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Evolution or Extinction - a Buddhist View of World Problems

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by Sangharakshita

... is to say, of conflicts which arise, which tend to arise, which sometimes break out into the open, between sovereign national states. In the world we*ve got , I don*t know now how many hundred sovereign national states: they all claim to be the sole judges and arbiters of their own destinies. And obviously sometime or other their interests are going to come into conflict, that is collision, even violent conflict, violent collision, and problems arise. We know this only too well.

And then there are all the problems connected with wealth, or the lack of wealth, problem of ownership, problem of distribution etc. There*s also the problem we know, of say racial discrimination, the problem, or rather the fact, that certain people are looked down upon, discriminated against, simply on account of the colour of their skin and for no other reason. And there*s the problem of health, the problem of how to ensure that every child, every individual citizen grows up sound and healthy, not only physically but mentally. There*s the great problem of mental health, there*s the great problem of mental illness, especially in many parts of the Western and Westernized world.

I remember, as I think I*ve mentioned before, that when I came back to this country in 1964, from India, having spent twenty years in the East, I was very, very much surprised, not to say shocked at the high incidence of mental disturbance, trouble of various kinds, even among the people with whom I was -2- directly in contact - leave aside all the people about whom I heard, people in mental hospitals, people receiving psychiatric treatment - but even amongst the people with whom I was in contact, in the Buddhist movement itself, there seemed an extraordinary amount of mental disturbance and mental illness, compared with the people that I'd known, among whom I had worked, in India. So there is this also very great, even terrible, problem of mental health and mental illness, which seems to be, if anything, getting worse rather than better.

There*s the problem of law and order, the problem of how to reconcile the claims of law, the claims of order, with those of freedom, especially personal freedom. The problem, as some people put it, of juvenile delinquency, and so on. And we*ve got, of course - nowadays we know a lot about this - the problem of employment, the problem of unemployment. I must say that I don*t personally feel that unemployment is a problem: it*s a pseudo-problem: what the problem really is, is the problem of enforced leisure. It seems rather strange that people who want to work can't, and people who don*t want to work sometimes have to. So there should be a sort of redistribution of the hours of leisure. Let them go to those who can use them, and let those who can use work, have the work. It seems to be a rather simple sort of thing, but apparently it isn*t. And then there*s the problem, if you like, of the role of women in society. Nowadays this is another question being very much agitated and discussed: what is the role of woman? Has she a role in fact at all? Ought not she perhaps simply to be herself? Not accept any role, not allow anyone to impose a role upon her? Or maybe she should just find the correct role, the role that really suits her, whatever role she likes, any role. These are the sort of things that are nowadays being discussed. And these are just a few, just a very few of the problems which confront us, or at least which just pluck at our sleeve every now and then, and there are many other such problems, as I am sure you know. I*m quite sure also that some of you have got your own favourite problems that haven*t been mentioned; perhaps you*re rather disappointed, perhaps you were expecting me to mention your own pet problem, but I haven*t. But that isn*t intention, it*s simply that I*ve drawn up the list as it occurred to me, but I am quite sure that there are very many other problems, some of them equally pressing with those which I*ve mentioned.

One might even go so far as to say that most of these problems are not new problems, they*re old problems in one form or another, they*ve been with us practically since the dawn of human history. But there is something new about these problems, there*s something new about all, or very nearly all of the problems I have mentioned, and also some that I haven*t mentioned. What is new about the majority, if not all of these current problems now, is their global character. The problems I*ve mentioned are, none of them, as far as I can recollect, confined to just one small section of the human race. All these problems, whether political, economic, social, directly or indirectly effect all of us on this planet, all of us on this globe. Even if they don*t impinge upon us very strongly and powerfully in our personal lives, at least we know about them and perhaps we*re, at least emotionally, affected by them to some extent.

Formerly this was not the case; formerly, even perhaps a hundred years ago, something very catastrophic could happen in one part of the world, affecting thousands, even millions of people, and the rest of the people in the world might not know anything about it at all. There might be a war in one continent, one country, a war which was waging for a long time, which was very destructive in terms of property and human life, very tragic, very terrible, but news of that war might not reach the rest of the world, or many other parts of the world at least, for quite a long time, in fact it might never reach at all. Many people, the majority of people, perhaps, wouldn*t know anything at all about that war that was raging or had raged in that distant part of the world.

But this sort of thing, we may say, is no longer possible. Whatever happens, anywhere, is known to everybody who cares to know almost instantly, because one of the great characteristics, one of the great features of the history of the last few decades is this very greatly increased facility of communication among human beings. And it*s as though, we may say, it*s as though the world had shrunk, as though the globe had become quite literally a smaller place, a smaller planet. There*s no need to go into this, no need to emphasise this, this is a matter of common knowledge, though it doesn*t always perhaps sink as decisively into our consciousness, into our awareness as it should do.

Now when we hear about these problems, when we*re confronted by these problems, when they are practically forced upon our attention, what, we may ask, is our reaction to them? We hear for example about a fresh outbreak of hostilities in Vietnam, yet more fighting, yet more people killed, yet more homes destroyed, yet more orphans made, yet more people terribly scarred and disfigured. So what*s our reaction? Or we hear for instance about a famine in, say, Bengal: people dying of starvation, not enough food to go round. Well, what*s our reaction to that? Or we hear for instance about, say, a race riot, in one of the Southern states of the United States, or we hear about some new example of the pollution of the -3- atmosphere by industry, by maybe atomic fallout, something of that kind. Or suppose we hear about something quite different, suppose we hear about the latest population explosion in some part of the world or other. So what*s our reaction when we hear about these problems? When we see them before us, before our eyes, at least in the pages of the daily newspaper or on the television screen? Well our initial reaction when we see at least some of these problems, when we see examples of them, our initial reaction may be a very strong one, may be a very emotional one, we may be for a while quite sort of carried away by our feelings. There may be an initial reaction, say, of indignation that such a thing should happen at all, that there should be such a problem; may be a reaction of concern, that we ought to try and do something; might be a reaction of outrage against the people responsible for perpetrating the problem, if a perpetrator can in fact be identified at all, and there may be a reaction of worry, anxiety - suppose the problem catches up with us, suppose we are involved? So these are the initial reactions or some of the initial reactions that are possible when we are confronted by these problems in one or another of their very numerous and often very dreadful forms. But in the end, very often, only too often, it*s a different feeling that overtakes us, a different feeling that overcomes us. Only too often, when the initial feeling of indignation, or concern, or outrage, or worry has died away, has exhausted us, itself, the feeling that we experience is simply one of.... helplessness, helplessness. As we reflect, we see that the problem is so big, it*s so complicated, there are so many factors, so many agents. We feel we, on the other hand are so small, we are so weak, and there are so many problems, not just one - scores, maybe even hundreds of problems. So this, very often, only too often, is our reaction in the end - the position to which we finally come, the feeling that finally overtakes us, overpowers us - that we can't do anything about this problem, any of these problems, the problems are too much for us. So often we just try to forget, we say. `well it*s just too bad, I*m very sorry about it all, but there*s nothing I can do; so why worry, let me just try to forget, if I can'. So we close our newspaper, or we switch off our television set, and we get on, perhaps, as best we can, with our own personal lives; and we try to forget the current world problems, we try to forget the problems of the world, the problems of other people, and with a greater or less degree of hedonism we try to get on with our own personal lives.

Now, in my opinion, thinking all this over, this sort of attitude, ...

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