There are a handful of science and social science research papers that have had a profound effect on the way I see the world. A few will illustrate the point; a group of research articles on the effect of different spectra (colors) of light on human behavior by John Ott, read in the mid 70’s, articles by Peter Fenwick on ‘Neurophysiology, Consciousness and Ultimate Reality’, in the early 2000’s, ‘Antigenic evolution of viruses in host populations’, by Rouzinb and Rozchnova, in 2020.
One of the first of these important articles was one whose author(s) I don’t recall. It was in a college class in the late 60’s. Was it sociology, philosophy, political science, don’t remember? It was an article on the perception of freedom. A group of social science researchers conducted an international, cross-cultural study on how freedom is perceived by people from different nationalities.
At the time, over 50 years ago, Western capitalist democracies were in a cold war with the Soviet Union and Iron-Curtain states. So, I found it most interesting that American people stated they were most free because they could travel freely between states and internationally, they had abundant choices of consumer items, there was a perceived political freedom to vote for whomever they thought best, etc. Soviet citizens thought they had the greatest freedoms because the state provided for their needs, of food, health care, and job security. This study demonstrated that freedom is a relative term, depending on what people have been taught, read, and how they assimilated the messages, direct and indirect.
Words like liberty, rights (as in political and human) and choice, are subjective terms given to widely different definitions and interpretation. This discussion is at the very heart of Buddhist teachings.
How we view the world around us is based on the causes and conditions that give rise to our moment-to-moment perception of our provisional reality. It varies by class, race, gender, socio-political system, ethnic world view and factors I can only guess at. This is the basis for the Heart Sūtra informing us that, Form is empty, emptiness form. No sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness, are likewise, like this.
In January 1941 the world was at war in Europe and Asia. America was still climbing out of a disastrous depression and social upheaval, while maintaining its isolation from a world war. Franklin D. Roosevelt presented one of his most stirring and impactful speeches. What an incredible communicator he was (a disclaimer – my father, a product of the depression, conferred FDR saint status). This well-known speech is known as the ‘Four Freedoms’. Roosevelt’s speech explains that these freedoms are universal and not simply for America and Americans.
A summary of the four freedoms are:
Freedom of speech – individuals have the right to express themselves and their and their ideas without retribution
Freedom of Religion – all people should be able practice their religious beliefs according to their conscience.
Freedom From Want – the idea that all individuals have the right to food and shelter.
Freedom From fear – a lessening of tensions around the world, created largely by a major reduction in weapons.
Some historians assert that the first two of these freedoms are part of the fabric of the constitution, while the final two are a great departure from that document. Interesting! From a Buddhist perspective all four are essential to human wellbeing. To put a finer point on it, there are Buddhist teaching that propose these four teachings, and a few others, are important for a person in their spiritual journey.
A number of volatile, existential, issues are not nearly so well delineated as the Four Freedoms. As I repeat many times, ‘Buddhism is not singular, it is plural, as in Buddhisms’. Additionally, Buddhism is a process, continually evolving. Different school and sects of Buddhism will have diametrically opposed responses to many of the more controversial issues.
During a recent gathering, someone asked a question something like this, ‘What does Buddhism do to reduce the polarization we see in the world today?’ To begin let me say that Buddhism alone can not make things better. It takes people from all the faith traditions to work side by side to mitigate this discord. We must recognize the interrelatedness of all we can perceive around us. The interconnections with other faith traditions are just as real.
An important Tendai teaching that is relevant when discussing the more volatile concerns is that we examine a question or assertion with an open mind. We don’t need to abandon our own position, but we try to understand the complex set of causes and conditions that led the other person to their position. Try to engage in discussion rather than limit our response to our own preset ideas and opinions. Those preset ideas can also be delusion and hinderance.
A very difficult thing is to not react before listening to the other person’s perspective. I must admit that I have not always followed this advice. It isn’t easy. If this were simple, we would have many fewer disagreeable arguments. This is the Middle Way. This is the Middle Way – in action.
As we navigate the many contentious, divisive, issues before us in the provisional world we live in, let us recall the words in the Heart Sūtra, “With no hinderance in the mind, no hinderance and therefore no fear, far beyond deluded thoughts this is Nirvana”. This is a teaching that samsara (the world of discontentedness) and Nirvana (the world of śūnyatā) are not different and not the same. We traverse these two realities each moment, both samsara and nirvana simultaneously, step by step.
Patience, humility, and perseverance are far more valuable than a quick temper, self-righteousness, and arrogance, in transforming discord to peace. Let this be a manifold practice.
With Love and Gassho. . . Monshin