Friday, September 30, 2011

Samsara and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

I thought I'd use this passage from Endgame: Volume 1 as a writing prompt. It is Derrick Jensen's thoughts on Buddhism, as it pertains to civilization; followed by my response:

"I have friends who are Buddhists. They too, are trained away from their bodies, away from the real, away from the primary, away from the material, away from their experience, away from what they call samsara (literally the passing through in Sanskrit: what my dictionary calls "the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma," and what one Zen Buddhist calls "the hellish world of time and space and the shifting shapes which energy assumes, the fluctuating world which is apprehended by the senses and presided over by the judgmental ego," all of which sounds like an awful drag, and really, to be honest, does not sound in the slightest like life as I experience it), away from what they call illusion, and toward what they tellingly and pathetically call "liberation" from this earth."

He says this is not his experience of life, but it sure does sound like his experience of civilization. And how can you separate the two?

"In short, Buddhism and Christianity do what all religions of civilization must do, which is to naturalize the oppressiveness of the culture -- get people (victims) to  believe that their enslavement is not simply cultural but a necessary part of their existence to which they've been "condemned" -- and then to point these people away from their awful  (civilized) existence and toward "liberation" in some illusory better place. How very convenient for those in power. These are religions for the powerless. These are religions to keep people powerless." 

So what is he saying here? That samsara is a lie? That the idea that suffering is a fact of earthly existence was a lie invented to justify the injustices endemic to civilization as we know it? How does he know that when he knows nothing but civilization? All of his ideas about life without civilization are speculation.

I'm not denying that religions have been used to control people, to justify evil, inequality, and injustice, but I do not believe that civilization is wholly responsible for any of it. I think the problems of civilization are symptoms of a much deeper problem that has always existed in human nature, which is the potential to be evil, to be selfish and greedy and cruel, to lie, to steal, to cheat, to control, to abuse, to cause harm, and to selfishly and greedily pursue power for power's sake. Each person has that potential. No matter where they live. No matter who they are. Maybe civilization has a higher concentration of it, maybe civilization as we know it is unhealthy and unsustainable, but the problem of evil I think will always exist no matter what. It's not just a problem with civilization but a problem with human nature itself.

Jensen says civilization will crash whether we want it to or not. I'm not sure I understand what that means. The collapse of the global economy? The collapse of nation states? The collapse of our money system, where the dollar becomes worthless, and all the jobs disappear that are not immediately connected to survival? Non-essential jobs will disappear (and we all know that means most jobs), because there is no longer money to pay people, and little incentive to do meaningless work if it doesn't pay anything, if it doesn't put food in your belly or joy in your heart. Or does he mean ecological collapse? Where we have depleted our resources and exceeded our carrying capacity, where there are simply too many people and not enough resources to sustain them? Not enough food? Not enough fuel, to cook, to heat, to cool?

If this is so, the collapse of civilization will inevitably result in a massive die-off, a major reduction in the population, caused by widespread starvation, disease, exposure to the elements (when there is inadequate shelter and no fuel to heat or cool homes), and war where people fight among themselves for the last remaining resources. Got food? Other people will want it. Problem is there won't be enough to feed everyone, not if crops fail, and food surpluses are depleted, and all that people have to rely on is what they are able to hunt and gather and grow themselves. Since most civilized people are unskilled in those matters, people may attempt to steal food from those who have it, from those who do have the skills to obtain it, to grow it, to hunt and gather it.

Also when civilization collapses where do think all the world leaders, social planners, corporate executives, military and law enforcement personnel, the wealthy and intellectual elite, basically all the people that have power now in civilization, where do you think they will be when civilization collapses? Do you really think they are just going to disappear? Also, civilization is not just a way of doing things, it is a way of thinking about things. The only reason why civilization will collapse is because it is unsustainable. It's motto of endless growth and endless expansion can't go on forever. Perhaps it's collapse will force people to live more sustainably, simply because they will have no other choice, living "green" will become a matter of survival. But just because people are living in a more ecologically sustainable manner doesn't necessarily mean they are going to be better people, nicer people, kinder people, more compassionate people, or more enlightened people. In fact Hitler was a big advocate of developing green sustainable technologies, organic gardening, using renewable sources of energy, and yet he was seriously lacking in the kindness and compassion department.

So running out of resources isn't going to eliminate all the negative qualities that Jensen pins on civilization. It's not going to completely eliminate hierarchical thinking or authoritarian control. It will simply become civilization on a smaller scale, with fewer people. There will still be evil. There will still be exploitation. There will still be violence. There will still be rape and theft and murder. There will still be war. There will still be inequality and injustice. There will still be people and all the ensuing conflicts that occur whenever people arrange their lives together, forming different societies, different groups and subcultures. We don't all get along. We have different ideas. Different personalities. Different objectives. Sometimes others are opposed to what we want to do, and they will resist us, sometimes with force, sometimes unreasonably and unjustly.

The collapse of civilization does not mean the end of societal conflicts, interpersonal conflicts, or armed conflicts. It just means that everything will be on a smaller scale, but that things will get very bad, before they get better. A lot of people will die, a lot of plants and animals will die, resources and habitats and whole landscapes will be destroyed, because you really can't believe that civilization will collapse without a war, as the last remaining world states fight for the last remaining resources.

So, my whole point is that the main problem I have with Jensen is that he seems to project everything he hates about the world onto civilization. Civilization is his monster, his devil, the source of all the evil in the world, that if it could just be brought down and destroyed, everything would be so much better and we would all enter a golden age. But I don't think that's going to happen. Certainly life may be better and more comfortable for some, but not all. Because the nature of samsara is suffering. Life is beautiful, but it can also turn ugly really quick. Just when you think you have gotten your shit together, have found peace of mind, have formed good friendships, have a high quality of life, and love your life, whose to say it will last? You could be a really great person, friendly, courteous, diplomatic, non-violent, willing to help anyone in need, and one day someone may beat the shit out of you and burn your house down and murder your family and friends for no reason at all...just for the hell of it. Because while you can control your own actions, you have no control over the actions of others. You may find enlightenment, but that may not stop the unenlightened from destroying everything that you've built, everything that you've accomplished, and discrediting everything that you've ever said or done.

Samsara. Not just the natural world and civilization as we know it, but also the human heart and mind. What does it mean? That suffering is a natural characteristic of life, whether we live in a civilization or not. That life is not perfect. That people are not perfect. And bad things have been happening to good people for as long as people have walked the earth. It doesn't matter what kind of social structures are in place, what kind of society we live in, what kind of government we have, what kind of economy we have, whether we live in villages or cities, even if we all lived in sustainable eco-villages things will never perfect, there will always be conflict of some degree or another, and the choice between good and evil is something that will always remain within the human heart; to respect or disrespect, to help or to harm, to give or to take.

Civilizations come and go. That too is samsara. Could it be that this world that we live in, this reaching the tipping point of overpopulation, resource depletion, and over polluting the earth is something that has happened before and will happen again? Maybe our history is wrong. Maybe there were ancient civilizations going back further than what we have a record of. Maybe they were destroyed in some major cataclysm, buried beneath the sea, left without a trace. I don't know. But maybe the rise and fall of civilizations come and go in cycles of expansion and contraction. So when our civilization collapses whose to say it won't build itself right back up again? Certainly not in our lifetimes, but eventually, and that too will pass, as it always does.