Anyone who’s been following the world scene in recent years knows that a great deal of attention is being paid to “the system” and what might be done to heal or supersede it. Capitalism has had free rein since the dissolution of communism in the late 1980s, but with its recurrent crises, especially the financial collapse that struck in 2007, growing numbers of economists and thinkers have been questioning whether the capitalist system that brought such a disaster to so many is viable any longer; and if it isn’t, what can replace it and by what means. These questions are of course reinforced by the increasing fears about global warming, ecological disasters, the depletion and acidification of the oceans, overpopulation, and other seemingly inevitable products of an out-of-control system which considers disasters like pesticide poisoning “externalities,” of no account to those who profit by it.
These questions have been amplified for me by two books I’ve read recently—Zealot, by Reza Aslan, and Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy—and by the pronouncements of Pope Francis about the need for the Roman Catholic Church to not only focus on the poor, but also take on a global system that has made money its god. Though not obviously related, the convergence of Aslan’s conclusions about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, Tolstoy’s late life obsessions about how to change a system in Russia that cruelly exploited the masses, and Francis’ concern about the dominance of Mammon all speak to a single issue: the difficulty and perhaps impossibility of changing the world, reality, life as it usually is, i.e. skewed to the immense advantage of a few at the expense of the many. How is this to be done? And is it worth trying to do, given the continual failure of all historical attempts at it; and, crucially, without adopting the very practices of those in control—violence and murder and vicious repression that always lead to the replacement of an existing hierarchy with even more repressive hierarchies?
In truth, I have been thinking a lot, lately, about the appeal of just such violence: fantasizing about some assassin or group of assassins who can be dispatched to pick off heads of corporations, the CEOs of Goldman Sachs or Chase or Monsanto, Tea Party frauds fronting for the Koch brothers to cripple government, and so on. It often seems the only way to deliver some sort of justice to the pigs and murderers who always manage to slip away.
Thankfully, these thoughts, though they recur often, don’t last very long. Because I am mostly a pacifist to begin with; and because such violence rarely accomplishes anything but repression more savage than what pertained before. So what then? Is one to simply tend to one’s own garden, take up practices that ease the pain and/or insulate one from daily outrages, and let the world go on its merry way? In short, the options for revolutionaries—and Reza Aslan insists that Jesus of Nazareth was, indeed, a revolutionary, an adherent of the sect called “zealots” whose constant aim was to rid Jerusalem of Roman occupation and the Temple of mercenary high priests in order to literally restore the Kingdom of the Jewish God in the Holy Land—have always been basically twofold: either take up arms and fight the oppressors with the same weapons they use, i.e. revolutionary violence; or, provide the masses with both insulation against this basically corrupt and insignificant life, and a consolation prize in the next, i.e. the kingdom of heaven in which justice will finally be done and the blessed will reign in peaceful, perpetual joy.
According to Aslan, the followers of Jesus, most specifically St. Paul (Saul of Tarsus), chose the second option. Along with the evangelists who wrote the four accepted gospels years after Jesus’s death without ever seeing him, Paul (who never saw him either) changed the mission of Jesus to one aimed not at fellow Jews but at gentiles, at Romans—the very imperialists who occupied and then destroyed Jerusalem—who were to become the core followers of Christ. And the message became one that imaged Jesus as the literal Son of God (he always referred to himself as the Son of Man) who had come to save all people and provide them with direct access to God, and the promise of eternal life to come. One way or the other, the message of Jesus the revolutionary who strove to overturn the existing political and religious order became the message of Jesus the Christ whose defeat of death pronounced the Kingdom of God not on earth, but in heaven. One of the major symbols of this transformation, according to Aslan and the New Testament itself, was the tearing of the veil in the Jerusalem Temple at the very moment that Christ died on the cross. This veil, in the Holy of Holies, traditionally separated God from his people, and could only be breached by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, when he would sacrifice specific animals as a way of atoning for the sins of humanity. Pauline Christianity claimed that this separation of humans from God had been bridged by Christ’s death, by his sacrifice. Through him, all humanity now had direct access to God through the regular re-enactment of his sacrifice. That enactment, in the Catholic mass, is called “communion.” The word is critical, for in my opinion, it speaks to a central problem of humanity and this essay: how to heal the rift, that all of us feel, between our normally functioning selves, and what we might call godhead, or Mind, or Nature, or the Cosmos. Revolution is really about this. So is art. So is the act of love. So are such mundane delights as singing in a choir, going crazy in a crowded stadium over a sports contest, or demonstrating en masse for peace and justice. All are attempts to find a way to heal the conditions in the world so that human reality is not so focused on looking out for number one, so divorced from compassion for others, so apparently separate and alienated from all existence (the veil, or parochet, in the Temple of Jerusalem was “a constant reminder that sin separated people from the presence of God.”) And though it does not seem so at first, the healing of the separation felt by individuals is roughly equivalent to healing the economic and political crisis in the world. For if the inequalities in the world could be healed, it would bring about the same “kingdom” as would healing the separation each of us feels from that world.
Count Leo Tolstoy was obsessed with this problem. In a Russia that was seething with the unrest of recently-liberated serfs who still lived lives of absolute misery and subjection as peasants, Tolstoy tried to find a way to transform the injustices perpetrated by his own class—whose lives of obscene luxury were based on the slavery of the masses. Though he was the world-renowned author of two of the greatest novels ever penned—War and Peace and Anna Karenina—Tolstoy could not accept his inherited privilege while so many lived in misery. He wrote Resurrection to address this issue, and in it—the story of a Russian prince who, serving on a jury, recognizes one of the accused, who turns out to have been the servant whom he seduced as a youth and abandoned, thus turning her into a prostitute—he writes savage critiques of the members of his own class who collude in a system of punishment and exploitation that violates every principle of the Christianity they purport to live by. He has Prince Nekhlyudov try to amend his life and compensate for his youthful sin by accompanying the woman, Maslova, to her hard labor in Siberia where he vows to marry her. But in the end, she refuses him, and marries another, and he is left deprived of his ‘noble’ sacrifice and condemned to return to his not-so-noble life, chastened mainly in the realization that no one has the right to condemn others. In sum, Tolstoy doesn’t provide any easy answers to the problem of class exploitation or the suffering of the world. He didn’t find easy answers in real life either, for although he renounced his rights to his books, and renounced violence and organized government as well—inspiring Gandhi himself—he never could really solve the problem noted above: without using violence, how overturn a corrupt system? How find one’s true self when that self is indelibly shaped by and thus alienated by selfish concern? The imminent Russian revolution, of course, did use violence and did overturn the corrupt system Tolstoy hated; but for many, the system it substituted for the ancien regime was more corrupt, violent and self-destroying than what it replaced.
This brings us to the question at hand. How do we heal the gulf between what we feel we truly are and the separation and objectification of all else that daily life seems to demand? This is really what the word ‘religion’ tries to get at: it derives from the Latin religare, meaning to tie back, or re-bind, thus making ‘religion’ the re-linking or re-connecting of humans with God, with all else, and ultimately with what we are. This is the task of Christianity, though as anyone who has ever taken communion knows, the alleged re-connection it provides rarely works and never lasts—as attested to by how quickly I and everyone I knew, right after imbibing the holy host, relapsed right back into the same sins we had just confessed. Buddhism takes on this same task, and though it is not a religion that commands belief in a god (the standard definition of religion), nor with the idea that humans exist in a fallen state due to some original sin that requires a re-uniting, its prescription for this problem still involves the idea of separation. That is, according to Buddhism, our felt separation from the world is not the fault of the world, or even of sin, but of our misperception. All of us. It is a delusion; a product of ignorance, of our small, self-absorbed brains taking the world for an object outside us, to be controlled or conquered in our short-term interest, rather than as the ground of our being from which we are not separate at all, or ever have been. What Buddhism offers are practices designed to help us realize that we are not truly separate, never have been, never could be. Though our brains are geared to create this sense of separation to enhance our survival, it is not the whole story or even the most important one. This realization itself, when it comes, or rather when it is yielded to, constitutes the re-connection.
Of course, some would argue that this is nothing more than the same old promise of a future state—realization or enlightenment—which solves the problem by ignoring the world and its trials and tribulations. And for some, it no doubt is: an attempt to escape from the problems of the world rather than confront them; a solution for the wealthy, high-minded few, leaving the rest of humanity to itself, praying for it, perhaps, sending it good vibes, but in truth placing the hope for a solution in the gradual and necessarily distant transformation of all, one by one, into a future, more compassionate world. For others, though, it could mean that the realization of non-separation leads not to quietism but to militant, non-violent resistance—the determination to alleviate the mass objectification of others, but without resorting to violence or putting it off till the millenium. Still, the record of such resistance is not encouraging and, particularly in our time, where governments have less hesitation than ever about murdering or jailing protesters no matter how peaceful, not likely to provide much solace.
In short, there seems no effective, much less lasting solution to the problem of the world. Which, in the end, may be a solution in itself. The world, that is, if seen aright, is not something to be solved; human nature is not something to be solved; cruelty and injustice and death are not aberrations to be corrected. They are the conditions that we know and accept as living beings. So long as we living beings are alive, we will be driven by the conditions of life—the fears, deeply embedded by evolution in our brains, of being consumed or absorbed or defeated or getting the short end of life’s stick. And all we can do is become ever more aware of these drives, and try to avoid both poles of the apparent solution: killing or eliminating those with whom we disagree; or withdrawing our commitment to the living and putting our hopes in some future, more pleasant state. Neither will do. Both are ultimately fantasies. So is the idea that something, somewhere back in prehistory or some imagined garden, went wrong, and thus can be put right. The chan master Huang Po had a great metaphor for this search for what went wrong, what is wrong, and what we can do to right it. ‘You are like a man,’ he said to his students once, ‘who has a precious jewel on his forehead, and who exhausts his life searching for it, longing for it, fighting for it, none of which does a bit of good. For all along, this precious jewel has been there for all to see, for you to enjoy, only you didn’t know it.’ Huang Po’s apparently lost jewel is like our feeling of alienation from the world, of separation: we think we are separate, we feel the discomfort of being so, and so use all our powers to find its cause and divert it or bridge it, and it has been nothing but our illusion all along. We are not separate; the world is not fallen; we are not sinful beings separate from a fallen world. We are precisely that world and it is us. Which means that it is only in this world, with all its apparent flaws, that we find ourselves. Not by trying to destroy it or those who screw it up; or by ignoring it for some pie-in-the-sky to come; but by coming to see it as it is in all its fullness—sometimes glorious and sometimes wretched, sometimes needing our neglect and sometimes needing our help—but never distant, never separate at all; rather as identical to who and what we are.
This is not easy. Nor is it necessarily lasting, or proof against despair. Criminals and charlatans always arise; banksters always get away with murder because their money buys them influence and immunity; and because the public swallows their diversions eagerly. But sooner or later, the world produces a reaction, the whole corrupt charade is exposed to view, the system begins to fail, the empire begins to disintegrate. Something like that seems to be happening now, and it is that unpredictable natural reaction, the response of the world—as for a brief moment, the Occupy Wall Street movement responded—to unsustainable excess and over-reaching that we can count on. Take part or not take part, the reaction will sooner or later do its work. And though it may not be comfortable, even for those who have predicted it, wished for it, the destruction too will have to be accepted as part and parcel of the whole. Of that continually changing process that we all, individually and collectively, are.