At this time a year ago I was participating in Enlightened Society Assembly, a program in the Shambhala tradition. One of the things I love about the Shambhala teachings is that enlightened society is possible -- that not only individuals beings can wake up but that they can be part of awakened communities. Shambhala, after all, is named for the possibly mythical kingdom where people practice what they teach.
A lot of the discussion at that retreat focused on the idea of enlightened society -- What would it look like? How would it feel to live there? What would guide interactions? Decisions? Some participants had a lot of questions and skepticism.
I had a sense that enlightened society could happen. If you take society back to its roots, to people forming communities for mutual benefit, to two people working cooperatively, it seemed that society was, as is said in Shambhala, basically good. It reminded me of a quote from St. Paul in the Bible: Wherever two or more of you are gathered in His name, there is love. And if a society is built on the practice of love, rather than fear, greed, or competition, it feels like awakenment is possible.
In the last few months, though, the idea that any society on this planet could become enlightened -- or is enlightened, at its most basic level -- has come to seem like a cruel joke. My heart broke into smaller and smaller pieces: Gang rape in India. Twenty-eight dead people in Newtown. Movie-goers killed. Bitter, divisive political rhetoric. Heartless institutions who make health-care decisions that cause people, including some dear friends, to suffer. Oppression and obliteration of Tibetan people and culture.
Because, when you look closely, all of those events that seem like outliers are only the extreme end of widely accepted cultural factors that we've learned to live with or deny. If the India culture tolerates or promotes objectification/dehumanization of women, what does our culture do with its cosmetic ads, rom-com movies, TV shows, swim suit issues? Twenty-eight dead at an elementary school -- and how many kids in big cities never make it out of high school because they die one at a time in gang- or drug-related shootings? Can we talk about oppression of native populations? How many times has Urban Outfitters had to recall clothing that offends some group? Who buys that? We do.
I wrote about the recent report of a Zen Witnessing Council that found compelling evidence that a teacher had sexually abused female students for 50 years -- and that many in the community were aware of his actions and either excused them or ignored them.
That's what saddens me most of all -- the complicity of communities. There always will be people whose ego or delusion or confusion, mental, physical, or chemical, causes them to act in ways that harm others. We cannot prevent every incidence of that happening, and we can't measure our progress by that. But we can and should look at the baseline it arises from. Was their action really unspeakable? Or was it just a more-dramatic expression of a common condition?
Sometimes I think that all institutions -- and lately, I see society as an institution, not an energy -- are built on power and domination, on dualism, on subjugation. Maybe the only was to create enlightened society is to get to that post-apocalyptic, Mad Max state -- and start again.
Buddhism has taught me that we can always start again, fresh and new, in every moment. Each breath is a new breath. Every perception can be seen with fresh eyes. Every interaction can take place between humans rather than stereotypes. If I come to situations as an open-hearted being whose defenses aren't up, there's nothing to attack.
Will that save the world? No. But nothing else will.
Think of a spaceship headed toward a distant star. Even a slight change in course, even a 1-degree change in direction, will -- over the long haul -- completely change the destination. The work we do won't stop sexual assault or murder or oppression. But it will move us toward a future where that is possible. And that is the work we do.