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The Individual and the World Today

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by Sangharakshita

... problems, biggest at least in human, and even spiritual terms? The biggest of all the problems that we face today, that the world today faces, is the problem of the individual. Not that the individual himself, or herself, is a problem, really, except of course to those things, or those institutions, to which it is the business of the individual, so to speak, to be a problem. The real problem is that of the survival of the individual. Something threatens the survival of the individual. It*s very difficult for the individual to survive nowadays, to exist nowadays, to grow, to develop nowadays. So what is it that threatens the survival of the individual, in this Western world, in the world today? Well, that which threatens the survival of the individual is clearly, in one word - not a four-letter but a five-letter word - the group. The group. And the FWBO is Western in the sense that it is a spiritual movement of Buddhist origin, concerned with the protection of the individual from the group. The individual needs to be protected, the individual as such - and this might be a new idea to some people. We*re familiar with the idea that children should be protected, we*re even familiar with the idea that animals should be protected, but what about the individual? We sometimes forget the individual. We don*t real that the individual too needs to be protected nowadays - protected from the group.

So the FWBO, as I*ve said, is Western in the sense that it*s a spiritual movement concerned with the protection of the individual, the protection of the individual from the group. And that*s why I*m explaining the fact that the FWBO is Western in terms of `The Individual and the World Today', which is the actual title of tonight*s talk. The individual and the world today means the individual as threatened by the group. As threatened with extinction, not to say extermination, by the group. But one might ask has it always been like this, has the individual always been threatened by the group? And in any case, of course, what exactly do we mean by the group? Clearly I*m using this term in a rather special sense, a rather special way, not quite in the ordinary sense, not quite in the ordinary way. And also, what do we mean by the individual? That also is not quite so clear as might appear at first sight. What do we mean by the individual? So to explain this, to explain what is meant by the group, what is meant by the individual, we have to go back a bit in history, even into pre-history, and we have to attempt a few definitions.

The group, of course, came first. That is to say the group came before the individual, before the true individual. What does the anthropologist tell us? The anthropologist tells us that man has always lived in groups. It*s pretty obvious. Man has never lived on his own, he*s always lived in groups. The group was necessary to survival. And this was true not only of man but of his prehominid ancestors as well, they lived in groups, of various sizes, containing anything from a dozen to two or three dozen members of various ages, and of course of both sexes. And they formed, in this way, a sort of extended family group. And this pattern, this prehominid pattern, this primate pattern, was followed by man. But with a difference. In the case of man, the group gradually became bigger. Extended families merged to form tribes, and tribes merged to form nations, and nations eventually founded states. States even merged to form empires, and the whole process extended over a period of many hundreds of thousands of years, gradually accelerating towards the end, when we reached the period of recordable, datable history, which begins about 8000 BC.

But whether the group was large, or whether the group was small, the group in essence, in principle, remained unchanged. And from the point of view which I*m at present adopting, we can define the group as a collectivity organd for survival, that is to say its own survival, its survival as a collectivity, a collectivity organd for survival, in which the interests of the individual are subordinated to those of the collectivity. The group, the collectivity, is also a power-structure. It*s a structure in which the ultimate sanction is force, not sweet reasonableness, but force. I*ve gone into all this in a lecture on `Authority and the Individual in the New Society', which is available here in Auckland on tape, so I need not repeat what I*ve said in that lecture. The group, the collectivity, not only made survival possible for its members; in the case of man it made it possible for them to enjoy higher and higher levels of material prosperity. Even higher and higher levels of culture. It made possible the emergence Lecture 139: The Individual and the World Today: Page 3 of folk art and ethnic religion. It made possible the emergence of civilization. The group, the human group, made possible all this, but there was a price to be paid, a price to be paid by the individual, or proto-individual. So what was that price? What price did he or she have to pay? The price was conformity, conformity with the group. The individual was regarded as being essentially a member of the group - that was the definition of the individual: a member of the group. The individual had no existence separate from the group, or apart from the group. And of course groups are of various kinds.

Let me give you an illustration of this from my own experience - I*ve mentioned that I was in India for twenty years. I had many Hindu friends, followers of the Hindu religion. And some of them were very orthodox, that is to say rather old fashioned, Hindus. And some of them used to be very puzzled by the fact that I did not have a caste. And sometimes in my very early days they used to ask me, before they got to know me, `what is your caste?' I had to belong to a caste. And when I said I don't have a caste first of all because I was born in England, where we don*t have castes, though we may have classes, which is rather different, and secondly because I*m a Buddhist, and in Buddhism we do not recogn the system of hereditary caste. And they used to say, but you must have a caste. Every human being, every man, must have a caste. They could not conceive of someone who did not belong to a particular caste, who did not belong to one of the two thousand odd castes of Hinduism. They could not conceive of someone who did not belong to a group of some kind. There*s something parallel to this in the West when we cannot conceive of someone who is not of a particular nationality, but caste is even harder, even straighter, even stricter, even tighter, we may say, than that.

So a casteless individual, for the orthodox Hindu, is inconceivable. [And of the?] man who is essentially a member of the group, an individual, who doesn*t belong to the group, whose being is not as it were totally submerged in the group, who has something of himself outside the group, who doesn*t fully belong to the group, it*s rather difficult to conceive of. Now, because the individual was essentially a member of the group, he doesn*t think for himself. He thought, and felt, even, just as the group did, and he acted as other members of the group acted. And it didn*t even occur to him that he could do anything else. It doesn*t occur to your orthodox Hindu that you need not have a caste, it*s possible for you not to have a caste. In much the same way in the West I*m afraid, very often, we almost think it*s not possible for you not to have a nationality, even a class. And the group member, as such, was perfectly content with this sort of state of affairs, because the group member wasn*t, and isn*t, an individual, in the sense of being a true individual. He*s got a separate body (or she*s got a separate body) but there*s no really separate, no independent, mind. No separate, no independent, consciousness. The group member shares in the group consciousness, so to speak. And we sometimes call this sort of individual simply the statistical individual. He can be counted, he can be enumerated, but he doesn*t really exist as an individual in the true sense. He*s simply a group member. But at some stage in man*s history something happened, something remarkable happened. A new type of consciousness started developing, a new type of consciousness that we usually call reflexive consciousness, or self-consciousness, or self awareness. And reflexive consciousness is contrasted with simple consciousness. In simple consciousness you*re aware of sights, you*re aware of sounds, you see sights, you hear sounds, etc. You*re aware of trees, houses, people, books, flowers, but you*re not aware of being aware. When you*re not aware of being aware, this is simple consciousness. But in reflexive consciousness, consciousness as it were doubles back upon itself, and one is aware of being aware. And when one is aware of being aware, one is conscious of oneself as an individual, conscious of oneself as separate from the group. One is conscious of one*s ability to think and feel and act differently from the group, even against the group, and an individual of this type is a true individual, that is to say, one who is self-aware. Not only self-aware but also emotionally positive, full of good will towards all living beings, who is also spontaneous, creative, that is to say not determined in his thinking, feeling, acting, by previously existing mental and emotional psychological patterns, whether his own or those of other people. And an individual, the true individual, is also one who is responsible, aware of his own needs, aware of others* needs, and prepared and willing to act accordingly. And true individuals started appearing on the stage of history in relatively large numbers, in the course of what we call - using Karl Jaspers term ...

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