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Evolution or Extinction - a Buddhist View of World Problems

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by Sangharakshita

... of just retreating from the problems, retreating into the personal in a rather narrow sense, is really an attitude not worthy of a human being, one who*s trying to be a human being in the full sense of the term. It represents a sort of abdication of responsibility, one may say. So, the question arises, what is one going to do? Admitting that you*re helpless, or it seems that you are helpless to begin with, so far as the solution of these larger, these really great problems, is concerned. Supposing you are helpless, all right, you accept that, what are you going to do? You can*t just turn aside, you can*t forget, you can*t withdraw, you can*t ignore, so what are you going to do? Well, my suggestion is, for a start, that we begin by trying to see things, trying to see everything in perspective. This never hurts anyway. To try to see not just, as it were, the individual trees, in the shade of which we happen to stand at the moment, but to try to see the growth and development of the whole wood, the whole forest. In other words try to see in perspective, not just the present, but the past, even the future, if one can have a glimpse of the future, as well. So if we look in this way; if we try to look at the world; if we try to look at world problems in perspective; if we try to envisage, as it were, the history of the whole human race, try to see man from his very beginnings, then what do we see? Well, speaking very very broadly indeed, perhaps too broadly, but maybe not too broadly just for the purposes of this lecture, we see, dividing, three great periods of human history. We see to begin with a very long period, a vast period, about which we know really very little, which lasted some six hundred to seven hundred thousand years, perhaps nearly a million years according to some authorities. And then, following this first vast period, we see a second period, a shorter one, of a mere, say roughly, thirty thousand years. And finally we see a period, the last period, of two thousand five hundred years. So let*s look at these three periods of human history just a little bit more closely, though still very, very broadly indeed, in very, very broad perspective.

The first period, of course, the period of six or seven hundred thousand years, a vast primeval period, about which in detail we know very little, is the period of what we may describe as `primitive man'. It*s the period in the course of which, what we sometimes describe as the ape man developed into true man.

It*s the period towards the end of which hunting developed, weapons were invented, weapons of stone, and when fire was invented. It was a period, this vast primeval period, of very few people; we can hardly imagine now how few people. We don*t know the exact numbers, but perhaps there weren*t more than -4- even one million people scattered all over the surface of the earth - maybe less than a million. And how did these people live? They didn*t of course at that time live in towns or cities, not even in villages. They didn*t even stay in one place at all. They just roamed about in bands, small bands, twenty, thirty, at the most forty or fifty strong; and only after a very very long period, right towards the end of this period of primitive man, they started living in caves, building for themselves very rough and ready huts, even perhaps a sort of nest. So this is the first period, the period of primitive man, the period that lasted for six to seven hundred - even up to a million years. We have this behind us, this is part of our inheritance, our heredity, that for close on a million years we lived, our ancestors lived, in this way as primitive man.

So that we can see that there*s a very big, very deep level, of our consciousness, which is primitive.

And secondly the period of the true men, the period that lasted, as I1ve said, for some thirty thousand years. This is the period in the course of which agriculture was invented. Man learned to plant, he learned to raise crops, learned to reap, learned to make bread. And this is the period also that saw, as far as we know, as far as we can tell, the beginnings of religion and art. In those days, of course, religion and art weren*t separated, as far as we can tell, as much as they are nowadays. They formed a sort of single, organic complex, and towards the end of this period, this thirty thousand year period, in some areas, especially in the well watered river valleys, villages became established, villages became larger, and eventually even towns and cities started springing up, and in some of these areas, these river valley areas indifferent parts of the world, a number of towns started joining together, came under a common overlordship, and in this way, gradually, slowly, by degrees nation states begin to emerge, at least on a small, on a limited scale. And then one nation state comes Into contact with another, comes into conflict - you get war, you get conquest and you get eventually the beginnings of empire, with one state, one man even, one conqueror, lording it, not just only over his own kingdom, his own state, but over a number of conquered and tributary states. So that*s the second period, the period of true men.

And then the third period, the modern period, the period of the last two thousand five hundred years, this is the period at the beginning of which the great religions sprang up. During this period we have arising and passing away a number of world empires, Eastern and Western. This is the period, as we know only too well, of science and technology. And still more recently, very recently indeed, it*s the period of global organizations and global problems, problems of the kind with which we are concerned today.

So here we see, as it were spread out in a vast panorama before us, these three great periods of human history, the primitive period, the period of true man, the modern period. Now though I*ve mentioned three, though I*ve divided the course of human history and pre-history into these three great periods, one could say that in a sense, in another sense, there are not three but four great periods of human history.

But this fourth one is not so much a period in its own right; it*s more, we may say, a sort of period of transition between two periods, a period of transition from the period of true man to the modern period, and this period, the period of transition, is the period of what Karl Jaspers calls `The Axial Age', the Axial Age, and this, according to Jaspers and other thinkers who followed his way of thinking, is the six hundred year period from around Eight Hundred BC to around Two Hundred BC. So why is it called the Axial Age? Well Jaspers gave this name `The Axial Age' to that very short period of history - short in comparison with the total period of human history and pre-history - he called it the Axial Age because, as he saw it, and in this insight many are agreed with him, the whole period marks a turning point, a very decisive turning point in human history as a whole. So he calls it the Axial Age; because on this point, on this six hundred year period, in a sense, the whole of human history turns as on an axis.

So what happened? Why should this six hundred year period be called the Axial Age? In what way, in what sense was it a turning point? Well, it was a turning point for, in a sense, very obvious reasons because all over the civilized world, during those six hundred years, man, the human race, seems to take a great step forward. Let*s then look at the different parts of the civilized world of those days very briefly. Suppose we look at Greece, at Ancient Greece, then what do we see? We see that in those days, in that Axial Age, it was a period of Socrates and Plato, as well as a whole galaxy of other thinkers, it was a period of the great dramatic poets, of Aeschylus, of Sophocles, and so on; it was the period of great non-dramatic poets, like Pindar. In fact this period in the history of Greece, during the Axial Age, constitutes, we may say, one of the great glories of human achievement, human thought, human civilization, human culture, falling within the Axial Age. And then, if we turn to Israel, what do we see there? We see that there the Axial Age was the period of the great prophets, of some of the of the greatest of the prophets, it was during this Axial Age that the second Isiah spoke out, it was the period of Jeremiah and of Amos, and of a number of other great Hebrew prophets, some of whose insights echo, as it were, down the corridors of the Western world even today. And if we go just a little further afield, if we turn to Persia, we see that it was the period of Zoroaster or Zarathustra, or the last of the -5- Zarathustras, the last of the line and the most famous, the founder, or the refounder of the new Zarathustrian religion, the religion of light, the religion of light and darkness, of the conflict between light and darkness. And suppose we go even further afield, go right into the East, to the Far East, to the extreme East, what do we see there? If we turn to China we find that this was the period of the two greatest figures, perhaps, in the whole history of Chinese thought, especially moral thought, and moral practice and moral life, and even mystical life. We encounter there the great figures of Lao Tse and of Confucius, the two greatest teachers, indigenous teachers of China. And of course, suppose we turn to India, India during the Axial Age, what do we find there? We find that the Axial Age there was the period of the greatest Upanishadic sages, it was the period for instance of Yajnavalkya and of course it was the period of the Buddha, Gautama the Buddha, and the period of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism.

So we see, as we look about the world in the Axial Age, we see, that all these more highly civilized areas, Greece, Israel, Persia, ...

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