Transforming ourselves and transforming the world

Lama Surya Das’ recent blog post, Transforming Ourselves Transforms the World, provided a lucid account of a core insight of Buddhism: we cannot create a peaceful, just world if our intentions, speech, and actions are dominated by anger, greed, and delusion. To create peace and justice, we must cultivate meditation and other practices which allow us to transform profoundly our individual selves so that we are less reactive, wiser, and more compassionate. When we become more peaceful internally, we have a peaceful effect on others and lay the basis for a peaceful, just society.

I don’t disagree one iota with this crucial point. In fact, as an activist in the labor movement and political groups for over 45 years, I’ve seen firsthand the damaging effects that our tendency towards anger, greed, and delusion have had on organizations attempting to achieve social justice, peace, and economic democracy. Unrecognized and not struggled with through meditation and other contemplative practices, the “three poisons” can lead progressive groups to become the opposite of what they stand for. The goal of democracy is subverted by the development of bureaucratic and dictatorial internal processes. The attempt to build a broader solidarity is stymied by internal conflicts within a group based on ego-driven, power trips. The ideals of equality, fairness, and human dignity are contradicted by unkind treatment of fellow activists.

We need a more complete and complex perspective

The problem with Das’ perspective is not that it is wrong but that it is incomplete. For Das, the relationship between individual transformation and social transformation is seen as a one way, cause and effect process. Greedy, angry, and deluded (unwise) individuals cause society to be socially unjust and violent. On the other hand, compassionate, mindful, and wise individuals cause society to be socially just and peaceful.

In fact, the relationship between individuals and society involves a mutually interactive process. Yes, we have the natural tendency to be angry, greedy, and deluded. However, those tendencies are not just biologically-driven qualities of human beings but become more potent in and through various social structures and processes, including our family environment, schooling, and the socio-economic system in which we live. Certain types of social structures and processes facilitate and reinforce the three poisons. For example, in our neo-liberal capitalist economy, the drive for profits and domination over others leads us to internalize and enact the three poisons in our personal relationships with others and in broader social structures.

Conversely, a society which encourages other natural, human tendencies – compassion, kindness, cooperation, and a shared sense of being humans who suffer – will facilitate and reinforce those tendencies and thus limit aggressive competition and forms of social harming.

Transforming the world transforms us as individuals

If we understand the relationship between the individual and society as a mutually interactive process, then we can see the other side of the equation which Das misses: working with others to transform the world transforms us as individuals. Whether it is in a local sangha or meditation center, in a community group, a labor union, or a nation-wide political movement, when we are engaged in collective activities to make progressive, social change, we are developing the skills and human qualities which promote social justice and peace. We can develop a deeper appreciation of both our differences and our common humanity; we can learn how to dialogue and debate with each other in a respectful way; we can cultivate the skill of toning down our own egos to work with others; and we can practice being open and mindful so that we can discern what the situation is and how to respond wisely.  These are all fundamental aspects of individual and social transformation.

Meditation is invaluable in developing the skills and qualities for us to play a productive role in movements for social change but engaging in social change with others is essential if we want to fully develop these skills and qualities. We should see individual and social transformation as a simultaneous, mutually interactive process.

What this means for us now

This understanding is especially important as we in the U.S. face the combined challenges of a pandemic, rampant inequality, murderous assaults on African Americans, and a pathological President who is intent on ripping our country apart through lies and bigotry. We have to sit on our cushions, but we also to have be, as the American rapper Killer Mike says, working with others to ‘plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize.’

Yes, bring peace to the street, but also bring in the solidarity, communication skills, and democratic dialogue that we develop on the street to heal and transform ourselves.


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