On the Relationship between Individual and Collective Awakening

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David Loy:

"The basic difficulty about responding to the "climate emergency" - and a host of related eco-crises such as desertification, and what is happening to the world's oceans, and mass extinction (half of the earth's plant and animal species may disappear by the end of this century) - is that climate change requires us to notice something we normally prefer to ignore or resist: that we are not separate from each other, but interdependent, and that we must therefore also assume responsibility for the well-being of each other…


In the past Western nations could use their technologies (including weapons, of course!) to dominate the rest of the world and exploit its resources, but suddenly we find ourselves in a new situation, where each nation is now directly dependent upon the good intentions of other nations, whether developed or undeveloped. We have to pull together if human civilization as we know it is going to survive the next few centuries. But why should the poor people in poor countries pull together with me in the U.S.? What's in it for them? Bare survival, perhaps, but not much more, unless those of us enjoying a comfortable life in wealthy nations start thinking in a less self-centered way. It's no longer enough to act in ways that (seem to) benefit us personally, or benefit our own group or nation. We are called upon to "wake up" and realize that what is good for me can no longer be pursued at the expense of what is good for everyone else…


What I'm really talking about, of course, is a new understanding of the self. This is where Buddhism comes in, because Buddhist teachings critique the usual understanding of ourselves as separate from others, and emphasize instead the interdependence of everything. What the "climate emergency" does is up the ante, considerably. Suddenly a lot more is at stake - maybe everything. Up until now, Buddhism has been largely an individual path of spiritual development. A few people here and there have awakened, and some societies have become more compassionate than they would have been without the dharma and the sangha. But now we must reconsider whether that's enough.


If Thich Nhat Hanh is correct that we need a collective awakening, we're in a new ballgame. Because of what we've done to ourselves, by doing it to the earth, humanity is now called upon to take another step, perhaps a step as significant as what happened about ten thousand years ago, when agriculture was developed. If so, Buddhism and other religions are also called upon to take another step, from traditional focus on individual salvation to a more collective transformation." (http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2009/12/16/a-collective-awakening-buddhist-reflections-on-copenhagen/)