On Suffering and Collective Responsibility
Dr. David Gray

On the morning of September 11th, still suspended in a state of disbelief over the disaster that was unfolding in New York and Washington, D.C., I was preparing a lecture on Buddhist cosmology, and in so doing I turned to the locus classicus, Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosha. While perusing the chapter on karma and reading about the creation of the cosmos following its periodic destruction, I came upon Vasubandu's statement that the world comes into being through, as he puts it, the force of the "predominant fruit" (adhipatiphala) of the collective karma of the beings destined to be born into it. It struck me that this idea could help lead me to an understanding of the otherwise incomprehensible events of the day.

This doctrine suggests that our collective actions underlie the situations that we, as an interconnected group of living beings, face together. This idea appealed to me because I sought a position from which to reflect on the events that would not lead me into the trap of objectifying an "enemy" toward which to direct the anger that was arising within my mind. The basis for this idea is the Buddhist principles of selflessness (anatman), emptiness (shunyata) and interdependency (pratityasamutpada). Buddhism teaches that all of us, subjectively, and all things, objectively, lack an intrinsic, independent basis for our existence. The implication is precisely that all living beings are interconnected, and that as such, our individual happiness is completely dependent upon the happiness of all other beings. The "path to happiness" is thus none other than the unceasing effort to compassionately alleviate the suffering of others, and to lovingly seek to create the conditions for happiness for others. It would be inappropriate to react violently to a problem within our own bodies; if we respond to a pain in an eye by poking it out, we would all soon be blind, to paraphrase Gandhi's wise remarks concerning the impulse to revenge. When other beings, afflicted with the diseases of ignorance and hatred, attack or harass us, it would be equally inappropriate for us to lash back at them violently. Just as when we are sick we seek to identify the cause and treat it, we must do so as well with regard to the larger-scale problems affecting our social body. We should calmly apply our insight to the situation, seek the underlying causes and conditions and apply the appropriate remedies, motivated always by the spirit of awakening (bodhicitta) rather than the lust for revenge.

While the Mahayana doctrine of universal responsibility does not exempt sinners from the consequences of their sins, it does place upon all of us the obligation not to "cast the first stone" and seek external resolutions to our problems. A central message of the Buddhist tradition is that we must turn our focus inward, and seek to resolve all of our problems, even ones seemingly beyond our control, within our own selves. The reason for this is purely practical; we will ultimately never defeat our own suffering through any means which cause suffering to others, since in so doing we simply fuel the cycle of violence which caused our suffering in the first place. As the Indian Saint Shantideva wrote, in his Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life,

How will I destroy the wicked who are as extensive as space? But when the angry mind is destroyed, so too are all enemies. How can I cover the entire earth with leather? The earth is so covered simply by [wearing] leather sandals. It not being possible for me to control the outside world, were I to control my own mind, what need would there be to restrain others?

Faced with the reality of suffering we may seek an escape. Adherents to theistic religions often aspire to a heavenly state, while as Buddhists we are often attracted to the idea of attaining rebirth in a Pure Land such as Amitabha's Sukhavati. But we may ultimately be misguided if we conceive of the Pure Land in a dualistic fashion, imagining it to be a state entirely separate from our current state. Such indeed was the viewpoint of Shariputra in the Vimalakirti Sutra, who in chapter one of that scripture entertained the doubt that all of the problems and impurity of our world, Shakyamuni Buddha's Pure Land, reflected the impurity of His mind as a bodhisattva. His doubt was answered by Brahm? Shikhin, who said:

The noble one's mind has highs and lows, and it does not perfectly accord with the Buddha's wisdom, therefore you only see this world as impure. Shariputra, when bodhisattvas are impartial toward all sentient beings, their profound minds are clear and pure, and are in accord with the Buddha's teachings, then they can see this Buddha Land as clear and pure.

In short, if we seek the Pure Land, or if in other words we seek a better world for ourselves and all others, we must start by purifying our own minds and removing the misknowledge that ultimately underlies our collective construction of the world as a place of suffering. Achieving the Pure Land could never be a merely passive endeavor. It requires that we become in effect artists, and that we apply our actions, words and thoughts to the unceasing effort of purifying, enriching, and beautifying the environment which we share. The bodhisattva, after all, does not strive to create the Pure Land as a sort of personal paradise; she or he does so to assist beings by providing an environment conducive to spiritual development. This cannot ever be achieved on the basis of our normal egocentric worldview, which ultimately sees the world as populated by alienated, atomic selves, each of which views itself as the center of the universe. From unconscious philosophic assumption arises the cycle of unceasing competition and rivalry which endlessly begets more and more greed, hatred and violence. Rather, as the Vimalakirti Sutra so eloquently insists, the bodhisattva vows and the conduct and aims of a bodhisattva are only meaningful if conducted from the foundation of the experiential realization of emptiness, which undermines our deeply conditioned egocentrism and replaces it with a deeply felt (and not merely intellectually accepted) sense of the absolute interdependency of all living beings. Without this understanding the bodhisattva vows are merely empty words, or at best wishful thinking.

With regard to the perhaps more pragmatic concern of the current political situation, I am reminded of the old slogan "think globally, act locally". This could be taken as words of advice for aspiring bodhisattvas. For in order to keep our philosophic view expansive and to avoid sinking into narrow-mindedness which is simply a manifestation of the old egocentric mentality, it is essential that we keep our trajectory fixed on the ultimate, the aims of all sentient beings. But there is no way we could ever accomplish their aims, or even our own, if we do not start locally, that is, with our own minds.