Will Enlightenment Save The World?

Zen-at-WarLast week, Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was shot down over the Ukraine. Most of the people who died on board were Dutch citizens headed for Amsterdam. I have a lot of Dutch friends these days. I’ve been doing talks in the Netherlands each year for the past four years and I’m going back again in October (the dates are below). My latest book is coming out in Dutch very soon. But thankfully no one I knew was on that flight. An event like this would be sad no matter who was killed. But it was somehow even sadder for me because of my connection with the Netherlands.

I started thinking how totally unnecessary the whole thing was, and how unnecessary most of the painful things we do to each other are. Life is bad enough, what with cancer and car crashes and American Idol, we don’t need to add to each other’s misery by firing missiles at commercial airliners. I’m sure whoever shot that plane down thought there was something that needed to be proved, but we’ll probably never know what.

Not long before I heard this news, a few people forwarded me an article called Why Eckhart Tolle’s Evolutionary Activism Won’t Save Us. The article talks about how the grand enlightenment experience Eckhart Tolle had when he was in his early twenties led him to believe, “The primary factor in creation is consciousness. No matter how active we are, how much effort we make, our state of consciousness creates our world, and if there is no change on the inner level, no amount of action will make any difference. We would only re-create modified versions of the same world again and again, a world that is an external reflection of the ego.” We need to become free of “egoic delusions,” (is “egoic” a real word?) he says. Only then can we change the world for the better.

The writer argues that this makes no sense. She says that lots of positive changes have been made by people who were hardly beyond “egoic delusion” and wonders if a simple enlightenment experience would really transform us all into people who could forever work in harmony with one another.

She says the following about Zen Buddhism in particular:

This was the case with Zen Buddhism in Japan during and before WWII, the cultivation of stillness, compassion and love can co-exist with the worst fascism and imperialism. The entire institution of Zen Buddhism – the masters, monks and professors supported the cruel and colonizing efforts of the state and emperor. They defended the “wars of compassion,” gorged themselves in killing and advocated merging the small self with the larger self of the state. This was all done within the monastical, academic and ethical systems of Zen Buddhism. 

It’s a vast overstatement to say that “the entire institution of Zen Buddhism” was behind this. And she references Brian Victoria’s horrendous mistranslation of a statement by Kodo Sawaki (what Victoria translates as “we gorged ourselves on killing” actually means “we got fed up with killing”). Nor was all of this “done within the monastical, academic and ethical systems of Zen Buddhism.”

But she is correct in her general idea. Many Zen Buddhist institutions did support fascism and imperialism and the ideas found in Zen Buddhist literature were often twisted to sound like justifications for horrible actions. There were so-called “realized masters” who worked with the imperial government to promote some of the worst violations of the Buddhist precepts ever undertaken in history. So even the nice Zen Buddhists are not absolved.

Experiences like Tolle’s great enlightenment can be seductive and deceptive. This is one of the reasons legitimate Zen Buddhists as well as others working in the field of meditation instruction always caution that you need to have a teacher. You can certainly meditate on your own for quite a while before the need becomes urgent. But big problems happen if you go on for too long on your own. You might even become a millionaire self-realized guru if you’re not careful.

There is nothing in a so-called “enlightenment experience” that will automatically make you a better person. It won’t even destroy your ego. It can make you see what your ego really is. But we human beings are so clever that we can even twist the understanding that we have no self and turn it into a rationale to become more selfish and less compassionate.

The writer of the article says, “Teachings like those of Tolle are overly simplistic and irresponsible. To say that the global problems of the world will be solved if we all still the mind, connect with Being and live in joy, enthusiasm and acceptance is incredibly naive.” I completely agree.

And yet I have said that I think meditation can save the world. I stick by that. I think it’s necessary for human mental and physical health and for global transformation. But I think people like Tolle are actually damaging to the process of making the case for meditation because they make so many outrageous, unrealistic, magical sounding claims. The whole thing ends up sounding goofy to anyone with a bit of common sense.

We won’t end tragedies like the Malaysian Airlines disaster just by meditating until we all have our own glimpses of God. Nor should we stop making efforts at coming up with positive solutions until such time as we each have a Tolle-approved “transformed consciousness,” lest we just make matters worse with our egioic delusions. We need to work on these kinds of problems at multiple levels, starting right now exactly where we are. Accepting things as they are does not mean you need to be complacent about them. The ability to accept things as they allows you to become better able to make changes when change needs to happen.

My condolences to everyone affected by this terrible event.

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Here’s my upcoming touring schedule:

Aug. 2 9:30 AM – 3:00 PM Half Day Zazen at Dogen Sangha Los Angeles in the Veteran’s Memorial Building 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230

Aug. 16 9:30 AM – Noon at Dogen Sangha Los Angeles in the Veteran’s Memorial Building 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230

Sept. 5-7 Houston Zen Center

Sept. 9 Austin Zen Center

Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland all events to be determined

Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland

Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany

Oct. 9-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany

Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany

Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany

Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany

Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 26: Lecture in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands

Oct 29: Lecture in Rotterdam, Netherlands

Oct 30: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands

Oct 31: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov 4-6 (or 3-5 possibly) Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK

Nov 7-8 Something in Manchester, UK (to be determined)

38 Responses

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  1. Steve
    Steve July 22, 2014 at 11:48 am | |

    These discussions remind me of the Underpants Gnomes on South Park. They would come out at night to steal underpants from your dresser drawers while you were asleep. When finally confronted, they laid out their grand plan which was 1) Steal underpants, 2) ????, 3) Profit.

    Except here it is 1) meditate to satori, 2) ????, 3) World peace. I tend to agree that world peace seems like it would probably need something like step 1. But I really don’t know what step 2 would be.

  2. buzzard30
    buzzard30 July 22, 2014 at 12:13 pm | |

    Beaver Cleaver.

  3. Happy
    Happy July 22, 2014 at 12:50 pm | |

    Even Buddha had enemies, so enlightenment can’t change the mind of those who are suffering due to ignorance.
    Happiness is usually built on someone’s suffering.
    Pharmacy/food industry specializes in that. First they you intoxicate with food, next they give you painkillers so you can live longer while supporting the wallets of millionaires. Overall entertainment is also painkiller, it won’t make you liberated from suffering, it’s just another painkiller.
    When painkillers will stop working, there’s usually only suicide left.
    You still want to save that kind of ‘world’?

  4. Daniel
    Daniel July 22, 2014 at 1:07 pm | |

    Englightenment won’t save the world, but it will be seen through that there is no such thing as a “world” to be saved in the first place.

    So in a way the answer is yes and no…

  5. neat-o
    neat-o July 22, 2014 at 1:33 pm | |

    I am not qualified to render an opinion one way or the other, but Mr. Victoria defends his translation ( at rather great length ) here.

    http://japanfocus.org//-Brian-Victoria/4133

  6. Fred
    Fred July 22, 2014 at 3:03 pm | |

    Enlightenment just is. It has nothing to do with ” saving ” the world.

  7. Fred
    Fred July 22, 2014 at 4:59 pm | |

    Tolle:

    “. The next morning I woke up and everything was so peaceful. The peace was there because there was no self. Just a sense of presence or “beingness,” just observing and watching “

  8. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 22, 2014 at 8:18 pm | |

    “American Buddhists are not content to think of their religion as a refuge from problems; they expect the religion to solve problems — not only their own personal problems but the problems of the world: war, social injustice, environmental degradation, and the like. They want to use the religion to make spiritual (and sometimes even material) progress, and they measure the value of the religion by its results.”

    Carl Bielefeldt (offering his opinion about American activism, one of five things he thinks make American Buddhism different from Asian Buddhism; from here)

    I think that may be true. And I’ll admit, one reason I’m so excited about things like the research of Olaf Blanke is because I think the only way Americans are going to come to their senses is by taking food from the hungry ones and driving away in the cars of the rest.

    Yes, the confusion technique could reveal to us all whether we are still breathing in, or not! Hey, what’s happening here!

  9. Jason
    Jason July 22, 2014 at 9:59 pm | |

    When I was about fifteen I knew a very wise, yet fucked up blues guitarist/singer/alcoholic/junkie/philosopher/Taoist. At the time I was big into the kind of “we must overthrow the current system” rhetoric that makes me cringe these days. I believe I’d said something abut “abolishing capitalism,” when he explained that “it isn’t about ‘abolishing’ things.” He asked me if I knew what guerilla warfare was, and went on to paint a picture of an evolutionary strategy similar to that of cancer, or mold, or trees for that matter. In his words, “you start a little war here, and a little war here, and a little war over there,” until (in my words) your entire bathroom is covered in mildew, or until the entire fear-based language of human interaction cracks to pieces and crumbles apart like a plant-covered, abandoned industrial district in Gary, Indiana–depending on whether we’re talking about mold or enlightenment.

    I once glanced through a copy of “The Power of Now” and that’s about the extent of my knowlege of Eckhart Tolle, so I don’t know what kids of outrageous claims he makes. The notion that if you meditate hard enough you’ll stop planes from getting shot down is a misunderstanding. Near as I can tell, the Eckhart proposition that you seem to be outlining here, and the one my bluesy old now-deceased chum was advocating, is this: Rather than trying to garner enough of a force to attempt a frontal assault on the entrenched causes of suffering in this world, you calm the fuck down and work on your own tendency to cause and experience suffering, thereby creating and maintaining a tiny dot of peace that will affect the people and circumstances around you, and hopefully spread out from there just like hostility or pnuemonia do.

    It may be a ridiculous idea, but it’s not nearly as ridiculous as the idea that the world will become a better place if enough of us get together and chant simple-minded rhyming slogans while holding up signs with abstract demands written on them.

    Sometimes in the course of working on yourself, you get a blinding glimpse of a state of being that’s beyond all the suffering. That happened to me once, and I spent over two decades in a sort of desperate fury over my inability to recreate such a glimpse (don’t get me wrong, the fury was tempered by a joy that also stemmed, in large part, from that glimpse) before settling into a zen practice. So I understand that it can be an unhelpful seduction. Still, I can’t help but think that without my Experience, the stuff I read in zen literature would seem like meaningless nonsense to me. Without the Experience, I don’t think I would’ve bothered to even look into regular meditation practice.

    So yeah, If Eckhart is saying you shouldn’t do anything at all until you’ve attained complete Enlightenment, then he’s just joining the great tradition of christians waiting for Jesus to come and leftists waiting for The Revolution. If I had to guess, though, I’d say that’s an oversimplification of what he’s trying to say. I think the idea is to head toward the place where you ARE awareness, love and compassion because, ultimately, there isn’t anywhere else to go.

    I think robert Crumb summed the strategy up best with “Meatball,” which you can read here (the end is the best part): http://marswillsendnomore.wordpress.com/2013/06/12/robert-crumbs-meatball/

    1. Alan Sailer
      Alan Sailer July 23, 2014 at 8:20 am | |

      Jason,

      Thanks. I enjoyed reading both what you wrote and the Crumb comic.

      And maybe I’ll adopt Meatball as my mantra.

      Cheers.

      1. Jason
        Jason July 23, 2014 at 9:26 am | |

        Yeah, I’m thinking “Meatball Tuesday” would be a good band name.

  10. Jiulong88
    Jiulong88 July 22, 2014 at 10:24 pm | |

    “And then the next thing happens”

    As I recall from the gospel “the son of man has no place to rest his head”

    Yup, this be the case

  11. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon July 23, 2014 at 4:26 am | |

    “We won’t end tragedies like the Malaysian Airlines disaster just by meditating…”
    Well, of course not. With a defeatist attitude like that, you won’t accomplish anything. Meanwhile, the Nichiren and Pure Land Buddhists are busy chanting their heads off, doing all the heavy lifting, saving the universe. What good are magical sitting and hand positions if they don’t have any measurable effect on space/time/matter/energy?
    Namu Myoho Renge Kyo.
    Namo Amituofo.

  12. shade
    shade July 23, 2014 at 7:02 am | |

    I actually read one of Eckhart’s books (The Power of Now, maybe?) years ago, and it made very little impression on me whatsoever. Even though I suspect the cat is kind of full of it, I just can’t find it in me to get too worked up about it. My sense is that he might be spouting nonsense, but it’s not toxic nonsense. Or at least less toxic than the nonsense a lot of other people are spouting.

    But here’s that thing – about the quote above and “egoic delusions” and all that? I think he might be on to something. I can’t speak to enlightenment “saving the world”, never having had that particular experience and not seeking it. But I do agree that a lot of what we call activism, and may even regard as heroic, is in fact little more than a cover for vanity (or worse things, like bloodlust). This is one of the reason revolutionary movements, even non-violent ones, rarely “work” in the long run; and why revolutionaries, once they find themselves in positions of power, often become as cruel, corrupt and insane as the people they ousted.

    And the disturbing thing is how often activists are blind to their own tendencies in this regard (not unlike religious people who think their supposed piety makes them incapable of sin). I know from experience that the world is full of people so busy trying to Destroy The Machine they fail to recognize what an asshole they’re being to the people around them, or how they’re neglecting their more mundane responsibilities. As I recall, there’s a part in Hardcore Zen about that very phenomena… about how supporting Central American political refugees is a lot more glamorous than scraping the squirrel carcasses out of your mom’s gutter. Or something.

  13. Oleksa
    Oleksa July 23, 2014 at 7:48 am | |

    This topic is very relevant for me as a buddhist from Ukraine who in near future will quite likely be recruited to army to defend my country. Imho it is morally unacceptable to avoid military duty during war because of your beliefs and let others defend you and dye for you. In case of recruitment I will do my best to keep “It is the precept forbidding killing that wields the sword” mind, though it does not sound as an easy thing to do

  14. Thor29
    Thor29 July 23, 2014 at 10:01 am | |

    I’m skeptical that institutions of any kind are to be considered necessary or beyond reproach. Assuming that Tolle became enlightened on his own, who is to say that if he had done so in a sangha that the other imperfect beings in the sangha would have prevented him from any delusions? I just attempted to read a book by an American buddhist monk from the Tibetan lineage and it was quite obvious to me that this person had no idea what she was talking about. She had spent plenty of time in the company of other Buddhists and had an ordained Buddhist master to guide her and she was still quite nuts.

    So does it really matter if Buddhists in Japan supported or did not support Japan’s imperial aggression? Either way, such people are human and not perfect. Isn’t that exactly what Brad has been trying to point out constantly in this blog?

    There’s an assumption in this discussion that seem to be going unquestioned: did Tolle (or any Buddhists) ever say that you should do nothing at all until you are perfectly enlightened? I’m guessing he probably did not say that. And if he didn’t the whole disagreement collapses. If he did say that, then he was wrong. That’s pretty simple – if the house is on fire, you put it out, enlightened or not. Otherwise he was just making the point that your internal state is important to the external state of the world, and who can really argue with that?

    And by the way, what proof is there that the plane was shot down? Maybe I missed that bit in all the clouds of BS that the media is kicking up, but is there any footage of a rocket launch or any reliable witnesses to that effect? Airplanes sometimes crash for other reasons…

  15. Karan
    Karan July 23, 2014 at 1:41 pm | |

    I recently had the great privilege of transcribing a long recorded conversation, the legacy of a dying Catholic monk, who, as a young man, had served in the German army during WW II. He described in much detail the terrible horrors of war, and explained that many of his comrades consequently totally lost their faith and the perspective that life might have a meaning and a purpose. The opposite happened to him.

    He came to the realisation that EVERY human being is capable of EVERYTHING, including the most horrendous atrocities. And he described evil not as a “thing” or “entity” by itself, but as the opposite: the absence of something. The absence of good, the absence of love, and of actions that implement both.

    To do good, to make peace, is therefore not a matter of achieving enlightenment or insight, but a matter of decision. We can all be monsters. We can all be good people. It is up to us.

  16. minkfoot
    minkfoot July 23, 2014 at 4:13 pm | |

    Oleksa, I am watching the events in Ukraine as closely as I can. My family is from Belarus, and relatives send me email about the concern there.

    Some people can still remember the Second World War, and many remember the stories of their elders, in Eastern Europe. I think it’s more real to people there than in the United States.

    I sincerely wish you peace in the region. It seems almost too trivial a question in comparison, but what can you say about the status of Buddhism in the region? I am somewhat surprised to hear from a Ukrainian Buddhist.

    1. Oleksa
      Oleksa July 24, 2014 at 12:39 am | |

      Minkfoot, we have a small Soto zen sangha of Deshimaru’s lineage in Kyiv and Kharkiv of about 20 people. Also friend of mine went to Korea to study and be ordained, so in few years I hope we will also have a Kwan Um sangha.
      The situation is different with Tibetan Buddhism. It’s quite popular – we have many kinds of communities of Kagyu lineage: Shamhala, Drinkung Kagyu, Karma Kagyu etc. Next year it is expected that Dalai Lama will visit Ukraine, so everyone is very excited).
      The peak of interest in Buddhism was in 90-s after the Soviet Union collapse. People were confused with all the chaos around them and thus all kinds of spirituality flowered. Now the economic situation is better and people are more likely to practise traditional Christianity.
      The situation is much better in Poland. There is a much larger zen community and quite a few ordained monks, so we often go on retreats to Poland.
      P.S. thanks for your support! Now are really hard times for Ukraine but also these are good times to challenge your beliefs on what it means to be a Buddhist and how can you help sentient beings.

  17. Wedged
    Wedged July 23, 2014 at 6:06 pm | |

    I was never religious or spiritual – at all. the entire concept was new to me in my mid 30′s. Years of anxiety led to a panic attack…which freaked me out. All i knew about other than Catholicism was Eckart Tolle because Oprah always went on about him. So when i cracked i looked through a bunch of “spiritual non religious” books but nothing stood out…i purposely avoided Tolle because it seemed weird to me. But, there was nothing else…so i got the audio book and it blew my mind. As i listened to this stuff over and over i stared to realized that i liked Buddha quotes – i knew nothing of Budha at the time. Tolle left me on cloud 9 for about a month…then things shifted back to old me and i panicked wondering why…what else could i read??? Since i noticed i liked Buddha stuff i googled Buddhism…any book on it babbled about having to sit, since reading wasn’t working anymore i tried sitting and have been sitting daily since…4 years ago now. I see now how tolle was a joke really…he was like fast food for people who have no time for anything that requires work. His 2 books are the pill version of something quick. But, i don’t know if could have handled “zen” before Tolle. So, he did sort of serve as an appetizer…he got me thinking about death, ego, impermanence…all sh*t i never thought about – ever. and no one that i knew knew anything about that stuff. Tolle was “way out there” to them…but it’s just bubble gum Buddhism, sort of. He took the key points, renamed them…and sold it to North Americans…and became a effin multi millionaire in the process. Most people i speak with…even to this day, came to Buddhism the same way. Suffer, know nothing of spirituality, know about Tolle through pop culture, seek his books…then want more, something more meaningful and through that process, come to Zen. I don’t think i would have wasted my energy writing an essay on why he’s BS…just look for what good he could be doing. Of course all this stuff he babbles about is bs, but to people new to this stuff, it’s a perfect intro…he allows you to dip your toes into the whole idea that “you’re just an ego that doesn’t really exists”. For a lot of people that is going from 0 to a million…system overload. I can’t think of anyone in my life that wouldn’t think i was a crack head if i mentioned this Buddhist stuff. they would seriously think i’m crazy. To us Buddhism, it’s nothing…but to most this is weird, weird, sh*t when you first encounter it. There…that justifies the Tolle selfie tat i got on my bicep.

  18. Jinzang
    Jinzang July 23, 2014 at 6:22 pm | |

    “And by the way, what proof is there that the plane was shot down? Maybe I missed that bit in all the clouds of BS that the media is kicking up, but is there any footage of a rocket launch or any reliable witnesses to that effect? Airplanes sometimes crash for other reasons…”

    The damage to the plane’s fuselage was consistent with an external rather than an internal explosion.

    Also, I’m fine with Tolle’s book. There’s nothing in there that seems terribly wrong to me and if it encourages people to meditate and have a more spiritual world view, all to the good.

    And I don’t think enlightenment will solve the world’s problems. It won’t even solve all of your problems. But I hope it will keep you from creating new problems, which is something.

  19. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 23, 2014 at 8:50 pm | |

    I don’t think enlightenment keeps the enlightened individual from creating new problems, but then, opinions about what constitutes enlightenment and in particular who was or is enlightened vary. So I could say, Joshu Sasaki and Eido Shimano apparently created some problems, but others could say they weren’t really enlightened, or they weren’t really problems. Whew.

    I came to zazen after reading a lot of Alan Watts’ books and realizing that although I understood what he was saying pretty clearly, the dissatisfaction I felt with my life was still present. A friend introduced me to the pictures in the back of “Three Pillars of Zen”; I disregarded the rest of the book as more Alan Watts-ian head tripping, and got on with it, at first having a painful time just trying to sit “indian-style” with my legs crossed and my knees off the floor for 5 or 10 minutes.

    Another friend introduced me to Kobun’s lectures at the Santa Cruz zendo, that was two or three years later I think. Kobun was a compelling presence.

    “White foamy waves flooding the skies arise on level ground”
    (line from the verse of case 50, Blue Cliff Record, trans. T. & J.C. Cleary)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIsGLfCfHms

    commentary on the verse: “(the golden fish who has passed through the net) must be where the vast swelling floods of white foamy waves tower up to the sky. But say, during the twenty four hours of the day, what does he use for food? All of you go back to your places and try to see for sure.”

  20. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 23, 2014 at 10:35 pm | |

    Sawaki says zazen is a useless practice, and I believe he’s right, but learning a useless practice is very useful to me.

    The sky has foamy breakers, it’s on the level (“I only allow that the old barbarian knows; I don’t allow that he understands.”)

    http://www.engineering.lancs.ac.uk/lureg/images/WEC%20motions.jpg

    1. mb
      mb July 23, 2014 at 11:54 pm | |

      Q: What do you get when you pitch on the sway axis (Y), yaw on the heave axis (Z) and roll around the wave propagation axis (implied X)?

      A: An enlightened headache, seasickness of the soul and a spiral hangover.

      [Ch. 1 V. 5 of the Over-The-Cliff Record, untranslated]

  21. Daniel
    Daniel July 24, 2014 at 3:06 am | |

    Just remembered this talk by Richard Sylvester (a man of zen even if he doesn’t claim it)…talking about that topic…but DON’T WATCH IT if you want to keep your sweet fantasy :P

    http://youtu.be/i5fmk_Vlt9s?t=1h10s

  22. jason farrow
    jason farrow July 25, 2014 at 4:34 pm | |

    Apparently, the take off and landing is the most dangerous part of flying.

    I use to be really afraid of flying. Then one-day on my way home from Sesshin, I decided to just “go zen” with it, and mediate my way through take off and landing.

    A much more personally progressive approach to birth, death, and anxiety vs fear.

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