Buddhism and the Emerging World Civilization

Today I decided to read every book in my university library with the call number BQ (Buddhism). I don’t have a way to calculate exactly how many titles this is, but I believe there are roughly 2,000 books here. I don’t expect to make 2,000 blog posts, and I expect to do a lot of skimming. However, when I run across a hidden gem, it is my intention to give it the respectful mindfulness it deserves.

Buddhism and the Emerging World Civilization
Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. BQ120.B8123

Opening the first page of my first book, I discover it is written in honor of a man after my own heart, a certain Nolan Pliny Jacobson, who hoped to constructed a life-affirming “world civilization” free of any ideology or belief system. “His writings celebrate all that brings together and brings out the joyful and vibrant qualities of the whole earth and the living creatures that inhabit it.” (xii) How does this optimism translate into practice?

The first writer, an analytic philosopher named Bart Gruzalski, provides an analysis of Buddhist terms in English. Since my readers may be unfamiliar with Buddhism, this discussion may be useful. He demonstrates how acting “without desire” in Buddhism is not a move towards apathy, as those attached to the idea of devotional love might characterize it. Instead, it represents a move away from emotional blindness and towards compassionate understanding. He similarly differentiates between a mere habit, i.e. something we do with neither (conscious) desire nor mindfulness, and a skill, something we have obtained through attentive practice. It is important when translating from the Buddha’s original language that we understand how terms like “skillful” and “attentive” are closely related in the dhamma, and separated from terms like “habit” or “rote”. Concluding, this writer describes a Buddha as a person who is “a skillfully compassionate being, fully awake and nonattached.” (12)

In the next essay, by Cedric Heppler, we learn that Professor Jacobson’s worldview began with the prospect of a “natural religion”, an old 18th century term that I want to rescue from the changes in meaning both words have undergone by renaming it “human inclinations”. He considered in 1948 that human beings are naturally inclined towards “a warm mutuality and fellow-feeling”, which he felt at the time to be one expression of the word “God” (this later changed), but that a confusion over how this could be achieved had created “mental disorder, alcoholism, suicide,” and so forth. (18) After reading about how he revitalized Hume with modern language, we look at Professor Jacobson’s view after his Buddhist “conversion”: he still insists on a reliance on natural, human inclinations, but has given up on trying to redefine “God” and now, quoting a guy named Whitehead, places his own thought in opposition to God/Brahma/Allah, that “great refusal of rationality to assert its rights.” (27) If you can figure out the Hegelian self-alienation being employed, I suppose this turn of phrase seems rather clever, as it undoubtedly did to the three authors through which it came to me: Whitehead, Jacobson, and Heppler. I am not a big fan of the concealed psychoanalysis, though. It seems to Orientalize previous philosophers somewhat. Some of the other writers in this book also have this tendency to put down other ways of thought (83), but I agree with Durkheim that nobody likes to think of themselves as irrational or insufficiently rational. Assuming superiority is not the proper way for Buddhists to approach other cultures.

In the essay “Creativity and the Emerging World Civilization”, by David Lee Miller, I learn a new fascinating tidbit: Professor Jacobson went to study in Burma in 1961, during the brief period when it was a somewhat functioning democracy. Now I’m very interested in this guy! I have several Burmese friends, and I believe that within their country, sealed off by the military regime, is an untapped wealth of knowledge and compassion as well as other powerful expressions of the heart. (I say “untapped” because very little is written about Burma for us moderns to digest, although certainly the Burmese tap into their own cultural reservoir all the time.) However, the essay digresses into a discussion of creativity. Jacobson interestingly defines creativity as the opposite of suffering, and therefore the power that can save us from suffering. He wrote: “Buddhism is humankind’s most persevering effort to participate in the creativity incarnate in the passing now.” (44) This is an intriguing statement, but it is kind of mystical and difficult for me to understand. Is this Burmese Buddhism? It seems to me to be at the very least a new and lively expression of natural religion. But we take our leave here. Hmm, this essay leaves a lot of questions unanswered… another author quotes Jacobson attributing much of his life’s insights to this year in Burma (97), but with no further context. Alas, his book is not in this library.

While this book goes into great detail regarding the overlaps between Buddhism and process philosophy, not many of its essays actually deal with community, society, or civilization, because Buddhism does not have much to say about these pressing issues (although I think the construction of the sangha has been vastly understudied in Western literature). One interesting exception is “One Out of Many: The Way of Creation Toward a Planetary Community”, written by Howard L. Parsons in the style of the Epcot World Showcase. We learn in this vacuous essay that “worldwide technology, science, and a scientific community are growing and becoming integrated,” “a revolution in information and communication–by radio, television, telephone, computer, and other equipment–is taking place,” “trucks, trains, ships and airplanes carry cargo”, and so forth. (155-6) I didn’t see Buddhism mentioned in this essay, though.

This book leaves me with an interest in Professor Jacobson’s work, although it does not seem to add to his existing corpus in any appreciable way. I am intrigued by his work in Burma, as well as his authorship of a book called Nihon-do: The Japan Way that looks at Japan from a holistic rather than myopically “religious” perspective. (192) These writings overlap with my personal interests and probably have a lot to say that the book did not. I will leave you with a quote from the excellent final essay, “Buddhism and the Emerging World Civilization” by Seizo Ohe:

Most people say, “Science is cool, religion is warm.” But many astronauts, looking at the earth from above, seem to feel the genuine bond of all men and women who live on the green planet. And contemporary ecologists feel their sincere fellowship not only with human beings, animals, and plants but with other nonliving things, just as the Buddha taught more than two thousand years ago. (208)

Try to protect young men and women from expanding sensual desires with recent technological progress, and keep them within the sound order of the great harmony of nature. Try to help their love of their native land continuously grow into their love of humankind, by preventing them from corruption of all sorts of sociopolitical power and monetary pollution. … Then our grown-up children, young men and women, will be happier with themselves than they are today. (211)

This is a sort of test post, since it’s the first book I read. I learned from writing this review that I should read the entire book before I write the post. Also, I will read multiple books every day and choose only one to write about. In this way I hope to bring you some interesting insights every day. So, please subscribe 🙂

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Posted: March 15th, 2010 | Book Reviews, Kokoro 1 Comment »

One Comment on “Buddhism and the Emerging World Civilization”

  1. 1 Alicante Airport said at 4:41 pm on March 30th, 2011:

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