Transformation of Self and World

In a philosophy class I taught a few years ago, the class read sections of the Indian spiritual classic, the Bhagavad Gita. One passage said:

“You have a right to your actions

But never to your actions’ fruits.

Act for the action’s sake.”

I asked my students what this passage meant to them. They had difficulty with it. “Why not be concerned with the fruits of your actions?” they asked.  “You do something well, you deserve praise.” Don’t you want to foster a concern with the fruits of your actions, or at least the ethical consequences of your actions on the world?


I asked: What is meant by “the fruits”? Whose fruits are they? Why do you act at all? Why fight against war or racism? Is your action worthy only if you’re successful?  If you center only on whether you are patted on the back or make the headlines or even stop the war, what happens when the task goes on longer than you thought? What happens when you have to face those who disagree with you or even face people you love but who don’t actively support your cause? Maybe you should act because the nature of the act itself, in context, is beautiful, worthy, right?


The philosopher and Zen teacher, David Loy, has a new book out called A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World. Loy talks about the “awakened activism” of the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is someone who has attained much wisdom but gives up nirvana, personal liberation, until the liberation of all is attained. She or he can do this because of a dual practice; the way to personal transformation is aided by “doing everything she can to promote social and ecological transformation.” One acts because the action just needs to be taken and in this way the clarity of one’s perception and understanding improves.


Loy aims to apply traditional Buddhism to our modern world and develop “a fresh understanding of our place and role in it.” Our modern scientific and materialist culture, although it has given us many gifts, from improved medicine to global communication, also preaches a distorted way to think of and observe “the world and our place in it.” It is a sense that we, our very selves, are inherently separable from our world, that we can think of our welfare as distinct from its welfare, and thus can think of others or the world as merely resources for us to exploit or fruits to pick. That we can think of our own illumination, our own education, even our own waking up in the morning as separate from the world itself waking up and becoming illuminated.


This sense of separation is a psychological and social construction which contains at its heart a sense that something is wrong here, that something is lacking in us and our world, and so we are constantly looking to things like money, power, ideologies, recognition in order to fill that lack. How many times, in discussions of politics or in meetings whose goal is improving some aspect of society, do people get stuck in pushing their own viewpoint, as if they had an exclusive line to truth, as if their truth were separate from everyone else’s? Unless we clearly perceive the root of that sense of something lacking in our self, all that we do will only replicate it. To right any wrongs in the world our actions must arise out of understanding our own essential oneness with “it” or that we were never separate to begin with. We can’t create, for example, a more compassionate world by acting without compassion. Working for environmental, social, educational justice is inseparable from and needs to include working on one’s own mind, awareness, understanding and ethical nature.


Loy gives us a great gift, a marvelous guide to deconstructing our ways of thinking of and perceiving the world. Maybe the lessons of this book and Catastrophism, which I wrote about last week, can be synthesized. Deep social change requires deep organizing, thinking and communicating. When social action is perceived and felt as personal as well as political transformation, it is easier to face what is difficult. If actions are contemplated with empathy and compassion, more people will join in, thinking will be clearer and more creative. You and your world will awaken together.

Does Catastrophe Lead To Positive Social Action?

So many people have, maybe forever, been trying to figure out how to improve the political, social, environmental, educational and other conditions in our world. I have been reading two books lately that have helped me and might be of help to others in thinking about social action. I will write about one this week, and the second next week.


It is tempting to think that almost anything that can be done should be done in order to stop a wrong from being committed. If the world is on its way to destruction, shouldn’t any act be deemed acceptable to stop it? Last weekend, I heard Sasha Lilley, writer, political analyst, host of Pacifica Radio’s Against The Grain, talk in Buffalo Street Bookstore about Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth. She is one of four authors, along with David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis. “Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse… a great cleansing out of which a new society will be born.” Catastrophists tend to believe “disaster will waken the masses from their long slumber” and act for a utopian revival.


We might think Rosa Parks, for example, just sat down on the bus one day and created the bus boycott and civil rights legislation, and ignore all the actions she did before and after that. We might think the Arab spring was one day’s or one season’s awakening. We might think “increase the repression and people will wake up and act.” We might think we should create a fear of the possible end of the world and people will spontaneously rise up to prevent that catastrophe.  Increasing the fear, pain, discomfort of the masses doesn’t necessarily promote social change—it just promotes fear and pain.


Such thinking has catapulted the right-wing into the headlines. Back in 2007, in the book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein made clear how a crisis mentality is being manipulated by those in economic and political power to shock people into accepting the unacceptable. After the shock of Katrina, public housing, schools, hospitals in New Orleans were taken over by private interests. After 9/11, the “War on Terror” was turned into a “for-profit venture” benefitting large corporations. The analysis also applies to education, where the right wing controlled media tell us our public schools are in a crisis of poor grades and the solution is privatization. The examples go on and on. Fear does not promote clear thinking; it inhibits it.


According to Sasha’s research, Catastrophism is deeply reactionary. It supports the right-wing politics of fear and repression, austerity and gated communities. The power of the right-wing increases in a crisis and capitalism tends to renew itself, not burn out. Social action decreases. When people don’t have a job, they usually don’t organize and rarely demonstrate for better working conditions or a more equal distribution of wealth. They want an income. I think the term is disciplining labor. When there’s no hope, there’s little positive action.


Sasha also pointed out that a public space is needed where big groups of progressive people can come together to openly examine headlines, discuss social conditions, and events. Where organizing can be planned and a movement can be born. The corporate media is not that space. Political parties have not been that space. The internet so far (despite blogs such as this one) has not been that space. How can that common space be created? How can a movement be created?


I highly recommend Catastrophism. It would make great reading for a social studies class of teenagers or anyone else caught up in a crisis mentality.