The Magazine of the Library of Congress  

The special feature is edited by Prof. Robert Thurman.

ISSUE ID: 99/12/26 Compiled by Nima Dorjee


1. Back from Barbarism
2. What Good is Meditation?
3. Boardroom Buddhism

All the articles in Today's WTN is from "Civilization" - The Magazine of the Library of Congress. The special feature is edited by Prof. Robert Thurman. "Due in no small part to the soaring popularity of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it seems Buddhism is everywhere these days -- from Hollywood to the fields of Indiana to the business best-seller list. Our special section examines the remarkable spread of Buddhism in the West, and looks to Tibet for the roots of this compelling tradition." - Civilization - December/ January 99/2000 issue. http://www.civmag.com

1. Back from Barbarism

Relief from what ails us may be nearer to hand than we think

By Robert A. F. Thurman
Photograph by Teru Kuwayana

"Civilization" is usually equated with all things good and decent. People can develop it, lose it, and sometimes even save it. According to Thomas Cahill, Irish monks and scribes once saved Western civilization. Freud believed the word represented the unbearably overrepressed condition of neurotic humanity. Kenneth Clark equated it with Euro-American culture -- period. In the title of our august national library's magazine, I imagine, it suggests what is good about American life and its potential.

But what does civilization mean, really? We know the word comes from the Latin civis and describes the complex of human qualities that people must develop to be able to live tolerably in cities. At a minimum, these qualities include wisdom, the ability to establish a personal identity; justice, a sensitivity to others; tolerance, the ability to resolve conflicts nonviolently; and creativity, the ability to pursue happiness in imaginative, nontraditional ways.

It's no accident that these very qualities have been central to the historic religions, all about two or three thousand years old, since the dawn of urbanization. What we like about America, what gives us our taste of civility here, are the elements of our laws and customs that advance these qualities.

But industrial society is not civilization pure and simple; there is industrial barbarism as well. Some observers think that we are on the brink of a relapse into some form of barbarism -- massive tribal, racial, religious, and ideological hostility, mutual isolation and alienation, and planetary ecocide. Three potentially devastating global conflicts -- between the West and China, Islam, and Africa -- are, even as I write of them, simmering and getting hotter. The kind of educational process necessary to promote global civility seems to be getting weaker. Who can save us? Where are the modern equivalents of those wise, vibrant, gentle, and creative Irish monks and scribes who preserved the ideals of humane civilization during that previous era of darkness?

Both humorously and seriously, I recommend the Tibetans, exemplified by their world-famous leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Humorously, because talk of anyone saving the world always brings on a smile. Seriously, because the Tibetans clearly did develop a true civilization, as defined above, and seem capable of maintaining it even while enduring the most appalling conditions.

Civilization came to the Tibetans from India in a Buddhist package fourteen hundred years ago. At the time, the Tibetans were powerful imperialists -- fierce conquerors who toppled Chinese emperors, stopped the caliph of Baghdad, conquered the silk route, and terrorized their lowland neighbors. During a thousand years of cultivating the arts and sciences of civilization, Tibetans gradually moved their educational institutions toward the center of their society.

Elevating compassion to the highest priority, Tibet became an education nation, one that was unilaterally demilitarized. Its citizens shaped their spiritual lifestyle in balance with their delicate high-altitude ecosystem. In this past century, they have been subjected to invasion, colonization, violent oppression, and wave upon wave of genocidal violence. Yet with some exceptions, they persist in nonviolent responses.

Buddhism's initial impulse, the vital energy that caused its spread throughout Asia, is educational, not religious. It teaches that qualities such as understanding, gentleness, generosity, and joy cannot develop from mere fiat, or simple faith, but require systematic cultivation through a long-term educational process. Thus the Tibetans stand to help us to fulfill our religious and cultural ideals, not abandon them. Tibetan civilization provided a sustainable and meaningful lifestyle for imperfect people in a difficult environment. Our civilization should likewise be meaningful and sustainable, even though it, too, will never be perfect. But the Tibetans cannot help us -- or our collectively long- suffering civilization -- if they no longer exist. Based on some hopeful evidence, my habit of wishful thinking, and a flicker of faith in the destiny of humanity on this planet, I do not predict this worst of all possible scenarios. We must help the Chinese free the Tibetans, and thereby free the Chinese, and thereby free ourselves -- so we all can enjoy the 21st century together.

2. What Good is Meditation?

When the mind and body sit still, less does become more

By Pico Iyer
Photograph by Teru Kuwayana

A Tibetan monk -- or a Catholic one, for that matter -- comes into the room, and instantly I, and all around, feel his sense of collectedness, the shine that radiates through him. It is as if he carries the peace he has gathered even to those of us who have never meditated. But practical questions remain: How can meditation, that most solitary of activities, ease the suffering of the world at large?

That this is a crucial question is evident from the fact that it lies at the heart of a central division in Buddhism: Where followers of the Theravada school choose to meditate alone as a response to the delusions and sorrows of the world, those of the Mahayana tradition lean more towards an active sense of compassion within the community.

My own rough and untutored sense of it is that meditation is about going to the source for clarity and stillness. As the Dalai Lama always takes pains to point out, you cannot have peace in the world until you have peace in yourself. All the signed accords in Dayton or in Oslo will mean nothing until those involved in the struggles in the former Yugoslavia or the Middle East change the way they look upon their neighbors and their past.

However genuine, and passionately felt, your sense of injustice is, you can begin to heal it only inwardly at first, by dwelling on its inner causes -- and by acknowledging that peace without justice is no peace at all. When your car is not running smoothly, you don't repaint it or abandon it along the road, or shoot the manufacturer; you stop and look under the hood. Likewise, when your self, or your world, is giving you problems, you stop and change your mind.

Meditation is, in that respect, a more optimistic response to suffering than simple prayer, because it suggests that people can heal the problems they have created.

Yet to us outsiders, at least, its indirectness is itself a mystification: How can monks, let alone laypeople, justify going off to sit and sit and sit, eyes closed, when starving children and victims of war and people with AIDS are crying urgently at their doors? Is it not irresponsible to be cultivating your inner garden while the external pastures of the world require such immediate attention?

The answer, I suspect, lies in that simple word, attention. Meditation, as I understand it, is about learning to pay better attention to the world -- learning to wake up, in fact. Those who practice it on a regular basis tell me that it involves an emptying and a repletion all at once: an emptying out of the self -- to encounter, as the Buddhists would say, the essential truth of emptiness -- and a filling up of energy, a gathering of strength.

In the vernacular, to meditate on something means to think long and hard on it; but to meditate in the truest sense, I think, means the opposite - - to sink below the realms of thought and all the antics of the "monkey mind" into a place where "you" and "I" cease to have meaning and we are rooted in something beyond ourselves.

All of which sounds highly abstract, even mystical -- except that it is probably a little bit akin to what each of us feels when we are lost in something: in jogging along the beach, tending to a loved one, or being lost in concentration, feeling found and fuller than ever.

When I want to understand what meditation is about, in fact, I think of how most of us proverbially, even literally, take a deep breath -- collect ourselves -- before saying something difficult to a friend. I think of how football players gather in a huddle to focus and consolidate their energies prior to making a purposeful strike down the field. I think of how corporate executives follow Thoreau into a retreat from the world, the better to return to it with a sense of clear purpose and deliberation.

Meditation, I suspect, is seldom an end in itself; it is, rather, the complement and means to more responsible and kinder action. In Japan, where I live much of the year and where people grow up with the legacy of a Buddhist tradition, the ideal has traditionally been to treat every act as a kind of meditation, mindfully and pointedly. The man who pours you tea tries to concentrate all his thoughts on pouring you tea impeccably; the woman who wraps a present for you at the department store acts as if that is her act of worship and service for the moment.

Before I went to stay in a temple in Kyoto, I imagined that meditation meant sitting silent in the moonlight; after I stayed there, I found it meant not only that, but also "walking meditation" and "working meditation" -- a sharpened sense of attentiveness while polishing the temple's wooden floors or sweeping the leaves in the garden.

In Mount Hiei, to the north of Kyoto, monks sometimes walk through the dark mountains for seven nights on end without eating or sleeping; when they emerge, their faces shine with an unearthly glow of transparency and readiness. Seeing their pictures in a book, I tell myself that meditation is a kind of training for life, not so different from the way your wife warms up before playing her weekly tennis game or your son plays scales before setting to his Bach.

All the evil in the world, Pascal famously pronounced, comes from man's inability to sit quietly and alone in a room for a while. These days, when I need to think something through, I repair to a Catholic hermitage on the coast of California and sit quietly and alone in a room for a day or two. By the time I leave, all the questions I had have answered themselves (with little help from me, it seems) and I return to my day- to-day routine with a wide-awake sense of clarity and strength. In Cambodia, Buddhist monks have taken meditation to the refugee camps of the Khmer Rouge; in one of the most notorious prisons of Delhi, a warden introduced inmates to Vipassana meditation, and their solitary, confined places became a kind of monastery -- opportunity as much as punishment.

As a boy, I used to smile when I heard that members of the transcendental meditation movement were hoping to assist world peace by gathering in one place and just meditating. Now I think that they certainly did no harm by sitting still, and that, of all the things one might be doing, sitting still is perhaps one of the most clarifying and most conducive to kindness. A Tibetan monk walks into a room, and I feel calmed and inspired by his serenity and warmth. He has done the hard work of meditation, but I and everyone else in the room are the beneficiaries of his blessings.

3. Boardroom Buddhism

The seven habits meet the eightfold path in surprising places

By Robert A. F. Thurman

At press time, the Dalai Lama's book, Ethics for the New Millennium, had been on The New York Times's best-seller list for nine weeks and had been listed as that paper's number-two business book, well ahead of Bill Gates and Stephen Covey, for six weeks. What were business people culling from the Dalai Lama's text? What lessons can today's market sages glean from the original guru? Below, an exploration of the seemingly improbable relationship between the pursuit of enlightenment and the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

After Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, he is said to have given his first teaching to five ascetics. He offered them the famous four noble truths: that the unenlightened life is one of suffering; that suffering originates from misknowledge and misdirected emotions; that freedom from suffering -- nirvana -- is attainable; and that there is an eightfold path to that freedom.

This teaching became the basis of a peaceful revolution that changed his society, a revolution in which the aims of pleasure, wealth, power, duty, and piety toward the divine were superseded by that of total freedom from suffering -- the supreme happiness that every being wants. This revolution brought about not only a change in philosophy, but also a change in ethics and religious institutions.

It is less well known that before the Buddha taught the ascetics, he met two merchants, Trapusha and Bhallika, whose carts had become enmired while they were taking a caravan of luxury goods to market. While waiting for their servants to dig them out, they followed a light coming from deeper in the woods and met with the newly enlightened Buddha, who was glowing with the supreme bliss of perfect understanding. They sent back to their caravan for a delicious repast of rice and ghee and honey to give to the sage as an offering, and they received his blessing. He told them that their affairs would prosper mightily if they continued the practice of supporting seekers of enlightenment. He gave them some magical spells to recite to avoid getting stuck in the mud in the future, and sent them happily on their way. Of the four noble truths, he did not breathe a word.

The Buddha was originally from the warrior class and the five ascetics were from the priest class; these were the dominant classes in that day. The merchant class was up- and-coming, but the caste societal structure dictated by the Hindu tradition placed them in the lowest rank of the twice-born (though they were far higher than the only once-born laboring class).

The Buddha's new teaching rejected the belief that birth conferred status automatically, saying that education, ethical excellence, spiritual development, and intellectual understanding are what make a person noble and holy -- and that the lack of those qualities makes a person less than a human should be. In the Buddha's eightfold path to freedom, which began from "realistic understanding" and ended with "realistic meditative realization," he included "realistic livelihood" and "realistic enterprise." These were defined as the modes of livelihood that minimized violence and maximized benefit, and the modes of creative activity that led to positive physical, moral, mental, and spiritual evolution.

The merchants, who already knew that enterprise, not class, was the key to rising in the world, found this teaching to their liking. They enthusiastically took to their role as patrons of the Buddhist social revolution: The first Buddhist monastery was donated by a fabulously wealthy merchant, Anathapindada, who bought a 20-acre pleasure garden from Prince Jeta of Rajagrha, covered all but ten square meters with gold coins, built residence halls to protect the monks from the monsoon rains, and presented the Jeta Garden Abode to the monastic community.

Buddhism has since spread all over Asia -- and, lately, all over the world -- without any crusades. A large part of the quiet success of this continuing peaceful revolution must be attributed to Buddhism's popularity with the merchant classes, and its continuing compatibility with today's business-dominated culture.

At birth, Prince Siddhartha was prophesied to become either a world- conqueror or a Buddha, and his father made every effort to see to it that the former destiny would come to pass. He was raised to be a warrior and a leader of warriors -- a king. In renouncing his throne and setting forth to attain enlightenment, he betrayed his class and created a new, classless profession -- that of the monastic philosopher sage, neither priest nor warrior, a man or woman truly without rank.

The businessmen of his time, the merchant classes, felt a natural affinity with this new order of individualists. They fully appreciated that education makes the man, that enterprise creates a life of value, and that there are no limits on what humans can achieve when free of the artificial constraints imposed by political or religious authorities and the traditions that support them.

When Buddha "awoke," he realized that perfecting the human understanding of reality is the only way to achieve happiness. Merely maintaining one's faith and following dogmatic rules will not do the job. Therefore, he saw his task as founding an educational movement to develop reason and insight, rather than a religious movement that would be reliant on faith and obedience. Buddha rejected indoctrination of any kind and urged people to think for themselves -- encouraging them to rely on their own enterprise and intelligence to achieve their own liberation and fulfillment.

Religious scholar B. Alan Wallace, in his writings on the Tibetan education system, has linked this driving force of the Buddha's teachings to the Tibetan curriculum. Students are trained very early on in dialectical thinking through rigorous, judged debate so that their minds become agile, flexible, and capable of profound insight; only after honing the ability to think critically are they immersed in Buddhist teachings.

This educational philosophy appealed mightily to the merchant classes of Asia, with their pragmatic bent and their belief that people can make of themselves whatever they have the courage, persistence, and cleverness to achieve.

This movement of the Buddha, which I have called his "inner revolution," transmitted its influence and resonated with powerful movements all around Eurasia. His near-contemporaries from the East to the West were the luminaries of the "Axial Age" (as historian Arnold J. Toynbee and others called it) of the middle of the first millennium B.C.E.: Socrates, Plato, Deutero-Isaiah, Zoroaster, many other Indian sages, and, further east, Lao-tzu and Confucius. Socrates was poisoned by the Athenians for "corrupting youth" -- that is, educating young warriors and encouraging them to think about something more than fighting. Plato's Academy was repeatedly banned by various tyrants. Supported by the Achaemenid imperial state, Isaiah became a high priest, as did Zoroaster; hence both were forced to legitimize warrior culture. Lao-tzu was a librarian who retired from service to his country, the highly militarized Chou dynasty in its warring states period, after he reluctantly gave his profound teachings in The Way and Its Power. Confucius, the father of the mandarinate (the bureaucratized intelligentsia of the Chinese state), was never secure as a mandarin himself; he never held a steady job for any government, and taught his few disciples in his kitchen. Centuries later, Jesus Christ was killed by priests and kings for his teaching that the kingdom of God lies within each individual. The priestly and warrior classes have always been afraid of transcendentalistic individualism.

Only the Buddha survived the intrigues and attacks of his enemy (in his case, his jealous half-brother, Devadatta), and he spent 46 years giving his teachings to priests, kings, merchants, and even women and the laboring classes. He founded an educational institution that flourished in the 16 nations of north India during his lifetime and spread so rapidly after his passing that within a few centuries the Mauryan emperor Ashoka proclaimed Buddhism as the national religion of India. Arnold Toynbee, in his voluminous A Study of History, singled out the Buddha as the most successful of the great ethical and intellectual teachers of this pivotal age. Toynbee further observed that it was the comparatively greater wealth of India, created especially by its merchant classes, that made such success possible.

The Buddhist revolution, then, marked the beginning of a global process that has lasted for thousands of years: the shift of power and status from the warrior to the merchant class. It was clear to the Buddha that trade and exchange was preferable to war and pillage as a method of creating wealth; with the latter, one violently takes things and territory from others, or destroys them, whereas with the former, one negotiates with the other and exchanges one's things of value for other things of value, continuing that process in unlimited expansion, leaving the other alive and even enriched to trade with again another day.

This process is not yet complete, however. The modern phrase military- industrial complex tends to confuse the global trend involved, by implying that industrialism and militarism are indistinguishable. Granted, the sometimes militaristic, often sports-inspired ethos of today's megacorporations has been encouraged by our century's addiction to warfare, leading to the focus on a very short-term bottom line. But the shortest-term bottom line approach -- conquering the consumer and taking everything he has -- leads to destruction of your customers. Sooner or later, that puts you out of business.

After the United States helped Japan and Germany get back on their feet after the last world war, both countries pulled ahead of the war's victors by putting their creativity into consumer industries instead of military ones. Today, America is thriving in large part because it has shifted its technological development from arms proliferation into biotechnology and information-processing industries. When the Internet becomes better understood, it might indeed change American attitudes about the connections between peacetime and prosperity.

Our current fascination with Buddhism goes beyond fad and fashion. We may be gradually recognizing the downside of our violence-prone lifestyle, which not only drains our national budget but infects our households, schools, neighborhoods, theaters, diets, hospitals, and television sets.

At the same time, we seem to be learning to enjoy the upside of our creative business culture, which brings greater pleasure, comfort, health, and knowledge within our reach. Buddhists consider true happiness to be a realistically attainable goal of human life and applaud the creation of wealth as the foundation that makes possible the institutional and individual efforts to attain that goal. The dawn of the 21st century may, in fact, be the ideal moment for business to recognize the long history, and long-term market potential, of awakening.




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