view of current world problems. I*m not professing or trying to give the Buddhist view, because we may say there isn*t a `the Buddhist view'. There*s no sort of official Buddhist party line in this or any other matter. So I*ll be speaking just as an individual, just as myself, though I am of course speaking as an individual who has been, in the course of the last thirty years quite, I hope, deeply influenced by Buddhist teaching.

Now we*re concerned, let*s not forget, with current world problems. But what are these problems? In case we*ve forgotten, in case we*re so happy and comfortable and Enlightened sitting here, let*s just remember, or let*s just remind ourselves, of some of them; these problems, these current world problems are, of course of many different kinds: they're political, obviously; they're economic, almost equally obviously; they*re social; they*re ecological - a favourite new word; they*re psychological - a very favourite comparatively new word - and they fall into all sorts of divisions and sub-divisions. Perhaps right at the head of the list we*ve got the problem of peace, world peace; or rather, of course, we could say there*s no problem of peace, because peace itself is never a problem; the problem is war, the problem is violence. We*ve got the problem, that ...

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